‘The Irish dining experience is now as good as anywhere.’ How did that happen?
A well-travelled, educated Irish generation is making its mark on global gastronomy
Mark Moriarty, winner of the prestigious San Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 award
Irish food and Irish chefs received global attention when Mark Moriarty won the prestigious San Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 award. Moriarty won the regional final for the United Kingdom and Ireland in London and then went on to compete against 19 other regional finalists from all over the world in Milan. This essay is a companion piece to Moriarty’s description of how he developed and fine-tuned his dish. It seeks to provide a contextual framework for the development of quality, competence and confidence in Irish food, cooking and chefs in recent decades.
Moriarty’s win in 2015 was not a flash in the pan, but a signal moment for the rising status of Irish food and cooking. This newfound confidence in Irish chefs had been recognised in 2011 by Pierre Josse, editor of Le Guide du Routard, who noted, “the Irish dining experience is now as good, if not better, than anywhere in the world”. Three of the 10 shortlisted United Kingdom and Ireland regional finalists for the 2018 San Pellegrino competition were Irish, with Killian Crowley of Aniar Restaurant in Galway awarded first place in the regional final, just ahead of Michael Tweedie from Adare Manor in Limerick, who came in second.
The rebirth of Irish gastronomy coincided with the Celtic Tiger years (1994-2007). Despite the subsequent recession (2008-2014), the numbers of restaurants managed to survive and grow; it also forced Irish chefs and restaurateurs to become more creative with the use of cheaper cuts of meat and with non-gourmet ingredients. The emergence from recession witnessed Irish chefs holding key positions in many world-class restaurants globally and Ireland’s reputation for food and cookery significantly strengthened.
This was a result of many factors: greater educational provision; better mentoring opportunities both nationally and internationally; international initiatives such as the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium, the Ballymaloe Litfest, and Food on the Edge; the nurturing of young chefs and food producers by Euro-toques; and the work of State agencies such as the national food board, Bord Bia, and the national tourism agency, Fáilte Ireland, in promoting the country for its food and as a destination for food tourism. A number of phenomena aligned to create an environment that was conducive to the development of Irish chefs and the Irish restaurant, but a number of issues challenge the potential growth and sustainability of Ireland as a food tourism destination.
Historically, as one considers famous Irish chefs or cooks, the names that come to mind are those of Jimmy Flahive, Monica Sheridan, Theodora Fitzgibbon, Maura Laverty, Pierre Rolland, Jackie Needham, Mike Butt, Sean Kinsella, Myrtle Allen, Jimmy Kilbride, Jim Bowe, Declan and Michael Ryan, Catherine Healy, Eugene Mc Sweeney, Michael Clifford and Gerry Galvin. In 2001, Kevin Thornton became the first Irish-born chef to be awarded two Michelin stars. Five years previously, French-born chefs Patrick Guilbaud and Guillaume Lebrun of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin became the first Irish restaurant to be awarded two Michelin stars, which they have continuously maintained for over two decades now, and where they have consistently trained a steady stream of young Irish talent.
Thornton was one of a number of award-winning Irish chefs in the 1990s, a group which included Ernie Evans, Colin O’Daly, Alan O’Reilly, Gerry Kirwan, Stefan Matz, Derry Clarke, and Conrad Gallagher among others who rose to prominence in the Irish restaurant industry, with Paul and Jeanne Rankin, Robbie Miller, and Michael Deane firmly establishing Northern Ireland on the culinary map. There were also a number of award-winning Irish chefs working outside of Ireland at that time who had garnered an international reputation for their cooking, such as Richard Corrigan (London), Liam Tomlin (Australia and South Africa), Brian Cleere (Singapore and Macau), Angelo McDonnell (Hong Kong), and Cathal Armstrong (Washington DC).
In the new millennium, other Irish chefs such as Ross Lewis, Dylan McGrath, Oliver Dunne, Stephen McAllister, Rory Carville, Keelan Higgs, Garreth Byrne, Cormac Rowe, Enda McEvoy, JP McMahon, Ultan Cooke, Martijn Kajuiter, Mikael Viljanen, and Eric Mathews among others were recognised by Michelin, with Stephen Toman, Niall McKenna, and Danni Barry keeping Belfast’s dining scene vibrant.
