'We had dark times in Belfast for a very long time. Now we're trying to change all that'

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 17th January 2020

Stephen Toman is one of three Michelin-starred chefs in Belfast. 

Ox was named after the street it is on - Oxford Street. It is also a tongue-in-cheek reference to the restaurant's vegetable focus, and a nod to the fact that the street used to host a livestock market. 

Born and bred in Belfast, chef and co-owner Stephen has witnessed the drastic shift in the local food scene in his lifetime, a reflection of locals' newfound willingness to dine out.  

 

Putting troubles behind them

"There were very dark times in this city for a long time. When I was growing up, you only went into the city centre for your Christmas shopping, otherwise you wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible."

"Businesses would finish at five o'clock and people would just want to get out; it was dangerous times - and that's the truth."

"But now we're trying to change all that."

"We just want the city to be as normal as any other city and really is exciting - as it should be." 

The chefs who bought stars to the city - Michael Deane, Robbie Millar, Paul Rankin - set the groundwork for a new generation of talent. The difference being that the younger chefs are better travelled, drawing influences from around the world.

Stephen names half a dozen trailblazing restaurants in and around Belfast - From Deanes EIPIC to Wine and Brine, Overwood in Balloo House, Howard Street, and Muddlers' Club, Belfast's newest addition to the Michelin guide, owned by Ox alumnus Gareth McCaughey

"Look, there's so many good restaurants now that you're guaranteed a good meal if you come and visit."

Hay-baked celeriac

French cooking techniques, Copenhagen's 'coolness' & Alain Kerloc'h's comprehensive knowledge of wine 

Having grown up, trained, and spent the best part of his career in Ireland, the chef sought to broaden his horizons when he went travelling for two years.

He first went to New York, where he took over The Dead Rabbit and to France - working at Le Taillevent, which he calls "an absolute beast of a place." 

"It was competitive, it was aggressive, it was tough, but it was fantastic for me; it really rounded off a lot of skills that I needed to work on."

The chef staged at l'Astrance with Pascal Barbot, and Arpège with Alain Passard. It is where he met his business partner and co-owner of Ox, Alain Kerloc'h, who was a Maitre d' there.  

Then, before they opened Ox, Alain and Stephen called in a favour from friend and chef Christian Puglisi in Copenhagen, and went over there to stage at Relæ and Noma - broadening their sights once more. 

"It absolutely blew our minds." 

"It was only a few days but it just made us think about doing something different: a little wee bit of French cooking technique, Alain's wine and just going over and seeing what was happening there, with the whole Noma thing and Relæ, we just mixed it all up and brought it back to Belfast."

"Copenhagen is just cool. The restaurants are cool, the service, the natural wine thing, it's very cool." 

"That Paris scene is just about technique and precision and perfect service." 

"Both things work, but we just wanted to dip our toes into both." 

What's on the menu at Ox?

 

Ingredients first 

Meticulous standards and a relentless drive to improve underlie everything the team at Ox does.  

However, Stephen explained, "the most important thing that I try and get across is the product, what that ingredient is. We just want it to taste as natural as possible."

The chef took the risky decision to switch to a tasting menu in the evening, taking the ingredient-led ethos to the next level.

This results in dishes like 'celeriac three ways': purée, remoulade, hay baked - topped with verjus soaked grapes and English autummn truffles and artichoke ice cream served with macerated cherries and chocolate.

"That's what excites us at the restaurant," the chef explained. "It's not the caviar or the fillet of beef, it's just that humble ingredient that we can make sing."

Rather than a printed out menu - guests sit down and receive a full larder list of 30 ingredients and that's just to show what we've found best this week. 

"That's where we go forwards with the tasting menu, you don't know what order it's coming in.

"It's just what we think is best. It's not just thrown together, it's meticulously thought out."

"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel here, we just want to really celebrate what's on our doorstep and try to push it as hard as we can."

 

Collective success

As well as working closely together to match wines and food, Stephen and Alain make including their team in every aspect of the restaurant's operation.

Instead of opening for a lunch service, every Tuesday is development day at Ox. Plus, the crew - front and back of house - are involved in deciding what veg their suppliers grow and even go and pick it themselves.

For Stephen, this gives everyone a much better understanding and a stronger connection to the seasons, produce and menu.

"You can get told things by a server or a chef - if they're just laming off what they're told - but to actually be speaking to somebody who's out there themselves with their sleeves rolled up and their wellie boots on, cutting the vegetables, picking the tomatoes or strawberries, you feel that off somebody - you just know that they know what they're talking about."

The team even brewed its own apéritif beer, Ox Yard, selecting the hops straign and (Champagne) yeast variety themselves.

"It's a bit temperamental - sometimes the kegs don't work out because there's no preservatives in it - but most of the time it's on throughout the year and it's spectacular. 

"It gives you the worst hangover but it's worth it." 

Onwards and upwards

Stephen, who admits to spending 80 hours a week at the restaurant already, at the pass for every service, would love to have a cookbook someday.

Having retained a Michelin star for the fourth consecutive year, we asked the chef if he was relieved. 

"It's not about: 'thank God we've kept it for a year,' it's not about luck, we work very hard to be at this level and we're certainly not going to let it drop." 

"Ever since I was a young lad I was just obsessed with cookbooks - that was my thing. Even when I couldn't afford them I was down the shop flicking through trying to remember it because it'd come to £40 to buy a book. Ot was a thing you'd do until you were kicked out by someone and you'd have to go back to do dinner service."

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 17th January 2020

'We had dark times in Belfast for a very long time. Now we're trying to change all that'