National Chef of the Year 2017: James Devine, July 2017

The Staff Canteen

This is the seventh in a series of monthly blogs from former sous chef of EIPIC, which holds one Michelin star in the Michelin Guide UK, and winner of the National Chef of the Year 2017, James Devine.

Very rarely do I find myself in a position where I’ve loads to blog about, but this past month has been so jam-packed I'm finding it hard to contain all my actions in one account! Again I find myself humbled to have won such a coveted title and I'm immeasurably grateful for all the opportunities that have been afforded to me in my year as National Chef of the Year 2017. Although my term is drawing to a close I’ll never forget the experiences I have had or the myriad of interesting, educational, talented & funny people I have met along the way.

This past month was one for the bucket list - I caught my first fish, fed my first seal, spent the day in front of a camera with Phil Vickery, enjoyed lunch with Paul Cunningham and learned where lobster babies come from! Quite extraordinary really!

I visited Edinburgh for the first time earlier this year and it was as magical as everyone had described. I love home and have never really felt the desire to move elsewhere but if I had to relocate I think it would be to Edinburgh. Therefore, when I got an invitation from Seafood from Scotland to return, I jumped at the chance. I was fortunate to join Cyrus Todiwala and Lee Westcott on the trip. Lee has an amazing background working under Jason Atherton and is now doing something special at Typing Room in London. Cyrus is someone I’ve always enjoyed watching on TV as he’s got so much enthusiasm for local produce and a great depth of knowledge too. It was such a joy to be in his company - this is a guy who can speak 13 different languages, I didn’t know we had 13 different languages!

The trip itself was brilliantly organised and the hospitality shown by the guys from Seafood from Scotland was outstanding. Within the first few hours of the trip, I’d caught my first ever fish and fed a seal, so the tempo had been set and I knew I was in for a great couple of days.

The experience saw us visit a lobster hatchery, where I got to see lobsters in the very early stages of their development. It sounds stupid, I worked with thousands of lobsters throughout my career but I never stopped to think about what they look like when firstborn. Picture a small, micro horsefly type mini lobster – it’s something like that, but smaller.

We also went to the village of Arbroath for an insight into the production of Smokie (smoked haddock produced in the village of Arbroath can only be called Smokie – similar to the Champagne concept). We ate Scotland’s best fish and chips and spent the morning on the beach sampling the bountiful seaweed. Seaweed, I don't particularly like or at best, let's just say I’m not convinced yet. Although there was something very special about eating potato bread with Dulse butter on a beach in Scotland around a campfire for breakfast. The stuff that long-lasting memories are made of...

It wasn’t all beaches, boats and buses - the guys from Seafood from Scotland put us up in style at G&V Royal Mile Hotel in Old Town. Such a lovely hotel. We had such a busy schedule with very little time left to spend in our rooms. You could forgive the organisers for allowing me full use of the minibar considering we had no time to entertain it - they probably thought I’d maybe make time for one drink? Truth is, I cleared that fridge as if there was a power cut!

A fantastic hotel needs a dinner of equal measure and it is delivered to no end. We went to ‘Number One.’ Every single course was exceptional and the restaurant setting was simply stunning. What helped make the experience extra special was the familiar accent of the sommelier. I went the whole way to Edinburgh and got a sommelier from my own home town, Dungannon!

Massive thanks Seafood from Scotland and everyone involved with the experience, it was one of my year’s highlights and an unforgettable experience.

Next stop Phil Vickery. (Mr Fern Briton) As part of the National Chef of the Year prize, I was treated to a media training session sponsored by Unilever food solutions in leatherhead. This was an invaluable experience that would help tidy up my country twang and my inability to form a concise, direct sentence. It was fun and relaxed, with Phil making the whole process both comfortable and informative. Hopefully, I get the opportunity to put the training to good effect in the future, and if not a mandate with Phil Vickery was something special.

Only one thing to do after a day like that really, board a train to Sheffield (or “chef-field”) to attend the 25th Anniversary Skills for Chefs conference. While in Sheffield I participated in a pop-up style evening in Rafters restaurant run by Tom Lawson and Alistair Myers. It’s quite a daunting prospect entering a strange kitchen with a new team of chefs and I was a little nervous going in. I needn’t have been. It was a wonderful day, the chefs where all top guys and very welcoming. It’s a really well-run kitchen, with a great team and loads of bright shiny “stars” ahead. I now look forward to welcoming Tom and Alistair to Belfast for the return leg.

>>> Related: Alistair Myers, Co-Owner and Manager, Rafters Restaurant

Following a night’s hard work I’d been promised lunch in Joro, a relatively new Nordic style restaurant to the Sheffield area, ran by Luke French, a great chef and a complete gentleman. Hands down the best meal I’ve had in recent memory. Perhaps the experience was helped by my surprise guest Paul Cunningham of Henna Restaurant in Denmark fame. An absolute legend of the industry, I was actually in awe through lunch and had to try to remember not to stir or say anything stupid. We had such a great lunch, almost twelve plates later, Paul reckoned he had enough and was sufficiently full. I agreed as I didn’t want to mark my first encounter with a chef of his calibre with a disagreement. However, I think I could have eaten 4 more plates easy.

After lunch, I needed some brief downtime as the Skills for Chefs Conference kicked off with an Indian Banquet feast cooked by my new bestie Cyrus Todiwala. Even though this was only a few hours after my epic three hour lunch I still managed to find room for a banquet. It was food of which I’ve never had the like of before, tasty, fresh and full of flavour

The second day of proceedings involved demos from Paul Cunningham, Clare Clarke, Francesco Mazzei and Gennaro Contaldo. All the chef demos were great but Paul Cunningham’s no-nonsense, zero bullshit approach was something that I’ll never quite forget. Very motivating, very humbling and simply just genuinely interesting. The conference concluded with another feat of epic proportions, held in Sheffield University in the grand hall. It was just like Hogwarts, a breath-taking location. It was a great few days and I’d like to thank the Craft Guild and Wendy Preston for making it possible for me to be there.

I managed to work a couple of shifts this last month also between all the adventures. I should take this opportunity to say thank you to Pearson and Saul from Noble restaurant, Holywood, as they have been very supportive this past year and incredibly accommodating when it comes to my loose interpretation of the working week. The guys are doing wonderful things at Noble and it's wonderful they’re getting the recognition they deserve. I’d also like to congratulate Pearson and his wife Sally on the birth of baby Claudia. A wonderful new addition to the Noble restaurant family and I speak for all her restaurant aunties and uncles when I say the world is now a better place having another Morris in it.

Too often I’m guilty of not appreciating when life’s good, I’m currently very fortunate to be in such a privileged position, thank you to everyone along the way that’s helped make it all possible and here’s to many more stories, adventures and man-dates.

James is the National Chef of the Year 2017, having won the competition at the Restaurant Show at Olympia London in October. Until earlier this year he was sous chef at the Michelin-starred restaurant,  EIPIC based in Belfast and is now a chef at Noble, Holywood in Northern Ireland. James previously worked as a kitchen porter at a local restaurant and later became head chef at the Black Cat Restaurant and Deli on the Green in Dungannon as well as working part-time as a college lecturer.  

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Editor 12th July 2017

National Chef of the Year 2017: James Devine, July 2017