Michele Shirlow Farm Week Coloum 21st Nov

One of the real joys of my job as chief executive of FoodNI is the opportunity it provides to promote our amazing food and drink here and the highly skilled and immensely talentedchefs incorporating local products in highly innovative and delicious dishes. A few weeks ago I was honoured to host Fay Maschler, the restaurant critic for the Evening Standard, for an evening. Fay was invited to Northern Ireland by Peter Hannan and she visited several restaurants in and around Belfast. I was thrilled to get an opportunity to meet her, she has been reviewing restaurants since 1972 and knows everything there is to know, and more, about food and hospitality. It was encouraging to hear that like so many food writers before her, she wants to return to Northern Ireland, hopefully in the Spring.

Northern Ireland now has dynamic, ambitious and increasingly successful food and producers and a hospitality sector that ranks alongside the very best in Britain and Ireland. Taste of Ulster is key feature of our work with restaurants, hotels and cafes to showcase the professionalism and creativity which now underpins the sector.

We have the privilege of working with over 450 food and drink producers and hospitality businesses using locally sourced produce as ingredients for original dishes which are helping to establish Northern Ireland as a genuinely global food and drink hub. This recognition led to the region being named ‘The World’s Best Food Destination’ in November 2018.

World’s Best Food Destination carried forward the achievements of the hugely successful 2016 Year of Food and Drink. This grew awareness of products from Northern Ireland and built a higher profile of our produce, the people behind it and our hospitality sector in Britain and further afield. What it also did was to create a strategic focus for collaboration between all public and private bodies andcompanies involved in food production and tourism.

As I pointed out in last week’s column, Tourism NI’s new Embrace a Giant Spirit visionary initiative provides a massive opportunity to raise this global standing to an even higher level. There’s much we still need to do, for example, to ensure that visitors in particular enjoy an exceptional food and drink experience.

It’s essential, therefore, that the focus on local food and drink continues to strengthen and that local products are showcased on menus everywhere.

The key to drawing more tourists back and attracting new visitors is to consistently provide a very special and authentic experience. Local food and drink are vitally important and are also a key component of the growing interest in sustainable tourism.

Our focus at all times must be on excellence. Continuing investment in customer service is essential to ensure staff are prepared to go the extra mile for visitors….and, of course, local travellers and consumers. Front of house needs to aware of the importance for the business and the wider economy of performing to the highest possible standards

They also should be fully briefed on the latest information especially about food and drink. Too often staff simply still shrug their shoulders or respond with a brusque ‘don’t know’when asked about the provenance of ingredients in an individual dish.

Having authentic experiences featuring excellent local food is a sure-fire way to have individual businesses and Northern Ireland stand out in a fiercely competitive marketplace.

We look forward to being an integral part of the continuing collaboration to ensure Embrace a Giant Spirit is another outstanding success and makes a huge contribution to the local economy.