Stephen Toman's Belfast

Stephen Toman's Belfast

by Eliot Collins 13 November 2015

Eliot Collins talks to Stephen Toman and discovers a city brimming with fantastic food, drink, restaurants and people.

Eliot worked as a chef partnership manager at Great British Chefs.

Eliot’s first food memory dates back to a Cambozola cheese addiction at the age of two. Growing up with a food technologist father and dairy technologist mother, it was a pretty clear path into the world of gastronomy. Eight years in the belly of kitchens in Sydney and San Francisco followed, and he juggled his role as chef partnership manager at Great British Chefs with creating tasty delights in his tiny Hackney kitchen!

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.’

Hay baked celeriac
Stephen's Hay baked celeriac with black trompette, truffle and lardo is one of his most popular dishes
The meat, fruit and vegetables on sale in Belfast are of the highest quality

Room to grow

People are knocking on my door all the time, whether they’re making their own organic yoghurt or someone’s growing a bit of veg, there’s loads going on.

Stephen Toman

To be able to create Michelin-starred dishes, you need to have access to fantastic produce. Getting to know your suppliers and seeking out those with the best ingredients is vital – something Stephen knows all too well. ‘I’ve got great relationships with many growers,’ he says. ‘Last night we had a guy called Drew Frazer from Crossgar drop off a load of vegetables at half eight at night, when the restaurant was full. We don’t have a back door, so he had to come through the front, but the customers love seeing this guy struggling in with all this great organic veg; boxes or purple and yellow cauliflowers, the best romanescos I’ve ever worked with, red kale and purple carrots.

‘We also have a great relationship with Lord and Lady Dunleath – a proper Lord and Lady – who have a walled garden and grow stuff just for OX,’ adds Stephen. ‘I have a guy who supplies my meat, another who shoots pigeon and another who collects razor clams for me. People are knocking on my door all the time, whether they’re making their own organic yoghurt or someone’s growing a bit of veg, there’s loads going on. I had a chef come in the other night who was experimenting with Irish charcuterie.’

Stephen believes chefs are asking for more unusual ingredients from suppliers because they’re travelling a lot more and working with different produce. When they come home to open their own place and settle down, they still want access to these things. However, he’s careful not to stray too far into the world of foraged ingredients. ‘Don’t get me wrong, we use lots of truffles, wild mushrooms and wild garlic,’ he says, ‘But I leave that to the guys who are into it. I’d rather work with flavours I can refer to; for me, the biggest compliment is when customers tell me our carrots taste like the ones their grandma used to grow. If you’re foraging and coming up with a hundred new flavours and ingredients it’s quite hard for people to relate to – they want a bit of nostalgia.’

St George's Market
St George's Market is the best in Belfast
Belfast's oldest pub is also one of its most popular

Where to go

Of course, OX is just one of many fantastic restaurants in Belfast. Eipic also claimed a Michelin star this year, and Stephen says he’s spoilt for choice in the city. ‘There’s Howard Street, which is fantastic – always buzzing, always busy,’ he says. ‘Then there’s Shu on Lisburn Road and one of my sous chefs just opened up a great place called The Muddlers Club in the Cathedral Quarter.’

If you’re looking to pick up some of the produce Stephen loves cooking with, then look no further than Belfast’s St George’s Market – a place full of meat, fish, fruit, veg and all sorts of other culinary delights, made by the city’s many artisans. For a caffeine hit, head to Established in the Cathedral Quarter; a trendy shop at the forefront of Belfast’s coffee scene. Be sure to try something from Man Made Damn Fine Cakes, too; a one man band supplying local shops and markets with amazing cakes and pastries that encapsulates the artisanal ethos of the city’s producers. The Crown Liquor Saloon is also worth a visit; as Belfast’s oldest pub, it’s a place steeped in history (and serves a well-kept pint, too).

Belfast is finally getting the recognition it deserves as a bastion of great food and drink, and its chefs, growers, suppliers and producers are only getting better.

Man Made Damn Fine Cakes
Man Made Damn Fine Cakes encapsulates the city's artisanal ethos