Earlier this week it was revealed that three Irish restaurants had won coveted Michelin status of one form or another, although their precise awards have yet to be revealed.
In the restaurant trade, it's the equivalent of winning a gold medal at the Olympics or an Oscar at the Academy Awards. It's a statement of quality that the public understands. French restauranteur Patrick Guilbaud knows better than most the toil involved in securing a prized Michelin star, having secured his first in 1988 and his second in 1996, for the superb food offered by the restaurant that bears his name at the five-star Merrion hotel.
He has held on to both stars ever since, although he admits to always being nervous in advance of the announcements.
“If you lose a star, I don’t think it will make too much damage to the business but it will damage my staff,” he says, sitting in the private dining room of the restaurant. “Psychologically – because they work so hard to maintain the quality and I push them so hard. It would be a big shock to the system. “You don’t know when they are coming. It’s very, very tough but fair.”
Guilbaud, who is just months shy of his 70th birthday, says he has mellowed in the pandemic but it is clear that he still retains a burning desire to get a coveted third star, something no other Irish restaurant has achieved.
"Of course we always want to be three. I thought it would be fantastic for Dublin and for Ireland in general. It's not for me – well, of course it is for me and my staff, but also for Ireland to say to the rest of the world that it has exceptional food. You can't have a three Michelin star in a place where the quality of food is poor.
“I think some time we deserve three and some time we don’t, maybe that’s the reason why. But we try. We try not to have bad days but we can. When I speak to my chefs, let’s try to do this, they say, ‘Listen, Mr Guilbaud, the restaurant is full. What more do you need?’ And I say, ‘I want more, I want us to be the best.’ The danger is that you don’t go one step at a time. A lot of chefs go very quickly and it can be dangerous.”
This month, Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud celebrates 40 years in business here. It’s a remarkable achievement in a sector that has been a graveyard for so many high-profile chefs and business owners, particularly in a small market such as Ireland.
During that time he has survived the bleak recession-era 1980s and monstrous interest rates, ridden the Celtic Tiger wave of exuberant spending, and been brought back to earth by the 2008 financial crash, and the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced the closure of the venue for months on end.
When Guilbaud arrived in Dublin in 1981, he says there were about 350 restaurants in the country. “Today, in Dublin alone, there are more than 3,000 restaurant,” he says.
Covid has threatened the viability of many of those venues but Guilbaud was financially sound going into the pandemic, a legacy of him always leaving half of its annual profit in the company each year both as a financial buffer and to cover the expense of refreshing the restaurant every five to seven years.
Accounts for Becklock Ltd highlight the impact of the pandemic on the restaurant's finances. The company made a loss of €662,000 in the 12 months to the end of August 2020 to reduce its retained profits to €1.9 million. By contrast, it made a profit of €873,000 a year earlier.
Guilbaud says the business will take another financial hit this year having been closed for months. But the restaurant kept its staff on the books, accessing the State’s wage subsidy schemes and paying about 35 per cent of salaries itself to make up any shortfall in pay. Just three staff out of 40 didn’t return.
Guilbaud himself, along with his fellow shareholders and long-time partners in the restaurant – executive chef Guillaume LeBrun and restaurant manager Stéphane Robin – did not take a salary during lockdown. And the restaurant has removed six tables to meet Covid protocols on physical distancing.
“We went from 100 per cent to zero per cent overnight from March 17th last year,” Guilbaud says. “Like a war, you know when it begins but you don’t know when it ends. We had a small window to reopen last year from June 29th for two months. That was a bit of help because it bring the staff back in, which was good. We paid everybody. I said to them, I keep you on the books because the staff are the soul of the business. We try to be at the top all the time and you can only do that with good staff. You can’t turn on the magic overnight.
“I think Covid is here forever and we have just got to learn to live with it. People will be a bit more cautious. The restaurant was always set up for Covid in some ways. A lot of space, high ceilings – the only difference was to wear a mask and to reduce capacity. We lost six tables. So now we serve 50 people and honestly I love it. I think it is less stress on my staff and we can do a better service.”
Guilbaud insisted that I have lunch in advance of our interview. I’m no food critic but can say that Covid hasn’t impacted the quality of the food or the attentive service. The croquette of suckling pig with fried quail egg, foie gras, pancetta, and red pepper mostarda was particularly delicious. He says the secret is good quality ingredients, cooked by talented chefs and presented without fuss.
Guilbaud was born in 1952 in the Cognac region of France. His father was from a farming family and had a tough life - finding his father collapsed at home on the day he died.
During the second World War, Guilbaud's father was taken by the Germans to work in a labour camp in Poland for five years, something he never spoke about in later life.
His mother was a seamstress, making handbags, and she taught his father how to read and write. They married and the family moved to Paris, but his parents split up in the mid-1960s and his mother set up home with another man in Caen, where they opened a bistro.