Danni Barry made headlines in 2016 as the only female Michelin-starred chef in Ireland, although she was following a tradition begun by Myrtle Allen (Ballymaloe House 1975-1980), and followed by Catherine Healy (Dunderry Lodge 1986-1989) and Kai Pilz (Shiro 1996-2001) winning Michelin stars in their respective restaurants. The first woman to be awarded three Michelin stars in the United Kingdom was Antrim-born Clare Smyth, former head chef at Gordon Ramsay’s flagship Chelsea restaurant. Smyth was mentor to Mark Moriarty for the 2015 finals and also mentored Ruth Lapin, winner of the Euro-toques Young Chef of the Year 2015 on her stage in London. The 2016 winner of the prestigious Euro-toques competition was also a woman, Maeve Walsh from Waterford, who took up a one-year contract with Nathan Outlaw in Cornwall. Other female Irish chefs who have gained an international reputation outside of Ireland include Anna Haugh (London), Louise Bannon (Copenhagen) and Rose Greene (Belgium).
Among the other successful young Irish chefs working internationally are Cuán Greene (Noma, Denmark), Halaigh Whelan McManus (Maeemo, Norway), Claire O’Halloran (Mathias Dahlgren, Sweden), Ciarán Elliot (Per Se, New York City), Michael Brogan (The Modern, New York City), Joshua Plunkett (Atera, New York City), and Niall Davidson (London), not to forget more established Irish chefs Robin Gill (London), Kenneth Culhane (London), Trevor Moran (Tennessee, USA), and Andy McFadden (London) who returned to Dublin in 2018 to open a new restaurant in the former Thornton’s location in the Fitzwilliam Hotel.
One of the major changes in the 21st century has been the diminishing dominance of French culinary hegemony globally and the rise of a new epistemic movement in the world of haute cuisine, starting with Ferran Adria’s El Buli in Catalonia and developing to Molecular Gastronomy/Modernist Cuisine, whose leading proponents included Heston Blumenthal in England, Pierre Gagnaire in France, and Wylie Dufresne in the United States. Research suggest that “the dynamics of formation of a new epistemic movement depend on the form and nature of the interactions between the local buzz and global pipelines, and on the capacity of the originating community to develop and diffuse the new rules on a global scale while consolidating them locally”.
Adria’s “techno-emotional cuisine” was followed by the New Nordic Cuisine developed by René Redzepi and Claus Meyer, which has influenced many chefs globally to look to their own heritage, environment, and national traditions to influence what they cook. The documentary series Chef’s Table on Netflix has highlighted a number of proponents of this new movement and turned them into culinary celebrities whether they work in Peru, Mexico, Slovenia, or Norway.
Many Irish chefs have been influenced by New Nordic Cuisine and chefs such as Trevor Moran, Louise Bannon, and Haleigh Whelan McManus in particular have been central to its development, working alongside Redzepi and other Nordic chefs. This new aesthetic for local, sustainable, seasonal food is perhaps best characterised in Irish restaurants such as Loam and Aniar in Galway and Chapter One in Dublin, although it could be argued that Myrtle Allen had been practising this philosophy in Ballymaloe House for more than half a century. Indeed, Ballymaloe Cookery School, led by Darina Allen and Rory O’Connell, has also being teaching a local, seasonal, and sustainable philosophy of food for many years and has acted as an incubator for many successful food operations in Ireland and abroad. Much of this philosophy is encapsulated by Euro-toques Ireland, which was set up in 1986 by Myrtle Allen, who was also a founding member of Euro-toques International.
Food and wine became an important way in Celtic Tiger Ireland to display one’s cultural capital
In recent years, there has been a particularly strong growth in the Irish restaurant scene, with many chefs eschewing the formality of the old French haute cuisine and focusing on producing simple, seasonal, local, sustainable, affordable food, without particularly seeking to attract a Michelin star. This is an international trend, probably best typified by Noma in Copenhagen being voted number one in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2010 despite not having achieved three Michelin stars. The Michelin guide has adapted to this new epistemic movement and has relaxed its previous criteria on formality.
