A Titanic role that’s no ‘Small’ task
Foodbelfast.com’s John Ferris chats to Leo Small from the Titanic Signature Building in Belfast.
It was nearly two decades ago when Leo Small moved into the family business, Small’s Butchers in County Down. It’s been a hell of a ride in between, from working in the Savoy in London to taking over the kitchen at one of the North’s signature tourist destinations, Titanic Belfast.
“Fifteen or twenty years ago I started off working in the family business in Newcastle. I was a KP, pot washer, and even made sausages – we had a small coffee shop as well and that’s where it all began,” said Leo.
“My parents opened the coffee shop because there was obviously lots of off-cuts to be used from the butchers. I was in working with other chefs, garnishing plates and thought; I could see myself doing this.”
After a stint in Warrenpoint he met Anton Edelmann who offered him a chance to go to London where he spent a year working under him at the Savoy Hotel.
“I returned home and went to work in Peacock Alley in Dublin, which had just gained its Michelin Star and I spent some five years working for Conrad Gallagher in various restaurants, opening in the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin and stayed until nearly 2000.
“Then between 2000 and 2005 was in Shanahan’s on the Green and worked my way up through the ranks and became the Executive Chef at Shanahan’s. I then came home and opened a restaurant in Newry, Soho Place, and then basically went to work at the Yellow Door in Portadown.”
Fitzers Catering approached him asking if he’d like to get involved in a project in Belfast, bringing him to his current role at Titanic.
“We can cater up to 750-1000 in this room [Titanic Suite], we could have up to 4-5 functions on a day, we have a modern bistro downstairs and a galley café and each of those could cater up to 1-2,000 people a day and at the height of summer up to 3,000 people a day.
“We do a lot of corporate banquets. We were cooking for the Queen, we were cooking for Hillary Clinton, which is a great honour and the next day you could be doing something completely different. At 7.00am we were doing a media release for the GAA and 750 bacon rolls so it’s very diverse.
“One minute you’re cooking for the Queen and Hillary Clinton, who could be a future president of the United States and the next day you’re cooking for the GAA.
“Working alongside Group Executive Chef Lenny Fearon, we designed the menu for Titanic Belfast taking in the whole ethos of food that would have been served on the ship and doing a modern twist on it.
“Everything has to have a theme running alongside it so if someone comes in they can see the connection and that’s where we got the inspiration.
“We have a modern twist on signature dishes that were on the menu in second and third class. You’d have Lyonnaise Chicken and we’ve done a modern twist on that, served it in a terracotta bowl with comber potatoes and Lissara chicken breast.
“It’s a very demanding trade, but I consider myself to have a hobby that I get paid to do. Even at home, I would cook a lot. I’ll probably cater for 20-25 at home at Christmas with family coming round.”
But it’s not just the massive beast that is the Titanic that Small deals with. Fitzers deal with everything from Croke Park and Tennent’s Vital to U2 and Westlife concerts.
“As a company and an executive chef you’re made to move along with wherever you’re most needed. Fitzers do a lot of on film set catering and we’re looking to do more stuff next year with HBO. That would be through another company Fitzers owns but if anything was happening in Northern Ireland I would be involved.
“I’ll always be based here in Titanic but if something else was happening I’d run my eye over it or go up and check it.”