Beyond the Menu: what keeps Ireland’s chefs cooking?
In his debut TV series, chef Mark Moriarty meets some of our brightest culinary talent and finds out what inspires them and how they cope with working in a notoriously tough industry
Mark Moriarty, Majken Bech Bailey and Jordan Bailey
Ever wondered what makes really talented people, who could be doing a million other things with their lives, endure insanely long working hours, always on their feet and usually cooped up in a blisteringly hot, cramped space? They’re not in it for the money, that’s for sure, the band of brothers, and sisters, who dedicate their lives to feeding others.
“I want people to watch this series and say, ‘Ah, now I know why they do it.’” Mark Moriarty, 27-year-old former winner of the global San Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year title, is talking about his debut TV series, Beyond the Menu, in which he spends time – at work and at play – with some of the brightest culinary talent in the country, finding out what inspires them, how they cope with working in a notoriously tough industry, and what makes them stand out from the crowd.
“There is a generation who are just now starting to be head chefs and open businesses, and I want to introduce audiences to this new group of people who are doing some really good work,” he says of the six-part series, which begins on RTÉ One on September 9th.
Each 30-minute episode, filmed over three days, introduces a new chef, who Moriarty cooks with, hangs out with, and attempts to find out what makes them do what they do. The action culminates in a pop-up dinner, with a location, theme or intention that reflects the interests and background of the featured chef.
The series is a shot in the arm for an industry that badly needs it, but it is not entirely sugar-coated. “There’s a lot of sh** that goes on, and we do touch on that, in every episode,” he says.
The intention was to get a wide variety of people and styles of food, and in different parts of the country
Some of the thorny issues that are raised include the difficulties that come with trying to live in an expensive city on a salary that doesn’t reflect the effort that goes into the job; equality and gender imbalance in kitchens; managing the pressure that comes with success; the weight of expectation; and having a life outside the bubble of kitchen work.
The six chefs who made the cut for the series are an interesting and diverse bunch, scattered across the country, and half of those featured work alongside their partners in life. Neither criteria is accidental. “The intention was to get a wide variety of people and styles of food, and in different parts of the country,” Moriarty says, having honed his original idea through a pitch to Brian Walsh, deputy head of acquisitions in RTÉ, and subsequent programme development with production company Appetite Media.
Featuring couples who are working so closely together, with the highs and lows that that can bring, makes the series more relatable to viewers who may only have a passing interest in food, Moriarty believes. “Couples working together in restaurants raises the interesting question, is that the only way relationships can work in the hospitality industry?”
That’s a quandary he is all too familiar with. His girlfriend, Gráinne Quinn, works in the HR department of a well-known legal firm. “She’ll work like 8am to 7pm, but it’s Monday to Friday, so we have to try very hard to make it work,” he says, while marvelling at the stamina of a colleague who has a young son, works incredibly long hours, “and comes in and does it every day with a smile on his face.”
Moriarty currently works three days a week at the Michelin-starred Dublin restaurant The Greenhouse, allowing him time to film this series, as well as undertake a variety of consultancy and representative roles for brands including Diageo and Tesco Finest.
Since winning the San Pellegrino title in 2015 and becoming one of three ambassadors for the competition, Moriarty has cooked alongside some of the biggest names in world gastronomy. In the 12 months after his hay-baked celeriac dish wowed the judges, he took his pop-up restaurant on tour, planning and cooking 14 big-ticket dinners to showcase Irish food in 12 locations around the world, including Sydney, Capetown and Paris.
“It was planned like you would an album tour. I worked with San Pellegrino for three months planning it, and then hit the road,” he says. Next month he travels to Peru, to cook at a showcase for the 2019 competition in Lima’s Museum of Modern Art.
“It was massive. It brought a lot of opportunities and a lot more pressure, certainly,” he says of his global win. “But now I go into The Greenhouse 45 hours a week and I’m just part of the team. We do what we do, and I continue learning. That keeps me grounded and keeps me on track.”
Kitchen parties: meet the chefs from Beyond the Menu
Chef: Mark Jennings
Restaurant: Pilgrim’s, Roscarberry
In the first episode, Moriarty travels to Roscarberry to meet Mark Jennings, who runs Pilgrim’s with his partner Sadie Pearce, to explore what it takes to run a restaurant as a couple, and to see how a vegetable-centric kitchen works.
