Rising above the stars

 

RESTAURANTS:Losing the Michelin-star he held for 14 years for his Belfast restaurant was a shock to chef/proprietor Michael Deane, but four months after the announcement, his restaurant is more profitable than ever, he tells CATHERINE CLEARY

MICHAEL DEANE WAS on a London train in January when he got the text. It was bad news. After 14 years he had just been stripped of his Michelin star. A short while earlier he had been smiling for the cameras beside outgoing Michelin editor Derek Bulmer at a celebration of the guide’s 50th edition.

Even before the text arrived, he had a feeling the news wasn’t going to be good. “It was funny standing there, how much I felt I’d improved in business, and a lot of the guys who’d been in the guide for 10 or 15 years were still doing the same thing and still working 18 or 20 hours in the kitchen. That brought me down to earth. Of course it matters. But it doesn’t matter that much. So I got on the tube to go back to the airport and I got a text from the PR guys to say the star was gone. I said, ‘well, there you go’.”

Nearly four months since his star evaporated, the experience of Deane and his business empire says a lot about the economics of getting and keeping the Michelin inspectors happy. Despite the loss of the star, his takings are up at least £10,000 a week on last year. In a recession-hit city where bankers and property speculators were a core customer, he is now getting more women diners, offering a £6.50 lunch in his seafood bar, and keeping a chain of six restaurants employing 130 people buoyant. Does he regret losing the star? Probably. But his bank manager and accountant aren’t losing any sleep.

We’re sitting in the corner of Deanes restaurant in Howard Street in Belfast city centre. Spring has come to the city and filled it with blossom and young green leaves. Deane is looking leaner than his website photograph, thanks to his training for the Belfast city marathon. He wears a box-fresh white shirt with flowery bits, pinstripe blazer, jeans and brown loafers. Picture celebrity decorator Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and add a Belfast accent. Having recently celebrated his 50th birthday, he is determined to run one marathon. Then he doesn’t intend ever running another.

Deanes used to be a minimalist grey-walled space until a burst pipe in the depths of the first big freeze of 2009. The 3.30am phonecall from the alarm company was reminiscent of the bad old days in Belfast, he explains, “when the police used to make you come in first in case there was a booby trap”. That night he opened the door “and there was water everywhere. I could see in the moonlight the water just streaming out. It was freezing cold, and two to three inches deep on the floor. It was quite heartbreaking.”

The restaurant refit took almost four months. Staff had to be let go with “the mothership” out of commission and Deane spent the time rethinking his whole approach. The first thing to go was the grey wall colour, thanks to his wife, former RTÉ journalist and UTV anchorwoman Kate Smith. “My wife didn’t want the grey. She said to me, ‘Michael you’re not in bloody Milan. You don’t have the weather. We need to make this a wee bit more like it was.’ So she designed it. We got the chandeliers, painted it red. Some people say it’s pink, or strawberry red.”

The other change was in relation to a suggestion from his accountant that he turn the bar into a seafood bar with, “simple street food in there – squid, fish and chips. We took the stuffiness out of it completely.” The changes had a dramatic and positive effect on the figures. Unfortunately, when the Michelin man came to dine, he hated it.

“He’s a lovely guy, who really knows his food. He just didn’t like our restaurant. He hated it. He asked to speak to me. He slammed the table and demanded to speak to me. We went out into the bar and he asked me, ‘What’s going on Michael? Why the big changes?’

“I think he didn’t like the music, the chandeliers. He liked the food. He liked the service. He liked the wine. The last words he said to me was that every city in Europe should have a Deanes.”

The following week, the new editor-in-chief Rebecca Burr arrived in, Deane says, to eat in what was then the Circle restaurant upstairs. “We decided to try to do another restaurant upstairs, and it was okay, but it wasn’t me any more. And Rebecca Burr came in and she just left without speaking to me. And I knew she was probably here to take the star away. Michelin had said it had been coming for a long time. I accept that. Michelin are not silly people. They do their job very well. This was Rebecca Burr’s first year in the job and she decided she was going to take a scalp and that’s exactly what happened.”

DEANE CAN pinpoint the moment when he felt torn between being a businessman and a chef. Almost a decade ago he opened a midmarket Asian restaurant. It was, in part, an homage to his new son, a two-year-old boy he and Kate adopted from Thailand, naming him Marco after Marco Pierre White. It failed to fly. “Weekends were great but the rest of the week I sat looking out the window wondering why people didn’t come in.”

The bank started to put him under pressure. The place was meant to be pulling in £20,000 a week. It was doing £12,000, “six of that was on a Friday, six on a Saturday”. So Deane changed it. “I put blackboards on it, changed the signage, put canopies on and called it Deane’s Deli. We did everything from sandwiches to curries to fish and chips, and I haven’t looked back. We put the Vin Café in the premises next door. It works. We never had a blip since I changed it.”

The transformation made Deane put his “commercial head on” but he was also frustrated by the tyranny of cheffing. “I couldn’t really get to it enough because I was stuck upstairs, chop, chop, chop, chop at six, seven o’clock in the morning, to look after the red book [Michelin] and the rosettes [AA guide and all the rest.”

