Chef Profile

Chef Profile September 2018: Gary McIldowney, proprietor of Slim’s Healthy Kitchen in Belfast & Magherafelt

Gary McIldowney, proprietor of Slim’s Healthy Kitchen in Belfast & Magherafelt, talks to HRNI

WHEN DID YOU FIRST GET INTO COOKING?
I first moved out of home when I turned 21 and had to fend for myself. I gradually moved into eating healthier when I was juggling a day job and DJ-ing at night, which soon led to the opening of Slim’s Healthy Kitchen five years ago.

HAVE YOU ANY CULINARY QUALIFICATIONS?
No, just life skills.

WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND IN THE TRADE?
I started in the ‘Welly’ Park Hotel when I was 16 for four years in varying roles; everything from waiter to night porter, reception and duty manager. I moved to Café Paul Rankin when I was 21 and worked my way up into a supervisory role. One day I had to sack the chef and found myself in the kitchen working and had to pretty quickly learn the ropes.

HAS ANYONE INSPIRED YOU THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER?
I am inspired everyday by the people around and, in particular, my father, whom at 64 years of age is still very much my driving force to better myself. Outside of that, we live in a socially connected world. We once had to travel to experience culture but we can now experience food and cultures, albeit not smell or taste, through our finger tips. I still love to travel the world and explore new places but, with the world being so connected, I can do it with direction.

WHEN DID YOU JOIN YOUR CURRENT VENUE?
I founded Slim’s in the summer of 2013 and now have three sites; two in Belfast on Lisburn Road and Belmont Road and a further site in Magherafelt that opened earlier this year.
WHAT STYLE IS YOUR COOKING?
The vision of Slim’s Healthy Kitchen is straightforward: to make healthy food more accessible. This means creating a balanced, nutritious menu, and offering value for money. The menu has organic and free range where possible and has the ability to offer the best ingredients and develop constantly. I also recognise that a healthy diet means something different to everyone, and that what constitutes a healthy diet has shifted dramatically over time, as consumers learn more about food and the impact it has on our overall well-being. I don’t pigeon-hole Slim’s with individual diets or trends – there is a lifespan on all of those. That’s why you will not see on the Slim’s menu items labelled as ‘Paleo’ or ‘suitable for the ‘Cambridge diet’, ‘low carb’ etc. Instead, we are clear and upfront about our ingredients with menus changing seasonally.

WHAT IS YOUR FOOD SOURCING POLICY?
I try where possible to source local from sustainable sources and am mindful of the environmental impact on food miles. What is integral to the business is that ingredients are exceptional quality combined with high standards of preparation and cooking.
WHAT SIZE IS YOUR STAFF?
73

WHOSE CAREER WOULD YOU WISH TO EMULATE?
Slim’s has embarked on a franchise programme, with the first franchised site in Magherafelt and we are scouting for potential franchisees and sites across Northern Ireland. One of the success stories I’m following is Luke Johnson, former chairman of Pizza Express, who took the restaurant business from 12 locations to 150-plus. He’s currently the chairman of a private equity house and part-owner of Patisserie Valerie. I’m a regular reader of his weekly column in the Sunday Times, which provides insight into the restaurant industry and its struggles.

HAVE YOU ANY INTERESTS OUTSIDE OF WORK?
I train at the gym a couple of time a week and often go to yoga classes and brazillian jiu-jitsu; I’m hoping to compete later this year. I’m a massive advocate of striking a work-life balance even though it can be difficult at times due to the nature of the industry. I’m recently married and have two young children so it’s also massively important to me that I’m around to be involved in everything they do.

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