Stephen Jeffers is the latest Northern Ireland chef stage to make an impact on the international stage. Stephen, who runs the Forestside Cookery School in Belfast, was named International Chef of the Year at the recent Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto.
Many other local chefs including Michael Deane and Danni Barry, Niall McKenna, Noel McMeel, Steven Toman, Emmet McCourt and Sean Owens have been involved in initiatives, many led by Tourism Ireland, to boost tourism here by showcasing the outstanding quality of our exceptional food and drink.
Stephen was in Toronto with Tourism Ireland, one of the sponsors of the popular agricultural show in Toronto – an annual event celebrating agriculture and local food. With about 320,000 visitors each year, it proved to be ideal platform to highlight our superb food to a wide audience of Canadian residents, many, of course, had strong Ulster connections.
Stephen’s culinary demonstrations were part of a busy schedule that also included a breakfast for a top Canadian food and lifestyle journalists and a high profile slot on a major breakfast television show. The objective was to promote tourism and business relationships between Northern Ireland and Canada, a nation with which we have historic links stretching back many generations. In fact, some 48,000 Canadian visitors came here last year, up five per cent on 2014, according to Tourism Ireland, which has organised an impressive and very successful programme of such events to support our successful Year of Food and Drink initiative.
A key aim for us will be to build on this programme and the good contacts made during 2017. It’s essential that all the progress made during Year of Food and Drink is built on next year and beyond to ensure the growth of food and tourism, two strategically and largely locally controlled industries with immense potential to create additional employment opportunities and enhance prosperity particularly in rural communities.
Food and drink and tourism are probably the only two industries that reach virtually every part of Northern Ireland. And both are proving to be highly innovative and increasingly customer-focused. Belfast ‘Twilight Market’, for instance, is a great example of innovation and customer focus aimed at promoting food and drink to local people and as another attraction for visitors to the city.
The City Council is now running the market twice a year – early summer and late autumn. The event, held over two days last week, was another outstanding success, a marvellous opportunity for smaller producers and street vendors to reach a wider audience. Both nights were successful and contributed substantially to one of the key objectives of Year of Food and Drink and Food NI – reconnecting producers and local people for the long-term benefit of our most important manufacturing industry, one which is continuing to show good growth particularly in terms of business in key markets such as Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
The outstanding success of the recent BBC Good Show in Belfast also enhanced our reputation as a region producing excellent food and drink and also demonstrated the appetite here for such events.
Other markets beyond these shores, I am delighted to say, are developing and opportunities harnessed by our friends in Invest NI. It was great to see two Food NI member companies, Irwin’s Bakery of Portadown and Tandragee’s Tayto Crips, securing new business at the recent Hotel Asia event in Shanghai.
As our first Year of Food and Drink draws to a close, it’s clear that this important initiative has achieved all its objectives and has helped to position the food and drink and culinary industries here for further initiatives to accelerate growth at home and abroad. We now have to continue to build our reputation to become habitually recognised as a great food producing region.