Michael Deane recalls how he came to be crowned the first ever NI Chef of the Year in 1993. After travelling the world and cooking here, there and everywhere, he had finally come home and was working as a chef at Belfast Castle - but dreamed of opening his own restaurant.
"Paul Rankin and Roscoff were here already and that made it harder," he says.
At a time when Northern Ireland was in the midst of political turmoil, he chose not to go for a big city centre location, instead opting for the sleepy Co Down seaside village of Helen's Bay to launch his own restaurant.
"We started to work on it in 1992. It was the back end of the Troubles and there were still a few windows going in, so it was good that we were outside the city centre," he says.
He chose an old railway station as the evocative location for his 30-seater Deanes on the Square venture, but admits things were quite quiet at the time.
"We went out on a limb - the Troubles were still going on and people weren't really interested. Paul was making a big scene in the city and we had to get on to that level," he says.
Michael had already won a number of awards across the water, notably in his role at the Dorchester Hotel in London, but decided to throw his hat in the ring for the NI Chef of the Year award.
And once he had won the first award, the competition proved addictive - not only did Michael continue to enter his restaurant for competitions but he encouraged his employees to do so as well.
"In 1995/6, we won a lot of medals. We became quite good at the old competitions, and it encourages the youth to get better and pitch themselves against others," he says.
"Competitions are very healthy although sometimes it can get a bit demoralising when you keep getting beaten!"
Now approaching his 59th birthday and ("I don't know where it went, but it went somewhere!") employing around 200 people across his stable of restaurants, Michael admits there are a lot of balls to juggle.
"That's a lot of people to pay on a Friday and still enjoy it at the same time - but that's hospitality," he says.
"When I first entered the hospitality business I thought it was one of the easiest things in the world. I wanted an easier way out of school, so it was either that or hairdressing.
"People thought I was quite sissy because I wanted to do domestic science. They had started to abolish domestic science in schools so I went to Bangor tech to do a pre-catering course."
After school he headed to London and worked for a while at The Dorchester, before venturing off round the world and picking up new skills - The Oriental in Bangkok, then France and Germany - before returning home.
"I always wanted to come home - I always wanted to be a Belfast boy," he says.
A few years after the ceasefire, he decided to up sticks from Helen's Bay and make the move to Belfast.
"We moved to Belfast in 1997 when things had settled down a bit," he says. "But there were a lot of journalists coming down - we'd have Sky News on Monday and CNN. It was still very vibrant although there was a lot of political turmoil - but people still needed to eat and drink. People said we were mad to come into Belfast but we decided to come in anyway. We couldn't stay there forever."
These days, he oversees three restaurants at the Howard Street site ("the mothership, I call it") - The Meat Locker, Love Fish and Deane Eipic: "Upstairs there's a private dining room that seats 50-60 people.
Round the corner at Bedford Street are the adjoining Deanes Deli bistro and Deanes Deli Vin Cafe, while Deane and Decano has opened on the fashionable Lisburn Road.
"When I was opening it, I was running out of names, so I looked up Deane in Italian and that's what it was - Decano," he says.
Finally, there's Deanes at Queen's in the university area, one of the biggest of his restaurants.
And somewhere in among all the demands on his time, he and his wife, former UTV presenter Kate Smith, manage to fit in some rare free time with their son Marco, adopted from Thailand at the age of two and now a 20-year-old student.
One of those special days came last month when he took the family on a quick stopover to more northerly latitudes.
"We went to one of the best restaurants in the world, Frantzen in Stockholm - we went for the day and came back a day and a half later," he says. "My wife Kate has been in the business with me since she retired from UTV and brought up our young son Marco, who is 20. He can nearly look after himself now - but not quite!"
Belleek-born Kate isn't as much in her home county as much as she once was, he says. "Since her mother died, she wouldn't tend to go back to Fermanagh just as often - she used to go back once a week. She's mainly in the business, she looks after our lovely home - we try to enjoy life, I suppose, from wherever we are.
"We have a nice apartment close to the beach in Portugal and we try to get there as often as we can. But my mind is very much on business even when I'm on holiday - I'm on the phone at least nine or 10 times a day.
"We don't have a lot of family time. My son plays a lot of golf and when we go to the Algarve we sit on the beach and we see him later on. We try to be as private as we can, but when you've got a high profile, it's hard."
