There’s no question that Jim Mulholland’s latest role as Le Grand Chef at Jean-Christophe Novelli’s only Irish restaurant – at the Marriott AC Hotel in Belfast – represents the pinnacle of his long and varied career.
Jim Mulholland (49), has been pals with celebrity chef, Jean-Christophe Novelli for more than two years, ever since the French man stopped in at the Ballyrobbin Country Lodge near Aldergrove for a quick bite to eat and the pair got talking. Jim, who was head chef at the award-winning bistro at that time, made such a lasting impression on his visitor that Jean-Christophe deliberately sought him out for the top spot at his new Belfast eatery.
The Novelli at City Quay’s restaurant has been trading well since the 188-bedroom AC Hotel opened to the public in April.
“It’s extremely busy,” Jim tells LCN. “With the Marriott brand being so well known, we have hit the ground running and it’s been very busy right from day one. But we’re finding our feet now and I have a good team that is starting to gel well together.
“With a hotel as big as this one, you’re going to get challenges. It’s about trying to get everything right from the start, it’s the same in any business and it doesn’t happen overnight, it does take a bit of time.”
Jim, who comes originally from Lisburn, did his initial training at college there before going on placement to the former White Gables Hotel, an iconic venue in the town at that time.
“My grandmother was a really big influence on me,” he recalls. “She was always baking soda bread and potato farls, there was always something happening in her kitchen and that’s rubbed off on me. I loved the smells in her house and I think she influenced what I am today, I got into catering on the back of that.”
From the White Gables, Jim moved on to the Conway Hotel in Dunmurry and then to the Channel Islands where he spent the next six years in a number of venues, including the Old Government House hotel, now a five-star spa resort.
On his return to Northern Ireland, he went back to work near his native Lisburn at the former Tidy Doffer, where he was head chef for four-and-a-half years before migrating into Belfast where he worked at a number of venues including All That Jazz on the Lisburn Road. His move to the award-winning Ballyrobbin Country Lodge near the international airport took place in 2008.
His latest post at the AC Hotel came along at just the right time, he says:
“We had just won a couple of awards and we were doing very well. We were in the Michelin Guide, the Taste of Ulster and Georgina Campbell and I’d spent nine years getting the place to where it was. I knew the chances for progression that were here and the opportunities that would be available to me working with Jean-Christophe and that excited me. I knew it was time to take on a new challenge and that is what has happened.”
Indicating that he and Jean-Christophe work well together, Jim says that the restaurant’s French owner is “never off the phone” and that he visits the venue in person every other week.
“He is very excited about how everything is progressing,” he adds. “We are only on the bottom rung at the moment, there is a way to go yet, but we keep pushing every day.”
Jim’s ultimate ambition is to secure a higher position within the Marriott group, he says, and to continue working alongside his friend, Jean-Christophe.
“Our plan for the moment is to keep pushing forward, driving the change. We know what we can achieve and we want to maintain our standards. We want to get things right and we want to have a good stable kitchen team around us that we know we can maintain.”