Chef Noel McMeel, Culinary Director at Lough Erne Resort in Northern Ireland, was already known as the “King of Modern Irish Cuisine” when interviewed for forbes.com three years ago. The innovative, brilliant chef grew up on his family’s farm and was inspired by his mother’s traditional home cooking. But long before he became a chef, from the ages of 14 through 19, Noel McMeel was the all-Ireland traditional Irish dance champion, performing in America, Hungary, France, Belgium, and Spain.
McMeel could have continued to dance, but cooking was his passion. He received a scholarship to the prestigious Johnson & Wales and Boston University and went on to work in some of America’s most famous restaurants including Le Cirque, Chez Panisse, and Jean-Louis (Palladin) at the Watergate, where he met the Clintons. McMeel – that’s his real name – was once told by an American agent to go to McDonald’s and sell his name as a “Big McMeal.” McMeel laughed it off. The famous chef has cooked for royalty, politicians, and celebrities, including Barack Obama and Paul McCartney. His cuisine, considered one of the world’s best, has won many awards and his internationally acclaimed book, The Irish Pantry is the third best-chef cookery book in the world.
Chef McMeel single-handedly brought Northern Ireland’s food culture into the limelight by championing the use of seasonal, local Irish ingredients. “I’ll never forget the field I was foaled in,” he says. “Basics must be the best.” And basics it is for this gifted chef whose cuisine is organic, simple, local, and fresh. I can personally attest to this, as I had the extreme good fortune of savoring a delicious meal created by Chef McMeel at The Catalina Restaurant of Lough Erne Resort, Northern Ireland’s Restaurant of the Year, and where where Chef McMeel has presided for 15 years. I kidnapped him into the resort’s library for tea, and took the opportunity to interview him. Early warning: if you want to enjoy Chef McMeel’s extraordinary cuisine, book a trip to Ireland now, before he leaves Lough Erne for his next chapter. Trust me, any trip to Ireland will be one of the best trips of your life, but to visit the Emerald Isle and taste Chef McMeel’s culinary masterpieces will make that visit even better.
What brought you to cooking?
I always wanted to be a good cook. I loved food. For us, food was very much a thank you, made from my mother’s and my family’s hands: the jam the bread the cakes. The ham came from the pigs, the milk from the cows, the trifle was the cream skimmed off the milk which we kept to whip it up. Getting ready for a meal at my home was like getting ready for royalty because you used the best plates and best glasses. There were roses that you’d picked yourself and the scent coming through the house was amazing. The celebration of food was so important to us.
What were the core values of your home?
Giving was massive. My parents gave every child in our home a toolbox of love, sharing, respect, and decency. As we grew older, they kept piling in more and more tools. I still use these tools every day.
At what point did you decide to become a chef?
All I ever wanted was to be a good cook, because I could smell everything from the farm. Sure, it was a pain when the cows broke out and I had to run and get them all back. It was sometimes a pain when I had to pack the gooseberries and the thorns went into my hands; but the beauty of it was, we all came together and we all supported each other.
What was your first serious attempt at cooking?
I was allowed to make my own cake at the age of nine. Oh my god. It was unbelievable. I remember my reaction when it started to rise. How could this be possible? It was it was doing it on its own? And then I remember the incredible smell. I asked my mother if I could eat it, and she let me. Little did I know it was really a test because I had a terrible stomach that night from eating the entire cake. My mother said, “that should teach you a good lesson. You need to share. Every cake or anything you make, make sure you share.”
How would you describe your cuisine?
Modern Irish cuisine. I worked in France and dealt with what modern French was; I worked with some great British chefs, I worked in America, but what is a cuisine? I live here. I buy local butter. I buy flour from Belfast. The salt is Irish Sea Salt, the sugar is from Dublin. The beef is local. I bring all these ingredients to my kitchen. I live in Northern Ireland which is part of Ireland. So, what I’m doing is modern Irish food with great skills that I’ve learned over the years from all the amazing chefs.
Farmers grow crops for you three years in advance. How can you decide what you want to cook three years from now?
