One thing that’s immediately obvious in conversation with chef, Paul Cunningham (33), is his abiding love for the natural world and the ingredients that he uses in his award-winning dishes.
Paul Cunningham’s high regard for the flora and fauna of his native Co. Down is the legacy of his beloved grandfather, Paddy, who instilled a great love of nature in Paul when he was still very young.
‘He took me out on the seashore to find cockles and mussels and sand eels and we would walk across Dundrum Bay in our bare feet. He was the one who started all this in me and he’s passed away now, but every year, when I’m out picking honeysuckle, I can still hear him like he was standing beside me. He told me to respect the land and it will respect you back.’
Paul has never been able to master catching a salmon with a snare – a feat at which his grandfather was endlessly proficient – but there’s no doubting the 33-year-old chef’s remarkable talent in the kitchen. That skill was acknowledged at the start of June when he collected the LCN Chef of the Year title in its inaugural year at our gala awards in the Europa.
Speaking afterwards, Paul said he had been ‘shocked’ to hear his name announced:
‘I go to most awards thinking I won’t win,’ he added modestly. ‘You’re only as good as your last meal and there are plenty of egos in this business already.’
Paul began working in hospitality at the age of just 13 in the former Roundhouse restaurant in Dundrum while he was still at school:
‘I was washing dishes, a mixture of things, I was just happy to get into the kitchen,’ says Paul. ‘I loved the buzz and I still love it today, 20 years later.’
He went full-time in the restaurant as soon as he had finished his GCSEs
Paul had two aunties, Patricia Bell and Theresa Poland, who were themselves chefs and they advised him that every six months, if he felt he wasn’t learning enough, he should move on. So when the owners of the Roundhouse – Peter Lavery and JJ Lyttle – decided to open another restaurant in Clough, Paul transferred there to work as a commis chef. By then, he was 16.
‘I was loving it,’ he says. ‘I was getting to cook every day and I was learning a lot. As soon as tech became available, I was away to Belfast to enrol and that was even more exciting.’
After about a year, he moved to the Buck’s Head Inn at Dundrum, primarily because he was keen to work with food at a higher level. He was there for about 18 months under head chef, Fergus King:
‘I got on really well with Fergus, he put a great love for the food in me. Anyone can cook, but he taught me to respect everything that came into the kitchen.’
Opening his own place was always an aim, even back then – it was a dream, but Paul says he knew he was stubborn enough to make it happen:
‘If you want something enough and you work hard to get it, then you will. It’s really up to you.’
A succession of other posts followed, at the Hillyard House in Castlewellan; The Dundrum Inn and Belfast’s Shu restaurant. Then, at the age of 24, Paul was approached by the owner of the Anchor Bar in Newcastle who wanted to bring him in to run a proposed new restaurant on the first floor of the premises.
Named after English civil engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who is said to have spent considerable time in the Newcastle area, Brunel’s restaurant opened in February 2014 and in 2017, it moved to new premises at Downs Road in the town:
‘We were hampered a bit by where we were, people would have passed about 14 other places before they came to us, but it’s all completely different here,’ says Paul. ‘It sounds crazy but since we came here, business has quadrupled, especially in lunches.’
As for the future, Paul says his priority now is to make sure that Brunel’s meets its potential – he has no plans to open another outlet – although he admits that ultimately, he has dreams of opening his own concept restaurant:
‘I don’t know where but I’m happy not being in Belfast. I can go foraging here for an hour before opening and come back with a bucket of food. I couldn’t do that if I was in the big smoke.’
In our picture, Paul is pictured with Fiona Davey, who joined the restaurant as co-director in 2017.