Paul Rankin: Life After Michelin
As the debate about the value of a Michelin star heats up again, Emily Hourican talks to Belfast chef Paul Rankin about success, accolades, losing it all and starting again.
Paul Rankin was the first chef to win a Michelin Star in Northern Ireland, with Roscoff, in 1999. He was also, for years, a regular on TV (X Factor: Battle of the Stars, food shows such as Ready, Steady Cook and The Great British Menu, and most recently Paul and Nick’s Big American Food Trip) and author of five books.
At one stage, his empire included 15 different food businesses, until a combination of the economic downturn and over-extension saw that reduced to just one, Cayenne, on the site of what was Roscoff, until finally, in 2013, that too closed.
Now, aged 55, he is free from the constraints of running a business (although when asked whether he will open another, he says coyly “I’ve a few projects on at the moment”).
So, is this a good time in his life? “Yeah,” he says. “I’m taking things a bit easier. I mean, I’ve been cooking for 30 years and I’m really enjoying taking a break from the kitchen. I still have kitchen dreams and nightmares every other night. That just shows how embedded it is in me.”
He’s talking about the classic kind of anxiety dream that most of us still focus around school exams, except that for Rankin, the dreams take the shape of cooking for the President in the White House, but having to find a chicken in Donegal and not getting back in time. “Nonsense stuff,” as he says, but still, an indicator of the mental toll of all those years. “In a high-end kitchen,” he agrees, “that intensity is there almost every single day.”
Does he ever look back and wonder how he managed it all? “I do. I especially wonder how Jeanne and I did it when we had a Michelin star, the kids were tiny, we were writing a book a year and doing one or two TV series a year. I don’t know how we did it, and I can’t even really remember it. If I was to try and do that now, I couldn’t. There was the adrenalin, and the passion, and it was fresh. I would never be as passionate about the media as I would have been about the food and the restaurant business,” he admits, perhaps a little sadly, “but it has been kind to me.”
Jeanne is, of course Paul’s wife and business partner of over 25 years. The couple split, amicably, in 2011, but until then, she was a vital part of the Rankin success story.
They ran the restaurants together, wrote the books together, and often appeared on TV together. They first met in Greece, then went to Canada, where Jeanne is from; “she taught me how to fake it as a waiter, and I’ve been faking it ever since,” says Paul with a laugh.
“I fell head over heels in love with the restaurant business, and when I fall in love, I become a bit obsessive. It started to light a little fire in me. When I trained as a chef, people said, ‘you’re too old, you’re 24, you can’t do it.’ And by the time I got my Michelin star, people said ‘you’re very young to have a Michelin star!’” So, he concludes, “don’t listen to a bloody word all those experts say. If you feel it your heart and your head, have a bloody good go!”
Unravelling the Northern Irish peace process is a tricky business; how much is down to personalities and politics, how much is simply economics and social shifts? But there is no doubt that Paul and Jeanne, in their way, contributed. He knows it – “At the time we got our star, there was a total of 25 Michelin stars in the UK. Every single broadsheet from the Republic and the UK came over to write about us. At the time, I thought they were writing about me – typical egotistical chef – but actually, what they were writing about, the undercurrent of it was, ‘Northern Ireland has a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Does that mean we’re moving into a different time?’ And it was. It was a signpost for a different time.” That said, he doesn’t bother dwelling on past successes; “I’m not very good at taking compliments,” he says, “so I don’t necessarily feel immense pride.”
What does make him proud? “I think I had a bit of a revelation in the last three years, seeing my children kind of grown up.” This is part and parcel of a generally changed attitude to life.
“There’s a wonderful saying that I’ve come across,” he says. “’Just to be alive is enough.’ Every breath we take on planet earth is a gift and we should enjoy it. And so I don’t really have regrets. Some things I could have done better, some things I could have done worse, but you definitely learn from tough knocks or things you haven’t done right.” What kinds of things did he learn?
“Empathy and love, you learn those. There were tough times. But I wouldn’t be as kind or aware, wise, stupid… I wouldn’t be who I am if I hadn’t gone through those things. And looking back on it, the lessons I learned in those times were very valuable. I don’t know if I’d change a thing, because I feel much more awake now.”
And, he points out judiciously, “we all go through tough stuff,” adding, with an endearing mix of boastfulness and chagrin, “I had a home run in life for 40-odd years. I hit home run after home run after home run. I was due a bit of pain. And it was good for me!” Good how, I wonder?
“I’ll tell you one of the things it did teach me. It reminded me that I’m not money-motivated. I kind of look back on it and think, ‘why the hell was I doing that in the first place?’ You kind of got talked into it.” He’s talking about the failures of the business, but then extrapolates outwards to take in philosophy and life lessons too.
“We compensate in life, quite a lot, whether with money, fame, prestige, holier-than-thou-ness. We compensate for not being connected to life, to the people who matter. And I learned – I’ve always been pretty down-to-earth, never phased by celebrity or fame – but I learned what a nonsense it really is and that the important things in life are the same important things as were a hundred or a thousand years ago. The simple things. I think that’s quite beautiful.”