It didn't feel like the best of starts. Twenty years ago today, with a last glass polish and a deep breath, chef Paul Flynn and his wife Máire opened the doors of their ambitious new restaurant in a converted tannery in a town of 8,000 people. The memory of that first day is "imprinted on my brain", Máire says.
“The first customers left because they ‘knew food’ and [thought] what we were doing wasn’t anything like good food. After their starter they came downstairs and left.” Since then there have been many more happy eaters than disgruntled ones.
But the 20th anniversary of the Tannery in Dungarvan, (their big Tannerversary) has been weirdly emotional, Máire says. It's been an adventure. Six of those years were a perfect storm of soaring bank debt and falling bookings that nearly saw them go to the wall. They have second generation customers now, people who first visited as children with their parents, and now come to eat with their boyfriends or girlfriends.
Máire has some records from those first days when they wondered if they hadn’t just stepped off the edge into thin air.
"Ireland was so different then. I pulled out all the old diaries the other day, and you know there was no mobile phones with the reservations…it was very nice to see that loads of the names in the first few weeks when we opened are still our customers now.
“I remember when we opened first, and people came down from Dublin, and one woman saying to me ‘aren’t you absolutely marvellous. How do you get the ingredients down here?’ But it was a 4½-hour journey from Dublin to Dungarvan in those days.”
In July 1997 the Flynns had a plan. They were going to turn Dungarvan into Kinsale, a food town attracting tourists from all over the island and beyond.
It would have been easy to just open up in Kinsale, “take Martin Shanahan’s leftover customers serving up steak and chips” as Paul says. But they both agree they have never done things the easy way.
There are lots of things on which they agree: it’s never too early to open a bottle of wine when cooking on holiday; Máire is “a lot” younger than Paul.
Did they know each other growing up in Dungarvan, I ask. . “No, because clearly he’s a lot older than me,” she says firmly . . . if you can get that in.”
And they love their home town, not least for the truth serum that seems to be in the town’s water supply, making Dungarvanites enormously comfortable at criticising things. One man wrote them a letter in the early days telling them that calling it “the Tannery” was a terrible idea as he and other locals had such bad memories of the stink from the original factory.
Sense of family
The Tannery was a homecoming for both of them. Paul “did the 80s thing” and emigrated to London at 18, having left school with a “terrible terrible Leaving Cert” and taken a Fás scheme cooking in Dungarvan restaurant Merry’s with chef Paul McCluskey, “who I always credit for me falling in love with food”.
After two days he realised he wanted to be a chef.
“I loved the kind of cosseted warm environment of the kitchen, and also this sense of family that it brought. I thought ‘this is going to be a lovely place to work.’ I discovered when I went to London they weren’t all like that.”
He moved to Epsom to stay with his brother, and spent a year in hotel kitchens writing furiously to restaurants in the Michelin Guide in his time off. Eventually the Roux brothers offered him a start. "I'll never forget walking down those steps [in their Covent Garden restaurant], the smell and the aura for the first time."
The Roux kitchen was “fairly brutal, not in the way that they treated you. It was just the work ethic, and it was just an alien environment”, not helped by the fact that the kitchen had to speak French.
Twice he overcooked something on the pastry section and was made to stay late, missing his train from Waterloo and dossing down on the station floor for the night.
He left after six weeks to go to Nico Ladenis’s two-star restaurant Chez Nico. “It was back to this kind of family-oriented environment because it was him, his wife and two daughters in this two star in Battersea…I felt at home there although I was rightfully and completely at the bottom of the ladder.”
He climbed that ladder in four years, becoming at age 23 head chef working across Nico’s chain of five restaurants. Nine years later he left to go to La Stampa in Dublin. Four months after he left, Chez Nico got their third star. “It absolutely killed me.”
Paul met Máire on blind date on a visit to Dublin when he was still working in London. His brother was married to a neighbour of Máire’s.
“It was a very fast long-distance romance, and actually we got married really quickly, I think in a year and a half,” Máire says.
Returning home in 1993, Paul had the emigrant’s rose-tinted view of Ireland but didn’t feel at home in Dublin. What made them start to think about setting up a restaurant outside the city?
"Well, it was kind of Rick Stein came on the telly," Máire says.
“That’s what it was ... yes, I fancied myself as Rick Stein.”
That lifestyle of "fluting on a beach with Chalky [Stein's jack russell]" appealed so much "we even got a dog called Chalky but she ran away, or, no, she got stolen.
“Paul kind of said, ‘I really want that. And let’s go to Connemara.’ Do you remember that’s where you wanted to go? To Clifton or somewhere. Thank God we didn’t go there.”
