Danni Barry on Changing Kitchen Culture and What’s Next for Ireland’s Best Female Chef
It’s 11am and chef Danni Barry is already two hours into her 14 hours shift at EIPIC restaurant, at Deanes in Belfast. “It’s supposed to be a split shift, but it hardly ever works out that way,” she says, without a hint of hardship in her voice. Just over a year since she achieved a Michelin star, joining an elite group of female Michelin starred chefs, and becoming only the second female chef ever in Ireland to gain a star, the 31-year-old from Co Down is working just as hard.
“Just because I have the star it doesn’t mean I’ll retire!” she says laughing, insisting that she wouldn’t have it any other way. “We have a small team. There’s three full time chefs and one part time. We divide the work into four sections. I’m on a section too, I don’t just come in a check the pass and the fridges.”
The life of a chef, male or female, will always mean long hours and a gruelling workload, but Danni says she counts herself lucky that her gender has never been an added burden:”I’ve been very fortunate to work with chefs who encouraged me, but I can see that I have been lucky. I went to the Athrú conference and I heard stories there that were totally different to my experience.”
“There are still ‘old kitchens’ around, and I think you’d be kidding yourself if you ran around saying it’s a level playing field, and it’s all fine.”
At Food on the Edge this year, during a panel discussion Danni gave an impassioned speech on what she feels is the key to changing the macho-kitchen culture: education. “I think it goes back to education. I think at this stage we’re just fighting fires. If we start to go back to where hospitality and being a chef is seen as a legitimate career for a young person, and they are trained properly, that’s when we’ll see the whole culture change.”
Danni says when she left school choosing to be a chef wasn’t even an option: “The girls were still told to do medicine, teaching, or law, that was the career path you were put on.”
“Cooking needs to be seen as a long term credible career choice, with lots of options, and then females will be more open to it because they won’t see it as a short term, because the hours right now aren’t sustainable.”
Another speaker, Massimo Bottura, of the world’s best restaurant Osteria Francescana, gave perhaps the soundbite of conference: “Cooking is an act of love, and a call to action.” I queried what actions Danni herself hopes to take. She laughs: “Well, I told everyone they are going to have to do something, so I’m going to have to do something now too!” For a start, she hopes to get involved with the schools around Belfast, help the culinary arts college make improvements, and to open her kitchen to aspiring chefs to show them the reality of being a chef.
“The schools need to get on board, but also it can’t be glamorised either. Unfortunately that’s what’s happening too, they watch those reality TV shows and they see the glamorous side to the kitchen, but it’s really hard work; I’m going to be standing mopping a floor here tonight at 11pm.”
Danni herself began her kitchen career washing pots during her A-Levels, purely as a means to fund a car. But pots and pans didn’t keep her attention for very long: “It’s kind of funny when you talk about female chefs, because I just wanted to be one of the chefs, just one of the guys plating up these amazing plates of food. I just really enjoyed the atmosphere.”
While her direct environment was a testosterone fuelled kitchen, Danni says chef Angela Hartnett, protégée of Gordon Ramsay, has always been an underlying source of inspiration. “When I first started it was all about Ramsay and Boiling Point, but Angela had a show on TV about going to The Connaught and trying to get stars and that always stuck with me. She was in there amongst all these big boys. I got to meet her last year and I was a complete fangirl!”
At just 16 years of age, what began as catering college work placement at Deanes turned out to be the start of her culinary career. “They offered me a job, so I started there in September rather than go back to college,” Danni says. “It was like a college education because it had all the sections. Upstairs Michael (Deane) had the stars, so I got to work up there any chance I could, and the rest of the time I was in the Brasserie downstairs.”
Danni admits that the prospect of travelling was something that initially drew her into the industry – “If you have this trade you can take it anywhere all over the world” – and after four years as Deanes she went on her travels to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and mainland Europe.
Brimming with the experience and inspiration she garnered from the high end restaurants in which she worked along the way, Danni returned to Ireland. She furthered her development with chef Derek Creagh, before landing jobs at Simon Rogan’s l’Enclume, in Cumbria, now the number one restaurant in the UK, and as head chef at Rogan & Co in Cartmel; with a spell aboard a private yacht in Valencia in between.