In 2017, the Wild Honey Inn, in Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, became Ireland’s first pub to be awarded a Michelin star, part of an international trend over the last number of years to recognize excellent cookery and sourcing without demanding the crisp linen tablecloths and formality of the old French hegemony. Aidan McGrath’s award for his Clare gastro-pub meant that in the 2018 guide, Ireland had 12 Michelin-starred restaurants, the highest number since the company began publishing its Great Britain and Ireland guide in 1974. In a similar vein, in 2016, Damien Grey and Andrew Heron were awarded a Michelin star for their casual 18-seat restaurant in Blackrock, Co Dublin.
Michelin also award a Bib Gourmand for simple skilful cooking at reasonable prices. The 2018 Michelin Guide included eight new Irish establishments awarded a Bib Gourmand, bringing their total on the island of Ireland to 26. It is in these and similar restaurants, many stemming from the nurturing incubators of Ballymaloe, Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, Chapter One, Aniar, or more recently The Fumbally, that much of the new creative Irish cookery is developing. But what factors have led to this rise in quality Irish restaurants?
Confidence and the Celtic Tiger
A number of events have been important in shaping a young, confident nation, leading Ireland away from its food image of potatoes toward a reputation for its dining experiences being “as good, if not better, than anywhere in the world.” The Troubles in Northern Ireland (1968-1998) did not assist tourism or Irish self-confidence abroad and there is no doubt that the peace process paid a dividend in boosting gastronomy and dining out in Northern Ireland-the years 1997-2006 being particularly vibrant, with a second flowering occurring in recent years.
Significant moments altering national self-confidence in my own memory included the 1988 European Football Championship and the 1990 World Cup in Italy. The Irish soccer team began to get results and the country exploded with pride and confidence. It was the first time that I felt the country could proudly wave the tricolour without any hint of sectarian connotation, which was psychologically liberating. Educated emigrants during the late 1980s and early 1990s took up positions in financial services and the professions in London, Frankfurt, New York, and Toronto, unlike their counterparts in the 1960s and 1970s who were more likely to be working on building sites or in factories. When the Irish economy began to grow in the early to mid-1990s, many emigrants returned home, having travelled the world, with educated and adventurous palates for the new foods they had encountered, and having also developed the habit of dining out. Restaurants began to compete with pubs as loci of socialising and entertainment.
The Commons restaurant on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin won a Michelin star four years in a row (1994-97) with four different head chefs, the first of whom was Gerry Kirwan who had returned from working in Jeddah owing to unrest following the first Gulf War. “Pacific Rim” or “Fusion cuisine” was one of the trends of that period and Irish chefs such as Johnnie Cooke had returned from California with sophisticated “Cal-Ital” menus that included Caesar Salad, Linguine a la Vongole, and tomato and fennel bread with tapenade dips-all of which were ground breaking in Ireland at that time. Another returning chef, Conrad Gallagher, having worked in the Plaza Hotel and the Waldorf Astoria’s Peacock Alley restaurant in New York City, embodied the new, confident “media friendly” Irish chef who was ready to take on the world. He won a Michelin star for his Peacock Alley restaurant in Dublin (1998-2002) and a Michelin Red M (the precursor of the Bib Gourmand) for another of his restaurants, Lloyd’s Brasserie, in 1999 and 2000. Dining out in Ireland in the 1990s moved from an occasional treat to a regular pastime for many, including professionals in the emerging financial services sector, pharmaceuticals, and information technology, who joined the returned emigrants and existing professional classes filling Irish dining rooms. Food and wine became an important way in Celtic Tiger Ireland to display one’s cultural capital.
In the mid-1990s, the minister of education Niamh Bhreathnach announced the introduction of free post-secondary education, which opened the door for many students to become the first in their families to achieve a post-secondary qualification. Ireland became a global leader in the provision of post-secondary qualifications in culinary arts and other culinary-related disciplines. The first honours degree in culinary arts commenced in the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) in 1999 with the first cohort graduating in 2003.
This new liberal/vocational paradigm of culinary education stemmed from Masters’ research on the gap in the provision of education for head chefs in Ireland. It began in 1986 with a higher certificate in culinary arts (called Cooking for Health) aimed at the newly expanding private hospital and contract catering sector. This was a post-secondary qualification, as opposed to the City & Guilds and Apprenticeship certificates being awarded by the Council for Education, Recruitment and Training (CERT), which had been responsible for the training of chefs since their inception in 1963.
