NI Food Stories
Look through the frosty glass windows of Cayenne any evening and you’ll see its funky interior, lit by orange lanterns, crowded with discerning diners. It’s an important location in Belfast food history. It was on this very site in Shaftesbury Square over 20 years ago that Roscoff helped kick start the Belfast food renaissance. Another name, another era, same inspiration. If Belfast is currently one of the best cities in the UK or Ireland for food, then few have done more to bring that about than Paul Rankin. From his original Roscoff, which won a Michelin Star back in 1991, to the funky Cayenne of today, he has consistently raised the bar for food in the city and been a mentor to some of our finest chefs too.
Learning with the Roux brothers
It was while Paul and wife Jeanne were working as waiters and dishwashers in London that Paul Rankin fell in love with the restaurant business. He wrote a passionate letter about his love of cooking to the famous Roux brothers at Le Gavroche, then the best restaurant in the UK with three Michelin stars. They took him on in the kitchen and it was there he received his culinary education. It was a tough one. Standards were sky high, work was intensive and hours were long but Paul was learning from the best. Most of all he was discovering how to run a kitchen.
With Jeanne he went travelling further afield, to her native Canada and then to California and the Napa Valley, where the simpler, more Mediterranean style of food he found himself working with was a complement to the richer modern classical style of the Roux brothers. That lighter style of cooking, more natural and produce driven, would be a big influence on their return home to Belfast, as would the spice and flavours of Asian cooking as their travels continued.
The Belfast food renaissance begins
Returning in 1989, he and Jeanne were anxious to reflect their culinary experiences in a restaurant that would offer something new and creative at the high end of the scale. Roscoff was soon hitting the headlines. It won a Michelin star in 1991, the first ever in Northern Ireland. Not just food critics but chefs from all over the UK and Ireland came to check it out. Following an ethos of what Paul calls “top class British/Irish food”, and using a network of top local suppliers, it inspired other local chefs to reach for the top. It also generated the careers of many top local chefs like Andy Rea (Mourne Seafood Bar), Niall McKenna (James St South), Danny Millar (Balloo House) and the late Robbie Millar of Shanks among others.
Paul and Jeanne were rarely out of the media, writing cookbooks and appearing on countless television cookery programmes, such as Masterchef, Ready Steady, Cook and The Rankin Challenge. One of those programmes was Gourmet Ireland, where they travelled Ireland meeting local artisan producers, “an incredible experience” according to Paul. “It was a magnificent opportunity to explore the output of quality producers throughout Ireland. It was the most satisfying television we’ve done. At Cayenne we source amazing local produce – Finnebrogue venison, fish and seafood from Walter Ewing, a standard bearer for what he does, Kettyle beef, plus a lot of small organic producers.” Even so, Paul believes that progress in bringing forward great local producers hasn’t been as substantial in recent years as it ought to be.
Chilling at Cayenne
After ten years Roscoff became Cayenne, a relaxed, welcoming, funky space which took this fantastic produce “a little further down the world flavour route.” The Rankin brand also expanded with more restaurants and cafes, a development Paul now feels was a mistake, despite its success critically, as he was spreading himself too thin and diluting his influence. Today the Rankins are focusing on Cayenne and growing the acclaimed Rankin food selection, where they work with partners like Irwins, on a range of Irish breads, and a range of luxury pies with Millar Savoury.
The great Irish sausage
Recently, Paul Rankin has working with the acclaimed Finnebrogue Estate team from just outside Downpatrick, on a range of classic Irish sausages. Using outdoor bred pork and adapting traditional Irish recipes, the range soon picked up a Great Taste Award. They are now looking to produce a gourmet burger and bacon range too.
A great food city
It’s been an amazing 20 years and the future is looking good, Paul believes. “Belfast is a really terrific food city", he says. "Of the provincial cities in the UK or Ireland only Edinburgh comes near in terms of good restaurants. In the future I would like to see an even greater focus on top quality, produce driven Irish food. Local people don’t want to eat Irish food when they go out, it’s what they eat at home, but with tourism growing there is an opportunity to develop that.”
In the meantime, Paul is back doing what he does best, motivating an excellent team, which includes Head Chef David O'Callaghan, and “restoring Cayenne as a leader on the island of Ireland, with great cooking, produce and value.”
7 Ascot House
Belfast, Antrim BT2 7DB
T: 028 9033 1532