Chef who left a 30 year career in hospitality to take up photography snaps up exhibition space in Kirkgate Market for six months

A chef who was forced to make a dramatic career and lifestyle change when he fell ill at the same time as the country was plunged into a coronavirus lockdown has taken up photography and his first exhibition has been unveiled this week.

By Emma Ryan
Tuesday, 17th August 2021, 4:45 am

Neil McMullen, known as Nelly, stepped out of the kitchen and behind a camera and after 30 years in the catering business doing pretty much every role going in that time, he is now happy to see where life takes him and his camera.

Like many thousands of others he was forced to re-evaluate his life, career and also what mattered most to him when the coronavirus pandemic swept the country in March 2020.

He had been in hospital with an illness and at the same time as he left, the country and in particular the industry he had worked in since he left school at the age of 15, was brought to a standstill.

Chef turned photographer, Neil, 'Nelly', McMullen in Leeds Kirkgate Market where is is holding his first exhibition of images.

With nothing else to do, he decided to explore his creative side and his love of observing real people in their every day lives setting off from his home at Roberts Wharf.

Not knowing how it would go he used the camera on his iphone but after getting great feedback he invested in a professional camera and produces images mainly in black and white. Then, through the powers of social media ended up with an offer he couldn't refuse from Leeds Markets.

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The venture into photography wasn't just to fill his time, it was as much to fill his soul after three decades of late nights, long hours, bad diets and an unhealthy lifestyle which saw him working in the Corn Exchange for 15 years, Brewery Wharf for eight years and Harrogate as well.

Looking for inspiration in the city's outdoor market, photographer Neil McMullen.

He explained: "I have done front of house, back of house, side of house, on the bar - everything. It affected my lifestyle a hell of a lot. I was not eating properly, drinking too much and something had to stop.

"It is a thankless job, I poured my heart and soul into it, got scars on my arms, you get home late, during the night you are thinking about menus, stock levels, staff and it caught up with me. I am in my 40s and thought, I have to start something else."

He has been encouraged by husband, Phillip, and despite 2020 being a "strange year", the lifestyle shift has done wonders for his confidence as Leeds Markets saw his material on twitter and offered him wall space on Butcher Row for six months.

Mr McMullen added: "I have always been creative, whether that is window displays or food presentation, and have been interested in art but never thought I would be good but I just needed to do something and wanted to do something for me.

One of Neil McMullen's favourite shots which features in the exhibition, this was taken in Harehills in January.

"I know I am very lucky to get this as gallery space is so expensive and you have to know people but they have been very generous and I snapped it up. I am absolutely terrified about it all, I admit. What if people don't take me seriously and think I am rubbish? But, you can't please everybody and I have tried my best."

Swapping the stove for life behind the lens, Leeds photograher, Neil, 'Nelly', McMullen.
Neil 'Nelly' McMullan, taking a picture of Gagandweep Shoni, aged 12, who is working on one of the market stalls in Leeds.