Chef Brian McCann: I've been a success as a chef - now it's time to give back
Chef Brian McCann has fed many showbiz icons - just don't ask him to name Game of Thrones actors, writes Una Brankin
If the lucky apprentice-to-be at Shu restaurant happens to be a 'Throner' - that is, an obsessive fan of the HBO series Game of Thrones - he or she might get a chance to help feed one of their idols and sneak a peep at them through the kitchen doors.
The cast of the Northern Ireland-filmed hit show have been known to dine at the prestigious eatery on Belfast's Lisburn Road. Their presence, however, goes unnoticed by head chef Brian McCann.
"They come in and get recognised by the customers, but I haven't a clue who they are," he admits. "I've never seen one episode. I must take a look at it some time. I've rarely any time to watch TV."
Currently seeking a young person to train, the award-winning chef from west Belfast was an eager junior, under Marco Pierre White and Philip Howard, when he saw even bigger stars pass through their flagships in London.
"We would have seen Princess Diana about, and Bono, Madonna, Johnny Depp," he recalls. "They'd be brought through the kitchens to escape the paparazzi. It was very exciting; very rock and roll, especially coming from my first job at the Balmoral Hotel.
"There were crazy amounts being spent on food and wine. I'd never seen anything like it before. We were young and we had a great time at places like Fabric nightclub and Mirabelles. But no, my head wasn't turned by it all. It was a job; I had a sense of purpose."
In Brian's 14 years at Shu, he has helped the restaurant win dozens of top culinary accolades, including Best Restaurant in Northern Ireland three years in a row.
For those, including myself, who haven't been to Shu, it's what the unpretentious Brian, himself, would describe as a 'posh' place, and a long way, in culinary terms, from where he started off.
Growing up as the son of a metal factory worker in Andersonstown, he was more interested in listening to Bruce Springsteen on his ghetto blaster in the street than in cooking.
"Mum wasn't peeling artichokes - it was just nourishing food, like roasts, pasta and sauce," he recalls. "She cooked every day. She has improved greatly; she's great now.
"Granny baked apple tarts. Dad doesn't cook - he says the plant-based and wholefood stuff we eat at home is like something out of a birdcage. He thinks it's insane. It's a generational thing. Real food for him is sausage and bacon."
Home for Brian (40), his wife Deirdre, an accountant, and their two children, Beth Rose (10) and seven-year-old Luke, is now a recently-extended house in Derriaghy, between Lisburn and Belfast. The couple met at 16 and headed to London together at 20.
"I needed good work experience and I couldn't get it in Belfast at the time, although I loved the camaraderie at the Balmoral Hotel," Brian explains.
"I learned a lot and worked hard in London, but I took every other weekend off so Deirdre and I could have a social life.
"We met new friends and had no responsibilities. We were young and it was fun. I got 'slegged' for my accent."
He describes the atmosphere in Marco Pierre's kitchen as "bullish and boyish", compared to the more sedate ship run by his mentor, Philip Howard, at The Square in Mayfair.
"Phil is an amazing chef, a real gent, with great flair. He used to talk about ingredients becoming a dish and the whole being greater than the sum of the parts," he remembers. "That has always stuck in my mind."
Soon to reopen after extensive refurbishment, The Square specialises in modern French cuisine. Brian met his close friend, Aussie chef Brett Graham, when they worked together there. Brett now runs the Michelin two-starred Lebury in Notting Hill, a restaurant considered by many to be the best in the UK and a constant presence in the San Pellegrino top 50 restaurants in the world list. When he visited Brian recently, however, the two went somewhere less fancy.
"I brought him to the Duke of York pub in the centre of Belfast - he loved it," says Brian. "Then we went up the Antrim coast. He couldn't get over it. You don't realise how beautiful the scenery is here until you go travelling."
Having gained a wealth of experience in London and having become engaged to Deirdre, Brian got a case of itchy feet after the turn of the new millennium.