That prompted the next change. He brought the fine dining downstairs to the main restaurant under his then head chef Derek Creagh, a Donegal man who worked with Heston Blumenthal, among others, and who Deane describes as “a great cook”. The move more than doubled the number of seats from 30 to 65. “Things were very good at the weekends. We retained the star, the accolades . . . I was very chuffed they were able to hold it. They did a good job.

“Then the financial bug started to bite a wee bit. The guys who had made millions of pounds in Belfast and abroad were no longer coming in to do the big lunch. The bank guys who used to always be in here decided they were going to have a sandwich in the office. People doing business deals didn’t want to do them over lunch in Deanes because they were dealing with a lot of insolvency, bankruptcies or financial issues. The deli just took all the lunch trade away from us. I found myself with quite an empty restaurant.”

The “fine dining thing” was becoming a bit off-putting to people, Deane felt. Turnover dropped and the rent got higher. “So when the flood came, it gave me time to reflect.” The final change came just over a year ago when Deane lost Derek Creagh to the Salty Dog Hotel in Bangor.

Now the space is more brasserie than hushed church and the food (I ate a beautifully-fried piece of bone-china-white halibut with potatoes, asparagus and a tasty watercress and spinach purée), is simple and good. Judging by the numbers, Belfast seems to like it.

DEANE’S START in cooking wasn’t auspicious. “I wasn’t one of those people who was taught to cook by my mother.” He wanted out of school and into something creative, so ended up in the kitchen of a hotel in Donaghadee, Co Down. “I actually thought I was cooking. You open the box of plaice fillets and they were covered in those orange breadcrumbs and you put it in the fryer. And the Black Forest gateaux that came out of a box, and I used to say to myself, ‘this is easy’. And we used to do 500 high teas on a Sunday afternoon, wearing one of those silly big hats. And I thought that was being a chef. I didn’t really have a basic understanding of food.”

He started reading about the London scene of chefs Albert Roux and Anton Mosimann and was drawn to go. But it was the 1970s. He had long black hair and a Belfast accent. “I didn’t really go down a storm.” In those days you chose one or other camp.

“When I look back at it, Roux probably cooked real food, real tasty, but I was more into the designer side of things. I wanted to work for Anton Mosimann. He was a 28-year-old Swiss, elegant Dorchester chef.” (Mosimann’s most recent job was to cook for 300 guests at the evening reception of that royal wedding.)

Deane wrote to his hero several times and then met Mosimann in the Shelbourne hotel in Dublin, where he was doing a lecture. “I really had a right go at him that I’d been writing to him for quite a while. I sent him a note on Monday morning, I got a reply and I got into the Dorchester. I was about fourth commis in the Dorchester. It must have been close to the end of the 1970s. And I thought I was just the business.” In his first week in the Dorchester kitchen, it hit home how little he knew. He was at sea with 150 people who all knew more than he did. So he started to learn.

Back home in Northern Ireland, Paul Rankin had paved the way for Deane to bring something home. “What Rankin did in Roscoff was unbelievable. I was in behind him and he sheltered us from the storm.” In 1993 he opened Deanes on the Square in the coastal village of Helen’s Bay near Bangor. “I never went in to bat for a Michelin star. I wanted to do a good French-style bistro. The cooking was local, it was good. It was clean simple Irish cooking.”

Then former Roscoff chef Robbie Millar opened up Shanks restaurant nearby and they split the clientele. “I suppose then I decided I had better up a gear and make it a little bit better. I think people miss Deanes on the Square. It was a nice place. Robbie got a Michelin star and we got one quickly behind him. So all of a sudden you had two Michelin-star restaurants on a railway line toward Bangor. Paul [Rankin] had one. Then the Oriel in Gilford came along and got one. And all of a sudden there were four. And now there’s none. It was a bit of a rollercoaster.”

Does he ever regret expanding out of Deanes on the Square? “Probably every day,” he says quietly. “But I got a little bored with just having the one restaurant. It might be nice to get back to that some day. But as I was getting older, there’s always going to be somebody better, somebody more hungry. Once you’re involved in the business the passion becomes different. The passion for business sometimes overtakes the passion for food and I think that’s a bit sad sometimes, but it’s a reality.” At this moment, with his 50th birthday behind him, he is almost glad to have been relieved of the star. “It’s not a platform or a mountain that I feel I need to be on. I think it became prohibitive. I think it became a sense of everything being about ‘The Guide’. We as a business were going that way. I loved having a Michelin star for 14 years. If it comes along again, it comes along again. I think it’ll be a couple of years before anyone [in Northern Ireland] gets a Michelin star again, and good luck to them. I’ll be a shoulder to cry on if they need it. But I just wonder if there’s a pot of gold at the end of the Michelin rainbow? I’m not so sure.”

And who does he rate in the Irish restaurant scene? “Dylan McGrath was probably the most sensational chef ever to cook in Ireland. Now that’s a big statement, but I think he was. He was on fire. I know him quite well and I think when he went down south he got quite a bit of a backlash. He was a demon. He was angry. But it was never going to work. It never got the chance. He probably would have been the first chef [in Ireland] ever to get three Michelin stars. I think he was capable of it. I think when Dylan settles down and gets rid of some of the anger and the fire, he’ll be back.”

You get the impression Deane is happy to hand over to the next generation. He’s done his marathon, in more ways than one.