That’s easy, because I still want the main basic ingredients. I’m still going to buy maybe two tons of potatoes per year, and three or four tons of cabbages. What changes is the cut of the meat, the different herbs. It’s very much about my passion and our indigenous Northern Ireland ingredients such as Comber Potato, Lough Neagh Eel, and the Armagh Apple.
Which American chef taught you the most?
Alice Waters. I remember writing in my diary, “It has taken me 10 years to find out what simplicity really means. Taking the best of local ingredients, cooking it as little as possible, and serving it with great skill.”
You cooked for Paul McCartney’s wedding at Castle Leslie for 300 guests. How can you make great food for 300 guests?
It’s precision. Having the right people and the right chefs around you, being perfect on every single thing you do so that one portion will taste as good as 300 or 500 or 600 portions. It’s about understanding the ingredients you get, having the skill, and teaching that skill to the chefs. Paul McCartney was very much about that as well. Purity, great ingredients. And I think that’s why he picked us, because we got on very, very well.
Had you met him before?
I met him five times before. And I also loved Ringo Starr and his wife. I love people who are full of life. They were all different, but all beautiful people.
What about former President Barack Obama?
Oh, my god. That was absolutely fantastic. I went to the White House and President Obama came over and shook my hand. I’ve cooked for and met so many incredible people.
You also cooked for former President Clinton?
Oh, yes. He’s an amazing statesman. I went to see him in Belfast when he came, which helped with the peace process. Obviously, you meet all of the heads of the world, you cook for them — I don’t take that lightly, I take that as an honor. The same way as cooking for royalty.
What did you do during lockdown?
Lockdown was painful for so many people. For me, it was the most gracious, phenomenal, best time of my life. I woke up in the morning; I got up, I took the dog for a walk. I was able to paint the house and do things I’ve never done in my life. I was able to share time with friends and family which I’d never had time for before because I’d always been working. Plus, I had some time to heal after the passing of my mother. I was able to have breakfast and sit and not be gone by nine am. It was electrifying.
Your title is “culinary director.” What does a culinary director do?
I believe in getting a good team together. It’s no different than being a good shepherd. How do you look after your flock so that they will actually follow you? I’ve had 15 years of luck at Lough Erne Resort with an amazing team. It’s all about staff retention, about getting the best. Because of COVID, we re-opened full time last May, having lost roughly 12 of the top chefs.
We started without any chefs at the top. The hospitality industry in Ireland evolved because we had to survive. There were many more openings, whether it was new cafes, new ideas, new thoughts of how they could make money being at home and opening the garage to selling cakes and tray bakes and biscuits or selling them to the supermarket. That’s where a lot of our chefs went. My vision five years ago was to eventually move out of this position that I’m in and move more people into these positions.
And what will you do with all this free time?
I love every minute of it. I love the hospitality. I love when things get crazy. To say I am the culinary director, that’s, in a lot of places, an office job. Unfortunately, it doesn’t become that office job. I have always been with my team every step of the way. So to get some free time next year will be quite amazing. I had a taste of that when Covid was everywhere.
What is your game plan going forward?
To have time to know more about nature, more about time. Time is the most expensive thing in life. I will be 55 years old in January, and I’m excited, blessed, and appreciative. I’m very much open to what will be my next chapter. I’m probably one of the luckiest chefs because I’ve had such an amazing career. It hasn’t been easy. It’s been very hard work. I think anybody who wants anything in life has to work hard at it. I’ve gotten to this point in my life and am very grateful for it.
I love to travel. I love adventure. I love people. I’ve met a lot of famous people and dignitaries and royalty and they’re human beings. They have same drive. Some want to make a difference. I’m a realist. It doesn’t matter whether you are a president or whether you’re Maggie from the street. There is no difference. It’s the humility.
Why are you are leaving your role as chef and what will you do?
It’s time to go. I’ll figure out what I want to do next when I’m ready.
When I interviewed you three years ago, you said you were going to write another book. Do you plan to?
There is another story and I’m passionate about it. The first book was extremely successful. I didn’t think it would become the third best cookbook in the world. I didn’t think that it would be in Barnes and Noble and amazon.com and that it would be an international best seller.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I think my legacy would be very much about having achieved so much as a chef from a very rural background.
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