Lizzie Gore-Grimes meets up with Ireland’s only female Michelin-starred chef, Danni Barry, to talk technique, travel and why she never cooks anything in coconut oil.
The first thing that strikes you about Co Down girl Danni Barry is that she is absurdly talented for someone so young. Michael Deane (one of Belfast’s most highly respected chefs and restaurateurs) is known for spotting a good thing when he sees it and he certainly came up trumps when he swiped Danni from her head chef spot at Rogan & Co in Cumbria, to take over the helm at Deane’s newest culinary outpost, Eipic.
Eipic (Irish for ‘epic’) is located in the Deane Hub on Howard Street, next to his popular casual dining spots Love Fish and The Meat Locker. Things definitely move up a notch when you walk into Eipic with its tasting menu-only dining and impressive wine list, but there’s nothing stuffy or pretentious about the place. The staff are remarkably friendly and knowledgeable – sommelier Didier Nyeceront is a real star. The menu options at Eipic are very straight forward, offering a four-, five- or six-course tasting menu, priced accordingly: four for £40, five for £50 and six for £60. Danni’s cooking is endlessly inventive, making superb use of stellar local ingredients such as Young Buck blue cheese, Strangford crab, Peter Hannon’s 90-day aged shorthorn and more. Her dishes have an ethereal lightness, in presentation and in the mouth, but flavour it to the fore throughout. You’ll come away sated but not stuffed. Giving you, yet another, good reason to make a beeline for Belfast. Giving you, yet another, good reason to make a beeline for Belfast.
We sat down with Danni to find out about life, travel, and the pressures of Michelin-stardom …
I would describe my cooking style as produce- and flavor-driven. I like to use modern techniques to bring out the best in an ingredient and also draw on my more classical training to refine dishes and add depth to them. At Deanes EIPIC we have a seasonal tasting menu based on the best produce available to us which we use to create balanced, refined and flavourful dishes.
As a newly minted Michelin-star chef, I can see that being listed in the red book comes with a certain pressure, but also a sense of conformity, which I know a lot of other very good chefs and restaurateurs simply don’t aspire to. But I have a huge amount of respect for the Michelin Guide and have followed it throughout my career. With so many styles of restaurants globally I don’t expect there will ever be one all-encompassing guide. Personally I respect the inspection process and I think it has been progressive in changing with the times also.
Training in fine-dining kitchens, many of them Michelin-starred, very early on in my career set the bar for me. As an aspiring chef, I don’t think you need to have starred experience to be a success but there is a definite benefit in the discipline you learn from cooking at this level. Certainly, for me, it stops me becoming complacent and has definitely influenced my career.
Travelling has been another major influence on the way I cook. [Danni worked in Australia, NZ, South Africa and Spain before returning to the UK]. One of the best things about being a chef is that it’s a portable skill and I’ve been lucky to work in kitchens all around the world. Experiencing different cuisines and cooking cultures hands-on has expanded my palate and also my repertoire. Our menu at Deanes EIPIC is a tasting style menu so it’s important for us to achieve balance and ensure that dishes don’t get too heavy. Working in Sydney I witnessed a great mingling of classic French and European cooking styles with Japanese influences thrown in to add lightness. And then from my time in Spain I learned to roast bones and vegetables and spices to achieve depth of flavour.
I really enjoy working with seafood especially when it’s really fresh. We are lucky to have some world-class shellfish and fish here in Ireland. I also love playing with texture, so I enjoy working with grains and seeds to achieve this
When it comes to ‘healthy eating’, I don’t buy into diets that are unrealistic as I think food is to be enjoyed. I certainly don’t enjoy anything cooked in coconut oil! It’s important to have balance, to be mindful about when and how you eat and to avoid processed foods and eat well-sourced fish, meat and lots of vegetables – and a treat now and then does no harm. That said, chefs often have some of the worst eating habits due to the long working hours. I think a good breakfast is key and at Deanes here we have at least one staff meal a day so everyone eats properly.
A lot of people are asking me how I find being a woman in the largely male-dominated upper echelon chef world. Through my career I’ve learned that people respect hard work and a good attitude, whether male or female. To do well as a chef is entirely based on merit. The best advice I was given was to train at a high level when I was young, and that has opened more doors for me, it also means I have achieved success in my career and could still go on to have a family. I’m a believer in taking your time and learning your craft. Don’t take the first head chef job you’re offered and don’t throw the towel in too soon. A solid foundation will reap huge rewards in the future.
There are so many great places to eat in Belfast right now. Some of my favourites include:
Deanes at Queens – for a sunny Sunday on the terrace
Deanes Meat Locker – for the best steak in town
St George’s Market – for great live music and local food stalls (we regularly discover new suppliers here for the restaurant)
Established Coffee – for great breakfast and coffee
Tedfords Kitchen – for really good cooking in a casual setting
Kaffe O, Ormeau Rd – for Nordic inspired salads and cakes
Arcadia Delicatessen, Lisburn Rd – for local and further afield treats
Macau, Chinese restaurant, Ormeau Rd – for brilliant Asian fare