“I’d never met Mark before and I wasn’t sure how this one would go, but he really opened up after a couple of hours. I was just blown away by this amazingly mad food that just tasted delicious, and by his approach to life.
“He’s just the most uncheffy chef I’ve come across. He cares about the real things – delicious food, making sure people are looked after and then just living the simple life and enjoying life in West Cork and looking after his family.”
Chef: Gráinne O’Keefe
Restaurant: Clanbrassil House, Dublin
O’Keefe and Moriarty were culinary arts student contemporaries; he won the Euro-Toques young chef in the same year she was also a finalist. “We had a bit of fun about that,” he says.
Known for her prodigious work ethic – she is culinary director at Bujo in Sandymount as well as head chef at Clanbrassil House – O’Keefe tells Moriarty that she has had the same housemate for 18 months, but they haven’t yet had a proper conversation, because she is always on the go. “And she has never bought milk in her life,” he says.
“Gráinne is just very straight up. She just basically says, look, if you want to get anywhere in life you just have to work your ass off.”
Chef: Ciaran Sweeney
Restaurant: Forest & Marcy, Dublin
When Moriarty was a stagiaire at Thornton’s restaurant in Dublin during his college days, Sweeney was his supervisor. They also worked together at The Greenhouse, became close friends, and set up a pop-up called Culinary Counter. “I’d never really met Ciaran’s family despite being friends for so long, so we went up to Donegal and did a full tour and cooked a great dinner at Breac House, where we showcased all the Donegal produce in a very kind of high-end way.”
Sweeney, who has a young daughter, hopes to move back to Donegal and open a restaurant there. Family and financial considerations, such as the cost of living in Dublin, are at the heart of the decision. “The episode is based on what he plans to do and why he wants to move back to Donegal. We wanted to show that you can read about Ciaran, and the amazing reviews for Forest & Marcy, and just assume everything must be great for him, but behind that he’s trying to live in Sandyford, pay rent, all that sort of stuff.”
Chef: Holly Dalton
Restaurant: Gertrude, Dublin
Gender balance and equality in kitchens is the central theme to this episode, which features Dalton’s friend and mentor, Irish Times columnist Jess Murphy, who they visit in Galway. “That was an interesting day,” Moriarty says.
Back in Dublin the duo cook for an all-women group, including Moriarty’s mum and sister, in Gertrude restaurant on Pearse Street, where Dalton has been working as head chef.
“It’s not a boys’ club anymore,” Dalton tells Moriarty as they talk about the lack of women chefs and what can be done to redress the gender imbalance.
Chef: Rob Krawczyk
Restaurant: Chestnut, Ballydehob
Last autumn, just six months after opening their 18-seat restaurant in a former pub in a village in West Cork, Krawczyk and his partner Elaine Fleming found themselves on a plane to London, to collect a Michelin star. This episode is about that whirlwind journey, and the pressure that they now find themselves under to retain it .
“I always get asked by non-chef friends about that, they’re obsessed with Michelin, since that film Burnt,” Moriarty says. “They’re mad to know, like, how does it work, and do you know if they [the guide’s inspectors] are in? So we decided we’d do an episode and tell that story.”
Chef: Jordan Bailey
Restaurant: Aimsir, Co Kildare
Aimsir, on the Cliff at Lyons property, is but a spark of imagination and a building site when filming begins there in March, but by July, when the film crew return, it is in business, fully booked and already making waves. “This episode is about Jordan and [wife and business partner] Majken bringing all their three-Michelin star experience to the middle of Co Kildare, and about the work that goes into opening a restaurant,” Moriarty says.
Michelin’s Great Britain and Ireland Guide for 2020 launches on October 7th, and with this episode due to be screened on October 14th, the possibility of Aimsir being included in the guide, and at what level, had to be broached. “There’s a scene that sees me asking him, ‘So, you’ve been head chef at a three-Michelin star restaurant [Maaemo in Oslo], what’s going to happen here?’ and then him dodging the question,” Moriarty says with a laugh.