Farm Week – Michele Shirlow

I was shocked…and saddened… by Michael Deane’s decision to close his acclaimed Eipic Michelin star restaurant in the next few months. Belfast which has been striving to enhance its reputation as a global food destination, a prime objective of Food NI/Taste of Ulster, can ill afford to lose a restaurant of such outstanding quality.

It’s also a blow to the wider food and drink industry here, because Michael, a longstanding supporter of our work in Food NI, is a tremendous backer of food and drink processing here. He’s offered many of our artisan and smaller companies opportunities to provide ingredients for the superb dishes crafted by chefs of the calibre of Alex Greene.

Alex, I understand is leaving his position in Eipic to set up his own restaurant in Co Down. We wish him well in the new venture.

Michael Deane’s decision on Eipic, his gourmet restaurant in Howard Street, is a further – and most striking – indication of the severe problems being faced by the hospitality sector here. There have been many closures already of restaurants and cafes across Northern Ireland from the problems of spiralling costs, staff shortages, financial issues and the slow recovery of eating out. I fear there may be many more in the months ahead.

A talented innovator, Michael has been a leader in the hospitality sector, raising the international profile of Belfast and Northern Ireland as a global location for innovative and delicious food.

He was the first chef here to achieve the exacting and prestigious Michelin status and thereby pulled Northern Ireland into frame as a place for great food. His knowledge and talents inspired hundreds of young chefs over the past 25 years, many of whom trained under him and began careers in his and other restaurants particularly in Belfast.

Michael’s achievements also influenced other chefs in restaurants here to work towards Michelin and Bib Gourmand status. We now have two Michelin star restaurants in the city and around 10 with Bob Gourmand accreditation. Hosting three Michelin star restaurants is remarkable for a city of Belfast’s size. He deserves much of the credit for the city’s standing.

While Michael has highlighted the difficulties being experienced by the sector over many months, his warnings have largely been ignored regrettably by the relevant authorities.

As he has pointed out, the financial problems of the pandemic and its lockdowns were exacerbated by the current cost of living crisis which has meant people no longer have the disposable income to spend on gourmet restaurant meals. Price has become more important than ever before. It’s worth adding too that spending on corporate hospitality has declined sharply as meetings have reduced and more business contacts are conducted digitally by zoom. Many staff, who would have lunched in restaurants, continue to spend more time working  – and dining – at home.

It’s good to know that Michael’s popular Love Fish and Meat Locker restaurants in Howard Street will continue. And that successful Deane’s at Queen’s will also continue to shape food in the city.

I am confident that innovator Michael will regenerate the Eipic site with an original and exceptional food offering in the months ahead that will provide something for diners here to enjoy. We look forward to encouraging and promoting his enterprise and initiative.