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The Pen and the Palate

In a world where anyone can be a critic thanks to vehicles like Facebook, Trip Advisor and Google Review, the importance of a credible reviewer has never been more relevant. Here HRNI catches up with Joris Minne, the food writer that restauranteurs either love or loathe…

Pic by Paul McErlane

The choice of location for an interview is always very telling of the interviewee. Coffee house chains are the norm but when meeting a food critic, you expect some underworld hideaway that’s yet to be uncovered by the masses or, alternatively, a high brow restaurant.

Joris Minne’s choice was safe. Harlem on Bedford Street. Which was not to be, given it was temporarily occupied. It’s as well Bedford Street is also home to Deane’s Deli Vin Café – another safe choice for a man of Joris’ gourmet standing here.

For almost a decade Joris Minne has been reviewing restaurants of varying superiorities throughout NI for the Belfast Telegraph. He’s the food critic that many welcome, or fear, for his honest approach. He’s also the director of one of NI’s longest-running and most successful PR and communication houses here, J Comms. But first and foremost, for our readers at least, he’s a man to be respected if you’re fronting a kitchen.

“Danny Millar once told me that they have a picture of me in their kitchen and he said ‘if ever that f**ker comes in here, phone me’ and I’m really flattered that they would actually take it seriously,” began Joris.

Joris with chef Danny Millar

But why wouldn’t the industry take him seriously? He can, in theory, influence the dining choices of some 150,000 readers exposed to his weekly column.

He’s also one of few food critics here who has witnessed the evolving foodie scene and seen innovators come and go; trends wax and wane and he’s honest. His reviews don’t hold back but one thing is for sure, he promises the trade that he is not flippant with his words and his conscience is pretty much intact.

“I’m a former journalist and I adhere by the rules that were instilled in me,” began Joris when asked about his critique process.

“There are too many people employed by a restaurant including suppliers in the chain for me to take a pop and damage the business. If I go somewhere and it’s bad I will explain to the chef and come back and try again. If it’s bad a second time, I will write it up,” he explained.

Joris merits his vast journalistic background for this diligent work ethic. He trained with the National Geographic Magazine in London and America when he started out in journalism. This was followed by an internship in Washington DC as a production journalist. He then moved on to IPC Magazines in London and was a newspaper correspondent for Time Magazine in Madrid.

He returned to work in Northern Ireland in 1992 for the Tourist Board as a French and Spanish speaker and it was then when he met Matthew Fort, celebrated Guardian food critic, and began to write for the G2 column.

“My ticket was anything under £15,” he said when reflecting on that first foodie writing number. “In the 90s that meant Chinese or Indian. You couldn’t get near Roscoff’s or Nick’s Warehouse which were the two big ones back then.”

And just under ten years ago he landed the job as Belfast Telegraph’s restaurant reviewer.

Every week since he’s been navigating NI’s gastronomic map to report back to some 154,000 readers.

“It’s very much a case of finding out who’s opening; are there any new ones, giving them a chance to settle in and then reviewing them,” said Joris about his selection process for the weekly piece.

“Changes of personnel are also important. For example a new chef or new menu will catch my eye. I was in Shu recently because they are doing a 3-8-3 lunch menu and I thought this is one of those places that keeps getting overlooked unless you live in BT9 where it is very successful but I hadn’t been in a while. It’s picking up on that kind of information.

“I get approached maybe twice a year by restaurants and immediately I will do what I can and if it’s not good I will tell them and go back again and review it.”

There is always the chance that Joris may receive biased treatment given his position however he’s quick to point out that ‘noone can up their game that much’ to sabotage a fair analysis.
“There is that risk but I usually only book a day before going and I have an idea if somebody’s providing special treatment or not.” For the record he will book under his own name.

For Joris, service is the most important aspect of dinning out. He reports on ‘three pillars’; atmosphere, service and food.

“Are people friendly and quick to come to you? It’s hospitality basics,” he points out. “The lighting and draughts are critical too. If you are sitting down in a restaurant for an hour or two you will feel every draught but the staff won’t because they’re running around.

“I also think service is more important than what is coming out of the kitchen. It’s called the hospitality sector for a reason. If you’re looked after by someone you’ll come back, even if the food is mediocre.”

Mediocrity is not a word Joris would frequently use to define the restaurant scene here as he sums up our offering as ‘staggeringly high’ and ‘worth investing in’. He praises the midrange sector; ‘Deane’s Deli, James Street South Bar and Grill, Yugo, Hadskis, Ginger – those brasserie restaurants that are very very good but reasonably priced’ for upping the ante in NI.
“I bring clients from London and Dublin they’re always amazed and that’s not necessarily Deane’s. We have good chefs and we are aware of that.

“We have Michelin Stars and Manchester doesn’t. That says a lot. These stars not only signal that there’s quality here but it tells visitors that there are other restaurants upping their game.”

And while he’s filled with praise for the sector and its areas of excellence; touting Paul Rankin as a pioneer who promoted pride in our own produce, and applauding the chefs here for raising our reputation so much that it’s beckoned globally acclaimed peers to the city (Jean-Christophe Novelli and Marco Pierre White) he still has a bone to pick.

“Lunch business. It needs to speed up. I have lunch out all the time and it takes too long. City restaurants especially need to work at that and then promote it.

“Restaurants also need to look at their front of house at all times. Are guests feeling the love as soon as they walk through the door because that’s an easy win, if you pay attention to it.”
He may be seen as a friend of the industry or to some he may be considered something of a nemesis but his passion for the restaurant sector is very evident when he discusses the challenges faced by those leading the game, namely skill shortages.

“Training and recruiting staff with the right expertise is a problem right now. Are we doing all we can to promote this industry? Is it seen to have prospects and stability? That’s something that needs to be worked on. We need to see more of what Niall and Joanne McKenna are doing – securing a future for the catering sector. Is it viewed as a menial job? I don’t know, perhaps it’s a PR job to get the message out there that it’s more than that,” and what better man is there for that promotional campaign than a PR guru and food critic?

IN BRIEF

FAVOURITE BELFAST RESTAURANT:
They change all the time but at the moment Kurrito on Botanic Avenue, Ox, Meatlocker, James Street South, Deanes.
FAVOURITE OUT OF CITY RESTAURANT:
Four Vicars Armagh, Catlina, Lough Erne Golf Resort, Brown’s, Derry, Poacher’s Pocket, Comber, Noble, Holywood. I’m going to make a lot of enemies now.
FAVOURITE STYLE OF FOOD:
Wholesome rustic food – the Made in Belfast style; good quality local produce with plenty of flavour.
GUILTY FOOD PLEASURE:
Zinger Burger.

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