Written by Melanie May
Noel McMeel of Lough Erne Resort scores a hole-in-one with his modern Irish cooking that champions the best of local ingredients.
Lough Erne Resort is one of the top golf resorts in Ireland with not one but two championship golf courses, one of which was designed by Nick Faldo. However, when I visited this luxurious, five-star property in Co. Fermanagh, the only courses on my mind were the ones designed by Chef Noel McMeel who heads up the kitchen here.
Noel is well-known for actively developing Northern Ireland’s food culture and championing the use of seasonal, local Irish ingredients. This is evident throughout all the menus in Lough Erne, which are filled with dishes showcasing the best of modern Irish cooking using the best indigenous ingredients from the best local artisan producers.
Having spent two days gorging myself on Noel’s food during my stay, I was eager to catch up with the chef to chat about Irish food and life in general.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Do you think your childhood and upbringing has had an effect on how you cook and view food?
Yes, it had a big influence on my life. I must have been 4 or 5 years old, I remember it was a Saturday morning. I was wakened by the smell of bread and chocolate sponges. I ran down the stairs and into the kitchen where there was a magical array of sodas, buns, coffee cakes. I could barely reach the sink to get my finger into the bowl to lick the edge of it. I can still taste the chocolate toppings.
Do you remember when did you started cooking?
My first solo success in the world of baking, at the tender age of thirteen, was with an orange cake. My mother allowed me to eat my whole creation on my own, without sharing — a big event in a household of six children. Suffice it to say, just because one is allowed to do something doesn’t always mean one should! I still have memories of the bellyache.
Who are, or were, your biggest influences in life and work?
My parents taught us that no job is finished until it’s finished. These words were never said, but the idea was modelled daily.
A skilled stonemason, my father left standing monuments to this idea in the form of walls and buildings. Almost meditative in his work, he sparked an idea, planned it out, and toiled without stopping. As the Irish say, “A castle is built a stone at a time”. With him, when a thing was done, it was truly done. He wasn’t a man to leave loose ends.
My mother is the same way. Even with six children and a husband to care for, she didn’t skip steps or fall short. Pies were topped with artistic vents or pretty latticework. Napkins were ironed. She didn’t go to bed until the last guest was tucked in tight.
I owe my success as a chef to the places and the people that I have worked with. By working in top-class restaurants from Chez Panisse to the Watergate Hotel, Ecole LeNotre Paris, Johnston & Wales University, Boston University to Castle Leslie, and now the world-famous Lough Erne Resort, I’ve learned how to master cheffy techniques and to present food in refined, sophisticated ways. That said, I’ll never forget the field I was foaled in. Basics must be the best.
One of my most memorable meals in Ireland was here in Lough Erne, in the Catalina Restaurant. I’d love to know where was your most memorable meal?
It was a restaurant called El Bulli in Spain.
Would you say being a great cook is a natural talent or is it something that anyone can learn?
Anybody can learn to cook just like you can teach a monkey to ride a bike. In any profession there are always going to people who go through the motions, to do just what is expected of them and no more. I think the only true way to become a great chef is to have passion. The qualities of an exceptional cook are akin to those of a successful love for the ingredients.
Speaking of which, what are your favourite Irish ingredients to use at home and in the kitchen of Lough Erne?
It has to be Lough Neagh Eel. I was brought up around the shores of Lough Neagh. Toomebridge. Great memories of halloween. My father would always get a bag of live eels. Around the lough shore, hotels and B&Bs and homes would all have eel suppers. The eels really looked like snakes to me. But that couldn’t have been as St Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland many years ago.
Lough Neagh eels often appear on the menu at Lough Erne. If you see it, do your tastebuds a favour and order it.
Do you think Ireland has a good food reputation abroad?
We have always been known for Irish Stew and Beef & Guinness Pie. Times have moved on and it’s important that every chef plays a part in telling the right story about Irish Food. Fresh flavours, passionate producers and traditions handed down through generations. We all need to experience Ireland’s food for ourselves before we cook and write about the wild landscapes, thrilling experiences and warm welcomes.
