New chefs on the block
They've trained hard and travelled far and they're back in charge on home turf, picking up a couple of Michelin stars along the way. Meet some of the new generation of Irish head chefs
Head chef, Aniar, Galway (Michelin one-star)
Imagine this scenario: a compact 27-seat restaurant is crammed with some of Ireland’s top chefs, plus a liberal sprinkling of food writers and critics. They’ve all been at a food event in town, and use the opportunity to eat at one of Ireland’s newest Michelin one-stars. And there, in a corner, is an inspector from that very guide, the restaurant bible that can make or break careers. It’s a no-win situation - momentum is interrupted as the chefs drop into the busy kitchen, with good intentions, to say hello (and mention the elephant in the corner), and the guide’s cover is blown as he’s "spotted" by several of the chefs he has previously inspected.
“I knew there might be some chefs eating here, but I didn’t realise how many,” the Michelin man told Edna McEvoy, head chef at Aniar in Galway, when they met for a chat the day after the inspection. This isn’t unusual in the realms of Michelin, feedback is sometimes given and clarifications asked for. But this time, it was different, McEvoy had news for Michelin – he was leaving Aniar, just five months after the accolade was awarded last October.
“I wanted to be upfront about what I was doing and where I was going. I had given five months notice, I had decided to leave before we got the star.” McEvoy intends to open a restaurant with rooms, in the greater Galway area, with his wife, Sinead Meacle, and they are currently in negotiations to lease a five-bed property 23 kilometres from the city.
Today, he is doing his final service in the kitchen at Aniar. “ I will be a little sad leaving, I expect, because I put a lot of energy into the place, but I am looking forwad to a new challenge. Change is positive for me,” he says.
What happens to the star now, is down to Aniar’s new head chef, local man Ultan Cooke, who has returned from London, where he was working at John Torode’s Smith’s of Smithfield, to take over from McEvoy. The pair have been working together for the past month to facilitate a seemless handover. “We’re going to continue in the same vein, but slowly we’ll move into doing things slightly differently. But the ethos will stay the same, as in what Aniar stands for. The name means from the west, that’s about sorcing things from the west and using local suppliers, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do,” Cooke says.
McEvoy, meanwhile, will be bringing the spirit of Aniar, if not the body and bones of the business, to his next venture. “This is all me, I don’t really know how to do anything elses,” he says of the particular and highly personal stamp he put on Aniar’s menu. “This is a work in progress anyway, not to sound too highfalutin about it,” he says. McEvoy describes his cooking style as “led by the seasons, product driven and quite light and fresh”.
“I try to to just have three or at most four ingredients on a plate and get as much as possible out of them.” Lemons are the only ingredient not grown or produced in Ireland that makes it through the kitchen door. “We don’t use any spices here at all, we don’t even us e pepper. We use things like whey to get acidity from, to give things a high note, and we make different vinegars. I gather things like wild rose petals in summer to infuse them in vinegar to add to sauces later on in the year and we pickle different seed pods, berries, to use in the winter.”
The wild and local food concept is similar to the credo at Noma, in Copenhagen, where McEvoy worked for three months at the end of 2010, but he had already been working with wild and foraged ingredients when he was head chef at Sheridan’s on the Docks from 2008 to 2010.
Just like at Noma, the three kitchen staff at Aniar come out of their lair to deliver plates and interact with diners. “They’re seated by the waiters and given a wine list. Then we bring the snacks, it’s to embrace everyone when they come in, let them know they’re in capable and friendly hands. I love the idea of that. It completely relaxes people, and you win them over. You’re giving them something small to eat and its explained by the person who made it.”
There’s another advantage McEvoy sees in this hands-on approach. “You get to know what sort of guest it is, what they expect, as well. Most of the time you’re stuck in a little box, and you’re handed a little bit of paper and you make the thing that’s on the paper, and you hand it to someone else and you’ve no contact with people or where all your work is going.”
McEvoy mentions that some customers are suprised by Aniar’s modest surroundings and casual air, in relation to its Michelin status. “We did get a certain amount of people coming in here that were quite confused, you know, that would be used to eating in Patrick Guilbaud’s or Thornton’s, and they’d come in here and see, like, a cafe.”
So does he get many difficult customers? “Some people come in here quite angry or quite defensive, they feel they have to take charge of something they have no control over. So I suppose you kinda guage these people and try and relax them a bit and make them happy. If you make them happy, it makes your life a bit easier – and they can enjoy your food a lot better.”
