Andy McFadden, Michelin man: ‘I kept getting flashbacks to Guilbaud’s’

Interview: Four years ago McFadden, from Tallaght, was made London’s youngest Michelin-starred chef – not bad for someone who was told by Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud that he wouldn’t make it

 

After his first year of catering college in the Institute of Technology Tallaght, Andy McFadden thought he had landed the most plum of placements with a six-month spell at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud. But just halfway through, he found himself slumped on a staircase outside the kitchen, in tears, after being told by the head chef that he didn’t have what it takes to make it in the pressurised world of high-end dining. His dream was in tatters.

That was just over 10 years ago. Today, McFadden, who is not yet 30, is one of the most celebrated chefs in London. When the Michelin star for L’Autre Pied (the restaurant where he is head chef) was confirmed four years ago, he was the youngest Michelin-starred chef in the city.

His bumpy journey to that star started when he was just 14, in the Luttrellstown Castle kitchen run by his uncle Neil McFadden. There he worked as a porter, but his uncle recognised his potential and introduced him to celebrity chef Neven Maguire. For the next two summers – and over the Christmas holidays as he headed into his Leaving Cert year in 2003 – he worked as a commis chef at MacNean House in Blacklion, Co Cavan.

“I decided to do a professional cookery course rather than a culinary arts degree,” he says, speaking from his noisy kitchen in fashionable Bloomsbury. “I got accepted to IT Tallaght, which was handy because I could walk to college from home.”

He loved the course, and his passion for every aspect of it secured him his place at Guilbaud’s. “It was really hard, such a high level,” he says. “But even though I found it tough, I thought I was coping. Then the head chef called me aside and told me I was finished. He said I’d never be a chef. I was having a nervous breakdown on the stairs, to be honest with you. I’m not bitter about it now, but I use it as an inspiration. I’ve had to sack people, of course I have, but I’ll never do it that way.”

After his ill-fated spell in Ireland’s only two-starred restaurant, he went to L’Ecrivain and Derry Clarke. “I loved it. I did the rest of my 12-week stint there and went back the following summer,” he says.

He won a national student chef competition and a three-month culinary scholarship in the US, at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. Still only 20, he came home and started working in the Nuremore Hotel in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan. He was a finalist in the Gordon Ramsay Scholar Awards in 2007, after which he joined the kitchen staff at the two-star Pied à Terre, under the then head chef, Shane Osborn.

He worked under Osborn for 3½ years. “When I started, it scared the hell out of me,” he says. “I kept getting flashbacks to Guilbaud’s, but I’d been only 18 then. I was too young and it was such a high level. This time I was older.”

He was still only 20. “I hated the first six months. I’d been doing well in Ireland, I’d a girlfriend and friends. In London I had no friends and no money.”

But he never considered throwing his chef’s hat at it, and after six long and lonely months, “something clicked. I made some friends and got a pay raise.”

 

The three-star experience

He was offered a sous chef contract – the chance to be second in command – but he turned it down. He wanted to continue his learning, and managing the kitchen would have hindered that. “I was working in a two-star restaurant but wanted to go to a higher level. I wanted the three-star experience,” he says.

He found it at Oud Sluis in the Netherlands. “It blew me away. It was a whole different level, although the differences between two and three stars can sometimes be very small. It was crazy there. The staff really went for it every day, they f***ing worked really hard.”

He was there for nine months when he was given the chance to take over as head chef at Pied à Terre’s sister restaurant, L’Autre Pied, with its single star. “I’d never been a sous chef and never written a menu or done rotas. It was incredible pressure. I worked myself into the ground. I became obsessed with the star. I worked seven days a week. I couldn’t see past the star; I couldn’t let go,” he says with a lightness in his voice that contrasts with his words.

Today he wears his status lightly. “In the 2015 guide there were 62 Michelin stars in London, so I am nobody really,” he says.

He hasn’t forgotten where he came from, and maintains his ties with Tallaght. “All my lecturers and 18 students are coming over to eat here next week,” he says. He wants to find the kitchen prodigies in Ireland. “You’d think it would be easy to find staff in London, but it really isn’t, not of the calibre we need. I want aspiring Irish chefs to know about me and to come to me first.”

 

The hard graft

When asked what makes a great chef, he doesn’t hesitate. “In my opinion, you’re born with a certain flair, a certain talent, but I also put in a lot of graft. I work six days a week. I’m not comparing myself to him, but look at Lionel Messi: he’s the best footballer in the world, and he was born with a lot of talent, but he also puts in a huge amount of hard work.

“Some chefs and kids who want to be chefs think I have it made, but they only see the nice stuff. They don’t see the hard slog and they don’t know about Guilbaud’s. Kids come in to me and ask about wages and time off. I’d never have dreamed about asking about time off.”

Does he want more stars? “I’ve worked at every level and know what it takes. It’s a long haul. I know we’ve a better restaurant then we had four years ago, and it’s constantly getting better. I come in every day and I push myself and my team very hard. In the first years I had the blinkers on, and I only really focused on the kitchen; now I am focused on the whole restaurant.

“I wouldn’t say I have calmed down, but I have matured. I used to scream and shout, and I could really lose it. But I am in there with the guys and I am running myself into the ground trying to lead by example. I don’t want the customers to hear me roaring. It is unprofessional.”

He still wants his kitchens to be loud, just not in the shouty, sweary way beloved of some of his peers. In the mornings, during food prep, the crew listen to hardcore techno. “I learned that in Holland. Over there, they work to the speed of that music, the 120 beats per minute.”

He was in Ireland recently for his day off. His mother took him to the airport and they stopped to visit his grandparents, who live nearby. “I think people are defined by how they are brought up,” he says. “And I was very lucky to be brought up the way I was. There are not many chefs in Tallaght, for sure. But I used to hang out with my uncle. In his house he had a room – he called it his study – and the walls were lined with books, cookery books. That is where it all started, really.”

Some chefs demur when asked about their favourites, but McFadden has no such reticence. “I think Neven [Maguire] is the best chef in Ireland,” he says. “He cooks with so much love and so much passion. He makes brilliant, brilliant food.”

Not long ago, the Guilbaud’s chef booked a table at L’Autre Pied and a circle of sorts would have been completed had he actually made it to the restaurant. He didn’t, however, as his flight was delayed.

“I used to think that if he came into the restaurant, I’d throw him out,” McFadden says. “Now I think I’d burst my balls to serve him the best food he has ever had. I met Patrick Guilbaud at an event last year. I had my photograph taken with him and everything. I put it on Facebook and all my mates were like, ‘What the f***?’. Obviously he didn’t have a clue who I was.”

He might now.

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