His heart and his roots are in Comber but Jamie Neill’s passions belong to Hong Kong, a place that heavily influenced his recent win in a television cookery competition.
Jamie (28), an assistant manager at Shu restaurant on Belfast’s Lisburn Road, was crowned the winner of BBC NI’s six-part series, Farm to Feast. The show invited seven of Northern Ireland’s most talented amateur cooks to move into Crom Castle in Fermanagh, where they lived together and competed against each other, using the finest local ingredients to make culinary masterpieces. Presented by Eamonn Holmes, the dishes were judged each week by Michelin star chef Danni Barry and food critic Joris Minne, who likened Jamie to a young Paul Rankin. His head still spinning from his success, an excited Jamie said his time travelling and working in Hong Kong had inspired his menu choices on the show. “The cooking I did was maybe a little bit different from the other guys. I enjoy the flavours of Asian style cooking and I think the ideas I had just worked well with the ingredients we were given,” he explained. Amongst the local produce used on the show were Mill Bay oysters, pork from Glenarm, black bacon from O’Doherty’s butchers in Fermanagh, eels from Lough Erne and eggs from Ballyskeagh. “It was a cooking competition but it was also just to show how amazing local produce is in Northern Ireland and I think that’s partly why people have seemed to really enjoy watching it,” says Jamie. More accustomed to working front of house, having been in restaurant management for seven years, Jamie says he nonetheless always takes a keen interest in what’s happening in the kitchen. “I’m interested in food so I’m always asking the chefs how they make a particular sauce or how they change a flavour,” he says. “I just find it fascinating that you can totally change a dish by changing the smallest little thing.” Jamie first got a taste for Asian food five years ago when he and his girlfriend Amy spent six months travelling through Japan. “I think that is where I got most of my inspiration from for the show. Yes the trip was about seeing different cultures but mostly it was about the food and every day there was something new to try,” he says. More recently, Jamie and Amy returned to Hong Kong where Jamie worked as assistant manager at the Mandarin Oriental for a year before Covid-19 prompted their return to Comber in March 2020. “We went out there on a working holiday visa and loved it, it was really good fun, but my partner Amy quite wanted to move back and settle down and get a house. “I followed the heart because we’ve been together for 12 years in December and we follow each other wherever we go. It felt like the right move just in case everything kicked off, which it did,” says Jamie. He was prompted to enter Farm to Feast by Amy’s sister who sent him a link to apply for the show. Explaining why it appealed to him, he said: “When I was at school I loved drama and being on the stage and I liked expressing myself that way and through art. I think you can express yourself through cooking as well. “The show was exciting because it would mean meeting new people who were hopefully likeminded in their passion for food.” Jamie admits that he had not cooked with many of the ingredients before and as a result he relied heavily on his memories of the dishes he had eaten during his time in Japan. “I’d never cooked with eel before and I’ve cooked with prawns but never langoustines and never oysters. I’ve done a roast dinner with pork and lamb and slow cooked with them, but nothing that has ever been timed. “It was stressful trying to think of something and come up with a creative way of cooking it,” he laughs, recalling his attempt at a battered oyster. During filming, which took place over the course of a week in June, Jamie says they were given no feedback from the judges until they heard it for the first time when the series began being broadcast on September 27. “It was the first time we had seen their discussions so although we knew the outcome we didn’t really know how anyone had come to that outcome,” he says There were plenty of other surprises in the show, says Jamie, explaining that they had just half an hour’s notice of what ingredients they would be cooking with. “We had a pantry list of all the staple ingredients we could use like spices and herbs and different vegetables but the actual star ingredient was only known when Eamonn lifted the cloches to show us what we were cooking with. “So it came as a genuine surprise every time and we had 30 minutes to look at the ingredients, figure out what we could do with what we had from the pantry and then just cook something that we thought would work.” Despite the pressures, Jamie says filming the show was fun from beginning to end and he counts himself lucky to have made lots of new friends, amongst them the ‘local legend’ that is Eamonn Holmes. “I think all of us were a wee bit starstruck when we first met him because most of us had grown up with him being on the TV. “He’s a really nice man and as soon as he walked through the door he knew all of our names. He was really supportive as well and any time he comes back to Belfast he keeps in touch, which is lovely. “Part of the best bit is being able to have those friendships with him and the other guys in the show. I think we see each other every other week and I don’t think any of us expected that to happen initially, but we all bonded well which is nice.” Jamie hopes the show might open up new opportunities for him and laughs: “All of us in the show just thought we’d ride the wave and see where it goes. You never know what can happen and it’s fun to do something different.” Ideally Jamie would love to open his own small restaurant and bar specialising in Asian fusion cooking, with himself working between the kitchen and front of house. “Chefs do get it extremely hard with long hours and you don’t really get to speak to the guests so it’s quite anti-social. “Ideally I’d like a venue that was a very open kitchen and I was serving people as well as cooking for them with a very Mediterranean type vibe and rotating event nights through different months. “I think that’s what pushed me to enter the competition because I thought if I give it a go someone will hopefully see the passion I have for what I do, with people and with food, and give me the opportunity to see if it goes anywhere.”