Another Thornton's restaurant? Never say never, but no
Since Kevin and Muriel Thornton closed their Michelin-starred restaurant, they’ve never looked back. Now they’re looking forward to running a new cookery school at their home
Kevin and Muriel Thornton at their home in Ranelagh, where they are opening a cookery school, Kevin Thornton’s Kooks. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
“I was taking photographs, and then I felt a pain in my chest, and I was thinking, what’s happening? And then I started crying, and it was just so emotional.”
Kevin Thornton is talking about his chance encounter with several hundred Buddhist monks, lighting candles and praying for peace, at Swayambhunath or “monkey” temple in Nepal.
“It was amazing, really spiritual – everyone was in Kathmandu for hiking or for spiritual [reasons] and I wasn’t into either of them. But it found me.”
This chance happening was just one of a series of life-changing experiences Thornton has encountered in a 10-month sabbatical from the restaurant business that has taken him all over the world.
Walking barefoot (he has to be reminded to put shoes on when the photographer arrives, but they don’t stay on for long) around his home in Ranelagh, Thornton looks like a new man. The stresses of the past few years – the loss of a Michelin star in 2015 and the closure of his business 10 months ago – are no longer evident in his face, his eyes bright behind trendy new spectacles.
On October 29th last year, the chef and his wife and business partner Muriel brought the shutters down on Thornton’s, the Dublin restaurant they had run for the previous 26 years, and embarked on the next stage of their professional and private lives.
It was the first time since I was 16 that I’ve just travelled somewhere, without a purpose
“I finished packing up the restaurant at 4pm, and I was on a plane at 6pm, heading to Nepal and Kathmandu to do some work with The Umbrella Foundation, ” he says. “I needed an adventure. Because if I stopped and did nothing . . .”
Thornton has spent almost half of the past 10 months travelling, sometimes flying on one-way tickets, visiting places as remote as possible, and having no set itinerary. Nepal, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, France, Switzerland, Crete, Italy, the US . . . his passport has rarely been out of his pocket since he rediscovered his freedom, after more than 40 years cooking in professional kitchens.
Muriel wasn’t tempted to join her husband on these expeditions, though they did enjoy a holiday together in the US recently. “Muriel’s a five-star woman and I’m not,” Kevin says, adding that the cheaper and more down-to-earth his accommodation is, the better. Hammocks and dorm beds are mentioned.
“He likes to be right in with the people. When he goes to Ethiopia [where he has ongoing involvement in aid projects], he stays in the tents with the tribesmen,” Muriel says.
Kevin came back to Ireland for his son Conor’s graduation from Trinity in December, and headed off again almost immediately, to Vietnam this time, and the first of several long-haul adventures. “It was the first time since I was 16 that I’ve just travelled somewhere, without a purpose. With the restaurant, your whole life is on a timer, 365 days a year.”
Catalyst for change
The decision to close the restaurant wasn’t one the couple arrived at in a hurry. They’d been talking about it for years, and the prospect of signing a new lease was the catalyst for change. “I’d been pushing it for a while, because the pace Kevin worked at was not sustainable. There was a review of the lease due and we would have had to sign for another seven years. I said to Kevin, we’ll be going out of here in a box if we sign.”
There have been no regrets since closing. “I loved the restaurant with my heart and soul, and it was a very difficult decision three years ago when we spoke about it. But then, when we made the decision, it was ‘wow’ – we never looked back,” Kevin adds.
“The last person I served was Frank Murray, my friend. And then he passed away.” The music industry figure and manager of The Pogues died suddenly in December, when Kevin was travelling in Myanmar. “It makes you realise the fragility of life,” Muriel adds.
The couple have spent a lifetime in the hospitality business – Kevin is 58 and Muriel is 54 – and they were ready to embrace a more “normal” life. For Muriel, that meant simple things “like being able to say yes when people invited us for dinner”, and for Kevin, it was the freedom to travel “without feeling guilty”, and explore his interests in photography, music, archaeology and anthropology.
Muriel, the self-confessed worrier in the family, was concerned that, having worked 18-hour days for the previous three decades, leaving the all-consuming restaurant business would be difficult for her husband. His “comedown” is how they both describe the transition.
“What I was worried about was that Kevin is used to working at a very frenetic pace and in a very high-octane, creative environment, and the effect that it might have when that stopped suddenly, because the structure of that is all we’ve every known.”
We want this to be a fun venture as opposed to the seriousness of the restaurant. That’s why we chose to do it at home
“She worries, I don’t worry, there’s no point, it’s a waste of time,” Kevin says. And Muriel needn’t have worried. Travel kept the chef’s enquiring mind busy, and he says he “got to know himself a bit more” in the process, relishing having time to appreciate “the simple things, the sunrise, the sunset”.
“When I was 16 I used to travel a lot,” he says, which must have been unusual for a teenager from Cashel, Co Tipperary at the time. “I got this ear pierced when I was 16,” he says, pointing to his right lobe. “And then I got this one done this year . . . because I’m 17 now,” he adds with a grin.
While Kevin was reliving his teenage backpacking experiences, Muriel was at home in Ranelagh, putting together a plan for the next chapter in the couple’s story. Next month, they launch a new business, running cookery classes in their home, and they are also doing occasional private catering events.
