When Paul and Nick’s Big Food Trip, the UTV show based on two celebrity chefs hitting the road for a culinary adventure, airs, it’s easy to forget that one half of that duo is the godfather of what is now a matured and flourishing restaurant sector here. Emma Deighan talks to Paul Rankin about accepting that pioneering title
Paul with Nick Nairn
It’s one of the most amazing countries I’ve ever visited,” says Paul Rankin about the latest series of Paul and Nick’s Big Food Trip, focused on New Zealand. “It’s like Donegal, the North Coast and Scotland on steroids with really fabulous weather, bluer water, bigger waves. It’s just incredible.
“The sense of mother nature there is off the scale. And the people are lovely. They’re quite basic and no nonsense.”
Paul and Nick’s Big Food Trip is on its sixth series. It sees Paul and Nick (Nairn) take on the breath-taking vistas and farmlands of New Zealand, where they cook a selection of meals for the descendants of the Ulster Scots and Scottish pioneers who helped build the country.
From the tropical climate of Auckland in the north, to the more mountainous climes of Dunedin and Queenstown in the south, the show was a feast for the senses for the two besties.
“Doing the show is a privilege,” he says. “We have been friends a very long time and we get to see and experience these things. And the viewers see that it’s genuine. We’re not two Italians forced together; it’s not manufactured.”
The road trip is far removed from Paul’s most familiar silver screen role on Ready Steady Cook, the show that shot him to fame; a profile that still catches him off guard.
“TV is a funny bloody thing,” he says. “It’s completely fake really. It’s a kind of nonsense career and celebrity is complete nonsense yet Gourmet Ireland and Paul and Nick’s Big Food Trip are the best because they’re an absolute joy. They mix travel, produce and the passion of people you meet and I get to do it with my best mate.
“Studio-based shows like Ready Steady Cook, they’re fine and they were making business but they were tedious.”
Reflecting on countless episodes of the show, which ran over a period of 16 years, he says: “It was one of the most famous cooking shows and had ratings higher than some of the soaps. There were some great celebrity episodes too. David Coultard sticks out, Jackie Collins, Chris Eubank – he was difficult, Bianca from Eastenders and Charlie Lawson was a hoot, an absolute handful.”
His hearty TV career is only the icing on the cake for Paul who, you could say, founded and nurtured the restaurant scene giving Northern Ireland the gastronomic reputation it has today.
In countless interviews with high profile chefs, Paul is always dubbed as the ‘man who kicked it off’ or ‘the one who did most for the industry’. Does he accept that honour?
“You know, I’m not really fussed about it,” he says. “It was just me doing something that I wanted and something I had to do and to the standard I had in my heart. In a way, it was compulsive.
“I’d been training, I’d been thinking and dreaming about my own restaurant and when I got the chance, I took it with both hands and worked really hard.”
Prior to going it alone, Paul’s career saw him work in some of the best restaurants around the world. He was a waiter who climbed the ladder into the kitchens of venues in Vancouver, Australia and London.
He returned home after learning his craft and opened Roscoffs in 1989, which later became Cayenne, in the Shaftsbury Square area of the city. It was the restaurant that launched a hundred others, and the one to get Northern Ireland its first Michelin star.
“I remember eating in Restaurant 44, which was the great restaurant in Northern Ireland at the time and I thought ‘I can blow this completely out of the water’,” says Paul.
At its height, the Paul Rankin empire was made up of 12 cafés and four restaurants. This included Rain City, Roscoff Brasserie, Cayenne, Rankin Cafés, Rankin Café Wine and Dine, plus a few others of the casual setup. The chef became the foodie version of Finn McCool here and his network of eating houses, the Causeway.
But in 2008 Paul sold off his Roscoff Brasserie and cafe chain due to financial challenges, holding on to the renowned Cayenne on Shaftsbury Square for a further five years before succumbing to the downturn as a result of the Flag protests and other external forces.
Going big and creating that empire became a “nightmare” admits Paul when looking back.
“I don’t know why I did it,” he says. “I think I was daft, listening too much to bloody accountants and business guys. I’m not that guy, I don’t care about money, I’m a bit more touchy-feely and hippy-dippy and I should’ve stayed on the coal face,” he says.
He goes on to say that the speedy acceleration of his firm became “chaotic”, never fully allowing him to sit back and enjoy the success.
“There was a lot going on and it’s easy to look back at stuff and think I should’ve,” he says. “I should’ve brought in investors at a certain stage to try to keep hold of the equity. That was all my own money and it didn’t give contingency for making a few mistakes.
“At a critical time, we opened the Lisburn Road and Junction One cafés and we didn’t get that right so that was enough to cause a domino effect and we couldn’t catch it.
“It’s hard to go from a small to medium business. There are so many layers of management and the models change slightly.”
The demise of the restaurant business took its toll on Paul but ultimately it has become the making of him and set him up for the attractive life he leads today; travelling and experiencing some of the world’s most stunning destinations while using his craft, and taking it back a gear at his home in Gloucestershire.
“You feel like a failure,” he says. “You feel stressed, you feel depressed but at the end of the day you’re not in business for 25 years without making the odd mistake. I learned so much.
“The Yanks talk about failure all the time and how you can learn from it. Here it’s different but you can’t go through life and not experience downturns. Life is about day time and night time, light and shade.
“I do miss it. But I kinda feel like I’ve worked a lifetime already. I often think about getting back into it, running a restaurant but it is like looking after 25 kids.”
And he’s kept busy enough with his line of Rankin baked goods and sausages with Irwin’s Bakery and Finnebrogue respectively. Then there are his television shows, public appearances and more than a few possible books that could come from his travels.
It seems just about the right amount of work for a man who’s already achieved so much in his 58 years, namely shaping our food scene.
But is he impressed by the palatable wake he’s created?
“I find most of those restaurants are very good, but ordinary at the same time. I see too many restaurants following what they think are trends and I don’t see enough chefs doing something individual. Rather they’re copying what their peers are doing in London and Scandinavia and I’d like to see something more local but it takes a while to get your confidence and say I want to do this and have this expression. I’m not talking complex, I’m talking creatively simple and delicious.”