That lifestyle of “fluting on a beach with Chalky [Stein’s jack russell]” appealed so much “we even got a dog called Chalky but she ran away, or, no, she got stolen. There’s a whole movie to be made about Chalky,” Paul says. “But I realised pretty quick that this country living isn’t as easy as it seems.”
It took them six months to find the Tannery. They had been looking at another building but that fell through.
“I was at my best friend’s wedding and we were having such a good time,” Paul says. “To this day I can see an estate agent dancing towards me, shimmying towards me. That was the amount of research, R&D, we did for our business plan.”
The building had been a working factory up to 1995, and it was a huge job to turn it into a restaurant with the help of architect Denis Looby.
“But we loved it. My grandfather used to work there, all his life on what is now the floor of the restaurant, so those little violins were playing to me,” Paul says.
Happy diners and good reviews got them off the blocks. When Tom Doorley described it in the Sunday Tribune as "food worth travelling hundreds of miles for", Paul burst into tears. "We were going through a hard time." For many years people came in with a folded up copy of John McKenna's first review.
The town was delighted with its new restaurant. But like the “good room” there was a sense that it was just for special occasions.
“Pretty quickly we realised we had to become a ‘destination restaurant’,” Paul says. “How many birthdays and special occasions are there in a town of 8,000 people?”
Being a celebrity chef was not a natural fit for someone whose mouth went dry when he had to talk to people, but Paul began writing for The Irish Times and that led to his first book. A TV career followed, and it all helped the bookings. And he has trained himself out of his shyness
"The bank were like 'would you like some more money for that'?"
Fell off a cliff
In 2005 they opened the townhouse with seven rooms. Then two years later they borrowed big to buy a former convent in the town and turn it into a cookery school.
“The bank were like ‘would you like some more money for that’?” Paul remembers. “We opened the door in October 2008, and that month everything fell off a cliff.”
The next six years “were really like the horrible years”, Máire says. “It was awful. Our children [they have two daughters] were so small and we were under such pressure. It was really hard times, like so many people had. We weren’t unique in that.”
They came “very close” to losing everything. “There were a lot of scary meetings.”
How did they survive?
“Just doing everything, just constantly pedalling, being innovative, thinking about different ways of doing it, working, working, working. Paul did every job inside and outside the Tannery he could take. Changing the ground floor into the wine bar really helped things along.”
They have a magpie approach to food, picking up ideas on regular trips. Four years ago chef Ray McArdle asked Paul why they didn't do chips. "And I said, 'sure, everybody will want them' and I had visions of them swilling chips through my sauces. Ray said 'we have two bistros and we do 12 grand a year in business in chips.
“The next day ...” Paul says, lobbing the opener to his wife. “Chips were on the menu,” she finishes.
They’d shoot me
Paul has handed over head chef role to Sam Burfield. "I'm in there before everyone in the morning, I taste everything, and it gets sent out past me on to the customers. Because if I was in there I think definitely they'd shoot me.
“That sense of wanting to be relevant is all pervasive. You know, I have this reputation of being fun to be with and a nice guy, but I actually am quite tough at work, and if somebody is sloppy and not paying attention…well, we just have high standards.”
Máire says they have a sense it’s coming full circle. “When you said about Nico’s being a family, we are mammy and daddy, and if one of us isn’t in there the other one is, and we’re really fond of all our staff. They’re young and they’re great fun and such great workers, and they like when we’re there. It feels safe.”
And the future?
Máire would love to open a cafe in the town. Paul would “love to get rid of the a la carte menu ... I look at other restaurants enviously. They have shorter menus – places in London and Dublin as well, places like the Clove Club. You’ve seven or eight dishes on and you can concentrate on those and make them perfect.
“ I don’t think we’d be able to get a way with that. People expect an a la carte menu. You could look upon us as not being brave enough to try, but I’m not brave enough to try it. I know our audience, and it just wouldn’t work.”
Turning on a tap
Dungarvan is having its moment this year thanks to the opening of the Waterford Greenway, which has been like turning on a tap.
“I feel like going out and having a statue put up to the gods of the Greenway. We were waiting for this tourist thing to hit Waterford and it never did,” Máire says.
“The Wild Atlantic Way came and went, and still we were in Waterford and we had this beautiful county that was completely off the tourist track. But now the Greenway has come, and there are hoards of people coming down. It’s amazing. They all love it, and Waterford people, from both sides of the county, are so proud of it. It’s been a great kind of community good feeling thing to happen.”