With local sourcing tightening its grip across Northern Ireland and the province celebrating a year of food in 2016, Produce Business UK speaks to Stephen Toman, head chef and co-owner of Belfast-based restaurant Ox, about his experience of using locally sourced produce and the positive impact it is having on his business
In more recent years, Northern Ireland has seen a huge surge in restaurants and cafes sourcing locally produced fruits and vegetables for their menus. This includes award-winning businesses such as Deanes Restaurants, Belfast, The School House, Comber, Yellow Door Delis, Harry’s Shack, Portstewart, and Ox, Belfast, to name a few.
Ox only opened in March 2013 but already it’s one of only two restaurants in Northern Ireland to be awarded a Michelin star – the other being Eipic of Deanes Restaurants. When I walk through the doors at Ox, the warmth and charm of the restaurant is palpable; with wooden tables, soft lighting, friendly staff and views over the River Lagan.
As I sit down with chef and co-owner Stephen Toman, he shares very modestly that he’s just found out Ox has been listed as one of the world’s ‘hottest’ restaurants by Condé Nast Traveller. With this and a coveted Michelin star, the restaurant is clearly doing something right.
The seasonal larder
Ox’s clever tagline is “dining with seasonal creativity”, and, as I chat to Toman, it’s clear this ethos is very much reflected in the menu.
“With the menu here at Ox, we try to keep it within the seasons,” he says. “We work off the seasonal larder. At the moment we are using things like cavolo nero, kale, coloured carrots and beetroot, sprouting broccoli, as well as romanescos… all the hearty vegetables that can withstand winter.”
Toman explains that while winter is a harder season to find fruit locally, the restaurant makes the most of the colder season by using completely non-seasonal ingredients like chocolate and exotic fruits for desserts. He says: “it’s a good time to use the ingredients you can never get here. Then, once you have access to what’s on your doorstep, you promote that.”
Local suppliers and customers
Ox is unique in that the restaurant not only sources produce from large suppliers but from smaller setups, and, occasionally, from customers too.
“I have a lot of different suppliers,” Toman reveals. “My main supplier would be North Down but I also use individual farmers and growers; like Drew Fraser, a local farmer who is based in Crossgar. Drew actually dropped off stuff last night in the middle of a service. He gave us cavalo nero, purple kale, purple carrots, baby beetroots, purple sprouting broccoli – all grown on his patch of land in Crossgar… it’s pretty amazing.
“I also get some produce from Lord and Lady Dunleath at Ballywalter Park. At Ballywalter, they have a walled garden and their produce can be quite unusual; one week it could be courgette or cucumber flowers, then the next it’s different coloured char. Ballywalter is also great for lots of wild strawberries – the little fraises de bois, for example.
“Sometimes I even have customers growing stuff. One customer, Mr Henderson, came in with a load of cooking apples a few months ago, which we cooked and made sorbets out of. It’s good to have that rapport and relationship with customers and contacts but when you’re planning your menu it can be difficult and you need a trusted supplier. North Down would therefore be our main supplier, especially for main ingredients like onions, leeks and potatoes. We depend on vegetables the most, spending most of our money on them each week.”
Sourcing from outside Northern Ireland
While Ox tries its best to shop locally, Toman admits there are items he simply cannot procure from within the province, so, instead, he looks to either the south of Ireland, Scotland, England or other parts of Europe.
“At the moment, we’re using vegetables such as different coloured beetroots, micro leeks, fennel and Irish sea lettuce from the south of Ireland,” he explains. “La Rouse would be the main supplier we work with in the south. They designate people for different supplies and they would also be our source for French supplies, such as cheroles or salsify.
“The truffle we use is from a mix of Italian and Spanish suppliers. I actually bought some périgord truffle recently. They are the best but they’re really expensive. I have to include a supplement on the menu just to cover the cost but it’s a joy seeing them in the restaurant.”
Working with suppliers
When it comes to local sourcing, Toman claims the secret to success lies in developing open and honest relationships with the right people.
“From the forefront, it’s good for the larger suppliers to come to me with a list of producers they have and to be clear on timings and what they have,” he suggests. “For instance, a supplier could say ‘It’s not ready yet, but I spoke to X and he thinks his sprouting broccoli will be pristine in two weeks’ time’. You can then start to think about a menu and dish within that two weeks. It’s good to have that type of relationship.
“I have five to six different people bringing me produce so it’s lots of hard work – meeting deadlines and bringing food to the customers – but there’s a huge satisfaction that comes out of it.”
Trust is also key, according to Toman. “I need to trust produce is local and if it’s not then a good alternative can be offered from England or Scotland, for example,” he says. “You can’t ask questions on every single item so it’s good to have that sort of trust.”
Future of local in Northern Ireland
When asked about the future of local produce supply in Northern Ireland, Toman responds with a very positive attitude.
“I think at the moment things are really good,” he notes. “All the chefs I know are really pushing to use local produce and have traceability with their meat and fish. There is a story to it all.
“Suppliers have really caught hold of the trend as well; they’re trying their best to get local supplies before going to the cheaper, imported produce.
“There is something great about supporting the community of growers and eating from the very soil you’re living on. You’re part of the ‘terroir’, as the French call it.”
View the list of local, seasonal products currently being procured by Ox for January.