Dylan McGrath is holding court in his brand new development kitchen, perched high above traffic-clogged South Great George’s Street. Spring sunshine streams through mullioned windows on to exposed wooden rafters and high-end stainless steel equipment. Half a dozen Dylan lookalikes – lean, bearded, cropped hair, intense stares
– bustle about with plates of interesting-looking food or soon-to-be-food. The boss occasionally barks out a question or an order, always getting an immediate response: “Yes, Chef.”
The raw ingredients – mostly seafood – look fantastically fresh. Our vegetarian videographer flinches when a lobster is split from head to tail, its claws still twitching. In a couple of minutes, some of its flesh will be briefly poached before being draped with a thin film of lardo (cured pork fat), and dressed with ponzu jelly and ginger.
One floor below us, a new, Asian-influenced restaurant is under construction, and several of the dishes under construction today show Japanese influences – nigiri sushi, lobster sashimi, shabu-shabu.
The kitchen is tucked into the attic of the Victorian gothic redbrick that houses Rustic Stone, one of the three restaurants McGrath now controls on the hipster grid between George’s Street and South William Street. Fade Street Social, Brasserie Sixty6, Rustic Stone – all demonstrate McGrath’s keen sense of what hits the sweet spot in Dublin’s post-bust restaurant market these days: informality, decent ingredients, fashionable but unshocking food at reasonable prices.
The new kitchen, he says, allows him the space to experiment. “You don’t have the pressure of the service, so we can continually break things and get things wrong; this is the environment for that. We have six men working here today, we’ll have eight tomorrow, and we’re all working on the food that Dublin will eat next year.”
As viewers of Masterchef or The Pressure Cooker, the documentary following his attempt to achieve a Michelin star for his first restaurant, Mint, will know, McGrath's not too big on self-deprecation. But the swagger and intensity is tempered by a sardonic sense of humour, and maybe a bit of maturity. "To be honest, I've learned an awful lot in the last couple of years," he says. "I'm 37 now, I was 27 when I was in Mint. I've gone from bust to coming back to keeping on pushing, keeping on trying. I stopped cooking so I could concentrate on creating businesses that worked. That was seven years ago. I've got to get back to the work now. I've got to be cooking every day, working with the lads. They're learning, I'm learning and we've built a space where we're allowed get things wrong."
He acknowledges that the physical demands of the job become more difficult as time goes on. “When I was young I was up at five or six and I couldn’t wait to get into the kitchen. I never stopped, I was always running. These young men around me here are better and more patient than I am, lose their temper less, work very hard, and you need to have energy for that. But there’s always younger guys coming up and pushing on and trying to do it.
“It’s a very demanding profession, and once you’ve caught the bug and fallen in love with the craft – that’s what happens at a young age, you literally fall in love with it – once you do that, you realise how demanding it is and how much extra you have to give of yourself to become better, to become really good. The only thing that makes us become brilliant at something is the drive and the love of it. You keep doing it and keep doing it and before you know it you wake up and you’re not bad at it any more; you’re not as crap as you used to be.”
Is that an excuse for the sort of verbal abuse we've seen in some fly-on-the-wall kitchen documentaries, including what he dished out himself in The Pressure Cooker?
“Because it’s so demanding, and people give so much to it, they do lose their temper and get pissed off when it doesn’t go well, he says. “I understand that. Because they’ve given so much of themselves that they want to nail it and if there’s anyone around them that is lazy or isn’t pushing themselves in the same way it can become a very frustrating thing. I’m sure there are many professions that are like that.”
I wonder whether the overwhelming masculine culture in high-end kitchens contributes to the aggressive culture. Why are there so few women?
“I love to have women in the kitchen,” he says.” They’re better multitaskers than men and they keep the boys’ feet on the ground. However, whether you like it or not, and with no aim of being controversial, it’s a reality that a woman very often has a timeclock where eventually she wants to have a family, to have a child.
“It is a very male-dominated environment and you need to be quite tough to come through it. In my generation, you needed to be tough and work those hours to be able to do all those long days, to push yourself to that level, to be prepared to have little or no sleep. I’m sure women are just as capable as men are. It’s just... who wants to do that?”
It's a long time ago now, but McGrath was attacked by many of his Irish peers, including Kevin Thornton, Kevin Dundon and Patrick Guilbaud, when The Pressure Cooker was broadcast. On the other hand, Derry Clarke called him a "brilliant young chef" and Domini Kemp said he was a "creative genius". The yah-boo-sucks chippiness evident in his ongoing exchange of barbs with Richard Corrigan recalls Roy Keane in his Saipan heyday. So it's probably not a surprise when he blanks my question about what local restaurants or cooks he likes. "Oh ask me another question..." he sighs.
Right so, whose food does he admire internationally? “There’s lots of guys,” he says, citing an “amazing meal” he had recently at Disfrutar in Barcelona. “It’s the three head chefs from El Bulli. To say it was phenomenal is an understatement. We had 38 courses and I doubt you’ll be able to get into that restaurant in a year’s time. Everyone knows that Ferran Adria and the El Bulli kitchen changed the game of how we look at food, how we organise ourselves, the importance of creativity and where that belongs. The crazy thing about food is there are so many ingredients and so many techniques – the possibilities are endless. There aren’t many professions that have that broad spectrum.”
McGrath agrees that making food is a creative or even an artistic activity. “But it is a business,” he says. “There’s not enough profit in it in some countries to be able to do more things.
He's most interested, he says, in building restaurants for everyone. "Rustic Stone's one of the busiest restaurants in the city, but everyone told me that cooking on a stone wouldn't work, that people wouldn't do it. They're still doing it and it's one of the strongest models. But it's not fine dining and it's not supposed to be somewhere you go and have the best meal in Ireland. It's in the middle market but it's also a restaurant that customers love. Sometimes chefs get caught up in fine dining. There's more to restaurants than that. One night you want to go out for your daughter's graduation, the next night you just want to go out for dinner."
He had to find a way of coming back, he says, after Mint ended in closure and bankruptcy. “I was going to have to do commercial restaurants in the middle market, because it’s where Ireland was at, but more importantly because creativity is necessary in all our concepts. We have a restaurant dedicated to tapas; we have a restaurant dedicated to all-Irish food, that we built in the middle of a recession. I was so determined to keep the produce in Fade Street all-Irish because of the extended trust we got from Irish suppliers at a time when Ireland was at its worst. There was no finance. So I had to make sure we could build restaurants that were busy. Fine dining doesn’t allow that, or not in Ireland at that time.
Things are changing again now, he says. “It was a really tough couple of years for everyone. Nobody knew what was going to happen. Now it’s calming down again and the people are coming back. The restaurants are really busy – but they’re busy at a certain price point. I haven’t returned to fine dining yet. There’s a good chance I will always love that creative food and that’s probably where my heart is. But my other restaurants will work around that restaurant.”
It’s time to taste the sushi, sashimi and the other dishes he and his cooks have been working on while we spoke. The toro sushi in particular is strikingly good. “For me, sushi, raw fish and a lot of these things, if they’re done brilliantly, can be absolutely exceptional,” says McGrath. “I don’t believe that in this country anybody has been able to get their hands on this type of fish, because nobody’s had the buying power or given a shit about the best of tuna. Everybody uses commercial tuna and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I want to build something where it’s a little more pricey but a lot more brilliant.”
“I like to think that today I’m trying to build a better environment around me. It’s important you have your two days off together, it’s important that you get one morning off, it’s important that you get your holidays. A lot of the time that was not an option for me, it was complete sacrifice. Not saying it isn’t still hugely demanding – it is. But life is important too.”