Former Northern Ireland Chef of the Year Chris Bell has returned to his hometown of Ballymena to take the reins of the Eagle Bar & Grill at Galgorm Castle.
Ballymena ‘foodies’ are already voting with their feet; since Galgorm Castle members were informed of Bell’s return alongside some social media activity, the restaurant has been fully booked over the two weekends since Bell returned.
“I am delighted to be back at the Eagle and am eager to provide the highest quality offerings using fantastic local produce at reasonable prices,” explained Bell, the first chef from Ireland to win the Gordon Ramsay Scholarship.
The Broughshane native was Northern Ireland Chef of the Year in 2003 & 2004 and featured as a finalist on two series of the BBC’s Great British Menu. Since his initial stint in the Eagle, Bell has worked on a number of projects but was always seeking to return ‘home’.
“It’s very exciting what’s happening here on the estate. It’s a fantastic set up with huge potential and the Eagle is just one of a number of top-class attractions; Galgorm Castle has so much to offer the whole family, my son Billy absolutely loves it here and with good reason”, as dad cooks up a storm, Billy gets to enjoy lessons at the range from Galgorm Castle’s PGA Professional
Bell has long been a pioneer of Northern Ireland’s world-class produce, which this year has enjoyed the limelight at home and abroad thanks to Tourism NI’s year-long celebration of Food and Drink in 2016, “We source local produce from Northern Ireland and use only local suppliers where possible,” says Bell, whose home in Broughshane is just a stone’s throw from one such supplier, Bread & Soul.
“Instead of using olive oil from abroad, we use Broighter Gold’s rapeseed oil from Limavady, our prime Irish beef is 35-day aged in K&G McAtamney’s Himalayan Salt Chamber, we use Burren Balsamics and our breads are freshly baked in by Michael Dundee in Bread & Soul. All our meat, fish and veg are sourced locally.
“We are very proud of what we produce here in Northern Ireland and at the Eagle we want to showcase top quality, home grown produce via our fantastic dishes. As soon as you walk into the restaurant you’ll know you’re in Northern Ireland!”
Bell is keen to create an informal and social dining experience where guests can book in advance or else turn up and enjoy a drink while a table becomes available.
“We’ll have all the usual suspects on the menus, great fish and chips, Irish stew, bangers and mash or steak,” he adds. “But we’ll also have the blackboards out and if people want to try something a little different you can have your lobster, turbot or scallops. There are no set rules. If you want to eat lobster in the bar, feel free. Similarly, if you want a burger in the restaurant, go ahead, no problem.”
Whatever unfolds, Bell is aware of his surroundings; as a golf club all major sporting events will be shown live and he and his staff will play their part in creating the right ambiance in a casual environment.
“This is a golf club first and foremost and we want to provide the members with facilities they can be proud of. From that we hope to grow a wider customer base in Ballymena and beyond as we strive to create a genuine destination dining venue,” says Bell.
When one enters the Eagle Bar & Grill, the walls of the modern clubhouse display an exhibition of outstanding golfing portraits by world-renowned golf artist Mark Robinson. Born in Belfast, Robinson spent his early years in Garvagh before moving to England with his parents.
Robinson is a fascinating character with a rich back-story whose flair for art and music has seen the Belfast native tour with the likes of Black Sabbath, Praying Mantis and Prince. These days his focus is back on the canvas as he paints the world’s best golfers and captures scenes from some of the biggest tournaments in the game.
“I studied fine art and theatre and always painted in my spare time, even when I was a professional musician and lighting engineer on the road. I ended up in the Middle East with a theatre company and started doing some portraits for the Royal Family and other dignitaries,” explained Robinson of his time before delving into the world of golf.
“In 2008 I sort of got fed up and painted a portrait of Henrik Stenson in Dubai. Everyone saw it and went wow, asking me why haven’t I been doing this type of thing before. Since then I have pretty much been concentrating on swing portraits of golfers.”
Robinson quickly got noticed for his work and the European Tour approached him to become their ‘Artist in Residence’, which led to his relationship with Galgorm Castle. At this year’s Northern Ireland Open, Robinson was commissioned to paint the final scene of the tournament and the painting now hangs above the entrance to the Eagle Bar & Grill.
Robinson has created a full exhibition of golfing portraits featuring the likes of Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Henrik Stenson and Darren Clarke that can be viewed in the Eagle whilst enjoying the fantastic food and drink served by Chris Bell’s team.
Original paintings are available to purchase, with prints also available. For further information, please visit robinsongolfart.com