It’s apparent that that McEvoy’s four years spent studying at NUI Maynooth, from where he graduated with a double honours degree in English literature and sociology, have given him useful insight into human behaviour, but it’s his other academic interest that he will soon have to call on. “I did maths in first year in college, however I am much more interested in people than numbers and figures. But I will have to get interested in numbers and figures again if I am going to open a business.”
Head chef, Fade Street Social
Karl Whelan has cooked for Queen Elizabeth in the grandeur of Dublin Castle, and catered for presidents, sheikhs and assorted royalty in the palatial surroundings of Le Meurice in Paris, but when he opens his own place, it will be a barbecue and blues joint, reflecting his interests in the food of America’s deep south, and music.
However, at the moment he’s following someone else’s dream. “I am helping build a restaurant, a massive restaurant, 1,800sq ft.” He’s talking about Fade Street Social, Dylan McGrath’s latest venture in Dublin city centre and by “build” he means play a role in making it a success.
“We can do up to 300/350 in the Gastro Bar per day and in the restaurant we have done close to 300 on a day.” Those are big numbers, and Whelan is keen to emphasise that it’s a team effort. “Dylan writes the menus and develops all the food, we are like facilitators for his ideas.”
As head chef, Whelan explains his slot in the kitchen hierarchy: “Executive group chef Bernard McGuane is above me, and I am above executive sous chef Troy Watson, but it’s very much the three of us together doing it. And then there’s 20 other lads working their bollocks off.”
Whelan went to catering college after being asked to leave his school, Terenure College. “I never fitted in in school, with the way that they teach. I am dyslexic, like a lot of chefs.” He found his niche in the kitchen, and has worked at some of the world’s best, travelling to Sydney and then France, before returning to Chapter One in Dublin, where he worked with Ross Lewis, designing and delivering the State banquet for Queen Elizabeth’s visit.
He has also worked in several Dublin landmarks, including Cooke’s and l’Ecrivain, and set up Tribes in Glasthule. But what he perceived to be reluctance on the part of Dublin diners to try new things, set him on another course. “What people wanted to eat and what I wanted to cook were different and it got under my skin. I wanted see what it was like at the really, really high end.”
So he went to France, and worked first at Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier, and then at Le Meurice, a Michelin three-star in Paris. Asked if the French kitchen system is as tough as it’s reputation, Whelan says “More so, in that you have big brigades and the hierarchy and the arrogance of it all, and how pompous it all is, and that goes hand in hand with amazing produce and really, really talented people.”
Although he is cooking in a very different style at Fade Steet Social, Whelan is enjoying the challenge. “We are trying to build something really special. The gastro bar has funky modern small dishes, using really really good ingredients. The restaurant is a little bit more formal and we’re trying to go with a more Irish feel there.” How does he find working with the famously exacting Dylan McGrath? “He respects what we’re doing, he knows what goes into it. of coure he comes in and picks holes in everything, but that’s his role, and my role is to take that criticism and improve.”
Head chef, Locks Brasserie, Dublin (Michelin one-star)
When the news broke last September that Locks Brasserie was one of two Irish restaurants to win Michelin stars for the first time, head chef Rory Carville was asleep and unaware of the furore. "It was my first morning off in three weeks, so I turned my phone to silent and had a sleep-in. When I woke up, there were 20 missed calls I thought the place had burned down or something," says the 29-year-old, who is originally from Castleblayney, Co Monaghan.
Carville, who has been at the helm at Locks since September 2010, when he left a job working on a luxury yacht in the Med to return to Ireland, says he was disappointed not to have won a star the previous year. “For the first year, I really tried. They [the Michelin inspectors] were in to me three or four times," he says.
Michelin inspections are done in secrecy, so how did he know? "You get to know a couple of faces. And with the open kitchen here, once a check comes on for one person, I'm always very curious to see who it is." It's not an infallible inspector detection method though. "Apparently last year they came in three times and I had no idea they were in at all," he says.
Having earned the elusive star, and seen bookings grow as a result, Carville is now faced with the pressure of trying to hold on to it. "I never actually thought about it in that way until I got it. Now it's starting to kick in what if something goes wrong this year? It's a very hard standard to maintain."
