Beyond the Menu: Ireland’s new food royalty, served up on a plate

Review: RTÉ’s new show sends a young chef around the island. Is he eyeing a few crowns?

Beyond the Menu: Veg king Mark Jennings, of Pilgrim’s, and Mark Moriarty, who was crowned young chef of the year

Beyond the Menu: Veg king Mark Jennings, of Pilgrim’s, and Mark Moriarty, who was crowned young chef of the year

 

All cooking shows, like all cooking, start with basic ingredients, and the best of each will appreciate what’s in season. If wild mushrooms and butternut squash are currently at their prime, it doesn’t pay to push wilting asparagus. Darina Allen is likewise the right guide for temperate times, while Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares could only satisfy more intemperate appetites. The sense you get from Beyond the Menu (RTÉ One, Monday, 7.30pm) is of a food programme that knows how to work with what it’s given.

Presented by Mark Moriarty, a 27-year-old chef at the Michelin-starred Greenhouse restaurant, in Dublin, the show is a convivial pursuit of knowledge that, for the viewer, emulates the dining experience rather than the cooking one.

It will tell you plenty about each of the chefs Moriarty visits, beginning with the terrifically amiable Mark Jennings and his partner, Sadie Pearce, owners of Pilgrim’s in Rosscarbery, in west Cork, and so winningly indifferent to publicity it’s a wonder they agreed to be involved.

Your role couldn’t be clearer if the show pulled out a chair for you and laid a napkin across your lap. Just sit back and enjoy

It will go into some detail about the provenance of the produce and quite a bit about the challenges of the business. But while it will conclude with a meal, in which Moriarty assists, it will tell you little about how it is all put together. Your role couldn’t be clearer if the show pulled out a chair for you and laid a napkin across your lap. Just sit back and enjoy.

Moriarty’s role is less clear, by turns competitive and subservient as he dines, does some desultory front-of-house work or, finally, partners in the kitchen.

Only his fondness for regal metaphors is constant. In 2015, he tells us, he was “crowned” young chef of the year. Jennings won’t say it, but he’s known as “the Veg King”. Before sampling his wares – tatsuta-age, strawberries with Macroom buffalo feta, and an assortment of crisps topped with things fished and foraged – Moriarty announces, “Let’s see if this Veg King is worthy of his crown.” He is, of course, but Moriarty gives the impression that he’s watching the throne.

Ireland’s new food royalty, though, are endearingly modest about it, and the show corresponds with their casual, unpretentious exteriors while still pursuing excellence. Hence a concluding pop-up restaurant (in truth, an outdoor dinner for six, cooked over flames on a serene pier). Jennings, the Veg King, proves so humble about his poached fish it isn’t even identified as hake until someone thinks to read out the menu. Moriarty, taking a shot at the monarch, presents his own seaweed-marinated potatoes, baked in a salt crust, as “the star of the show”.

Beyond the menu: the pair’s ‘pop-up restaurant’
Beyond the menu: the pair’s ‘pop-up restaurant’

Compare that to Jennings, so self-effacing he admits that he sometimes feels he’s “missing out on the world”, but so immune to expansion that he bats away the idea of a Dublin offshoot with the words, “I don’t know why I would try.”

Jennings, you feel, is there to savour, while Moriarty can’t subdue a more bullish desire to promote. He decrees the pop-up “a fantastic success, unlike anything I’ve ever done before”.

The show’s ingredients are excellent and fresh, and its enthusiasm undoubted, but that makes a harder sell feel overegged.

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