Dylan McGrath: ‘If I have to go on a sandwich truck in the morning, I’ll do it’

Interview: The celebrity chef on past failures, rivals, his new venture, and his ‘shy side’

 

Dylan McGrath pauses an awful lot after being asked a question, almost to the point where you start to wonder if in fact it was him who did the asking in the first place. It turns out that the delays come because he thinks very, very carefully about every answer.

He then often follows by explaining what he didn’t mean, just in case you got the wrong impression. As with everything else in his life, he is taking this interview very seriously.

It’s a Wednesday morning in Shelbourne Social, the latest outlet in McGrath’s collection of Dublin restaurants and arguably the one that turns a group into an empire. It is a brave endeavour, the risks reflected in a very fancy 1930s-Manhattan design that saw bespoke leather chairs remade multiple times before they were deemed perfect, and table-tops coated in fine Italian leather.

The table effect is very beautiful, but it also looks as if it’s just waiting to receive a slash from an errant steak knife, or perhaps an indelible mark from a nervous biro.

McGrath is very attached to the leather, and asks a passing waiter if it has been cleaned with the “special stuff” from Italy yet. It’s the kind of attention to detail that allows for restaurants to thrive or fail, and McGrath knows well how both feel.

He and his established business partner, Vincent Melinn, already have Rustic Stone, Taste at Rustic, the Bonsai Bar and Fade Street Social in or around South Great George’s Street in their portfolio, as well as consulting on the running of nearby Brasserie Sixty6.

Before those McGrath ran Mint, a small restaurant seating fewer than 40 in wealthy Ranelagh in south Dublin, where he won a Michelin star in early 2008.

Unfortunately the recession hit at almost exactly the same time, leaving Mint struggling to sell its €160 meals and €150 bottles of wine. By the time McGrath was celebrating his 31st birthday, Mint had sunk under €200,000 of debt and the Michelin-starred chef was jobless.

Passionate

“It’s a tough industry,” he says now. “You need to be passionate to want to be in it, and even more passionate to want to stay in it.”

Passionate is a word McGrath particularly likes. You could almost imagine him standing in front of a mirror checking on his own passion levels every morning, giving himself one of his intense stares if they’re not up to scratch.

And while restaurant people need to have passion, the restaurants themselves should never, ever be boring or “repetitive”. In the case of Shelbourne Social, a separate business, this has taken an investment of about €2 million, with McGrath and Melinn having both dug deep into their pockets, laying their personal funds on a bed of bank debt and adding a jus of extended credit from suppliers.

“We both put our necks on the line,” says McGrath, who describes his behind-the-scenes business partner rather wonderfully as an accountant with experience in many different businesses and a past as a poker champion. The two have been together since a while after Mint, and now own their restaurants equally.

McGrath says they both have an appetite for risk, but emphasises that “if you don’t get on with someone as a person” nothing else in a business relationship will work.

“We took a huge punt on each other,” he says, highlighting their combined “commercial intelligence”.

“He teaches me the right things to ask,” he adds.

Aggressive

McGrath made his name in Ireland not only through Mint but also by having the associated effort to win a Michelin star filmed for a television documentary. Winning the star was an immense achievement at his age, but the perfectionist chef also won opprobrium after the documentary displayed the aggressive, punishing manner in which he treated a small team of chefs. He admits now that he was “pretty wired” at the time.

While the subject probably never quite goes away, McGrath’s reputation has since softened, helped in part by giving air to more of his personality on RTÉ’s Masterchef series.

He has also perhaps won a recognition that his behaviour in Mint was a product of both his own treatment in Michelin kitchens in London and the dysfunctional environment of his childhood in Belfast when the Troubles were in full swing and aggression was the order of the day.

McGrath grew up in Poleglass, a hardy, working-class Catholic area near the Falls Road, where he says “basic normal structures that exist in life” were not present. He knew early that this life was not for him, and saw in catering college his passport out to legitimate success. “I wanted to live a life where I wasn’t looking over my shoulder.”

