Chef Paula McIntyre talks spuds, success and sea urchins

Ulster chef Paula McIntyre
Ulster chef Paula McIntyre

She has little time for ‘poncey’ food, mushrooms or squirrels, but Paula McIntyre has a huge appetite for promoting Ulster’s homegrown produce. So, make a cup of tea, put your feet up and enjoy her banter

‘‘I love wild mushrooms,’’ says the down-to-earth Co Antrim chef, but a lot of them, or a ‘clarry’, she says slipping into the hamely tongue, and she’s running for the hills.

Then she’s talking tripe. Literally,

‘‘Tripe is like a farmyard. A dirty farmyard,’’ she laughs, ‘‘but then again I did have it in Italy when I was there in March and it was OK.’’

Spending time with Paula McIntyre is a recipe for fun. Her off-the-cuff wit, big dollops of cheeky subversion and childlike enthusiasm for food, all blend to create a wonderfully engaging character.

In a world of celebrity chefs with their micro cress and foams, she comes across as a level-headed and unshowy, a proper culinary creative without all the showbiz pizzazz.

Oh, and then there’s that distinctive Aghadowey accent...the one that brightens up Saturday mornings’ airwaves on BBC Radio Ulster’s John Toal Show.

On the day we meet Paula is going to Londonderry later to see the comedienne Sarah Millican; she loves comedy, which comes as no surprise given her own sense of humour, but her first love is food - and she’s not afraid to try the weird and wonderful.

The most unusual thing she’s ever eaten? ‘‘Sea urchin, which I love. The wee spiky boys - you get them off the coast.

‘‘The lobster fishermen bring them in. They are called the fois gras of the sea, so they have a liver-y, fishy, flavour. You slightly cook it and have it with toast.’’

When she’s in London she’s seen squirrel on the menu of some uber trendy restaurants.

‘‘Grey ones, obviously, not red - you couldn’t eat Tufty,’’ she laughs, but baulks at the thought of tucking into this particular delicacy herself.

‘‘Sure, they’re just rats with bushy tails.’’

Paula McIntyre, 49, is a well-respected Northern Ireland chef, who has written two popular cook books, has a regular Saturday morning radio slot, lectures in catering on the Professional Cookery programme in Northern Regional College, writes a popular column in this newspaper’s Farming Life supplement, holds numerous food demos and catering events and last year won the 2015 Farming Life Farming Champion award.

In short, she’s a busy lady, especially during this Northern Ireland’s Year of Food and Drink.

She lives in Portstewart and kickstarts her day with industrial quantities of coffee.

‘‘I have a really good espresso maker - I have three espressos before I can actually answer the phone,’’ she jokes.

But she confesses her own eating habits tend to be erratic.

‘‘I’m working all the time, so I just pick and you know what they say ‘wee pickers have big knickers’. I think that’s my problem,’’ she laughs self-deprecatingly.

She doesn’t have much tolerance for celebratory chefs who are so skinny they look snappable, nor would she like her own television cookery show, although she has done numerous programmes including the BBC’S popular Ready, Steady, Cook.

‘‘I find it (television) excruciating. I like a laugh, but I always think that I look like a Sunday School teacher on TV.

‘‘Now we have these skinny model bloggers with their own TV shows and I know for a fact that most of them don’t eat anything. I’m not going to have my own TV show because I am too old and I’m too fat. I adore radio - I think it’s more real and I have a face for radio,’’ she smiles.

Despite the plethora of cooking shows and so-called celebrity chefs on TV, Paula believes they haven’t really inspired people to get out the pots and pans.

‘‘Statistically, there’s never been as little people cooking. A lot of people think that because you take the wrapping off a ready meal and put it in the oven that that’s cooking.’’

Just like television, she has no desire to open her own restaurant, having been there, done that.

At the precociously young age of 26 she opened a restaurant in Manchester called The Undrie (a Celtic word for a pot that everybody gets food from), which won many awards.

‘‘That’s when I developed my aversion to VAT,’’ she laughs.

Joking aside, she adds: ‘‘I was on my own and it was hard but I learnt so much and made great friends that I still have. I loved living in Manchester.

