From the flavours of Tayto cheese and onion and McDaid’s Football Special to Washington DC’s top restaurant, Belfast chef Sophie Smith’s amazing culinary journey

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NORTH Belfast native Sophie Smith is quickly becoming one to watch when it comes to the restaurant scene. Having just wrapped up her second year studying culinary arts management at Ulster University, Sophie has a lot to be proud of. In November, she was named World Skills UK national champion in culinary arts while her themed tasting menu sold out Ulster University’s Academy restaurant.

Sophie credits much of her success to her lifelong interest in food. Growing up, she was a Bake Off super fan and was fascinated by shows like Heston Blumenthal’s Fantastical Feasts which pushed the boundaries of traditional cooking.

“There was this one show called The Taste with Nigella Lawson,” says the 21-year-old, recalling another food show that captivated her. “Chefs had to get all their flavours onto a spoon so the whole dish fit into one bite – it was so cool.”

“I think it got cancelled after two or three seasons, but I was there watching every single minute of it – I loved it,” laughs Sophie.

She was also very quick to develop a sophisticated palate.

“My parents got a voucher for James Street South for their wedding anniversary,” Sophie says. But when the day of their reservation came round, “they didn’t have any babysitting”.

“So they took me and my little brother, Joseph, with them,” says Sophie. “Joseph was about three or four and I was about five or six at the time.

Sophie was named World Skills UK national champion in culinary arts in November last year
Sophie was named World Skills UK national champion in culinary arts in November last year

“So, we were looking through the menu and I saw that they were serving rabbit and I decided to order it because it was a big treat. My mum didn’t think I would like it but when it came out, I demolished it.

“I was so amazed by the different flavours and the fact I still remember it so vividly to this day is crazy to me.”

Despite her fascination with food, she originally planned to follow a science career.

“I always had a passion for cooking, but I was worried if I made it my career, I would lose my passion for it,” Sophie explains.

“So, I ended up going into chemistry for a year at university, but I really didn’t enjoy it – it just wasn’t what I wanted to do.

“After a really long talk with my mum I decided I would go and study culinary arts instead because I wanted to be a chef. So, I made the move and I’ve never looked back.”

Her background in science has, however, made her quite an experimental chef.

“There’s the whole concept of molecular gastronomy which is the process combining scientific method to create food and it’s just so cool and adds that little extra touch to the creative process,” says Sophie.



“It gives you the opportunity to make something completely random – like Heston Blumenthal made a bacon and egg ice cream and a lot of people thought that was mad but the people who tried it were blown away by it, and it really put him on the map.”

Sophie’s own creative cooking was demonstrated when she served up her locally-themed tasting menu at The Academy, Belfast.

The six courses aimed to showcase iconic flavours such as Tayto cheese and onion and McDaid’s Football Special in an elevated fine dining style.

McDaid's Football Special sorbet
McDaid’s Football Special sorbet

“You had the option to go traditional or do a theme and I decided if I was doing a theme, I would go all in,” says Sophie.

“My idea was to redesign Northern Irish home comforts, so I was looking at my childhood as well as my parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods and seeing what sort of nostalgic flavours stood out to them.”

Between researching different dishes and testing out various flavour combinations there was a lot of trial and error involved before Sophie perfected her final menu.

“With most projects I start a new little notebook, and you can flick through and see the progression of my plating plan – it’s just drawing after drawing until I get it right and I put a big tick beside it.”

The Petit four from Sophie's NI themed menu - Suki pate de fruit, Mr Whippy cone
The Petit four from Sophie’s NI themed menu – Suki pate de fruit, Mr Whippy cone

Additionally, Sophie partnered with Belfast-based business Born & Bred to bring the menu to life.

“I got into contact with Born & Bred to see if they’d maybe want to collaborate, so I explained my concept and what I wanted to do, and they were thrilled,” she says.

“They let me try out different products so I could finalise my dishes and see what worked – it was really lovely to see other people in the industry get excited about a young chef’s food.”

The starter from Sophie's NI themed tasting menu - Belfast Bap - croute, pork terrine, cured egg yolk, tomato relish, confit mushroom
The starter from Sophie’s NI themed tasting menu – Belfast Bap – croute, pork terrine, cured egg yolk, tomato relish, confit mushroom

Born & Bred aren’t the only ones who are excited by the young chef’s talents as while studying, Sophie also landed a part-time job working at A Peculiar Tea.

The south Belfast eatery is run by Gemma Austin who became well known for her own quirky dishes and themed menus after appearing on Great British Menu in 2021, 2022 and 2023.

“When it comes to food theory, I am a complete and utter geek,” says Sophie.

“Even the history of food – my first ever essay for uni was the history of afternoon tea and how it has progressed and as part of that I researched A Peculiar Tea.

Sophie's NI themed fish dish - Fish on Friday - Hake, tartare veloute, potato pave pea puree
Sophie’s NI themed fish dish – Fish on Friday – Hake, tartare veloute, potato pave pea puree

“After reading my essay my course director told me that Gemma was a past pupil, and I asked if they were still in contact and if there was any chance, she would take me because I love a theme and I’d heard such good things about the restaurant.

“Since then, I’ve learnt so much from her even just how to handle yourself in a kitchen and learning to go with the flow and how to adapt – it’s a really nurturing environment.”

Who knows – with Gemma Austin as a mentor, we might even see Sophie on Great British Menu herself in the future.

“I would love to do Great British Menu,” she enthuses.

“Especially because it’s themed, I could really let my creative juices flow.”

But for now, Sophie is preparing for a different kind of adventure. In July she will embark on a year-long placement in one of the most prestigious restaurants in the United States – the first and only 3 Star Michelin restaurant in the Washington DC area, The Inn at Little Washington.

“I’m really excited to learn as much as I can and then bring it back home,” says Sophie.

“The Inn at Little Washington has quite an interesting history too. Originally it was a gas station and they started producing food and then suddenly it was on the Michelin guide.

“It grew to become a boutique hotel and all of the rooms are named after influential chefs.”

Sophie Smith at the National Finals of the World Skills UK competition
Sophie Smith at the National Finals of the World Skills UK competition

Sophie hopes her time in America will help her achieve her ultimate goal of opening her own restaurant here in Northern Ireland.

“Just to open a restaurant and see other people enjoying my food and my concepts that’s what I want more than anything,” she says.

“But before that I’d really like to travel and take in different cultures and different experiences in relation to food so I can bring them home and apply them to my own food.

“We have a really good food scene in NI already but if more chefs went away and then came home and incorporated their experiences into their cooking, we could have an even stronger and more experimental food scene which is something I’d love to see.”

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