Single-minded from the off, he didn’t just see himself as a chef, however, vowing early on that he would become a restaurateur at the highest level. “I wanted to go all the way.”

How to get there was, however, a little problematic in the Ireland of the early 1990s, and thus involved a good deal of courage.

Biggest risk

After some thought McGrath identifies Mint as probably being the biggest risk in his career, agreeing with the suggestion that it also showed the fearlessness of youth.

“You’re a young guy with an image of what success looks like,” he says, explaining that he focused on a belief that the better he was at cooking, the more successful and the more famous he would become as a chef.

Yet for all of Mint topping his internal risk scale, McGrath’s career is punctuated by taking big chances: he has spoken of massaging the truth in a CV to win his first job in the kitchen at Jurys Hotel in Belfast, a position that turned into head chef within weeks.

He then took a 50 per cent pay cut to work at Belfast’s first Michelin-starred restaurant Roscoff, under erstwhile television chef Paul Rankin. It was here that he “fell in love with the work ethic, with the attitudes” of the high-end kitchen, and revelled in the encouragement of a knowledgeable master – he dreamily recalls the pleasure of Rankin praising his mashed potato.

McGrath knew from then on that he wouldn’t be returning to making chasseur sauce and breaded mushrooms in somebody else’s mid-level kitchen, ending up doing “split shifts when I’m 50”, with pints in the pubs of west Belfast in the afternoons.

Instead he moved on to Peacock Alley in Dublin, and then to London, where he learned more about Michelin-standard cooking and gained substantial experience in being shouted at while doing so.

He describes this period as “a game of endurance”, and says he thinks kitchens in general are calmer places now. The front of house at Shelbourne Social certainly suggests that this is the case – it is all polite “good mornings” between staff members and nobody seems remotely on edge. McGrath is, however, still frequently drawn to the adjectival strength of the word “f*cking”.

Affluent

The Ballsbridge busily at work outside Shelbourne Social feels more actively affluent than ever these days, with the One Ballsbridge development that houses it saying a lot about our current economy.

His restaurant stretches to 6,500 sq ft (at a reported rent of €50 per sq ft), Avoca has taken an 8,000sq ft outlet for a food hall, while aircraft lessor Avolon is sandwiched in between. In addition to its dining area Shelbourne Social has a very Mad Men-esque upstairs cocktail bar to mop up the hugely expanding post-work Facebook crowd, with added zing coming from “secret” concoctions that can only be read on the menu with the help of an infra-red pen.

It’s part of the constant effort to “bring something different to market every time”, and also reflects lessons learned from Mint, which had no bar and no reception.

“When I was younger, it was about selling the perfect meal,” says McGrath, acknowledging that his restaurants are now “selling a night out”.

Steaks at €120 conveniently grabbed headlines when Shelbourne Social was opening, but McGrath says the dish is designed to be shared, possibly between three, with the menu also featuring a burger as if to prove its mid-market credentials.

“You can be a slave to the art,” he says, claiming that he now believes most in motivating the people around him, perhaps perfecting the restaurant model to the point where it could be exported, regardless of whether the Dylan McGrath brand is involved.

“There’s a very shy side to me that would prefer not to have my name on things,” he says, immediately countering this with a recognition that not having his name above the door might not bring in as many customers.

Fine dining

At several points during the conversation McGrath, unprompted, brings up the possibility that he would once again enter the world of fine dining, cooking for small numbers at an impeccable standard.

As if simultaneously remembering Mint though, he instantly justifies the thought by acknowledging it would be a “hobby” rather than a profitable business, or recalling the numbers of Michelin-starred chefs he has known who have gone bankrupt.

Still, the idea of a Mint-style venue for a post-recession generation is something that visibly lights him up, possibly even more than leather-topped tables or infra-red pens.

