Beneath Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud on Dublin's Merrion Street, in a temperature-controlled room, thousands of wine bottles line the red-brick racks waiting to be drunk by the discerning customers of Ireland's only two-star Michelin restaurant.
The care given to the vast array of wine is a theme that permeates the restaurant above, where punters will pay up to €60 for lunch and €150 for dinner.
While certain aspects of the restaurant may have changed over its 36-year history in Dublin, there has been one constant – the man whose name hangs above the door. On first meeting, Patrick Guilbaud seems like the archetypal Michelin-star restaurateur. He hails, of course, from the country that produces the guide itself.
Throughout our interview he talks about his fondness for Irish produce such as game, meat and "crustacé" (shellfish to you and me). Despite having lived here since 1981, Guilbaud hasn't shaken his thick French accent and sometimes breaks out into his native language. "Fermez la porte," he gently directs to one of his staff at one point in our meeting.
These characteristics add to his charm, and while his descriptions of how a restaurant of this calibre should run sometimes border on the theatrical, it’s not difficult to see how he and his team have got customers back through the doors time and again.
Business has again begun to boom for Guilbaud but, since his restaurant first opened in 1981, he has experienced plenty of tough times. Dublin in the early 1980s certainly wasn’t the food capital of the world, or anywhere near it.
Guilbaud arrived with his family in June that year, having sold his business in England. The economy, he says, was "very poor" and "it felt like we were back in the 1960s".
“One day I went to the market, for example, the vegetable market. And I arrived at the market at 4.30am, which I used to do when I was in England or in Paris. You had to get up early, otherwise there was nothing left. So, I arrived at half past four and the market was closed. So I thought, What’s going on? There was somebody sleeping in the trunk [of a car], and I woke him up and said, ‘Sorry, is the market open today’, and he said, ‘Yeah, at half past eight’.”
Guilbaud chuckles at this story. Even when it was open, he recalls, the only ingredients he could get were onions, carrots, potatoes and cauliflower. Herbs, shallots and the more exotic ingredients of the time had to be imported.
Guilbaud wanted a “restaurant of quality” and so had to import food.
A curious choice
His choice to move to Dublin in the first place was a curious one.
“I wanted to be in a capital city,” he said. “I tried Bruxelles [Brussels]. I went to Paris. I knew Paris very well, London. My wife, she wanted to speak English, so we were limited to where we could go ... Somebody came to see me and said, ‘Why don’t you open a restaurant in Dublin? We have a site.’ There are very few good capitals in the world where you can buy a site and build a restaurant.”
So the boy from Cognac, France, upped sticks and moved to Dublin to a site on which a premises designed by architect Arthur Gibney was purpose-built for him. That building would house his restaurant until 1997.
That was when his tough times came. Faced with interest rates of 24 per cent on a loan, Guilbaud began to struggle to pay the bank. It came to a head when a sheriff visited the restaurant demanding payment.
However, throughout the 16 years of his restaurant's existence to then, Guilbaud had had one very loyal customer, businessman Lochlann Quinn. Quinn had told Guilbaud that, if he had any trouble, he should let him know. "So I made a phone call. We phoned him, and [his business partner] Martin [Naughton], and Lochlann came in and paid the bank out. Suddenly the pressure was off," he said.
The two men took a stake in the building housing Guilbaud's business. When they bought the buildings that would subsequently form the Merrion Hotel, they asked him if he wanted to move the restaurant there, "so that's what we did".
The following years saw Guilbaud’s restaurant become host to Dublin’s corporate big wigs. Was his name splattered across the bank statements of the city’s institutions in the Noughties as clients were entertained? “I’m not sure about that. I wish it were,” he says, laughing.
Corporate clients made up at least 50 per cent of his business up to 2007, before things changed again. When the recession hit, the business lost 25-30 per cent of turnover over 18 months.
“We said: we’re not going to reduce the salaries, we’re not going to reduce our prices. We’re not going to put them up but we’re going to stay as we are exactly, but we’re going to get better. Not look back, look forward. And if people leave, we don’t replace them.”
While his eponymous restaurant remained open throughout the years of austerity, Guilbaud did not escape entirely. Venu, the restaurant he opened with his son, Charles, had to close after four years as a result of high rents.
