As we follow our passion for food and good produce, TIP meet up with the first of our “Fresh Produce” chefs, this is an interview series that will present a up and coming chef with a great understanding of food and produce, and of course they have few nice recipes to share and a few good stories to tell.
25 year old Neill describes himself as a “young chef with a love of produce driven cooking”. Growing up on a farm in the North of Ireland and now working in some of the most exciting kitchens in Europe, he has worked hard from a young age to “understand each link along the production chain and bring this depth of knowledge to the kitchen.”
Neill loves working with raw ingredients and has trough his experience built up an extensive knowledge of butchery and farming, He is fascinated with wild foods and have a “respect for nature; its seasons and traditions.”
Dish of the week?
I try my best to approach each raw ingredient with a full understanding of its natural habitat. I believe this understanding is a fundamental starting point when deciding on a technique in the kitchen. Lately, I’ve been fascinated with the elder tree. Not only does it produce some of the most fragrant flowers, once they come to bud they turn into elder berries in late summer/autumn!
Another magical thing about the elder tree is that it is one of the only trees that Judas Ear mushrooms grow on throughout the year! They say that the mushroom takes its names from Judas who hung himself on an elder tree after betraying Jesus! But I don’t know, I never seen an elder tree big enough to hang a person. When you are out foraging over the next couple of weeks and into autumn, if you’re lucky enough to find some Judas ear mushrooms growing on an elder tree with elder berries you can make a lovely dish; What I like to do is let the mushroom’s dry slightly over night then rehydrate them in the elder berry juice and cook them cook them very quickly in reduced elder berry juice and bit of really good butter and finish with a bit of elderflower vinegar. Simple but lovely, get out there and try it!
Which is your first culinary memory?
I remember my Granny making wheaten bread in Ireland when we used to come and visit in the summertime. The Smell of baking bread in the morning when I was a little nipper, used to fill the kitchen as the sun came through the big window in the kitchen. It was bad ass bread, hot from the oven with really creamy butter… still easily one of my favourite things to eat.
Have you always wanted to be a chef?
No… Believe it or not when I left school I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to be. I remember my careers teacher looking at me like I was mad when I didn’t even apply for university. The last thing I wanted to do was decide on the rest of my life when I was 18… its mental! I moved to Ireland from Scotland when I was 9, to my granny’s farm and immediately fell in love with the country and farming. I’m a proper country boy at heart, or ‘cultie’ as we call it in Ireland. So I fell in love with farming from a young age and then somehow got involved in butchery when my uncle opened up a shop in our local town. That’s when I realised that ‘shit’ I better do something with my life.
Where did you study?
I didn’t …. Sorry mum!
Which was your first job within catering?
I started my apprentice as a butcher when I was 19 in my uncle’s shop in Coleraine, though that didn’t end well…. Word of advice, never work with family! But looking back on it now, I have my uncle to thank for everything! Those few months working in that shop triggered some primeval instinct deep inside me. It was the first time that I actually realised what I wanted to do with my life and for that I will always be grateful. After Ireland I moved to London and found a true mentor in Paul Greatorex. He immediately took me under his wing and taught me everything that I know today about butchery. Sadly he’s not with us anymore, but his talent and charisma will never be forgotten.
What is a traditional dish from your local area?
Funnily enough, growing up for my first 9 years in Fife in Scotland, we have a penchant for deep-frying anything! One of my all-time guilty pleasures (usually drunken) and a favourite, among the Fifer’s would have to be Battered Haggis, with chips and chippy sauce, a battered mars bar and a tin of Irn Bru…. Serious try it… you’ll LOVE IT!
What is your favourite food to cook, and which do you find most challenging?
When I first started cooking on the hot section at St. John Bread and Wine, a couple of years back now, all I wanted to do was learn how to cook all types of meat and get it perfect every time! Being chucked in at the deep end and actually cooking, it’s like the best drug ever! As a young chef you just can’t get enough of it! Now I love to cook everything. I find that the most challenging foods to cook are often the simplest. Yes cooking a full turbot, or half a whole cow at once isn’t easy but it stops being challenging after a while! I love cooking vegetables now and honestly, I find them so challenging! So many techniques can be used… approach and simplicity is everything.
You was working with Jamie Oliver and Adam Perry Lang at their restaurant Barbecoa, tell me about you experience there?
When I worked at Barbecoa I hadn’t even stepped into a professional kitchen yet and was very much still a butcher in the butchers Shop. I had so much fun working in the butchers shop with some of my closest friends but by god it was tedious and so repetitive just cutting steaks all day for the restaurant. But thankfully at that stage I realised I needed to be in a kitchen. My first shift ever in a busy kitchen was at the Admiral Codrington, with one of my best friends Fred Smith. Then after I was lucky enough to get a job at St. John Bread and Wine.
What skills did you learn that you will use in the future in other positions?
I like to think that I have collected my skills along the way, and I would not be able to pinpoint something particular from Barbecoa.
Any tips for someone who would like to change their career from another profession to become a chef?
Just do it… If you want it enough deep down you’ll make it happen. It won’t be easy but you’ll have the time of your life doing it!
You previously worked in Belgium, how come you went there, and is it true they dine mostly of mussels and beer?
Just over the border from France, in Heuvelland Belgium, there is a little village called Dranouter and in Dranouter there is one of the best restaurant you’ll ever come across and I was lucky enough to spend the last 6 months there working with such an amazing bunch of people, that I’ll never forget! I’m a lucky boy! I don’t know, I never got the opportunity to eat mussels whilst I was there.
What is your favourite Belgian dish?
It used to mess with my head that they called chips, crisps and vice versa but that’s beside the point! My ex head chef and good friend Kobe, used to cook some lovely Flemish family meals at In De Wulf! Endive with ham and cheese was amazing!
Currently working in Copenhagen (where?) what is a typical Danish dish and do you think there is any major differences to Danish and English cousin?
I’ve only arrived in Copenhagen recently, it’s another chapter hopefully about to open up! I start in Noma on Tuesday, so that should be fun to say the least!
Where are you off to next, where would you like to go?
As I’ve just arrived in Copenhagen, so all being well I plan to stay here for a while. Ultimately I really want to come back to `London next year sometime and cook tasty food with my friends that makes people happy!
What is your dream job / position in the future?
I want people to eat my food and smile…. That’s my dream.