With chef Paula McIntyre about as down to earth as you’ll get, when Emma Deighan called to find out how she feels about her recent MBE honour, she naturally derailed the conversation onto cooking carrots and Brexit
Paula McIntyre is pictured with Jay Rayner, Dr Annie Gray, Andi Oliver, and Jordan Bourke, for the BBC Radio 4 culinary panel show The Kitchen Cabinet, hosted by Rayner.
She’s a chef, teacher, TV and radio star and author, but Paula’s earthy Aghadowey roots are ever present.
Trained in culinary arts at the prestigious Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, USA, she returned to the UK in 1993 to open her own restaurant in Manchester.
And she came back to Northern Ireland in the late 1990s, when she worked as head chef in various venues including the Georgian Ghan House in Carlingford and Fontana in Holywood.
In 2000, Paula appeared as a guest chef on Ready, Steady, Cook, beating Paul Rankin in her second appearance and, in autumn 2001, was given her own TV series on BBC2 NI, Taste for Adventure.
A regular voice on Radio Ulster, Paula has become a household name and her teaching background – she lectures at Northern Regional College – means her familiar face is recognisable by all generations.
It’s an exhausting bio but is made up of decades of hard graft that rightfully won her an MBE recently, or a new tax code as she believed.
“I got a letter about a month ago and I looked at the part where it says cabinet office and urgent, and I thought it was another level of tax,” she says. “The wording is quite funny and it’s all about the Prime Minister and stuff. I was shocked. And then, obviously, delighted.”
Paula will make her way to London this autumn to receive her honour – a trip she hopes to “make the most of” and extend to a five-day holiday of meeting friends and enjoying some of London’s finest restaurants.
“I say that, but it probably won’t happen,” she says. “I’m just so busy.”
Holidays are a bit of a rarity for Paula, who is working on so many different projects – she’s recently collaborated with an Italian food importer and a gorgonzola cheese company – that it’s hard to keep track. Travel is common, but it’s more often work than play, she says. And when work is sometimes trying out new and exciting restaurant formats, she’s in her happy place.
She recalls foodie memories as if they are fairy tales, comparing and contrasting what’s on offer around Europe with our homegrown eateries.
“You know, years ago I’d have said the food and chef were the most important part of a restaurant but now I would say ambience, service and then food is the right order,” she says.
It’s a pretty brave statement from someone whose livelihood is based on cooking.
“You want a good night when you’re out,” she says. “We’re eating out more and more, perhaps two to three times a week. What we don’t want is tortured service. We want a bit of conviviality with our food.
“One of the best restaurant experiences I had was at a communal restaurant, Gardener’s Cottage in Edinburgh. You book a table and could be sat beside anyone. We had two young people beside us and two Americans and it is a great way of meeting interesting people.”
Life for Paula seems like a platter of work and dining out with a massive circle of friends and colleagues. It’s the stuff of life goals.
“We did something similar in Turin,” she says. “There were 16 people and it was lovely. It had a set menu and there was no choice. With that, there’s no waste and you get what you’re given. We still talk about the rabbit from that night.”
Paula is an advocate of simple is best. Discussing the restaurant sector in Northern Ireland, she says a menu with too many dishes is a pet peeve.
“There are establishments with too much choice, maybe 50 choices and then they say, ‘here’s our daily special’. Why would you have a special with all that choice? I think we need to pair everything back a bit.”
Harking back to her beginnings at MacDuffs restaurant in her hometown, which she says was a place for occasion dining and where she learned a lot about her craft, Paula believes occasion has turned to casual.
She compares it with the evolution of places like Ramore, where she got her own first-hand experience of filleting fresh fish, butchering and “proper prep”.
“In those days when you went to the Ramore it was justifiably expensive, but they had to evolve. I think that shows the evolution of restaurants. It started with a wine bar and was high end. Now it’s all casual with a very big and fast turnover.”
There’s truth in what she says. No matter how big and popular the player, modification is essential for success.
Recent closures of some of the most renowned restaurants here, casual and not so casual, have shown anyone.can succumb to competition, business expenses, fickle customer habits and more.
“It’s scary that good restaurants are closing and that kills anyone who puts their heart and soul into a restaurant,” she says. “I think there’s not enough help for smaller businesses and the 20% VAT is too much for a start. You can’t sustain a business when you’re giving a fifth away before you begin. It’s happening all over and in London too.”
Paula cites Brexit as having a dark influence on the sector too, with consumer confidence and spending taking a hit. “I think people are scared of Brexit,” she says. “I read about food rations, could you imagine? If we had that, we’d have no restaurants.”
On a more positive note, Paula is still impressed by what she sees in the sector here, even though she’s had her day fronting kitchens.
“I love cooking, it’s my favourite part of what I do but I don’t work in restaurants anymore and I think that’s what’s keeping the love alive,” she says. “I think you can get bogged down with the industry being the way it is at the minute with the labour problem, costs. I think I’m very lucky that I’ve had a career that involves cooking at all different levels.
“I love Ox, Eipic, and Clenaghan’s is amazing. That’s a great example of someone who had a Michelin star and moved into a casual restaurant where the food is excellent. It’s served differently, it’s not stuffy.
“I love James Street South and I really admire what Niall and Joanne are doing, and Michael Deane is a great employer.
“Then there’s the North, where Derry is pretty happening. The chefs there are putting good things out and you could nearly have a starter, a main and a dessert somewhere different on the same evening because it’s so casual and relaxed and people don’t mind you doing that.”
Paula is so passionate about her craft that sometimes it’s hard to get her to discuss herself. She’s all about what’s going on in the industry, what’s right, praising the deserved and voicing concerns, one being that many chefs don’t do enough with our own vegetable produce.
“We grow brilliant vegetables and they’re not celebrating what we grow here,” says Paula. “We could do a lot to make vegetables stand out and create attractive vegetarian options – there’s a lot more profit in them.”
So, what’s in the pipeline for the champion of local produce?
“I’m only 51,” she says. “I don’t really plan on slowing down; in fact, probably the opposite. I’ve a few plans. There’ll be more cooking and I’ll be back in the kitchen and that’s going to happen. It’s not a restaurant, more a supper club.”