Recently I was lucky enough to be able to put some questions to Chef Paul Rankin. Paul was a regular on Ready Steady Cook back in the day and recently starred with Nick Nairn in ‘Paul and Nick’s Big Food Trip’.
How did you start out in the culinary world Paul? I read you were classically trained.
I was first introduced to the culinary world by my wife Jeanne when we were travelling in the early 1980’s. I bought my first cookbook in Kathmandu during our time in Nepal and then we moved on to Canada. When we arrived in Canada, I took a crash course in how to make it as a successful waiter and that was the start of my love affair with the business.
As I started working my way around better and better establishments, I became more interested in food. I started helping the chefs prepare the food and I really enjoyed it, so I wrote a letter to the Roux brothers to ask if I could train with them.
To my surprise, Albert Roux wrote back and offered to take us out for dinner and during our meal, he offered me a job as a waiter in his three-star Michelin restaurant. After learning the ropes, I began training under Albert in London and after completing my training, I worked in the US before returning home to Belfast to open Roscoff in 1989.
In your TV show 'Paul and Nick's Big Food Trip' you travel between Northern Ireland and Scotland on a culinary journey. How do the foods of both countries compare and contrast?
The series was inspired the Ulster Scots agency – an organisation that helps raise awareness of the Ulster Scots heritage. Both myself and Nick learned a lot about the heritage during filming – particularly around the movement of people between Ulster and Scotland through the years.
It’s this movement, which included people in the small village of Glenarm in Northern Ireland travelling by boat to Scotland for their food shopping that helped force a huge amalgamation of the food served in both countries.
This amalgamation of food means there are actually more similarities than differences. For example, in Northern Ireland we have the soda farl, which is almost identical to Scotland’s soda scone. There are regional variations, of course, but generally speaking the food of both nations is based on lots of potatoes, oatmeal and local ingredients – basic, agricultural food.
These similarities often caused arguments between myself and Nick during filming, with both of us having different names for what is essentially the same dish!
A lot of people first remember seeing you on TV show Ready Steady Cook. Was the show as fun as it looked to make?
It was always a lot of fun to make and I had a great time on the show. But it was also a lot of pressure – not many people know this, but we honestly didn’t know what ingredients were in the bag until the contestants revealed them on the show.
There was no pre-planning – we had to think on our feet and we only had 20 minutes to cook the dish. People might think that the cameras stopped rolling and we had longer than 20 minutes to prepare everything but that’s not the case – it was all done in one take!
Another popular myth about the show was how the winner was decided – on TV, it looks like Fern Britton or Ainsley Harriott roughly counted the number of each card in the audience and decided the winner. That wasn’t the case – the producers carefully counted each audience member’s vote so the outcome was always fair.
To be successful on Ready Steady Cook, you needed to be able to talk to the presenter, entertain your guest and cook the dish – not as easy as it may seem. However, I really loved my time on the show and always finished filming with a real rush of adrenaline. It was great to go up against other chefs – we’re all a competitive bunch so it was a lot of fun.
I've heard you referred to as the godfather of modern Northern Irish cuisine. How would you like to think you've influenced the culinary world?
First of all, I’m very appreciative of what people say and thank them for their kind words.
With regards to my influence on cooking, I think I was at the front of a sea of change that was happening in the food industry in Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
When I first started cooking in Belfast, I’d just returned from a period of working in the United States and I brought with me a mixture of Michelin star training and the looseness of working with American food.
This combination helped me experiment with ingredients and flavours in a way that hadn’t been done before. I’d be questioned often by other chefs who didn’t understand why I was doing things in a different way and I think it’s this experimentation and trying new things that helped both me and the industry break new ground over the last 25 years.
I suppose that by getting a Michelin star for Roscoff and being on TV means you’re bound to have an influence on cooking and it’s been an honour and a pleasure to play a part in helping shape the industry and inspire the next generation of chefs who are all doing some fantastic things in kitchens across the world today.
You have your own food range the Rankin Selection available in supermarkets. I love your bread range in particular. What do you think is responsible for the nation’s current love affair with baking?
I’d say it’s the perfect mixture of nostalgia and the family-friend nature and sense of togetherness that comes with baking.
The success of the Great British Bake Off is the catalyst that makes it a national love at the moment. I think the show is great – it’s a very clever format built on a platform made famous by MasterChef that highlights the joy, fun, simplicity and pressure that comes with baking.
The guys involved with the show help make it what it is – Mel and Sue are very funny, warm hosts, Paul Hollywood is very charming and Mary Berry is a legend in the baking world.
I think baking is particularly satisfying for the public right now because it’s accessible, features lots of basic, magical ingredients with the end result of a treat for the family.
What has been your proudest achievement to date?
It would have to be getting the Michelin star in 1991. It came out of the blue – we really weren’t expecting it. I’d only started cooking in 1984! This may sound a little strange, but at that point I still wasn’t really calling myself a proper chef so it was hugely surprising.
Just before we were awarded the Michelin star, I had the insecurities faced by anyone who runs their own business. I worried about making enough of a success from Roscoff to provide for my family, so when we found out we’d been awarded the star, it felt very much like the stamp of approval for my career.
It was also a great joy for the staff at Roscoff – it was a fantastic recognition for all of their hard work. It also helped set many of them on their own journeys through the food industry, with many of the members of that original staff and front of house staff now running their own successful restaurants across the world.
Lastly, a fun question I like to ask my interviewees - Who is your favourite cartoon character?
Robin Hood from the animated Walt Disney film. When we lived in California, Jeanne was a pastry chef in the restaurant where we worked, which meant she was busy early in the mornings.
When she was at the restaurant, I looked after our daughter Claire, who was about two years old at the time. Robin Hood was her favourite film and she loved the character of Maid Marian. In fact, she loved the movie so much that she called me Robin instead of dad when she was little for about a year and a half!
I would like to thank Paul for taking the time to answer my questions. Why not try Paul’s selection of bread, as well as many other foods, from The Rankin Selection, now available in supermarkets?
Disclosure Statement: I was not paid or sponsored to carry out this interview.