Northern Ireland is a land built by a giant spirit. You can feel this spirit everywhere: in the roar of waves crashing on the shoreline, in the tranquillity of the Lakelands and in the energy that pulses through our music and festivals. It’s in the legends of mighty warriors and the history written deep in mountains and forests.
Why do you think the standard of food in Ireland has come on so much in the last decade?
Ireland is making waves in the world of gastronomy. With the rising prominence of new fresh cuisine, more and more emphasis is being placed on promoting Irish kitchen fare worldwide. Traditionally characterised by high protein and low carbohydrate dishes, Irish cuisine is also in the process of innovating itself through many great chefs. My focus has always been on fresh, quality ingredients and all the raw materials are sourced locally. From fresh meat to game to vegetables, everything is seasonal.
What do you think it is that makes Irish indigenous ingredients such good quality?
It’s the freshness of the ingredient that shines. There will always be the latest thing in the food world, but for me, these words that are in vogue at the moment — organic, fresh, tasty, simple, changing seasons, local – will always be the latest food trends. I have always been convinced that the best-tasting food is freshly grown and harvested in ecologically sound ways by people who are taking care of the land for future generations. After all, food like that speaks for itself. Local is best.
With that in mind, any tips on how can people incorporate more Irish ingredients in their own cooking?
Knowledge is power. We all need to showcase the names of our producers on all our menus. Each and every chef on this island should feel proud of the ingredients they buy. When possible, let ingredients dictate a menu, rather than recipes. Go to farmers markets and speciality food shops and choose produce and ingredients that speak to you, that look prime, seductive and make you go “Mmmm!” Take your bounty back to the kitchen.
I think we already know this one, but how would you describe your food philosophy?
Food should always be a celebration, but especially of local produce. My particular brand of modern Irish cooking at the Lough Erne Resort in Co. Fermanagh has a very simple philosophy: sourcing, preparing and serving fresh food in season.
I believe that cooking connects us all in some way. Whether it’s cooking for family and friends or strangers coming through the doors, food is a universal expression of love that transcends all walks of life. I’m very proud to be able to create an experience that evokes camaraderie and comfort to the guests of Lough Erne Resort.
How has your cooking evolved over the years?
My cooking has changed to the demand of our guests. You have to change. I feel that my cooking is so different in style from 10 years ago. It’s more refined. It’s about high intensity.
What is your creative process for new dishes and recipes?
Always cook with the produce that surrounds you, whether it’s using local artisanal foods or seasonal fruit and vegetables from local farmers to finding and using wild foraged ingredients.
You have cooked for Sir Paul McCartney. Any tips on cooking for vegetarians?
Pick as much of the freshest fruit and vegetables you can find. Recipes will work only if the produce is fresh. I love cooking vegetarian food. It is the one time I use so many different spices, yoghurts and nuts in my cooking.
Your love of food really does shine through, is there any food that you hate?
Do you have a signature dish or a dish you are most proud of creating?
Is there anything as lovely as baking bread? The simple aroma of it floating out of the oven immediately puts one at ease and touches something deep within a person, offering the assurance that all is well. I suppose that goes for anything baked at your own hearth: fragrant cinnamon rolls, risen sweet breads, nutty banana loaf.
So have you been baking banana bread and sourdough during lockdown?
Wow! Yes, I baked so much banana bread. I have the best recipe for it. See it on my Instagram.
Let’s stick with the past year, were there any positives to come out of the Coronavirus restrictions for you?
I believe that each day you appreciate what you have, not what you don’t have. My family has been lucky but other families haven’t been so lucky. Hoping that this time in our lives passes quickly.
It’s nearly unheard of for a chef to have downtime. What have you been doing whilst Lough Erne has been closed?
I have to be honest and say it was so nice to be around my loved ones. I spent a lot of time in the garden. I love the garden and what it brings all year round. I just love life and I believe that the most expensive thing in life is time.
Ain’t that the truth!
Noel McMeel is the Executive Head Chef at the five-star Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh.