Flipping burgers near Benone Strand is like a lifetime ago to Derry chef, Ian Orr, but it’s where it all began.
When it comes to colanders, cooking and all things culinary the 30 year-old head chef needs no introduction.
Ian, who is the head chef and co-owner of Brown’s restaurant in Bond’s Hill, has learned from some of the best chefs in the land.
After picking up the basic culinary skills from working in local restaurants in and around Derry, Ian took a pay cut to go and work at the late Robbie Millar’s Michelin starred Shanks Restaurant at the Clandeboye Estate in Bangor.
“Robbie [Millar] had a massive impact upon my career as a chef. He was great to work with.
“We had just finished a wedding that day - we had worked really hard. I remember getting the call to tell me Robbie had been killed after his Maserati left the road - I was devastated,” said Ian.
Ian was born in Derry in 1983 and was reared in Kilfennan with his younger brother Gary and his older brother Alan.
Ian’s father is called Billy Orr and is a former fire-fighter; his mother Margaret, was a housewife and looked after Ian and his two brothers when they were younger.
“I had the most amazing childhood. Because of dad’s job we moved around a lot and we lived in Enniskillen for seven years. I’ve great memories of playing with my brothers but unfortunately we lost Gary to leukaemia when he was only 16. Myself and Gary were very close, he was a great fella and an even better brother.
“I went through a stage of wanting to be a fire-fighter like dad and then I wanted to be a farmer for a while but after spending a summer working in a chipper near Benone Strand when I was 14 years-old food became my passion and I decided I wanted to be a chef.”
“It was just a summer job but I enjoyed cooking burgers, preparing the garnish - that’s where it all started really.
“A few years later it was time to chose the kind of place I wanted to go and do my work experience. At this stage I was determined to be a chef so I ended up at the Inn at the Cross on the Glenshane Road (it’s now called the Belfray Country Inn).
“I must have done something right because at the end of my work experience, they offered me a job.
“I worked Saturdays and Sundays and really enjoyed it. One of my jobs was to prepare the potatoes for the mash for the Sunday carvery. I can’t convey to you how many potatoes had to be peeled and boiled - I hated that task so much. On a Sunday I would attend Sunday school and I wouldn’t get into to work till around quarter to one but the spuds were always waiting for me,” he laughed.
Ian spent two years at the Inn at the Cross before moving on to the Exchange restaurant where he helped to establish it as Derry’s number one place to eat.
“Working in the Exchange was so exciting because I was still in the early stage of my career and everything was still very new.
At the age of 20, Ian had over four years working in restaurants under his belt but when he broke up with his girlfriend he decided he wanted a change.
“My girlfriend and I broke up but it had a happy ending because I ended up getting a job working for Robbie Millar and I married the girlfriend a few years later,” he laughed.
“When I approached Robbie I told him why I wanted to come and cook in his restaurant.
“Robbie told me I could come and work for him but it was on the provision that I was paid £120 per week. I essentially had to take a 50 per cent pay cut to go and work for Robbie in Shanks but looking back now, it was one of the best decisions I could ever have made.
“Shanks was the number one place to eat in Northern Ireland back then and it’s sad to think there are no Michelin star restaurants in the north anymore - maybe we can get one here at Brown’s,” he suggested.
Sadly, Robbie Millar died tragically in 2005 after he crashed his car on the way home from work.
“I couldn’t believe it when I got the news. I had spoken to Robbie a while before his death and told him how I would like to work in London and he organised everything for me.
“Robbie died in August 2005 and I was due to go to London in October. After his death, the restaurant closed so I just moved back home for the time before I was due to go to London.”
Ian’s next port of call was working at the River Cafe in London. The restaurant had one Michelin star and Ian said working there was a wonderful experience.
“It was so much fun living and working in London. It’s something I was glad to get out of my system.
“My girlfriend came over with me and we spent two happy years there and when we came back to Derry we were engaged.
“River Cafe was brilliant because the food they served was top, top class but it was in a really relaxed atmosphere - I loved my time there.”
On his return to Derry, a friend of Ian’s asked him if he would help out at the Rathmullan House hotel.
“I only thought it was going to be for one night but it ended up being for three years,” he laughed.
“I was head chef at Rathmullan House and it was there that I really started to appreciate all of the ingredients the north of Ireland had to offer.”
Ian started to develop a good reputation and when business man Marcus Roulson approached him and asked him if he’d be interested in becoming the new head chef at Brown’s restaurant in Derry, Ian made sure it was on his own terms.
“I didn’t want to just be another head chef, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to be creative so myself and Marcus became business partners and here we are four years down the line.
“We have Brown’s restaurant in Bond’s Hill, Brown’s In Town on the Strand Road, Brown’s Bistro at the Magnet on the Culmore Road and we also run Brown’s on the Green at Letterkenny Golf Course.
“I always wanted to have my own restaurant by the time I was 30 but I could never have imagined that I would have four,” he said proudly.
Ian’s idea of a perfect meal is roast langoustines done in lemon and rocket, served up with a chilled glass of the best Chardonnay.
“My food philosophy is simple. Do it well and do it nice. I love nothing more than cooking with good quality, fresh and local ingredients. I quite passionate about serving seasonal food too - you won’t see a strawberry in this restaurant during the winter months. If it can’t be harvested or it’s not in season, it won’t be on the menu,” he said passionately.
“It’s all going well at the minute. I just won best Derry chef award for the third year in a row and we were also named as the best restaurant in Ulster too but we can’t get complacent.
“I have a great relationship with all of the staff here. There’s no shouting like you see some of the chefs doing on the television. I have a great team behind me and we all get on.”
Ian is married to Jennifer and they have a baby boy called Oliver.
For more information on Brown’s Restaurants visit their website: www.brownsrestaurant.com or telephone: 028 7134 5180.