A taste of the west: Galway pulls them in with food
As Ireland’s first restaurant week gets underway, Galway proves it is very much on the foodie map
JP McMahon: ‘We need to demand better. There’s no point going to eat in a place because it’s cheap’
Galway is acclaimed for its youthful vigour, heaving pubs and an arts scene that has spawned multiple festivals and the careers of countless performers, playwrights and puppet masters.
But for decades foodies who travelled west could be heard moaning about the absence of anywhere really special to eat as they watched the sun go down on the bay. A few notable exceptions aside, the city used to be relatively barren when it came to eating. But the times they are a-changing, and Galway now boasts a Michelin-starred restaurant and several other high-end options that are all about local produce and ingredients.
In April, the city drew more than 70,000 people to its third annual food festival. The event’s driving force is JP McMahon, who a owns three restaurants – Cava Bodega, Eat gastropub and the Michelin-starred Aniar.
He moved west from Dublin in 1999 and has watched his adopted home town bloom in recent years. He attributes the “fantastic food scene” to “a really good network of chefs, restaurateurs and producers who have come together in the past few years. Galway is cosmopolitan and accepting of newness; there’s a hub of different cultures here. It is just the right size to get 20 people into a room and run a festival.”
All-year momentumHe says the festival was not a short-term thing aimed at getting punters through the doors of restaurants for the four nights it lasted, “but to keep that momentum up for the whole year”. Galway is beautiful on a clear summer’s day, but those days are as rare as an organic hen’s teeth, and the challenge McMahon and others face is surviving not just in the summer, when tourists snake through the city in their thousands, but year-round in good weather and bad.
But just cooking and serving beautiful food is not enough, he believes, and anyone who is going to survive needs to be plugged into the social network. “It’s not enough to be a chef or a restaurateur any more. Social media is so important for bringing the international element to food culture here. The fact that you can communicate with anyone in the world, including chefs and critics you never would have access to before, creates new thought patterns and ways of thinking when it comes to food.”
And when McMahon thinks about food, respect is almost always the first ingredient that comes to mind. “People look to the apex of everything but we should always put as much effort into making more everyday food like sandwiches or burgers better.
“Chicken is so cheap in Ireland because we’re killing up to 100,000 of them a day. If we spent a little bit more and ate it a little bit less we’d be happier, because we don’t need to eat it in every meal. We can talk all we want about good practice, but if we go back to the supermarket and pick up the cheapest packet of chicken fillets, then what’s the point?”
For the Michelin-starred man, the festival is a starting point. He hopes it will help the city grow as a food destination. “We need to demand better. There’s no point going to eat in a place because it’s cheap, but it’s a difficult task because of the times we’re in. I’d like to see any restaurant that opens up here, whether it’s Italian or Irish, to do really good food and to stay true to themselves.”
For Gill Carroll, owner of 37 West cafe and deli, “healthy is the new sexy”. Her cafe is a long way from breakfast rolls at petrol stations: she caters for health-conscious food lovers with salads, soups, omelettes, smoothies, juices and gluten-free options.
“It isn’t about low-calorie diet food,” she says. “It’s about using fresh ingredients packed with health benefits, made from scratch and that taste great,” she says. Her cafe also offers the gluten-free Paleo diet, which is free from grains, dairy and vegetable oil and refined sugar, and which advocates say results in higher energy, clearer skin and increased muscle mass, something that perhaps attracted the Connacht rugby team members to her Paleo salad.
“We’ve been open for just over a year,” she says, “but people seem to really like what we’re doing and that we offer something different.”
#RestaurantWeek will run from today until June 8th. Follow @TwitterDublin for live tweeting and updates.