The chef Robbie Millar, who died on Saturday in a car accident, was the leading restaurateur in his native Northern Ireland. Over the last decade, Millar's restaurant, Shanks, which he ran with his wife, Shirley, had become widely accepted as the address that defined contemporary Irish cooking.
When it opened in November 1994, Shanks, a modernist, cedar-clad building in the middle of a pair of golf courses on the suburban south coast of Belfast Lough, was as radical a concept for Northern Ireland as Paul and Jeanne Rankin's Belfast restaurant, Roscoff, where Millar first made his reputation.
The Rankins had introduced a modern, European- and Californian-influenced style of cooking and presentation that was unprecedented in Northern Ireland, and they assembled around them a kitchen crew who would go on to define modern Irish cooking in the years after they had left Roscoff. An array of culinary talent - Eugene Callaghan, Neven Maguire, Noel McMeel, Niall McKenna and Raymond McArdle - all worked with Millar and the Rankins in Roscoff between 1990 and 1993, a time when Millar's wife, Shirley, ran front-of-house. Chefs such as Callaghan, whom Millar succeeded as head chef, recall a cook with "fantastic talent, but a guy who was also a fantastic character".
Born in Ballycarry, Co Antrim in 1967, Robbie Millar was trained at Portrush Catering College, and upon graduating worked in Corfu for a year, where he ran a taverna. He worked subsequently in hotels in London and Zurich, before returning home to Belfast and the kitchen at Roscoff. Having left Roscoff in 1993, he and Shirley toured Europe in a camper van for a year, a period he was to describe as having enormous influence on the development of his culinary style.
The opening of Shanks in 1994 adopted the modernist culinary and design mantra of Roscoff, and then took it one stage further. Designed by the Dublin architectural firm of O'Donnell and Tuomey, and with interiors by Terence Conran's Benchmark company, Shanks was the perfect stage for Millar to create his signature dishes, and to cement his reputation as the leading cook in Northern Ireland.
His cooking was precise and rigorous, and defined by an élan with flavours and textures that could seem initially startling, but which inevitably proved convincing. Gratin of lobster with coconut, curry and caramelised cauliflower, or peppered scallops with creamed orzo, leeks and shiitake mushrooms, placed unexpected elements and textures side by side, but thanks to the command of a disciplined kitchen, Millar could make the dishes a success.
Critical acclaim for Shanks was instant, and enduring. The Bridgestone 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland in 1995 praised the "crescendo of excitement" which eating at Shanks offered, and the Guide Michelin awarded a star in January 1996, an accolade the restaurant has maintained to this day. Shirley Millar won the Harper's & Queen Award for best service in 1998, and every year saw fresh new acclaim for a restaurant that was run by the couple with a unrelenting precision, married with a relaxed and very Irish affability.
His many awards never altered Robbie Millar, who loved to tour the dining room after service and chat long and late with his customers, his conversation as voluble and enjoyable as his cooking.
John McKennaReuse content