Education has always been important in driving Irish food forward. The City & Guilds 706/3 Master Chef programs run in DIT by Jimmy Kilbride, John Linnane, and later Jim Bowe during the 1980s transformed the self-confidence of Irish chefs. Kevin Thornton recalled that the only person he was ever nervous cooking for was his old teacher and mentor, Jimmy Kilbride.
In DIT in the 1990s, the team took an innovative and forward-thinking approach to designing the new BA (Hons) in Culinary Arts. Whereas some other countries offered add-on courses in business or science to a two-year certificate in culinary arts, this new program incorporated professional cookery through all four years of the program combined with modules on gastronomy, food product development, finance and marketing, wine studies, aesthetics, and nutrition.
A core element of the program was the national internships in both first and second year and the international internship in the third year of the four-year degree. This gave leading Irish and international chefs and restaurateurs a pivotal role through mentorship in accelerating the training of Irish culinary mentees. Students were also encouraged to question everything they encountered and to become critical reflective practitioners and life-long learners.
Other Irish colleges began to develop degree programs in culinary arts, and some graduates from the various culinary programs continued their education to Master’s level with the MSc Culinary Innovation and New Product Development program that began in DIT in 2007, or with the MA in Gastronomy and Food Studies which commenced in 2017. Other chefs joined the industry having completed degrees in the disparate disciplines of agricultural science, art history, or architecture. Since 2009, at least six Irish chefs have been awarded PhDs and a further number are close to completion. Research that Hannah Allen and I carried out on Irish head chefs in 2015 found that 35 per cent of Irish head chefs had a degree qualification, which was dramatically higher than the 5 per cent noted in a previous study from 2008. The biggest change that had occurred, to quote Jonathan Deutsch speaking at the 2014 Dublin Gastronomy Symposium, was that culinary students in Ireland had moved from saying “Oui Chef” to asking “Why Chef?”.
World’s 50 Best Restaurants
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants has become a powerful and influential signifier of the status of chefs in today’s world of digital mass media. The compilation of the list is based on an academy of one thousand regional members who have been selected for their expert opinions of the international restaurant scene. It first appeared in 2002 as a feature in Restaurant magazine, but is now run entirely independently by William Reed Business Media. Although called the 50 Best Restaurants, the list actually goes from 1 to 100. The list has shifted from a Eurocentric/Western focus in its early iterations to become truly global.
In 2003, Thornton’s restaurant in Dublin was listed at number 25 in the world, but this was the first and last time an Irish restaurant featured on the list. In 2005 The Fat Duck was voted number one in the world. From 2003 there has been a regular partnership between The Fat Duck and students of DIT’s culinary programs for international internships. Similar partnerships have existed with a number of other restaurants that regularly featured in the World’s 50 Best list, including Tetsuya’s (Australia), Noma (Denmark), St. John (London), Ledbury (London), Mathias Dahlgren (Sweden), Martin Berastegui (Spain), Quique Dacosta (Spain), Alinea (Chicago), and Le Quartier Francais (South Africa).
Graduates from the culinary programs in DIT have gone on to work in still further restaurants that have featured on the 50 Best list such as Geranium (Denmark), Maeemo (Norway), Per Se (New York City), Jean Georges (New York City), Momofuku (New York City), Restaurant Gordon Ramsay (London), The Square (London), and Attica (Melbourne). The new paradigm of culinary education pioneered in DIT created a “local buzz” and the international internship opportunities and conferences provide the “global pipeline”. This level of international experience for Irish culinary students and graduates has led to exposure to world-class thinking and techniques, but has also helped instil confidence in the quality of Irish food on their return, and in the possibility of making Ireland a global culinary destination.
One Irish chef is listed in the World’s 50 Best Discovery Series list. Liam Tomlin, from Dublin, has forged an international reputation for himself both in Australia, where he mentored a number of Irish chefs including Kieran Glennon (currently head chef in Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud), and then in South Africa, where his restaurant “Chefs Warehouse and Canteen” in Cape Town is one of only six restaurants chosen by the Academy for the Middle East and Africa region.
