It’s a long way from a bread van at Windsor Terrace to a Michelin starred restaurant in France, but somewhere along that life journey, local chef Emmett McCourt discovered his passion for food. You could say he hasn’t looked back since then, and he hasn’t - professionally. But now, on a food journey of a different kind, 44-year-old Emmett is on a mission to spread the news about Ireland’s rich food history, and it’s a message he’s determined to take global.
Emmett, who’s a lecturer at the North West Regional College, can trace his earliest childhood memories back to a passion for food.
“I remember my granny taking me from the Model Nursery School and we’d walk along Windsor Terrace. I still remember to this day the smell of the buns from Mickey Ennis’ breadvan.
That smell of baking when he opened the back of the van has stayed with me ever since, even when I was in France, I’d think about that when I was in any of the boulangeries over there. I’ve always been a homebird, really,” he smiles.
Emmett grew up in Carnhill, after the family moved from Creggan during the Troubles. Like most teenage boys at the time, he remembers the Troubles. For him, cooking and exploring the great outdoors was a way of getting away from the conflict.
He credits his father Dennis with having instilled in him an appreciation of the countryside around the North West.
“My father’s a great man for the country side, and when we’d go walking when I was younger he’d throw in a history lesson as well, so in tracing the history of Irish food for the ‘Feast or Famine’ book, I have a lot to thank him for. He always grew his own vegetables and loves that way of life.”
Emmett recently clinched a prestigious ‘Best Local Food Promotion Initiative’ award for his mammoth exploration of the food heritage of the North West. In getting the award he beat big hitters like the Balmoral Show, which gives some indication of the scale of his undertaking.
His book ‘Feast or Famine’ hits the shelves in June and the local father of two says researching the project has been a huge journey of discovery for him.
“Food Heritage unites us all and the food influences which have come out of the North West are staggering,” he says.
Emmett’s culinary career began 24 years ago at the NI Hotel and Catering College, Portrush. Since then he has travelled extensively working in the kitchens of some of the world’s finest restaurants, luxury cruise liners and hotels alongside some of the world’s greatest chefs, including international names such as the legendary Georges Paineu and Ives Thuries of France.
Locally, he has had the great pleasure and honour of working and learning in the shadow of Sean Owens, Noel McMeel and the late Robbie Miller.
Bringing everything back to the shores of the North West, the Derry chef has fond memories of his time spent working in Kealy’s Seafood Bar in Greencastle when he served up a buffet to guests honouring Brian Friel’s ‘Dancing at Lughnasa.’
“That was a great time in Ireland when we had a lot of American visitors to that part, and that particular night we had Brian Friel, John Hume and Charlie Haughey there. I loved working down there, it was an amazing experience and as a chef, a great place to cut your teeth.”
From there, Emmett travelled to one of London’s most exclusive areas and worked in the kitchens of the Royal Garden in Kensington under esteemed chef Jean Marie Zimmerman. It was during his time in France, however, where Emmett says he learned most about the importance of food heritage.
“Classical French cuisine takes its influences from a lot of places and events from the history of France and that really woke me up to the importance of local inspiration behind certain dishes and sourcing food locally.”
Still having itchy feet after working in France, despite returning to Derry for a short time, Emmett quickly accepted a job offer with Disney Cruiseliners, a job which took him all over the world.
But those itchy feet soon found there way back to the North West and things went full circle for the local food enthusiast who found himself teaching in the Hotel and Catering College in Portrush.
During this time, Emmett went back to school himself and studied for a degree in culinary studies.
Speaking this week during a quieter than usual week in the Flying Clipper restaurant at the North West Regional College, Emmett says he hasn’t looked back since finding his way into teaching.
“I’m still promoting great local Northern Irish food,” he says.
Anyone who works with Emmett would agree that that’s a bit of an understatement.
He clearly lives and breathes the philosophy of home grown produce.
He believes in the value of knowing our food history, and more importantly. how that food history can link us with corners of the world thousands of physical miles away. In retracing the eating habits of people in the North West, he says we have a thing or two to teach the world.
“Our local produce is among some of the best in the world,” he says.
“I’m delighted that people are rediscovering that, I think when you get to the stage where we have people like Heston Blumenthal doing the kind of cooking he’s doing, it can only go one way.
People are becoming more self sufficient now in terms of what they eat and that brings it all back to local, I think it’s great to see that.
“My book, and this project, is about how our food has travelled. The Irish are known for having gone around the world and built other nations but no one’s really explored what fuelled them and what recipes they brought to those nations. We’ve discovered it’s a real melting pot.
“We’ve discovered that the famous McCain family, who are known all over the world for their frozen fries and chips, actually left from the North West.
“The food history from these parts is unbelievable.
“The hash brown, for instance, came from the Irish ‘boxty’ potato recipe which came from these shores as well.”
Emmett, who in the course of an extensive career has cooked for famous names including Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy, says his book has also been a personal journey of discovery.
He remained tightlipped about what he described as a massive family discovery which has also been unearthed in the course of investigations for his book and will be revealed in line with the publication.
In the months to come, Emmett is set to make a tv appearance, as well as travelling the North West with a replica mobile hearth where he’ll demonstrate Irish cooking the way it used to be done.
He’s also been serving up food on 9,000 year old bog oak plates.
“We see chefs using all kinds of fancy slates to serve food up on and I thought being from the city of the oaks that was the perfect way to present my food,” says Emmett.
All of these elements are tied under his award winning Irish Food Heritage Project and are set to make Emmett a bit of a famous face in the Irish cookery world. While he gets the project out there in the next year, Emmett will also continue in his role as lecturer in the North West Regional College.
“I’m so grateful for the support of the NWRC in everything I’ve tried to do. They’ve been fantastic,” he says.
And despite his ascension to the top of the culinary world he still has a special place in his heart for the buns fresh from the bakeries in Derry.
“There’s nothing like it. It’s part of my life history and everybody, if they think about it, has a food memory like that. That’s part of what I’m hoping to capture.”
Keep up to date with Emmett’s food adventures in the Journal as they happen in the coming months.