Michael says he'd like to see Marco follow him into the business, but adds: "I don't know if I'd encourage it too much. It's a hard business and I don't know if this generation is going to get their hands dirty as much.
"It's harder with minimum wage and the exit from the EU. We're very short of labour from abroad and it's getting harder and harder.
"At the moment my son is studying real estate management at Jordanstown - he could sell sand to the Arabs, so he'll be okay!"
Over the years, Michael has been dogged with hearing problems - not only deafness but also tinnitus.
"My father is 93 now and he can't hear a thing - and I'm not that far behind him," he says. "I've also picked up tinnitus which isn't great 24 hours a day. I remember getting on a plane when I was 16 and going to London and I got a ringing noise in my ears as you sometimes do anyway - and it just never went away. It can be hard enough to sleep, and tinnitus is a horrible thing. It could wreck your mind if you decided to let it get to you," he says.
"It's hard to work with the deafness but I think people let me off because I'm a bit older and I'm the boss. I'd say I'm 50% deaf."
Michael believes the restaurant scene in Belfast has never been so good, but adds: "I'm concerned about tourism and coming out of Europe - we've spent a long time trying to be European and have a culture of European food and I hope we get back the way we were."
The first and only woman to have won NI Chef of the Year, Roisin Gavin (43) is a protege of Michael Deane and owns The Belfast Bakehouse, which caters for hotels, restaurants and bakeries across Northern Ireland.
The Holywood-born chef knew from a young age that she wanted to be a pastry chef.
"My grandmother on my dad's side was a private cook and then my granny on my mum's side - she just cooked in the house but she made amazing apple pies and rhubarb pies," she says.
"I always remember walking in on Saturday morning and the smell of apple pie or rhubarb pie coming out of the oven."
Roisin made desserts at Carmichael's in Holywood at the age of 15 while studying at catering college, before starting at Roscoff as a pastry chef.
"I remember feeling so nervous phoning up and asking if I could have a job!" she laughs.
"I went in for a trial and got a part-time job. From there I went to Deane's when it first opened up in Belfast and worked in the one star, then moved up to sous chef."
Roisin won Junior Chef of the Year in 1999 and successfully entered NI Chef of the Year in 2002.
"It's great at IFEX, especially on Chef of the Year day - there is a really good vibe around the place. Everybody's very competitive and nervous, but still great sports with each other. Northern Ireland is a small place and you more or less know all the people you're up against.
"I put quite a lot of hours into training and practising, and I was ecstatic to win because it meant all the hard hours of training paid off.
"I was pleased for Deanes too - Michael is very supportive when it comes to competitions. The hours I put into competing, he put the same hours into standing over me while I was practising. After we finished service, we would set up and run through the dishes we were cooking, and depending on what way that run-through went, we might come in early the next morning, set up and do another one in the morning."
Roisin's next role was as head chef at The Kish restaurant in Dalkey, a prestigious role serving food to the likes of U2, Van Morrison and Pierce Brosnan.
"I'm a big U2 fan but I would never go out and meet Bono. They say you should never meet your heroes, but I was happy enough just feeding him," Roisin says.
Following a few more head chef positions, she was getting itchy feet: "The pastry was calling again!"
Now the Belfast Bakehouse is based in Glengormley and supplies desserts and pastries to business across the greater Belfast area and as far away as Cookstown.
"The idea was just really to go in and start selling good quality desserts into hotels and restaurants," Roisin says. "I guess I never really wanted to grow massively big. I still wanted to keep that hand-made intimate quality in doing what we do.
"Most of our desserts are all made by hand and the rolling and folding of the bread are all done by hand, and that is probably the way we'll always do it," she adds.
Roisin says her award opened a lot of doors for her.
"But also the amount of training we did, the knowledge that you gained in the training as well - you get out what you put in.
"Michael was so supportive and you just gained a lot of knowledge.
"You find out more about yourself, what you are able to do and where you're able to go," she says.
Head chef of Brunel’s restaurant in Newcastle, Paul Cunningham (33) from Dundrum started cooking when he was 12.
He was dyslexic and knew from a young age that he wanted to be a chef. “I wasn’t interested in school — I wanted to be a chef from day one,” he says.
Inspired by his grandfather, Paul uses the flora and fauna of Co Down in his cooking, estimating that 80% of his ingredients come from within 30 miles of the restaurant itself.
“From no age I was going across Dundrum Bay picking mussels and cockles and whelks and sand eels. Then I was going across the countryside and picking honeysuckle and down the old railway track picking sea vegetables,” he says.
