Going with the flow
With enviable kitchen credentials that have seen him don his whites under the guidance of Gordon Ramsey, Albert Roux and Michael Deane, Bangor’s Jonny Elliott has made an auspicious start on his own behalf at Edo in Belfast’s Upper Queen Street.
Jonny Elliott (38), was a year into his A-level studies before he realised that academia just wasn’t for him.
He’d been raised among the sounds and smells of a busy working kitchen at home in Bangor and from an early age, he’d been sharing in his mother’s passion for cooking. It was no real surprise then, to those that knew him when he left home and began studying at the former catering college in Portrush at the age of 17.
It was the prelude to a busy hospitality career. Jonny opened Edo – a 60-cover casual restaurant with a free-flowing, Mediterranean approach to dining – in Belfast six months ago but he took the decision to launch the solo venture only after spending almost two decades learning the trade from some of the biggest names in catering.
His first taste of kitchen life was with Michael Deane at his former restaurant in Brunswick Street. It was a “fantastic start” to his career, recalls Jonny:
“Twenty years ago, that was one of the few restaurants in Northern Ireland that you would have considered, along with Roscoff’s and Nick’s Warehouse,” he says.
Jonny split his time between Michael’s Michelin-starred upstairs restaurant and his downstairs bistro and all told, he spent three-and-a-half years at the venue.
He then spent a brief period at Shu, which had only just opened on the Lisburn Road in Belfast, before deciding that he really needed to travel in order to broaden his culinary horizons.
He went to Amsterdam and began, quite literally, turning up at the back door of restaurants where he would offer to work a ‘stage’ or free trial in order to prove his worth. It was a tactic that seemed to work and Jonny went on to do stints at the Michelin-starred Restaurant Vermeer and the former Restaurant Christophe.
In all, he spent a couple of years in the Dutch capital, during which he also worked for Albert Roux:
“Amsterdam was a real foodie city at the time, it still is,” says Jonny. “I think there were maybe 27 restaurants there then that had Michelin stars, I think we had eight or nine in the whole of Ireland.”
When he casts his mind back, Jonny says that what really sticks out is his time with Michael Deane and a period spent at Gordon Ramsey’s Maze Grill on Royal Hospital Road, London. Again, he just turned up at the back door of the venue where he was lucky enough to encounter Co. Antrim-born chef, Clare Smyth.
Clare has been in the news recently with the launch of her own restaurant brand – Core – but at that time, she was head chef at Ramsey’s eatery.
“She thought that it was a little unusual that I would offer to do a week-long trial but I think that’s important because if you’re there for week, you’re able to see how their whole procedure works. You see them come in after a couple of days off, getting organised and working through until Friday at 3.30am after a deep clean of the restaurant.
Ramsey’s restaurant was a “very intense experience”, recalls Jonny. The produce that was used is something that he particularly recalls:
“It was coming in fresh every day from France and other places, the best of the best,” he says. “Beautiful cod and scallops the size of your hand. It was incredible.”
Johnny’s time in Europe wasn’t just spent in restaurants. He travelled extensively too, visiting Germany, Italy and the east and working on farms and olive groves.
When he eventually returned to Northern Ireland, he worked for a time at Dermot and Catherine Regan’s former Glengormley restaurant, Oregano, before his mind turned to plans for a venture of his own.
Edo, which comes from the Latin for “I eat”, opened its doors in Upper Queen Street six months ago, but it was three years in the planning for Jonny. He was determined to bring to Northern Ireland a uniquely unstructured style of European casual dining that he believes hasn’t been seen here before.
“Europeans tend to be more free-flowing with their food, in Tapas-style, the food is brought out when it’s ready,” he explains. “So it’s less structured here than in other restaurants where you usually order a starter and a main course when you come in. There’s no pressure to do that here, you can just order Tapas and then you can order something else later on if you wish.
“That makes for a really nice atmosphere as people are sharing things. It opens up the conversation and people talk about things that they mightn’t normally bring up.”
There’s a big menu at Edo with lots of variety, currently more than 30 dishes with more to be added. Complemented by 27 hand-picked wines, the selection includes vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options:
“It’s very important to cater for every individual,” says Jonny. “Lots of places have menus that are similar and they do things very well. But to me, our style of food is simply executed. There’s a lot of work in preparation but the execution is quick so we can afford to offer more. We don’t do dishes that take more than seven minutes to prepare and I think that’s one reason that we get such a strong lunchtime trade.”
The restaurant also has a Bertha charcoal oven, which aren’t common sights at venues in Northern Ireland. While a Josper is long and wide and ideal for steaks and fish, the Bertha is upright and very versatile, allowing chefs plenty of room to roast, slow cook and bake. And when it’s turned off, the cooling coals are great for smoking fish or cooking potatoes!
Priorities now for the Belfast restaurant include maintaining the standards in food and service. That can be difficult, says Jonny, in the face of the mounting crisis in the supply of hospitality labour.
“Food has become a real balancing act,” he adds. “People are crying out for chefs and waiting staff at the present time and we know that’s what makes a place great, it’s all about the team and without them, this would just be an empty unit.
“These are very exciting times for Belfast but there is great demand for hospitality staff and I think it’s going to take four or five years before the people are in place for this growth to be sustainable, but I think it will come.”
As for the future, Jonny says that he likes the size of Edo, he has no plans to expand on its current site, but he would like to open another branch in the city.
“I think that’s a definite possibility,” he adds