Dylan McGrath: ‘I’m 100% back. I’m as good as I’ve ever been’
A decade on from the Michelin-starred Mint, the angry chef has reinvented himself
“We’re in a good spot, in a good place. But we’ll always be aware that it can come up and bite you on the backside.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Where has Dylan McGrath disappeared to? The firebrand chef has been notably under the radar in recent years, no longer glaring moodily from TV screens, absent from the Sunday supplements and not featuring in the news. Well, with the exception of the stalker incident – but we’ll come back to that.
These days, you’re more likely to find the chef turned restaurateur walking his miniature schnauzers puppies, Thelma and Louise, than hanging out on the celebrity social circuit. “I just adore them, love them to bits,” he says of his canine companions.
He became a home owner for the first time last year, when he bought a house in Dublin south city centre (he’s coy about revealing its exact location). “I’m filling it with furniture at the moment, which is a great, fun experience,” he says.
Currently single, he lives there with his brother Billy, who works with him in his restaurants. “Me and Billy are rock solid, we’ve been plotting this since we were in the bath together. Billy is an incredible human being. We are the two brothers that don’t clash, we are there for each other, we listen to each other. He is a rock for me.”
The 40-year-old is sitting opposite me in Bonsai Bar, one of four businesses in Dublin city centre that he runs with his partner, Vincent Melinn. He is looking fit and healthy, and his trademark shaved head has been replaced by a grey-tinged mop that he occasionally tugs at distractedly.
“Honestly, it’s my hair, like,” he says when I remark on the change. “I used to have really long hair and then I shaved it all off when I went into the kitchen and I didn’t stop shaving it.”
A decade on from Mint, the Ranelagh restaurant where his cooking earned him a Michelin star – and turned his career upside down when the cash ran out – McGrath has reinvented himself, as an entrepreneur. Along with Melinn, he runs a hospitality group that turns €17 million a year and feeds about 850 diners on a busy night, by his own estimation.
It’s 6½ years since I last sat opposite McGrath, notebook in hand. In that time, much has changed. Back then, hot on the heels of Rustic Stone’s launch, he told me his priority was to continue to learn how to create successful businesses. It was a learning curve that involved parking his fine-dining aspirations in favour of a more profitable model.
Rustic Stone, his first venture with Melinn, was followed by Fade Street Social, a restaurant and gastro-bar; Taste, a Japanese restaurant with South American influences, and Bonsai Bar, a Japanese cocktail lounge.
Later this year, the duo will open Shelbourne Social, a 4,500sq ft restaurant in the landmark One Ballsbridge development in Dublin 4. The pair employ more than 300 staff, with that set to grow to in excess of 400 once Shelbourne Social opens in September.
“Both of us were on our backsides [financially] when we did Rustic,” he says of his business partner of eight years. He credits Melinn and his ability “to be able to share the vision of what we could do” as a driving force in their success, even through recessionary times. “Fade Street was built with no bank, we got more credit from our suppliers than we did from the banks at he time.”
One side of my body went completely dead. I couldn’t walk, and then I had to spend a couple of months in hospital.
There were other hurdles to overcome too. A TV appearance on a chat show with Brendan O’Connor in mid-2015, in which McGrath was out of sorts and slurring his words, was afterwards attributed to side effects from heavy medication he was taking for ongoing chronic back pain.
“I’d be on a crutch for a month of the year, every year,” he says.” Surgery was prescribed, but there were complications. “My body didn’t react well, one side of my body went completely dead. I couldn’t walk, and then I had to spend a couple of months in hospital.”
The Mater private hospital was home for those months, and by his own admission, he was a difficult patient. “ It drove me mental and it didn’t go well with me as a person that’s used to, right let’s get this done . . .”
And how did the hospital food go down? “God love them, I had them tortured,” he says, laughing. “They were tremendous people, they put up with an awful lot. I was in a pretty crazy place.”
His recovery was protracted. “It was incredibly frustrating. I was very disorientated and didn’t know what was happening, and I had to really dig deep and adjust mentally over a long space of time. I was worried about the restaurants and I was worried about my partner and I was worried about my family.”
Anxiety levels must have been raised, too, as he dealt with the unwanted attentions of a woman he dated twice in early 2015, who subsequently bombarded him with hundreds of messages and nuisance calls, some of which he considered to be threatening.
Proceedings were issued, but the case took some time to come to court. In February 2017, Daphney Sanasie, a model who had been a participant in the reality TV show First Dates, pleaded guilty in Dublin District Court to harassing McGrath from September 9th until November 21st, 2015, and was given a lifetime ban from making contact with him.
He doesn’t want to talk about this incident, and I’d been warned by his PR minder that the topic was definitely off the table. “Who wants to hear about all that?” is his only comment on the rumpus.
All that is firmly in the past now, he says. “I’m 100 per cent back. I’m as good as I’ve ever been. I’m better, honestly,” he says of his current state of health. Better in what way? “Better in the sense that I’m just more focused on what were doing. I’m older, I’m looking at a bigger vision of where we’re going.”
McGrath 2.0 is a lean machine. “I’ve spent a huge amount of time in the gym, four days a week, and eating healthily. I had to lose the enormous weight that had come on me through sickness, through the illness.” He says he ballooned to 20st after his surgery but believes he’s now at his “fighting weight” of about 15st and he gave up smoking two months ago.