Remarkably, Guilbaud and his siblings were kept in the dark for a year about the reasons behind his mother’s sudden departure, being told that she was sick. He and his siblings later reconnected with their mother and he began his career working in her bistro.
He credits his mother’s family for his passion for cooking. His grandmother from Lille was a “lovely cook” while his mother put great store on preparation and presentation, and taught Guilbaud how to cook.
Guilbaud got a job as a chef in a hotel in Caen and later swerved military service by securing a place in the kitchens of the British embassy in Paris. From there he had spells in top restaurants in Munich, Berlin and Paris before moving to Manchester in 1975. He married Sally and they opened a restaurant, Le Rabelais, in a Cheshire village called Alderly Edge.
It was there he met Irish businessman Barton Kilcoyne, who was doing some work in the area, and who planted the idea in his head of moving to Dublin.
Guilbaud later sold Le Rabelais and bought a site at St James's Place East, just off Baggot Street. He hired the well known Irish architect Arthur Gibney to design a restaurant that was "elegant, spacious and airy".
“I bought the site. It was a bit of a blind thing. Paid £37,000 punts [€47,000]. The total cost to the opening of the restaurant was £500,000 punts. Big money. So I put all my capital in and I borrowed the rest at 24 per cent. It was the norm at the time. It was quite a challenge to start with.”
He says other chefs in Dublin thought he had a “screw loose” spending so much getting the venue ready for opening.
The restaurant traded well but cashflow was tight and borrowings were high, with a crippling interest rate. Guilbaud’s salary was restricted to £10,000 a year under the terms of its loans. A visit from a sheriff over a bounced VAT cheque brought things to a head.
"Lochlann Quinn used to come to the restaurant from time to time and with Martin Naughton and they liked what we were doing. One day he said to me if you have any problem, let me know. Come and see me because I like what you are doing."
After the visit from the sheriff, Guilbaud contacted Quinn for help. “The bank said, this time we can’t help you. We had to pay maybe ten grand.”
Quinn and Naughton, who built up Glen Dimplex together, backed Guilbaud in return for a share of the business. "What they say is, we buy all the loan out and we will create two companies, one for the restaurant business and one for the property. We take 50 per cent of the property, which was not a bad deal for them, and we take 25 per cent of the business between the two of them. I had no choice at the time but they have been fantastic partners. The property was sold and I got some money at last. They got all of their money back."
Today, Quinn and Naughten own 5.8 per cent of the restaurant each. In the early 1990s, they asked Guilbaud to consider moving to the new Merrion hotel, where they were major investors. The move happened in 1997, with Gibney again engaged to design the restaurant, with a high, gold-leaf ceiling. “There are very few restaurants in the world in a capital city where you have this space,” Guilbaud says.
“To move here was good for us. For the Merrion hotel, it was good for them. I made sure that if we moved here we would have a different door and would not be the rest of the hotel, and that worked very well. We were not serving breakfast.”
During the pandemic lockdown, the Merrion reduced its rent to 50 per cent.
Guilbaud has worked incredibly hard during his time here. In the early years of the business, he would go to the markets first thing in the morning before working all day in the restaurant, maybe taking a couple of hours out in the afternoon to go home and see his wife and children. The restaurant has always been closed on a Sunday, which became his family day.
He describes himself as an “authoritarian” leader, not afraid to take decisions and accept responsibility.
His son, Charles, has worked in the restaurant for the past 10 years and along with Kieran Glennan, the number two chef who owns 5 per cent of the business, has been tagged to eventually take it over.
“Kieran in the kitchen is 44, my son is 44, so they will be the tractor in the business long term. They will take over slowly but surely. I think Guillaume, Stéphane and I want to stay in the business for a while, but we want them to take over very smoothly.”
He says LeBrun is the best maker of sauce in the world while Robin is the perfect host, and credits them for the success of the business.
Guilbaud has a property in Spain and sees himself spending about half his time there in the future. He's also looking forward to travelling to see his daughter in the United States, and seeing his 18-month-old grandson, Jack, in person for the first time.
With his 70th birthday on the horizon, Guilbaud looks trim and healthy. But the pandemic and the various lockdown restrictions made him take stock and realise that he could rely on the strong team that runs the restaurant.
He discovered a few things during the pandemic. “First of all, I’m not all responsible for everything here. That I’ve got very good people around me. I can’t do it on my own. Covid was a big revelation. Nobody is indispensable.”
Before he does hang up his apron, he would like to nail that elusive Michelin star. “I would love to have three, no question about that. Not only for me but for Lochlann and Martin and my staff and all the people who have believed in me. It would be nice.”
Name: Patrick Guilbaud
Family: Married to Sally, with two children
Lives: In Ballsbridge, Dublin 4
Something we might expect: He loves to cook but rarely has enough time to indulge his passion
Something that might surprise: Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud designs its own wine glasses and has a cellar with 20,000 bottles worth about €1 million in aggregate