Carville describes his food as "modern Irish, with a bit of a twist", and there are occasional Japanese influences. He cites Brett Graham of The Ledbury in London as a chef whose work he admires, but says he eats out for pleasure, rather than for research. "I have one night off a week, and the last thing I want is to go home and cook. My wife and I live in Donnybrook, just around the corner from The Butcher's Grill [in Ranelagh], so it's nice to go up there for a steak and a glass of wine."
Carville was a good Leaving Cert student at Our Lady’s in Castleblayney - "the only one in my year to get an A1 in biology" he points out - but failed Home Economics. "Everyone would still be setting up their stations and I’d already have my bread in the oven," he says. "But I didn’t want to sew cushions and stuff like that, which let me down a bagfull."
Both of Carville’s brothers followed their father into the engineering profession, but it wasn’t for him, and he headed for catering college in Killybegs, where he met his wife Erin McNulty on his first day. The couple are expecting their first child in June.
Apart from impending fatherhood, what does the future hold for Carville? Is the next move a place of his own? " Locks is only kicking off now, the next few years should be very interesting. I have had a few offers since winning the star, but I am quite content here. Myself and Sebastian [Massi, co-proprietor of both Locks and Pearl Brasserie] have such a good business relationship, I wouldn’t do it to him. The next place will be my own, but it’s a matter of when and where."
Head chef, Isabel’s, Dublin
A spell working in Australia is a rite of passage that appears on the CVs of many chefs, but not a lot of them have a young family to uproot and bring along with them. Niall O’Sullivan’s children were 10, six and two when he made the move from Dublin, where he had worked at a number of restaurants including Caviston’s and Dali, to Melbourne. “I had always wanted to do it and I felt that if I could manage to organise this, with three kids, there’s pretty much nothing I can’t achieve in my life.”
O’Sullivan says the move to Australia “gave a reboot” to his cooking. After 15 months away, he’s now back in Dublin, where he is head chef at Isabel’s on Baggot Street. “I could have stayed longer in Australia. The visa we got was for four years, and my work was brilliant over there, but my wife Erika didn’t settle there, she has a twin sister and is very close to her family. We didn’t go with emmigration in mind, we went to have an experience.”
Apart from enjoying life on the other side of the world, O’Sullivan says the experience significantly changed the way he cooks. “I definitely have a lighter approach with food than I had and use a lot less cream and butter. At lunchtime we do a couple of different salads and use a lot of different grains. In Melbourne there’s a great Middle Eastern vibe with the food, so we do a lot with quinoa and pearl barley and bulghur wheat - they’re great vessels for flavour.”
Another feature of the menu at Isabels’s is the use of less fashionable cuts of meat. “The scary bits,” I say. “Treated properly, the tastiest bits,” O’Sullivan respond. “We need to teach ourselves how to cook with every element of the animal, not just get a piece of fillet in, rip it open and cut it into portions.”
He favours brining as a method of tenderising denser cuts of meat, and has an interest in producing his own charcuterie. The kitchen makes its own butter from Wickow cream and natural yoghurt, and the resulting buttermilk goes in the brown bread, as well as being used in a scallop dish. The kitchen at Isabel’s is small, he says, so there are restraints in what he can do. But there is an upside: “There’s no room for stuff hanging around, we just want to get it in, prepare it, sell it, next day start again.”
Although he’s originally from Killiney, and now lives in Greystones, O’Sullivan has strong links to the land and is a keen forager for wild foods. “There is breakdown in the link between putting a seed in the ground, growing a vegetable, taking it out of the ground and eating it. Every you chef should spend a month or two on a farm before they’re let near a kitchen. If they’re out there picking beetroot out of the ground on an ice cold morning, when it comes to preparing beetroot in the kitchen they’ll have a lot more respect for it.”
O’Sullivan goes out foraging several times a week. “I can pick pretty much all the wild herbs we need for here - we use around 14 or 15 for garnishes,” and has started an initiative called Nádúr Collective with two friends and like-minded chefs, Paul Quinn of the Three Qs in Greystones, and Dave Gallagher who works with Redmond Fine Foods. The trio plan to do wild food pop-ups, lead foraging expeditions, and generally raise awareness of the bountiful wild food available if you know where to look.
Like all of the chefs interviewed for this feature, O’Sullivan sees his career as a lifestyle rather than a job, and is happy with his choice. “ Once I started cooking, it felt really natural to me. There was no dipping in and out of it; I’ve never taken a break from it or considered doing anything else. I wouldn’t change it for the world, to be honest.”