This year has been a good one for the Northern Irish food scene. After a four year dry spell of having no Michelin-starred restaurants in the region, two Belfast restaurants were awarded a star each, putting the city in the spotlight and on the gastronomic map. OX, on Oxford Street, was one of the deserving recipients; I caught up with head chef Stephen Toman to learn more about the area’s undiscovered food scene.
Stephen grew up in Belfast, but travelled and worked around America and France throughout his youth. The kitchens which helped shape his style the most were The Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Taillevent and L’Astrance in Paris. ‘There were a lot of talented chefs at The Camelback Inn because the second biggest culinary school in the U.S. was nearby,’ he explains. ‘We had a lot of people coming in to finish off their internships and work in the great hotels in the area – there was so much talent in the kitchen. The Americans are great at thinking outside the box and don’t get tied down to French or Italian cuisine – they add it all together.
‘Taillevent was a three-star Michelin restaurant, which was an amazing experience; very classical in terms of service and food,’ continues Stephen. ‘At L’Astrance I was able to see how the whole classical French brigade system worked. The guys there were making main courses out of celeriac or broccoli – it wasn’t all about the veal or beef fillet and foie gras. They were as proud of the vegetables as they were the top-end cuts of meat.’
These attitudes to cooking – thinking outside the box and treating all ingredients with the same amount of respect – shaped the ethos Stephen has at OX. ‘Right now we feature game quite heavily and you can have venison and pigeon on the same menu,’ he says. ‘But come springtime it will be heavily influenced by vegetables. We are fluid and open and just celebrating what’s best at this moment.’