“We have some clients from the restaurant that we’ve done some work with since we closed and we’ll continue to do that. Cooking for 20-25, anywhere they want, anywhere in the world. I do the supervision and co-ordination, like I did in the restaurant. It’s like taking Thornton’s to someone’s house,” Muriel says.
Kevin Thornton’s Kooks is the name of the new venture – “The K is for Kevin, and also because he’s a bit kooky, and we want this to be a fun venture as opposed to the seriousness of the restaurant. That’s why we chose to do it at home. We want to break down the barriers that people might see,” Muriel explains.
The classes will run on Fridays and Saturdays from 9.45am to 4.30pm, with a specific theme for each session. In the morning session Kevin will demonstrate three to five dishes, depending on their complexity, and once those have been tasted at a lunchtime break, the students, limited to six for each class, will have a go at reproducing them.
Food is for everybody, and everybody is entitled to eat good food
Kevin is excited about sharing his love of food in a new way. “Each day there’s going to be a new lesson. I’m a qualified teacher. I was involved in setting up the degree course at Cathal Brugha Street – I really enjoyed it. I’ll be making people think differently about food and getting them to think outside the box.”
Prospective students needn’t worry about subjecting themselves to harsh scrutiny from a pro chef who once had two Michelin stars to his name. Even complete beginners are welcome to enrol – and the couple are keen to stress that the classes will be “using ingredients that are readily available, and food that everyone can cook”. The full-day classes will cost €295 per person, and gift vouchers will be available.
Although his mother was the cook at home in Cashel, the family were all involved in getting dinner on the table, and Kevin has been cooking since he was a child. In the introduction to Food For Life, a book of photographs he produced as a fundraiser for Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in gratitude for the care the hospital gave to his son Conor during a serious childhood illness, he writes: “Sometimes going back to school at lunchtime I’d be five minutes late and the teacher would say, ‘Where were you, Thornton?’ and I’d say, ‘I was cooking dinner’. Everyone in the class would giggle, but to me it was normal.’’
It’s a skill he believes everyone should have. “Food is for everybody, and everybody is entitled to eat good food.”
Adaptations have had to be made to the couple’s beautifully designed and styled period home in Ranelagh. A large island unit has been added in the kitchen, and this will be the classroom hub. Additional ovens – steam, pizza and bread – a five-burner gas hob, a wok burner, and a worktop grill plate have been added to the expansive La Cornue French range cooker that was already in place.
Muriel is the design talent of the duo, according to Kevin, and it was she who came up with the vision for a teaching space that also works as a family home kitchen. “It looks like a home and that’s the whole idea. I want people to be comfortable,” Muriel says.
The impressive array of copper pans that have gone with them everywhere they’ve been in business, from the Wine Epergne in Rathmines in the early 1990s, to the Portobello premises they moved to in 1995, and on to Thornton’s in the Fitzwilliam Hotel in the city centre, now frame a window overlooking their elegant garden.
There’s just one thing Muriel is not really happy with. There’s a large metal meat slicer, the sort of thing you’d see on a deli counter, propped up on a counter alongside her artfully displayed dried goods glass jars. “I’ve been bringing things home and Muriel says ‘get that junk out of here’. It’s about making sure I don’t overload the place,” Kevin admits, while making a strong case for the retention of the slicer for its ability to cut vegetables paper thin, and carve up frozen tuna belly.
On the final Sunday of each month, Kooks Wild Food Tours will take the classroom out into the great outdoors, with wild food being collected on the seashore and in the Dublin mountains and cooked outdoors. There are also plans for what the couple describe as “a quarterly moveable feast event – a celebration of each season and a re-imagination of what a dining experience can be”. The first of these is planned for Halloween.
The cookery school and event business will close for a month in the summer and again in January. There’s a strong sense that the couple are determined to achieve a better work-life balance this time around, and Kevin already has plans for his January break. He will be returning to Ethiopia, a country with which he has close ties and has visited many times.
He first travelled there in 2011, as part of a Connect Ethiopia charity project, along with hotelier Francis Brennan. The two shared their hospitality expertise with people working in the sector, with the aim of improving standards so that tourists would stay longer – and spend more money – in the country.
He has made many return visits to continue his work there and had intended to go back as soon as Thornton’s closed, but civil unrest made that impossible at the time. “He’d have gone anyway, but I wouldn’t let him,” Muriel interjects.
He says he has “two things I have to finish” in Ethiopia. Those are the completion of a cookery school, and working with the government on the establishment of an abattoir, both in Lalibela in the north of the country. “They’re still killing the animals at sunrise on the top of a mountain and the blood and entrails are flowing down into the river,” he says.
According to Kevin, the past 10 months have been part of a dream year, “and it’s not over yet.” He was heading for Singapore the day after we met, for “three days hardcore work” doing a lunch and a demonstration with the organisers of the World Gourmet Summit, and was to follow that with a road trip to Cambodia.
Anything is now possible for the couple, who are relishing their new-found freedom – except opening another restaurant, it seems. “We’ve had lots of offers, even two phone calls yesterday, from people trying to see if we’d be interested in doing another restaurant,” Muriel says.
“Bonkers,” Kevin replies.
“Never say never . . . but no,” Muriel says, with conviction.
For more information, see kevinthorntonskooks.com