Brian Donnelly + Jenny Holland - Bia Rebel Ramen
On this week's show, we caught up with Brian Donnelly and Jenny Holland - the dynamic duo behind Bia Rebel - a food truck located outside The Big Fish that dishes out the best Ramen food in Belfast.
Brian (from Tyrone) has a background as a Michelin-trained chef and has worked for some of the biggest names in the industry such as Gordon Ramsey. He enjoys Ramen, running ultra marathons and breaking rules.
Jenny is an Italian-New Yorker born in Dublin and has a background in journalism with the New York Times, speechwriting for the FDNY and writing as an independent food blogger.
After meeting in the Crown Bar here in Belfast, they have joined forces to take Belfast's street food scene by storm with a hyper-local approach that is obsessed with quality and taste, all at an affordable price for their customers.
Here are a few extracts taken from the podcast interview we had with them.
Check it out.
Ok guys, so if Liam Neeson was to show up to your truck and you had 30 seconds to tell him about Bia Rebel... what would you say?
Jenny: Well I would definitely say - slurp my noodles - the Bia Rebel slogan!
We are Northern Ireland's only authentic Ramen shop and we serve high-quality handmade produce at burger chain prices.
Brian: Mine would be '36 hours, 26 ingredients, one awesome product and its yours in under 2 minutes.'
You guys prize yourselves on having the highest quality produce possible, tell us about some of your suppliers
Jenny: I really just want to see quality win. I'm tired of being served crap food at crazy prices, especially whenever Northern Ireland has so much to offer.
There's no such thing as 'cheap food' - somewhere, somehow you end up paying for it.
Brian: The guys we use are 'outside the system.' they don't compromise on quality and taste to meet price points.
On the surface our produce is quite expensive... but at the end of the day you get what you pay for.
I don't have to subsidize it with other flavourings or extras because it's awesome the way it is.
Kenny Gracey from Tandragee supplies us our pork. Kenny is an incredible farmer who breeds the animals used in Game Of Thrones - and we're the only place in Northern Ireland he supplies for food.
Jenny: Our eggs are from Andrew Gilbert in Ballygowan. He's all about quality, not into shortcuts and really into eggs.
Brian: With all of our suppliers we've met them in person, been in their fields and turned over every stone to source the best produce.
You don't get that with restaurants. When I worked in the kitchen I just didn't have the time to do that.
What does the name 'Bia Rebel' mean?
Jenny: I'll like to take credit for that thanks very much!
Brian: We knew rebel had to be in it somewhere as we were going against the grain of traditional thinking and Ramen by nature has become quite a punky style of street food.
We reject the current food-supply 'system' that is so focused on profit margins and pumping out as much produce as possible - even if it compromises the taste and nutrition of food.
By choosing to source our food from the highest quality suppliers we feel that we are rebelling against the fast food 'budget' culture that's emerged over the years.
Jenny came up with the bia part which is Gaelic for food and I think that's awesome.
So it works on a couple of different levels because our customers can 'be-a-rebel' by choosing to eat with us and the brand name literally translates as 'food-rebel.'
Brian: I'm just going to come out and say it. Belfast/Northern Ireland does not have a 'cultural cuisine.' The Ulster fry is not an icon because when you go to Dublin its a Dublin fry or England an 'English breakfast...'
Even something like fish and chips which we are really proud of is not originally from us.
Chef friends of mine in France and Spain can't believe how amazing our produce is versus what we actually produce food wise.
I simplified it down to flour and water - something everyone has - and that brought me to noodles which in turn brought me to Japan.
If you think about it, Northern Ireland and Japan aren't so far removed from each other ... Both are islands, both are on the edge of the weather system, both produce seaweed, mushrooms and all these other things...
The only difference is that Japan didn't have the English or the potato!
Pre-English and pre-potato Ireland was doing some really incredible stuff with food - stuff that would be considered of a Michelin quality.
But then the famine came, Harland and Wolff came, we built the Titanic and all that other historical craic - but we never really picked up our own cuisine again.
Whenever I worked in Michelin restaurants you would often need a university degree just to understand what you're eating.
I think people are changing and their moving on from stuff like that, they want a more real and authentic experience and that's what we're giving them.
There's no middle man, no wholesalers, no frills. Just us, the farms and the customers.
How on earth do you convince someone from Belfast to try Bia Rebel's ramen?
Jenny: I would describe our customer acquisition strategy as 'hand-to-hand combat' - we win each person over bowl by bowl and speech by speech.
We're always sharing our story with people and thankfully they are really receptive when they hear it. We take advantage of the 2 minute window with have with each of our customer and most of them do come back.
Plus because we are a food truck instead of a sit-down restaurant it means we can offer our food at a much more effective price because we don't have to pay chefs, waiters, bussers, rent, heating etc.
So our customers can experience top notch food made to the highest standard without dropping £60 on a dish.
Brian: It's like that scene in The Matrix where they are unplugging people who get to experience the real world for the first time.
Neo says something like "why do my eyes hurt" and Morpheus says "because you've never used them before."
When I watch our customers try our chicken for example, they often say "why does this chicken taste so good" and I just simply tell them it's because they've never tasted real, high quality chicken before.
Has anyone from Japan tried your ramen?
Brian: We've had loads of Japanese tourists...
They usually come up to the truck just because they are surprised to see it here in Belfast.
When I tell them I make really good ramen they say what I imagine the Japanese equivilant to 'aye sure you do mate.'
But every time they come back and basically say 'this is incredible'
A lot of our online following is based in Japan and other parts of the world, so I think people really believe in what we're doing.
How can our listeners connect with you guys?
Brian: We're at The Big Fish by Donegall Quay which is near McHughs and the Albert Clock. We're the big blue van that says 'slurp my noodles' on the side, so we're dead easy to spot.
We're there Monday-Saturday from 11-4pm. Every week we have a promotion called 'Wild Card Wednesdays' which is basically when we produce a brand new Ramen dish to keep it fresh for us and our customers.
Be a rebel with Bia Rebel Ramen
Matthew again here: Just want to thank Brian and Jenny again for taking time out to come on the show and share their story with us.
Their food really is the real deal so I'd highly encourage you to go and check it out for yourself. If you do find yourself that way please do let them know that we sent you :)
Other than that we have recently launched a Facebook group for our community to bounce ideas off each other, organise events and connect local creatives together.
If you'd like to be a part of that simply request to join here.
Thanks a bunch for reading/listening, until next time.
All the best.