When Brian McCann took over at Shu Restaurant on Belfast’s Lisburn Road nearly nine years ago he’d an elaborate menu planned, but that menu remains still just a concept.
“I’m there eight years and I still haven’t put that first menu on,” says Brian.
“I’d written one and it’s still not on in the restaurant and that’s due to service constraints… we do 240 on a Saturday night. The key thing people want is consistency. There’s no point being brilliant one night and poor the next, we want to be at a decent level all of the time consistently.”
Consistency is the perfect term for a restaurant that has been one of the top restaurants in the city for the past decade. But it was the Greenan Lodge in West Belfast where McCann first learnt his trade as a 16-year-old who had just left school.
“The friends I was hanging about with back then were all chefs and I was a glass washer in the Greenan Lodge, which is now the Balmoral Hotel. They seemed like rock ‘n’ roll to me and I loved the camaraderie, I loved the humour. I loved the fact it was like rock ‘n’ roll and I was leaving school and I wanted in to the kitchen. I fell into it by default and took up a commis chef position in the Greenan Lodge. I stayed with Paul Masterson, who was the head chef and became a very good friend and mentor, for five years or so.”
After getting frustrated at the inability to get another job locally in Belfast Brian moved to London.
“No one would give me a job here. Robbie Millar in Shanks wouldn’t give me a job because I’d no experience so I had to go to London and I ended up working for Marco Pierre White. I worked in the Mirabelle restaurant and it opened my eyes. It was a busy restaurant and it was summer when I got there. I was opening oysters and making tomato vinaigrette and doing everything correctly. What sounds so basic, what you take now for granted, a lot of chefs miss.
“How to use salt and pepper, how to use acidity and I had never seen produce like it coming from the hotel. And that professionalism… in school I didn’t concentrate, I didn’t like the attitude in school but I excelled in an atmosphere with people who were all creative and wanted to work hard. I found that I really loved that brigade.”
The building blocks in place from Belfast where Masterson had taught him knife sills and a repertoire had been a great start but he felt that he needed to go London to gain refinement.
“I stayed in the Mirabelle for a while and then moved to a place called the Criterion, which was more covers. The Mirabelle was crazy but Tim Payne and Darren Bunn went to the Criterion and I was one of the youngest in there but it was nothing to do with age, it was about attitude and capability.
“It was different and I was loving being in London. It was a great time and it was fun and you’d no responsibilities. After Criterion I decided I only had two years left in London and I wanted to refine it more.
“I was going to work for a guy called Richard Neat but my friend from Marco’s had a chat with me and recommended I not go there. I took his advice and he pushed me on to the Square and I started there under Phil Howard and Rob Weston and that was a new chapter.
“Marco’s was so uniformed – containers had to be stacked correctly, but Phil was an absolute gentleman and Robert was just super and the attitude they had to suppliers was ‘good morning’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’… there was none of this silly machoism from people, there was a respect for the produce and team. I fitted in to it so well and I enjoyed it immensely and made great friends.
“The workload was so immense – I’ve never seen anything like it for the pressure but it’s purposely like that. If you do a potato fondant in the morning you can’t serve it at dinner so you’re working service in, service out under immense pressure. When you’re that age of mid-20s with a group of people all pushing in the same direction, it’s fantastic. It’s exhausting, but the adrenaline and the enthusiasm… that thirst for knowledge, coming home and writing every recipe down… it just takes over your life.”
Whilst at the Mirabelle McCann learnt about fish and meat and seasonality, the Square brought balance, textures and refinement.
“Marco’s was like an army whereas Phil was trying to push your creativity, getting you to take more involvement whereas Marco’s chefs told you how to do things. Phil was challenging you to see if there was another way of doing things and you had to think how can I make it cleaner?”
After 18 months at the Square where he ended up junior sous chef with Brett Graham, he decided that it was time to go home after travelling around the world where he did “the usual things… didn’t work and spent a lot of dough but thoroughly enjoyed it”.
Turning full circle on his return to Northern Ireland, he went to work at Shanks with Robbie Millar – a complete change of pace from his time in London.
“We came home and I went to Robbie Millar at Shanks and that was lovely because it gave me a great introduction back into Northern Ireland. I came from the Square, which was so pushing it, you couldn’t make something in the morning and use it for dinner. Then I was back in Northern Ireland where people don’t pay the same, their palettes are different and Robbie had a great understanding of what customers wanted.
“That was something that made me appreciate it. I was doing all these terrines and ravioli and foams and this was 2002-2003 but you have to get that balance of what customers want. What I really appreciated was where it was – you weren’t in the city and I was running in the afternoons, playing some golf… foraging in the forest and enjoying what I was doing because you had a bit of time off because you were off Sundays. I could see my friends and family. Robbie was great craic, he was a very good cook who understood seasonality and local produce, which I have always tried to maintain through Phil and Robbie… getting excited about things coming in. This is the start of the asparagus season and it hasn’t been on since last July or August, it’s something I always enjoy.
“I was in Shanks for almost two years and I was approached to go to Shu. It was a completely different beast, it was a nice kitchen and nice front of house, good name and it was local, 10 minute walk from where I was living and I felt like I could bring something to the table and I wanted a new challenge. Robbie’s was good but it just wasn’t busy enough. One night we were busy, the next we weren’t, but it was a special occasion restaurant.
“Shu was a completely different challenge. It was a beast, and it still is. It’s a big restaurant with three floors and we always encounter the same problems as any restaurant – staff is key. The people around you, the people you believe in, the people you want to hand responsibility on to, because every restaurant is only four walls, it’s the people in it that are the soul of it.
“People want to go out and have a good experience and we want to fulfil that experience. We want to give them good food, wine and a good experience and hopefully they’ll come back. If someone complains, it’s an opportunity for us to fix it. If people walk out those doors without saying anything you’re not getting them back, hard as it is to take criticism…
“Food is subjective and people have so many different opinions of it and everyone’s an expert now. Anyone can go on the web and check anything. People come to the restaurant now and they’re photographing food, there’s TripAdvisor, Twitter, Facebook etc. but you have to adapt to them and that’s the reality.
“I’m not very good at some of those things and I should push the restaurant more because it is how it’s changing. This TripAdvisor thing, people will keep doing it. All the social media – there is good advantages to it – I put on specials and people come in to the restaurant for them. It definitely works but the problem for me personally is that it needs constantly fed… you feed it and feed it and you suddenly become anti-social with your own friends and family.”
These days, McCann is more laid back, attempting to balance the work that he loves in Shu with a young family.
“I try and get a balance in my life now that I have kids. It’s interesting for me because before I had children if something went wrong at the restaurant I’d need to go in. I’d have to drop everything. Now if there’s a problem I might have the kids… so people have to stand on their own two feet unless it’s really urgent. You’ve got to give people responsibility.
“There are good kids out there in the industry, but there’s a lot of shit to sift through, it’s the most challenging part of the job. The hours in the job are okay, I feel satisfied with what we do, I enjoy the worklife but it’s the people you’re with. You have to remember you’re with the people you work with 12-14 hours a day, you see them more than your family sometimes. The people are the hardest thing.
“But then you can’t be there all the time and you have to trust in people.”