Feature for Hospitality Review Yearbook 2019 – Michele Shirlow Chief Executive Food NI

Global endorsement positions our food, drink and hospitality for even faster growth in year ahead


Choosing the most significant of the many Food NI successes in 2018 is a simple decision. Being named the World’s Best Food Destination in the World Travel and Tourism Awards – part of the highly influential World Travel Market in London – is our greatest success since the Year of Food and Drink in 2016.


The award is a massive endorsement by the global industry of the quality and taste of our food and drink and the excellence of our hospitality offering. And it comes as we look forward confidently to The Open at Royal Portrush, a global event in the golf calendar, which will raise our profile further as a world class destination.


What the global travel and tourism industry is saying in the award is that visitors to Northern Ireland can count on great food and drink and superb places to stay and eat. We remember that surveys show that food is a major influence on decisions about a potential holiday location. And visitors typically spend around a third of their holiday budget on food and drink.


We were working to achieve this recognition during the hugely successful Year of Food and Drink and it was a key objective in our widely acclaimed Taste the Greatness strategic action plan.


The award places Northern Ireland ahead of other longer established food hubs, especially San Sebastian in Spain’s Basque country – often regarded as the world’s food capital – as the best venue for travellers wishing to experience exceptionally tasty, wholesome and honest food and drink.


I believe that this global acclaim must be a key element in the promotion of Northern Ireland in Britain, the Republic of Ireland and in international markets. Tourism NI, Tourism Ireland and Invest NI all recognise the award’s potential and are working with us. We certainly welcome their expert support for our work in promoting sales of our food and drink in Britain, an activity which increased during 2018 and is set up grow further in the year ahead.


The drive to draw more visitors here, and thereby boost the local economy and employment opportunities, will also benefit from the achievements of local restaurants in retaining and gaining Michelin and Bib Gourmand recognition. Deane’s Eipic and OX both retained their well-deserved Michelin stars and there were Bibs again for Fontana and Noble in Holywood, Wine and Brine in Moira, Deane’s at Queen’s, James St South and Home in Belfast. Clenaghan’s at Aghalee was a newcomer. I’d love to see many more of our restaurants, especially outside greater Belfast, striving to achieve such recognition.


I know there are restaurants in LegendDerry and other parts of the province creating dishes worthy of such endorsement. Building on our World’s Best Food Destination needs more restaurants to reach for the ‘stars’. San Sebastian, which is around the same population size as Belfast, has 16 Michelin star restaurants and one ranked in the world’s top 50.


We’d be keen to help as many of our Taste of Ulster members work towards Michelin accreditation. We certainly have a developing cadre of talented and creative chefs, and a number of our colleges are supporting the growth in cheffing skills. The new Chef Network has just produced an important manifesto to help make cheffing more attractive and rewarding. Our own Chefs’ Steering Group is playing its part in helping young chefs to engage with local producers in developing a distinctively Northern Ireland cuisine.


The year also saw some remarkable achievements by our smaller food and drink companies in major quality and taste competitions. I had an opportunity recently to put together a table of their achievements and was amazed by the number of awards won by our smaller companies.


As well as records set in the Great Taste Awards and Blas na hEirehann, the supreme title of the latter won by Mill Bay Oysters (an innovation by Rooney Fish in Kilkeel), the first time for Northern Ireland and also the first time that an oyster product claimed Ireland’s most prestigious food title, there were significant successes in both the UK and Ireland Quality Food Awards, Food Manufacture Excellence Awards, the International Cheese Awards, the World Bread Awards, the British Charcuterie Awards, UK Slow Food Awards, BBC Farming and Food Awards, British Farming Awards, World Spirit Awards, International Cider Challenge, World Steak Awards, British Sausage Awards, Irish Whiskey Awards, and The Grocer New Talent 2018.


This is a really impressive record of success. In addition, we’ve seen many of the food writers and bloggers that we’ve worked with in 2018 crafting immensely supportive pieces on our food and drink and hospitality. Furthermore, the awards demonstrate that our companies have truly world class products. And there’s now a great buzz within the industry and tremendous self-confidence in what lies ahead in 2019.


Food NI shares this confidence and is looking forward to implementing the exciting programme of marketing activities we’ve planned for next year here and especially in Britain. Bring it on!