Chef Profile August 2018: Paul Cunningham, head chef at Brunel’s in Newcastle
Paul Cunningham, head chef at Brunel’s in Newcastle, talks to Alyson Magee
WHEN DID YOU FIRST GET INTO COOKING?
I first started out in food at a very young age, about six, because my grandad was a keen forager and grew a lot himself. I was there with him all the time and that’s where my love of food came from.
My love of cooking came whenever I started as a kitchen porter and dishwasher at the age of 12. I saw all these other boys cooking and thought, I want to be those guys. I liked the pressure and enjoyed that busy lifestyle and so, at age 14 which is pretty young, I started cooking.
HAVE YOU ANY CULINARY QUALIFICATIONS?
The day I left school, I went to Belfast Tech and got my Level 2 and 3. I passed with flying colours and never missed a day.
WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND IN THE TRADE?
I’ve worked in a lot of local places. I started cooking at the Roadhouse Inn in Dundrum, and then I went to the golf links, The Bucks Head, The Round Tower and the Burrendale Hotel. Then I was offered head chef at The Round Tower and I was 18, coming 19, which was pretty young, but I went for it anyway and that’s when I started homing in on my own style and developing it. I moved about a wee bit more, was in The Dundrum Inn and won a couple of awards there. I went and worked with Hugh McCann in Newcastle, and got on very well there and then was offered the opportunity to come on board at Brunel’s as head chef and co-owner.
HAS ANYONE INSPIRED YOU THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER?
Foraging being the backbone of my cooking, it would be Michel Bras, the original forager, and the likes of Magnus Nilsson, René Redzepi from Noma and all those wild chefs with big flavours. It’s all about flavour with me, and local, seasonal produce.
WHEN DID YOU JOIN YOUR CURRENT VENUE?
Four and a half years ago. We were above The Anchor Bar and demand just got higher and it was time to move to a new premises and just stand on my own two feet. We moved from a 45-seater to a 65/70-seater last year, and could do four times what we’re doing. It’s crazy and hard to keep up with to be honest. We’ve won a lot of awards recently and that’s all good and well but the best award you’ll ever get is looking into a full restaurant every night.
WHAT STYLE IS YOUR COOKING?
It’s definitely become more refined over the years, and that’s to do with food trends as well as working on my skills. My cooking style would be ingredient-led; local ingredients and very wild with very strong flavours. It’s all about flavours with me; there’s no point in looking nice if it doesn’t taste nice. In many a restaurant, it looks like a million dollars and then when you start eating it, it doesn’t make sense. Taste is the most important thing.
WHAT IS YOUR FOOD SOURCING POLICY?
I use Carnbrooke Meats, Drew’s organic vegetables and Strangford mussels; everything’s local. My eggs come from my best mate a couple of doors down from me. Eighty percent of my produce comes from within 30 miles although, of course, we get a few things like quails from France. I do about nine hours of foraging a week.
WHAT SIZE IS YOUR STAFF?
Thirty. I do a lot of demos in local techs, and staffing is a problem right across the board. I don’t know what we can do to change it. You’re listening to a kid coming in as a KP, and they’re ‘this isn’t what I want to be, I want to work in computers’. Do they mention hospitality in schools anymore? We need to do a rejig and get it more in people’s minds again.
WHOSE CAREER WOULD YOU WISH TO EMULATE?
Magnus Nilsson, definitely. He owns Fäviken in Sweden and it’s phenomenal. It’s the whole experience, travelling to the restaurant. If I could find a spot in the middle of the Mournes and if I could get the money, I’d do it. I believe this country is going to be ready for it in a couple of years, definitely. The food is the country has changed dramatically over the last five years, and even just in the last year; it’s crazy.
HAVE YOU ANY INTERESTS OUTSIDE OF WORK?
I’ve two young girls who keep me very busy. My eldest daughter will be down on the beach with me, picking up dulce and that makes me more proud than anything.
Food just takes over your life, and I’m quite happy with that to be honest. I’ve been cooking professionally for seven or eight years and there’s not one morning have I woken up and gone, ‘not today’. I love it more than anything in the world. There’s no need to be going across the water because good things are happening here, and I’d like to push things further if I can.
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