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Niall mckenna
Niall McKenna

In the kitchen with Niall McKenna

The James Street head chef reveals what he cooks at home.


Have you ever wondered what chefs eat when they're not in their restaurants? Us too.

That's why we've decided to launch a new series In the kitchen with... which sees us chat with some of our favourite chefs about their food habits outside of the workplace.  We caught up with head chef and James Street South Restaurant Group owner Niall McKenna. Belfast man Niall has been cooking since the age of 16 and in the course of his career spent 12 years training under the likes of Michelin starred Chefs Nico Ladenis at Nico @ Ninety, Gary Rhodes at The Greenhouse and City Rhodes and Marco Pierre White at The Canteen. He also worked in the prestigious Avenue Restaurant in Mayfair and at the Notting Hill Brasserie before returning to Belfast to set up his own restaurant in 2003. 

His James Street South Restaurant Group is renowned in both Northern Ireland and beyond and Niall himself was named a Tourism Hero by industry chiefs for his contribution to the hospitality sector and ground-breaking Apprentice Programme.

We spoke to him about his life in food, his go-to meal and what's in his fridge.

READ MORE: In the kitchen with Aishling Moore

Do you cook a lot at home?

At the minute I am cooking most days as we are all at home. It’s been great to spend so much time with the family and cook with them. When the restaurants there was a lot of vegetables to used up so I made up lots of food to go and delivered it to a lot of our regulars.

In particular, I love baking fresh bread at home. It’s one of the first tasks that I teach apprentice chefs and there is always such a sense of achievement when they make this. It’s something you can develop over time and perfect. For me, the best thing about making bread at home is that you can share it with the family and it’s always a big favourite in our household.

Who do you usually eat with?

My current routine is with family, but I am a big believer in staff tea in our restaurants. This used to be one of the highlights of the day when I was in the kitchen 24/7. The highlight of our week was a Saturday staff dinner of a good fry before Saturday night service. I loved it, but after a couple of years, the team got bored. At the minute, there is always a pot of food on the pass for anyone in the building at 5pm. One of my other great loves is eating with friends, a couple of nice bottles of wine and good company.

Are there any foods you have to or choose to avoid?

To be honest there are no foods I don’t like. My wife hates coriander so this is the only food I don’t cook with at home.

What five ingredients do you always have in your kitchen?

In my kitchen there is always a good quality olive oil, red wine vinegar, eggs, flour and Maldron sea salt. If I could add a good selection of spices to that this that is also great to have in your larder, oh and cous cous!

What's in your fridge right now?

There are butter and a lot of fresh vegetables I have been using to cook a vegetable curry once a week. There is also a big selection of local cheese, buttermilk to make scones and staples like peeled garlic, capers and anchovies.

What is your default dinner after a busy week?

Roast chicken dinner hands down every time, with stuffing, roast potatoes, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and a really good gravy. This is our staple Sunday dinner as this would normally be my main day off.

What is your favourite kitchen gadget?

A waffle machine as the kids love waffles with bacon, so we make them fresh at weekends and holidays. If I could have a second it would be the KitchenAid mixer with all the attachments. I plan to introduce classes into the cookery school at the restaurant for sausage making, raviolis, fresh pasta all using the KitchenAid.

Do you have a favourite chef or cookbook?

Pick any Simon Hopkinson book, they are all great. I have also come across all my old Alastair Little books as he was a massive influence in the ’90s. Elizabeth David books are also great staples to have in the kitchen, and for more recent inspiration it would have to be Francis Mallman, Nathan Outlow for fish, and I am looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of JP McMahon’s Irish cookbook. I have a whole room devoted to cookbooks and love like most chefs, picking up new and old ones.

Have you ever had a kitchen disaster?

More than I can remember, you need to be patient to learn and as a young chef I was very eager to learn quickly. As I say, you need to fail to know what good looks like.

What's the best thing you've ever cooked?

I love cooking on the hop, so I like getting really fresh seafood in. Watching it goes out the door is always inspiring, working with great products and producers makes my job so much easier. So things like scallops, shellfish and mushrooms that really do taste better the moment you get them.

What is the best cooking tip you've ever been given?

Don’t waste any produce and understand the value of the product. As a chef if you can learn this early it really is a skill which will set you apart from anyone else. For me, when I cook a chicken the first meal is great, but the second meal, which could be a simple sandwich or a chicken casserole, is always great the next day.

What would be your last meal?

I love shellfish so it would fresh oysters, followed by a really beautifully cooked Dover sole with caper butter. This is simple but tastes amazing. A great selection of cheeses would follow and to finish a lemon tart using Gary Rhodes' recipe. Still one of the best recipes for a tart.

What is your favourite dish to cook?

Cooking with game is a really seasonal thing but it is great when it lasts. Partridge, pheasant, pigeon and venison are all so easy to get when in season and delicious to cook with.