‘‘At the minute I am my own boss and I can do what I like.

‘‘If I want to do a demonstration on a Saturday afternoon, I can, but if I owned a restaurant, I would have to be there. Your life is not your own. I have a nice lifestyle now.’’

Writing is another passion. Her two cook books - A Kitchen Year - and Paula McIntyre’s Down to Earth Cookbook - are proud achievements, collating recipes from friends and family.

‘‘My aunt Doreen lives in Portstewart and every time I go there she has a new biscuit on the go or she’s always baking. I like that comforting thing about baking.

‘‘With the Great British Bake-Off it’s all about these fancy iced cakes, but I don’t have a massively sweet tooth, so I like a nice piece of boiled cake, a nicely made shortbread , or an apple cake.’’

When she’s eating out, she prefers ‘middle-ground’ restaurants as opposed to over-priced flummery.

‘‘When I go to Italy I eat in the osterias (wine bars that have evolved to serve simple meals).

‘‘I just like really tasty food, not those restaurants where they put on herbs with tweezers..the dots and all that stuff... that’s not my style of cooking. It can be a wee bit poncey at times.’’

But when it’s called for, Paula confesses she can have her cheffy moments.

‘‘I trained as a professional chef. I’m not a Home Economics teacher.

‘‘If I’m doing food for a book I do style it - I never use tweezers, but I use a brush to glaze things. There is a bit of ponce in me, but that’s just because I trained as a chef,’’ she says, almost sounding apologetic.

She believes Northern Ireland boasts a wealth of brilliant restaurants, but believes the industry could hone the service side of things.

‘‘We have a brilliant reputation for our produce, there’s lots of young chefs coming up that have been away in England and America and the standard is fantastic.

‘‘ I am so delighted that we have two Michelin-starred restaurants in Northern Ireland (Ox and EIPIC, both in Belfast) because for a while there there was nothing.’’

And she believes eating out is about the triumvirate of ambience, service and the food.

‘‘I think you will forgive bad food, but you will not forgive bad service. I have a blacklist of places and it’s not about the food, it’s about the unfriendly, arrogant service.

‘‘There’s no point in having brilliant food in this country when the service is poor and I think that’s where we are.

‘‘I loathe it when I walk into a restaurant and they ignore me. I am not a skinny woman, if you can’t see me then you need a really strong set of glasses.

‘‘You don’t want to be treated like dirt when you are paying for a night out.’’

Paula McIntyre is the daughter of two teachers and grew up surrounded by good, home-cooked food.

‘‘In our house you always put on a couple of extra spuds in case anybody arrived in.

‘‘It was an international disaster if somebody went away hungry from your house,’’ she giggles.

‘‘You always put on a big pot because you could always fry them up the next day. We do that well here, our hospitality.’’

‘‘If I go to somebody’s house and they don’t offer you tea, that’s it - they’re dead to me,’’ she laughs uproariously.

Paula trained in Culinary Arts at the prestigious Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, USA.

After her stint in Manchester, she returned to Northern Ireland in 1998 and worked as head chef in several establishments including Ghan House in Carlingford and Fontana in Holywood, which was a big influence on her.

‘‘Fontana had just opened and it was a completely different style of food for me because it was modern Italian.

‘‘At that stage I was still into using Mexican spices and being quite adventurous, whereas Italian food is quite simple.

‘‘I love Italy and the whole ethos of Italian cooking.’’

She tries to go to Italy twice a year to a little village in the mountains.

‘‘You only get fish on a Friday because it’s not beside the sea.

‘‘A van comes up from the coast which is an hour away and he wings open the back doors and there’s the fish.

‘‘If you hear shooting you know that’s boar being shot and you’ll get wild boar ragu with your parpadella.’’

With her busy work schedule, Paula doesn’t really have time for any hobbies, but she loves catching up with friends and family.

‘‘I try not to watch too much TV and try to read. I do love the English language - if I am going away on holidays that’s really the only time I switch off.

‘‘I love a laugh and I don’t take myself too seriously.’’