While it was tough for both at the time, he doesn’t appear to dwell on failure. Charles still works with him. By 2012 profitability started to recover and the cliff edge of 2008 became a distant memory.
The fluctuating cost of rent is something we come back to time and again throughout our interview. Would he favour commercial rent controls?
“People say, ‘Well the market dictates that’, but we should try to control that”, he says, noting that restaurants need certainty. “The costs to owning a restaurant are so high... A restaurant is limited. You can’t serve 3,000 people in a restaurant, you can seat 50 people or 45, whatever it is. That’s the size of your business and that’s it.”
Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud doesn’t appear to have suffered at the hands of extortionate rent in its current location, as evidenced by the recent €1.5 million investment in its interior upgrade. The restoration is part of the “experience” of dining in an establishment with two Michelin stars, and Guilbaud wants his guests to have the best experience.
“It pains me sometimes when people don’t have a very good experience, because they spend a lot of money to come here, they make a big effort ... It is down to us to make sure they really enjoy themselves.”
Where does he eat when not in the restaurant? He refuses to pin his flag to any one mast. "There are an awful lot of good restaurants in Ireland, " he says. He praises all his Michelin-star colleagues and refuses to single one out as the best.
Does he have a favourite restaurant in the world, in that case?
“It’s difficult to say. What I like most of all is very good food. Where the food is prepared in a fashion which is honest, the taste is there and I know what I’m going to eat is going to be good.”
Eventually he admits that he doesn’t like the experimental type of restaurant that Michelin has been lauding of late. Does that include Noma, in Copenhagen? He shrugs before saying: “It’s not for me.”
What about Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck restaurant outside London? “I don’t need music in my ear to listen to the scallops,” he says.
Blumenthal retained his three Michelin stars earlier this year. Guilbaud was hoping to pick up his restaurant’s third. Was it a disappointment not to get it?
“Of course it is. I always want a third star. We worked very hard here to get the three.”
Is he close?
“You have to ask Michelin. I don’t know; I think we are very close.”
Outside of Michelin restaurants, Guilbaud mentions that he likes to go to Sichuan in Stillorgan. "For Chinese, for something different on Sunday night or Monday, just for a change. It's a nice little Chinese restaurant.
“My wife cooks every day except Sunday and Monday. I’m in charge of cooking on Sunday and Monday night. It’s why we go to a restaurant,” he says, before telling me that he cooked a lamb pie for dinner last Sunday. “I open the fridge, look at what there is in the fridge and decide what to do.”
Perhaps that’s a slightly easier feat for someone who has training as a chef than for the average home cook. Guilbaud’s training began at the age of 18. He didn’t go to university because his parents couldn’t afford it, he says.
The Kerry man
He embarked on his training as a chef in Ledoyen, La Marée and the British embassy in Paris, where he had moved as a young boy from Cognac. He’s adamant that he’s not a Parisian – “It’s a bit like someone from Kerry moving here: he’s always from Kerry,” he says.
After Paris he moved to Manchester, where he met his Welsh wife, Sally. Now, at the age of 65, would she like him to be home more and slow down at work? “No, I have to cut the grass again. I don’t want to cut the grass.”
Although he works hard, he doesn’t make it sound like he’s a workaholic. “I’ll come in at 10 in the morning, then I’ll be working until 4pm. I come back at 9pm to see my customers. It’s not as tiring as it used to be. I’m semi-retired, is what people say.”
With his wealth of experience in the Irish restaurant business, how would he find it if he started out again?
“It is more difficult now because there are less premises, there is less choice. There are more restaurants in Dublin today than there ever was before, which is fantastic for business. But I think it should be a bit more controlled. I think there are too many restaurants opening and closing down all the time, which brings up the cost.”
With that touch of negativity, would he advise people to get into the restaurant business? “Yes, I think it’s a great business to be in, but you have to be committed to it.”
Name: Patrick Guilbaud
Position: Owner of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud
From: Cognac, France
Family: Married to Sally with two children, Charles and Emilie
Something you might expect: Being in the food business, he says he has a passion for spices and the marriage of food and wine.
Something you might not expect: After 36 years in Ireland, Irish art still intrigues him.