Gemma creates fine dining experience at novel restaurant

Talented chef Gemma Austin recently realised her dream of owning and cooking in her own restaurant with the opening of A Peculiar Tea, a new fine dining experience, on Belfast’s University Road.

By Sam Butler
Saturday, 18th December 2021, 6:00 am
Chef Gemma Austin, left, has created a different experience at A Peculiar Tea restaurant in Belfast. She is pictured with other participants in the Northern Ireland heat of Great British Menu
Chef Gemma Austin, left, has created a different experience at A Peculiar Tea restaurant in Belfast. She is pictured with other participants in the Northern Ireland heat of Great British Menu

A Great British Menu ‘graduate’, Gemma (29) has an impressive track-record in creating exquisitely tasty and original dishes at a number of restaurants here and for pop-up food ventures such as Hill Street Hatch, a quirky snack bar, in Cathedral Quarter.

Gemma was among the first and most enthusiastic supporters of the concept, providing unusual ‘eat on the go’ taste experiences. It was also a successful experience which encouraged the creative chef to develop her own distinctive restaurant.

“Owning my own restaurant, A Peculiar Tea, enables me do something really creative especially with local food,” Gemma says. “A Peculiar Tea is the vehicle for an ambition I’ve had from my early years as a chef. It’s also based on my long held passion for sustainability.

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Gemma Austin and Lauren Shimmins outside the novel Hill Street Hatch in Belfast’s busy Cathedral Quarter

“As a restaurant, we are incredibly passionate about sustainability and animal welfare. We operate a no waste policy in our kitchen and do not cook foods we believe are over-farmed or unnecessary to eat.”

This means that foods such as foie gras won’t ever figure on her menus at A Peculiar Tea.

From Carryduff, Gemma has a sharp focus on local ingredients such premium meat, including venison, already menu favourite, and, of course, the freshest vegetables.

She would love to source guinea fowl, currently the most popular starter with diners, from a local supplier but hasn’t been able to find anyone here rearing enough of the birds.

Gemma Austin’s A Peculiar Tea restaurant on Belfast’s University Road

“Guinea fowl isn’t widely used here and we source from France. Yet it’s a really tasty meat that’s lean and rich in essential amino acids,” she explains. It’s also the best example of Gemma’s dedication to sustainability in that every part of the bird is used to shape the delicious dish.

Gemma describes the new restaurant, which opened in late November, as “the Emporium of Imagination”, reflecting her determination to create a “totally different dining experience” in Belfast that’s “an escape from reality and the stresses of adult life”.

She uses food to make her guests feel a sense of “nostalgia and playfulness” in an eatery that’s “designed to be comfortable but quite different in terms of ambience”.

The 42-seater restaurant’s interior design is all Gemma’s own work.

“I decided to take complete control of the design because I knew exactly what I wanted the new restaurant to look and feel like,” she continues. It’s a design that, of course, takes full account of the Northern Ireland Executive’s measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 through social distancing, hand sanitisers and the required checks on vaccination passports.

She sees the kitchen as “my playground”. “To me, professional kitchens shouldn’t be full of shouting and anger; it’s a place for family and creating something wonderful. Food should be fun and a restaurant a pleasant end memorable experience.”

A Peculiar Tea, located just five minutes from the historic Lanyon Building at Queen’s University and within easy reach of Belfast city centre, is currently open for lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, the latter featuring an enticing six course tasting gourmet menu featuring creative and original dishes from Gemma using premium quality ingredients such as prawns, guinea fowl, venison and truffles. There’s a vegetarian tasting menu too and a comprehensive wine list.

Gemma intends to keep the unique dining experience at A Peculiar Tea as fresh as possible by changing the menu every eight weeks.

While she admits to being “a little nervous” initially on opening a gourmet restaurant during the ongoing pandemic she says any concerns were quickly swept aside by its popularity with diners and ongoing feedback about the taste of her food and the efficiency of services and the warmth of the welcome provided by her staff.

Gemma’s family, especially parents Paul and Carmel Austin, and friends, she continues, had also encouraged her and continue to back the restaurant.

“My parents have been a tremendous support and have helped me to realise my dream. They’ve always been ready to back my initiatives including the pop-up restaurants that I’ve developed over the years,” she says.

Gemma has also been able to count on her team of experienced chefs and other staff from restaurants she’s worked in over the years especially Alexanders & Co in Holywood, where was a joint owner before deciding to “take the plunge” and set out on her own.

Gemma’s A Peculiar Tea concept is based on a dissertation about an enterprise offering original savoury dishes which helped her gain a masters in culinary arts management at the Ulster University.

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