Food on the Edge
In 2015, JP McMahon (chef proprietor of Aniar restaurant and culinary director of EatGalway restaurant group) organized the first Food on the Edge chefs’ conference. This international gathering of chefs and food enthusiasts was held in October in a Spiegel tent in Eyre Square, Galway. The 40 speakers came from 17 countries; three quarters of them had been awarded a Michelin star at some stage in their career, and one quarter of the speakers were listed in the World’s 100 Best restaurants list for 2015.
The top themes from the 2015 event were sustainability, education, creativity, the importance of historical knowledge, and the need for collaboration between producers, farms, and chefs. The final speaker, and arguably the most powerful speaker that year, was Mark Moriarty, who spoke about the need for a new contract between young chefs and restaurateurs that would see both parties committing to fair and reasonable working hours and levels of productivity, in the hope of keeping young chefs in the industry and avoiding burnout.
One of the main benefits of Food on the Edge was to bring so many world-class chefs to Ireland and to expose them to the best of Irish food, producers, chefs, and hospitality. At the 2016 Food on the Edge, held in the Town Hall Theatre in Galway, there were 45 new speakers, and five speakers who had returned for the second year. One of the highlights was Italian chef Massimo Bottura, whose three-Michelin-star restaurant, Osteria Francescana, was number one on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list that year. The overall theme emerging from the talks was the need to take time for reflection and for work life balance. As in its first year, the event was closed by a young Irish chef, Evan O’ Ceallaigh, who spoke about his experiences in London and his passion for the future.
The 2017 Food on the Edge event moved to the Black Box theatre in Galway and had 54 speakers, six of whom were return visitors, including Matt Orlando, who was speaking for the third year in a row. The theme was “action” and one of the most memorable talks was Anna Haugh’s description of witnessing horrific abuse in London kitchens and not speaking out for fear of being bullied or targeted.
There were a number of other talks which focused on the issue of mental health in kitchens, and how chefs could give back to the community. Young Irish chef Cuán Greene reported back on his experiences working with René Redzepi’s Noma popup restaurant in Mexico, and his subsequent time travelling and experiencing Mexican food with his fellow chef and travelling companion Harry Colley. The event closed with the finalists of the Euro-toques Young Chef 2017 competition on stage, followed by some primary school children discussing their vision of the future of food.
A number of the Nordic chefs spoke at Food on the Edge and one of the key messages they had was the importance of co-operation and dialogue between chefs. There are many advantages of conferences and gatherings such as Food on the Edge and similar international food events in Ireland such as the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium and The Ballymaloe Litfest. They bring the cream of international talent to the country, giving the local chefs and public a chance to absorb new ideas and begin a dialogue. This is where the “local buzz” meets the “global pipeline.” They also open international eyes to the beautiful countryside, wonderful produce, and heartfelt hospitality of the Irish people. For example, Irish oysters are now on the menu in both Albert Adria’s Tickets restaurant in Barcelona and in Nathan Outlaw’s restaurants in London and Cornwall. Similarly, young Irish chefs are now gaining valuable work experience with many of these international chefs following initial meetings at the conference.
The Celtic Tiger period (1994-2007) was both good and bad for chefs. The positive aspects include a growth in the number of restaurants and an improvement in the quality of cooking, as well as an increase in the general awareness and knowledge of the average Irish person about food and dining. One of the negative aspects was that with the sudden increase in opportunities and subsequent shortage of chefs, many individuals were promoted to senior positions prematurely before being properly trained. The result was that many left the industry altogether as the pressure became too much, thus exacerbating the shortage of chefs. While there was excellent growth and opportunity in post-secondary culinary education during this period, the traditional vocational/apprenticeship model suffered from the amalgamation of CERT into Fáilte Ireland and the eventual closure of many of their training centres around the country. A report by the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs in 2015 highlighted that the main shortage in the Irish hospitality industry was for suitably qualified chefs, forecasting that between “10,593 and 12,869 new chefs were required to fill future demand from 2015-2020”.