“With wild garlic, people use the leaf, but I’ll use the leaf, the flower and the seed, and in October I’ll dig up the root as well. I’ll use birch leaves when they’re fresh and young but I’ll also use the sap.
“But all I’m doing is what people did years and years and years ago like my grandfather.
“It’s going on through the generations now — my daughter Farrah can name every sea vegetable on the beach.”
He goes on family foraging trips with his wife Jennifer and daughters Farrah (5) and Rosie (2). Meanwhile, Jennifer makes felt using wool from her dad’s blackface sheep and also makes the plates for the restaurant.
“When I won the last IFEX, she made all my plates — I had an amuse-bouche with wild garlic cappuccino, smoked haddock espuma and hazelnut hummus and she made a bowl that looked like a leaf, “ Paul says.
Paul worked with Brian McCann at Shu in Belfast before launching his own restaurant in Newcastle: “I’d start at 7am, go out foraging at Dundrum Castle and come in with my box of tricks. This week I was picking sea truffles which is a type of seaweed that clings to bladderwrack. There is no type of seaweed that you can’t eat. I was picking wood ear mushrooms, sea beet, sea purslane, scurvy grass.”
Paul was the most recent winner of NI Chef of the Year at IFEX, taking the title in 2018.
“Next morning showing my daughter the medal, that was the best thing — my wee medal was hanging in her play kitchen,” he says.
“The first time I entered I didn’t know anyone, and then I went in two years later and everyone knew me. For any young chef, they should definitely do IFEX — everyone gets to know you.”
Paul says he’s also fascinated with the medicinal qualities of foraged foods, such as wood sorrel and pennywort.
“I make rhubarb wine and gooseberry wine and use them in my cooking,” he says.
“Nine times out of 10, the customer won’t taste or know they’re in there, but I know and that’s good enough for me.”
Now head chef of the Brown Trout Inn on the north coast, Alex Taylor says he was the first boy in Donaghadee to take domestic science classes at school.
“It should have been woodwork or metalwork but I used to love the domestic science part,” he says.
Alex started working at the Royal Hotel in Bangor at the age of 16 and the encouragement of the O’Hara family who owned it was to reap rewards in the years to come. Over the years, he worked at the Old Inn in Crawfordsburn, then worked at the Royal Hotel as head chef where he mentioned to Stephen O’Hara that he would love to work at the Hotel de Paris. He managed to get the opportunity to work there for a month with Alain Ducasse.
“I came back with all that knowledge and bits and pieces and my career grew from there,” he says.
He returned to the Old Inn to work as head chef for 14 years and then moved to the Brown Trout which was also owned by the O’Hara family. “I only came down for six weeks, but that was eight years ago,” he says. He developed an interest in competitions after becoming part of the NI Culinary Team that won a gold medal in La Parade des Chefs in 1995.
“It was a good experience — in 1997 I was very friendly with Robbie Millar of Shanks and he gave me a few tips and bits of advice on sauces I was doing,” Alex says. “He coached me a wee bit and kept me right and when I won NI Chef of the Year I was delighted. It gave me a lot of opportunities and offers and I haven’t looked back since.”
Now married to freelance hairdresser Carol for the last 29 years, Alex travels between the Brown Trout and their home in Bangor, and his latest passion is growing his own fruit and veg for the table.
Inspired by Raymond Blanc, he asked to set up four beds and a polytunnel in the grounds of the Brown Trout.
“I can’t grow enough because I’m too busy, but for the specials at the weekend I might use some curly kale or some beans or some sweetcorn — it’s enough to do the weekend specials and it’s a great selling point. I’ve now planted apple trees as well,” he says.
“It keeps me busy and gets me up early. In the morning I go to the garden before I do my 12 to 14 hour stint in the kitchen.”
Alex says he loves going to IFEX. “I like talking to the young pupils coming up — they’re quite nervous so I like settling them down, saying it’s just a competition, take your time,” he says.
IFEX returns to the TEC, Belfast between March 24-26 and is an opportunity for visitors to meet more than 200 suppliers and manufacturers, watch hundreds of chefs, baristas and drink specialists in action, and network with thousands of industry colleagues. This year features the World Skills NI Hospitality Skills Hub, Great Taste Market and Salon Culinaire, the national centre for excellence in the industry. Free to attend, registration for the show is now open at www.IFEXexhibition.co.uk