The original plan was that Mint would have been “a stepping stone” to greater things, perhaps a large Michelin-starred restaurant in the basement of the Shelbourne Hotel, or in the then Ritz-Carlton Hotel (now known as the Powerscourt Hotel) in Co Wicklow. While that didn’t quite work out, he is nonetheless proud of having been one of the first modern, fine dining Irish chefs to have come back home and built a business from the bottom up, recalling how far the country has come.

Inevitably, he adds the proviso: “I’m not trying to say I’m great. We forget to say we’ve grown as a country.”

McGrath describes the recession as “a wilderness”, where even when he and Melinn were jumping into Rustic Stone in 2010, no bank credit was available. Supplier credit stepped in, creating a dynamic that he has described as being akin to “bartering”.

Fade Street Social was birthed in much the same fashion in 2012, with the result that opening Shelbourne Social with bank support almost seems luxurious.

“The restaurant we’re sitting in now is going to be a really cool place to eat. I really think that this is going to fly,” he says, sipping an americano as the office lunch crowd starts to appear. He and Melinn have pencilled in “a couple of years” for the profits to come from the new venture.

Challenges

Money is far from McGrath’s primary motivator, however, and he struggles when asked what he spends his on: he likes to travel but that’s usually to eat in restaurants, and he likes clothes and, er… pause… eventually, it emerges he has two dogs – Miniature Schnauzers named Thelma and Louise.

Like every businessperson (and he realises that this is what he is now) he has a list of challenges that face his sector: high rents, a shortage of chefs, the recent VAT hike for hospitality, and more. Brexit doesn’t initially feature, but in the end he puts it into the “everybody has to take risks” category.

“Business is what you make it,” he says, with the confidence of a man who not only opened two large restaurants in the teeth of a recession but made money from them and continues to do so. He sums it up: “There are always challenges. I’m the type of guy where if I have to go on a sandwich truck in the morning, I’ll do it.”

He even suggests he might consider a fancy sandwich concept in Dublin city centre at some point, but then wonders if people would be prepared to pay the prices he would need for the food he would want to feed them.

He says his challenge after Mint was working out whether he could think like a customer, finding himself looking at restaurants such as Carluccio’s or the Jamie Oliver chain and asking: “These things are busy. Why am I f*cking bankrupt?”

McGrath is cautious when asked about other restaurants and restaurant chains in Dublin, holding well back from speaking ill of competitors or even recognising them as competitors at all.

He is particularly tight-lipped when asked about Press Up, the McKillen-led hospitality group that runs Angelina’s, Roberta’s, Elephant & Castle and Dollard & Co among other outlets. He only hints at the other group’s deep pockets and property interests, and how they compare to his own business, which is about “trying to create something from nothing”.

‘A live thing’

He has learned that business is “a live thing” that must be calibrated according to circumstances, and adapt to its times. His restaurants employ 320 people, and he says he wants them to enjoy their work. “It’s not easy to do what we’re doing.”

At 41 he cares more about what people think of him now than he did in his 20s. “There’s a level of cop-on that you didn’t have in your 20s. It’s constant progress. People like to watch you grow.”

Fundamentally, though, he cares most about the people closest to him, describing his relationship with his four brothers and one sister as “exceptionally close”.

He takes most time to answer a question about business lessons he might offer to young would-be restaurateurs, pausing for even longer than usual, clearly seeing some responsibility in coming up with the best response.

“That you need to carve your own way,” he says, eventually. “What you think is a fact might not be a fact. There’s nothing to say you can’t do it in a way that hasn’t been done before.

“I’m still figuring out who I am.”

*****

DYLAN McGRATH: A FACT FILE

Job: Restaurateur

Age: 41

Something you might expect: He likes to combine travel with enjoying new restaurant experiences, but identifies a good Sunday dinner and Ben and Jerry’s Peanut Butter ice cream as his comfort foods.

Something that might surprise: He enjoys meditation and yoga but is “not able for hot yoga”.