"Deirdre's a homebird but I wasn't ready to come back, so we compromised and went travelling around the world first," he says. "We went to Asia, Australia, Mexico, Hawaii and just relaxed and spent all the money we'd made, about £20,000. People thought we were mad, that we should have put it towards a house, but the travel gave me a better understanding of food and different cultures. It was just awesome.
"Looking back, moving to London and going travelling was a key choice to have made in our lives," he adds. "We had to be a team. We were in each other's pockets 24 hours a day; it was make or break and we learned loads about each other. By the end, you know everything."
The couple came home in 2003 and got married. Their eldest, Beth Rose, came along on Christmas Day 2007.
Says her proud father: "Beth's really into chocolate - to bake, not to eat. She's very academic. She'll ask people if they know the difference between false chocolate and real chocolate, and tells you what temperature it should be at. We bake with raw cacao and we make our own almond milk. It's a good way for the kids to take ownership when it comes to cooking."
The family home in Derriaghy underwent a major extension last year. It has a garden, where Brian grows edible flowers, broad beans and tomatoes.
"Gardening really is very therapeutic for the mind; just being in nature," he reflects. "I'm out picking off slugs at night, with the head-torch on.
"I'd grow more fruit and veg but I haven't the time. We have broad beans for salads, and tomatoes, and we re-sow at Easter. It's giving the kids ownership. They help out with the barbecue, too. They have their own knives and I show them how to chop and prepare correctly, without hurting themselves.
"Growing your own veg makes you respectful when it comes to wastage. We'll sautee broccoli leaves or use them raw in salads. And we'll freeze the beans and throw them in stews and casserole, shell and all - it's good roughage. If you go into a fancy restaurant, they'll only use the bean inside on the plate, because it's a beautiful emerald colour."
While he'll readily buy in a whole slaughtered animal to carve his own prime and secondary meat cuts for Shu, he tends towards a more plant-based diet at home.
"I've begun to become more aware of what best fuels the body," he says. "We still like meat but plants and whole foods are better for repairing the system. I notice my skin has improved, I sleep better, my mindset's better.
"I'll eat broths in the morning, and juice, and almond milk, nuts, seeds and pulses. Ginger shots; nothing processed. Foods that are alive - you can see it in carrots: they can regenerate in the dark. It's exciting; it's a new style of cooking. It's all about balance."
On his return from London, Brian worked for 18 months with the late chef Robbie Millar at Shanks Restaurant at Blackwood golf centre in Clandeboye Estate near Bangor, before joining Shu. In August 2005 Millar was killed instantly in a car crash on the Ballysallagh Road near Holywood, Co Down.
"Robbie knew the Northern Ireland palate. I'd be talking about the way I did something in London and he'd say, 'You wouldn't get away with that here'," says Brian. "We were in the country, which was great after London, and we used to go foraging. It was so sad what happened, a year later. His anniversary has just passed."
At 40, the highly esteemed chef has no qualms about ageing.
He is fit from running marathons - he raised £3,000 for the Tiny Life charity, after his nephew was born prematurely at 950 grams (2lbs 1.5oz) and has "never felt as healthy" in his life. Now, with Belfast reaching the height of its culinary game, he feels it's time to pass his skills on to a new generation.
Having mentored many young chefs, he and owner Alan Reid are launching their very first chef apprenticeship programme, beginning next month.
The apprentice, aged between 16 and 24, will spend two days at college and three days at Shu, starting with the basics in food preparation.
"There'll be no washing dishes but you respect the kitchen and keep it tidy. I did the dishes one New Year's Eve and cleaned the floors - it's a very hard job but it didn't bother me at all. You lead by example.
"The apprenticeship really is a great opportunity," he concludes. "Age is irrelevant; attitude is what's important.
"As an apprentice at 17, the sense of accomplishment you feel when you make something delicious and send it out and get good feedback - that's very satisfying. It pushes you on.
"With grit, determination and hard work, you really can become the best at one of the longest-running professions in the world."
- Shu is offering an industry-leading one year Chef Apprenticeship in partnership with Belfast Met. For further details about the programme view the videolink, visit www.shu-restaurant.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more