With his health restored, what’s next for McGrath? Is he a businessman or a chef now? “I’m definitely both. I’m in development in the kitchen, and I’m in the business working in one shape or another six to seven days a week,” he says. He still cooks, but it is no longer his primary function.
“I won’t run a section any more . . . I’ll get into a jacket and I will stand on the pass and check what we’re doing and do specials and sit down with them [the chefs] and plan and organise.”
Menu development is done in a test kitchen high above South Great George’s Street. Among the projects being worked on there is an ambitious plan for Taste at Bonsai, as it is to be renamed, dropping its former association with the mid-market Rustic Stone.
He says that outlet, which appears to be something of a pet project, has “gone through a revolution”. The original idea for it was to “make the whole building work, to create a commercial model that could possibly move into a different country”. But now it appears poised to become creative figurehead of the group. “We’re making it more of an interesting, creative place to eat.”
According to McGrath, the restaurant will retain its Japanese identity, but the product is being refined and elevated. It all smacks of a return to those Michelin days of yore, and it begs the question, is he plotting a return to fine dining?
“I don’t see any reason why not,” he says.
“What I find incredibly dull is just doing foie gras terrine, again, laced with truffles, just the same influences . . . coming in and just cooking that, the only interpretation being from the French.”
He talks of spending the past 18 months “trying to push forward what we’re going to do in Taste” and says his “food brain is back”, after his illness.
“It has kicked off those old emotions and those old feelings about flavours and discovery and interest, and desire to learn. I am in a different place. The chefs that are upstairs [in Taste], I would gladly have had them in Mint. They’re good guys, they really want to learn.”
Making money is one thing – and satisfying creative instinct is another. His bank balance might be healthier than it was a decade ago, but McGrath still talks passionately about a style of cooking he says he has “a love for and a gift for” – and it isn’t chicken wings or flatbreads.
“I remember having these three books and they were where I used to scribble and write everything down.” The notebooks, repositories of his ideas and inspiration, sat on the pass at Mint.
“After Mint closed, I remember that being one of the between me and me moments, where it was like, well, that’s that, I’m not going to get near that stuff again, for a while. I remember that being a daunting moment between me and those books, those scribbles.”
The books were “shoved in a bag”, but not thrown away, and it sounds like now may be their time to come back into play. He says the fine tuning he is orchestrating at Taste at Bonsai does not amount to chasing a Michelin star, but acknowledges that “that’s where the accolades and the recognition comes from and all chefs crave that”.
One might have assumed that a landmark building in the leafy, prosperous enclave of Dublin 4 would be where McGrath might chose to indulge his haute cuisine leanings, rather than an eyrie above a casual eatery and a themed bar in the city centre. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
“Do you think I’m going to do something gastronomic over that side of the city? Not a chance of it. It wouldn’t work, wouldn’t make commercial sense,” he says emphatically. He says he is “in the early stages of progression” with Shelbourne Social and is embarking on a grand tour of new and noteworthy restaurants across Europe and the US, for research purposes.
“I see the need for two models, in a similar way to Fade Street, although I don’t think a tapas bar is right for there. I think that lunch and brunch need to be understood for the area. We want to bring something exciting to that side of the city. But the customer, and what they want on that side of the city, is paramount.”
Whatever concept the partners decide to run with in Ballsbridge, it will be food-led, first and foremost. “You want it to be really good in terms of produce and in terms of what people want to eat, but it has to make commercial sense as well.”
That’s McGrath the businessman speaking, rather than the chef, and with rental rates of €50 per square foot being quoted for the 4,500sq ft premises, it’s imperative they get it right. Not to do so could threaten everything they’ve built in their familiar stomping ground of Dublin 2.
“We’re in a good spot, in a good place. But we’ll always be aware that it can come up and bite you on the backside. That’s life. The world changes, the music stops, and you’re lucky if there’s a chair for you. That’s just the way it is.”
He has been the one left without a seat in the past, and knows what that feels like. But for the moment, he is comfortable, both in financial terms and in relation to his personal fulfilment.
“Yeah, I’m a very blessed individual, I’ve made some good choices,” he says. “I’m as good as I’ve ever been, I really am. I’m at ease with who I am and what the side of me that is creative wants to develop.”
Dylan McGrath on . . .
Overseas expansion: “It is a possibility, it really is. Rustic is something that could possibly travel. I would do something close, it would be the UK first.”
Why he used to be reluctant to be grateful: “I would have been scared, in my youth, to have gratitude, properly, because I would have felt like whenever you feel like you’ve done enough or you’ve got enough, you lose your edge.”
Nurturing talent: “We need to inspire the other cooks that come to work with us; we need to really try to keep people in the business that have talent and develop that talent. It doesn’t need to be all about me, it really doesn’t. I’m a business owner now.”
Haute cuisine: “When you eat a dish and every component eats so well that it’s just beautiful, there’s a finesse to that.”
Breaking out of the box: “Food can be quite snobby, you know. I’ve been told by restaurateurs, you can’t cook on a stone –it’s ridiculous, you’re this thing, you can’t change and do this other thing.”
Financial success: “Yeah we’re making money. That’s the power of our relationship.”
Doing TV work: “The idea of being the MasterChef guy, it’s not important to me, there’s a lot more going on . . .”
Being a business owner: “Yesterday I had three management meetings with 10-12 managers in each meeting. We do that every Thursday . . . these are the realities of running a business.”
Fine dining: “There’s no money in it.”