OX in Belfast won Best Restaurant in Ireland at the recent 2019 FOOD AND WINE Awards in association Rémy Martin, so we spoke to head chef Stephen Toman about what the award means for the restaurant.
Now in its sixth year of operation, OX in Belfast has held a Michelin star since 2016. When the restaurant was first opened by Belfast-born Stephen Toman and Brittany native Alain Kerloc'h, who met in Paris, the pair were aiming to bring imagination and creativity to Belfast.
The menus at OX put vegetables at centre-stage, as well as using top-quality meat and sustainably sourced fish. The team have cultivated friendships with local suppliers, so that food is seasonal and at its best when it is served to customers.
OX is also well-known for its drinks offering, which is carefully curated by Alain. The diverse selection has been carefully compiled to feature exciting wines and local microbreweries.
For the second year in a row, OX was awarded the title of Best Restaurant in Ireland at the FOOD AND WINE Awards, due to the restaurant's creative nature, stunning food and exceptional service. To find out how it felt to receive this momentous award again, we spoke to Stephen Toman.
How did it feel to win this award?
"We were absolutely delighted to have won this award, we really weren't expecting it. Our pastry chef Nicole Crowe was up for an award so a few of us came down to support her, but we were absolutely shocked to take home this title. It's out of this world, we really can't believe it. It's fantastic for everyone in the restaurant. We were so excited to tell the whole team and everyone has been buzzing since."
What have you and the team done over the past year to stay at such a high standard?
"We are always pushing ourselves. We try to make every day better and we are always testing out new dishes, new products and new flavours. I also started something over the past while where one of the chefs and someone from the front of house team sits down together and eats dinner with wine pairings. It's helpful to get a customer perspective, so I ask them to give me feedback, both positive and negative. Everything is so different when you're at the table, it makes more sense that way, so it's good to find out what they think."
What can we expect to see from you and the team over the next year?
"We have our Alain Passard event in October, which is the third time that it's happening, so we're looking forward to that. I was in France recently picking out new plates and it took a few months to get them made so we'll have them in September. It might sound weird, but it's exciting to get a new set of plates. It makes you think of new styles and new presentations, it gives you a push. We're so happy and energetic here, we constantly want to make things better."
In your acceptance speech, you mentioned that working in this industry is really hard. What did you mean by that?
"I hope I wasn't too negative! What I meant was that we're a Michelin-starred restaurant, but my guys work four days on and four days off. They get a week off at Easter, 10 days off at Christmas and two weeks off in summer. It's so they can still live, I didn't have all that when I was younger and training. You would think that we would get more staff that way, but we're still struggling. Two years ago the chef shortage was big news, but I think the worst is still to come. A lot of people have gotten out of the game since then, so we have to think about how to get staff into the industry. I put out an ad for staff last year and I didn't get any responses for three months, that's how bad it has been. That's what I meant when I said it's hard.
Everyone is trying but I don't want to overwork my staff, so I have to keep numbers down. It's tough to fill a rota right now and we don't even know what Brexit will bring. Over the next year, I want to focus on exciting my staff and pushing everyone."
Head to the OX Belfast website to book a table.
Photography by Paul Sherwood.