All the while she remained on Michael Deanes radar, and when the right project came along her persuaded her to come back ‘home’, to Deanes. That project was Deanes EIPIC; the last in a trio of restaurants that now take up half the block on Howard Street, including Deanes Meat Locker, and Deanes Love Fish.
“Michael really wanted someone to come in and do something different. There are so many in the Deanes group now, and this needed to be something special,” says Danni. With its tasting menu-only dining, impressive wine list, and glamorous dining room, EIPIC most certainly has become that ‘special’ something in the Deanes restaurant portfolio, that totals seven eateries across four addresses in Belfast.
Just 18 months after opening, Danni proved her weight in gold – Michelin gold stars to be exact – by bringing a star back to Deanes. Having held a star for a record 14 years, before a flood devastated the restaurant in 2010, she says that Michael understands just how a Michelin star functions as an “international currency.”
“He knew how much his business missed it when he lost it, so from his point of view he really believed that we needed one. I can see the difference now, a year on, even overnight the bookings went up, and people are travelling.”
Danni has unequivocal trust in Michael’s instinct, in both food and business, and she describes him as “a great mentor.” “Since I was a kid really, he was always there, always present. Michael is very ambitious still, and that’s what drives us on in the restaurant because you know that Michael is still hungry for success.”
Though while she was once the student, she says their relationship has come full circle now that Michael is no longer in the kitchen. “We work together really well as a team. He has loads of respect for me. He hasn’t been cooking in a while now, so when we do a new dish he’ll be like how did you do that, or why do you do that. It’s great.”
Describing his protégée’s golden touch in an interview with TheTaste Michael Deane said: “I just love the way she puts food on the plate; it looks like you have just thrown it there but you haven’t, it just naturally seems to come together. Her search for flavour is brilliant, and the way she manages her team.”
Danni herself says the techniques, styles, and ingredients she encountered on her travels certainly helped to broaden her repertoire and palate, but that her personal cooking style now focuses on “making the most of the ingredients we have around us, and trying to get as much flavour out of them as possible.”
“Now that I am home I want to cook Northern Irish ingredients. I want people to come to Deanes and know that this is an Irish restaurant.”
Local heroes on the menu at EIPIC include Young Buck blue cheese, Strangford crab, Lough Neagh eel, and, Danni’s personal favourite, Peter Hannan’s 90-day aged shorthorn beef. “We are very lucky to have Peter Hannan and his shorthorn beef just up the road from here, which is being used everywhere now. They have spent years developing a product and now they are seeing the benefit of it, and restaurants in Belfast are seeing the benefit of it because Peter is drawing a lot of interest in food to Northern Ireland.”
While Ireland is fast gaining international recognition for its fantastic produce, some would argue that our restaurants still don’t get the global attention they deserve from awards like the Michelin guide. Danni says she cannot discredit the value of the guide, but says not every great restaurant necessarily needs a star.
“I think for the whole dining scene to become better you do need one or two starred establishments, but you don’t need loads. Not everyone needs a star, but everyone needs to cook really well. If someone came to Belfast they might eat here with us one night, but they are going to go somewhere else after that, and if every level of cooking is better it’s better for everybody.”
Despite having secured a Michelin star for the second year running Danni says she still “has a lot to do at Deanes,” but would like to be working for herself in five years.
“I’d really like somewhere that my friends and family could just come to all the time. I love cooking at this level now, but it’s very much special occasion. This is what I want to do now, and it’s always what I wanted to do; but I don’t know if it’s what I want to do forever.”
She dreams of opening a place at her family farm Mayobridge that would be “a little bit more casual, maybe somewhere where someone would come and learn, not a cookery school as such but somewhere where someone would come and cook with you rather than just purely a restaurant.”
Though her plans are firmly routed in the North, Danni is looking South for inspiration: “During the year I got to go down to Glebe Gardens in Baltimore, for the Taste of West Cork Festival, and something like that is brilliant: it’s all family owned and run, they just take from the garden and cook it in the restaurant, and it’s simple and really good food. I think that’s Irish food.”
But it is the iconic Ballymaloe in East Cork where Danni says lies the perfect formula: “What they have done down there is incredible. They cook, they teach, and they grow. For me that’s the dream. If I can get the Northern version of Ballymaloe that would be it!
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.