FOOD&WINE chats to Stephen Toman of OX, the winner of Best Restaurant Ireland in our 2018 F&W Awards in association with Nespresso Professional.

An independent spirit shines bright in Belfast’s one Michelin-starred OX, bringing consistently creative food in a refined yet refreshingly relaxed environment.

Head Chef Stephen Toman and Manager Alain Kerloc’h have created somewhat of an institution with OX, with diners raving about it from afar and locals always finding an excuse to stop by, be it for a glass of wine from the expert list in attached wine bar, OX Cave, or a tasting menu of local and seasonal ingredients plated with perfection.

Read on for our Q&A with Stephen...

F&W: What does it mean to you winning F&W Best Restaurant Ireland?

Stephen: "This is the one we wanted as it is for the whole team. It’s also great for Belfast and brings attention to our food scene!"

Can you tell us a bit about what inspires your approach to the menus for OX?

"We work closely with local growers and producers to basically work out what is in the current seasonal larder and try to showcase the best of what we can get our hands on."

OX team, Belfast

OX team, Belfast

How do you measure your success in the industry?

"We don’t. We keep pushing like it’s the beginning. This keeps us sharp. It is fantastic how far we have come and the friends we have made along the way but we still have a bit to go yet before we sit back and think about success."

What do you think is most exciting about Ireland's food scene at the moment?

"Confidence!! We all believe in it now and it’s no longer looking at what other countries are doing. Our produce is second to none and we have so many talented people in our industry. I also think that we are all wanting each other to push and do well as we are now looking at the bigger picture."

Where do you see OX's development going in five years?

"From strength to strength. I am so proud of everything we have done from day one, but looking at old menus and photos of not just the food but the restaurant as a whole I see how much we have grown and fine tuned things and its only been five years. So it’s exciting to think about the next five."

OX, Belfast

OX, Belfast

What are the biggest challenges you face in the restaurant business and how do you overcome them?

"Staff is the biggest problem facing our industry at the minute, or lack of it should I say. The chef shortage is real and going to get worse before it gets better.

"It has caused a dramatic increase in the usual wage for the commis & chef de parties where most of the shortages are. Kitchens are so tight for chefs that we are taking almost anybody who wants the job but they aren’t normally the ideal candidates we would have chosen.

"Therefore it has took away something that kitchens need – competitiveness, which in my view is so important for a young chef to develop, to try and be the best or at least be better. Personally I think the chef wages need to be generalised to make the younger chefs think about learning their craft instead of job hopping to the job with the least hours and the most money.

"Not all of them are like this and there is still young passionate ones out there who are going to the top but I’ve seen such a shift in the attitudes of chefs that its very worrying. It's all down to chefs being able to walk into a job anywhere without having to compete.

"The colleges should bring back a newer version of the apprentice scheme so they know exactly what this industry is about before they do 3/4 years full time for a culinary degree and leave a few months after graduating because they don’t like the hours or pressure."

OX, Belfast

OX, Belfast

What have been your career highlights so far?

"I have a few. The day we got the star has to be on top. It was surreal. We were all working so hard, such a busy service when the news broke. We just hugged each other and got the customers a glass to toast on us!

"Bringing Alain Passard to Belfast twice, that was incredible.

"And OX meets the Rabbit in NYC we will never forget. For two nights we were the talk of New York, can’t beat that."