It came as a major – but welcome – surprise in 2011 that France’s best-selling travel guide gave Ireland’s recession-weary restaurant industry a boost by declaring the dining experience in Ireland even better than that on offer in France. Le Guide Du Routard, the travel bible of the French-speaking world, even went so far as to declare Ireland’s restaurants unmatched the world over for their combination of food quality, value, and service. It seems that after nearly a century of independence, Ireland had arrived at a moment when a young, well-travelled, highly educated generation of chefs and restaurateurs was beginning to make a mark on the global gastronomy stage for the quality and creativity of their food.
One such individual is Mark Moriarty, who won the San Pellegrino Young Chef 2015, beating competition from 3,000 applicants from around the world. His dish comprised a piece of celeriac salt-baked like a joint of meat and blow-torched with an “Irish miso” pearl barley fermented for seven months. A “celeriac salt” was grated over the plate made from a piece of celeriac brined and then dehydrated for three weeks so that it looked like a truffle, and the dish was topped with roasted hazelnuts. In a final flourish, hay-smoked tea was served in Moriarty’s grandmother’s teacup, a wedding present from 1956. The hay was sourced from a champion horse trainer’s yard in Co Meath, connecting the dish with the Irish passion for horseracing.
The teacup was a nod to nostalgia and a link with Ireland’s long tradition of tea drinking. Hazelnuts have a long Irish heritage and are linked to the mythological tale The Salmon of Knowledge. The fermented pearl barley was a nod to Ireland’s fermented national beverage “Guinness.” Moriarty’s dish encompassed Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s description of gastronomy as “a range of disciplines, including natural history, physics, chemistry, cookery, commerce and political economy” and added to it the current zeitgeist for food that is local, sustainable, and linked to heritage.
A number of the international chefs who judged the 2015 San Pellegrino Young Chef competition have visited Ireland subsequent to Moriarty’s victory, particularly to attend the Food on the Edge conference. Chef Ana Roš, who puts Slovenia on the gastronomic map with her restaurant Hiša Franko and was voted World’s Best Female Chef 2017, was so impressed with her experience at Food on the Edge 2017 that she is returning to Galway to speak at the 2018 event. Fáilte Ireland have shown vision in their support for Food on the Edge and the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium, recognising the value of attracting high-level international influencers in this age of social media. Online resources (videos, essays, blogs, tweets, Instagram, etc.) ensure a truly global reach which can be targeted at specific times of the year, such as St Patrick’s Day, for maximum exposure.
The future of Irish food looks bright but a number of issues threaten this continued prosperity, such as the perpetual shortage of chefs, gender disparity issues, the new proposed apprenticeship models, and the increased costs of living and running small businesses. Wider food issues face Irish society, such as rising obesity levels and the need for employing good chefs in hospitals and schools, so that patients are nutritionally provided for in an appetizing manner and Irish children do not grow up without the life skill of knowing how to cook.
To take advantage of the current potential we need to combine the co-operation and dialogue promoted by the Nordic chefs. Haldor Byrkjeflot, Jesper Strandgaard Pedersen and Silviya Svejenova identified the following factors that facilitated the fast-paced diffusion of New Nordic Cuisine: “It was triggered by the active involvement of entrepreneurial leaders from the culinary profession (both gastro-entrepreneurs and chefs), high-profile political supporters (the Nordic Council of Ministers and the national governments), legitimators (scientists), disseminators (the local and global media, both specialized and general), and audiences (foodies and others).”
We must remain critically reflective and continuously learning as outlined in the new DIT liberal/vocational educational philosophy. We must promote Irish food heritage and food culture, following the example of Euro-toques, by championing Irish producers and artisans, and supporting and mentoring young Irish chefs. And finally we must garner high-profile political support and follow JP McMahon and his team in disseminating the message to a global media and interpreting audience.
This essay concludes with a prediction that in the next 10 years Ireland will become a global destination for gastronomic tourism and that an Irish-based restaurant and chef will once again feature on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
- Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire is lecturer in culinary arts and chair of Dublin Gastronomy Symposium, School of Culinary Arts and Food Technology, Dublin Institute of Technology. This essay is from the special Food Issue of the Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, which will be launched at the biennial Dublin Gastronomy Symposium 2018 (May 29th and 30th) hosted by Dublin Institute of Technology