First look: The 32-year-old chef taking over Thornton’s

Andy McFadden has overseen a €1.3m revamp to open Glovers Alley in the Fitzwilliam hotel

Glovers Alley at the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin: Andy McFadden (right) with executive pastry chef Aoife Noonan and head chef Philip Roe. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Glovers Alley at the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin: Andy McFadden (right) with executive pastry chef Aoife Noonan and head chef Philip Roe. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

‘There is no one-year or five-year plan. This is me now. This is mine.”

Andy McFadden, who was at one time the youngest chef in London with a Michelin star, casts his gaze on the sleekly reimagined space in the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin, which was previously home to Thornton’s Restaurant.

The 32-year-old, originally from Tallaght, is about to see his name go above the door at the new venture, where €1.3 million – some of it his own hard-earned cash – has been spent giving the space a rigorous facelift by London design studio Project Orange.

The dining room has often been described as a challenging space, despite its lovely views over St Stephen’s Green. McFadden doesn’t agree. “But why? A few people have said that and I don’t understand why.”

Perhaps now the doubts can be set aside. The renovations, which have taken almost a year, are spectacular. The bulk of the money has been lavished front of house. Kevin Thornton’s French piano de cuisson, a gigantic stainless-steel workhorse, remains in place in the kitchen, where there’s a distinct no-frills feel.

But out front, it’s a different story. Moss-green leather and powder-pink velvet upholstery, walnut panelling, and a racy mirror ceiling create glamour, but not at the expense of comfort. There are no tablecloths on the matt marble tables, and the intention is to create a refined atmosphere that is relaxed, too.

It’s a sophisticated, luxurious space, with impressive attention to detail. A striking scallop shell finish adorns the bar; the shellfish are McFadden’s signature ingredient. “I always do raw scallop ... sometimes a tartare, sometimes a ceviche,” he says.

Only the window treatment remains an issue. A month before the early February projected opening date, it is still not finalised. “I am not keen on it as it is. It has been changed twice already,” McFadden says of the brass grilles that aren’t doing quite enough to disguise the hotel’s rather unlovely window frames.

I am extremely lucky and extremely proud that since I’ve been a head chef I’ve always had a Michelin star

The 70-seater has been christened Glovers Alley, in reference to the lane that runs alongside the hotel, and which was once home to a builder, a bookseller and a “dealer in horses”, according to Thom’s Irish Almanac.

“We came up with so many different names, so many ideas,” he says. “It was a long process. Everything we are doing, we have put a lot of work and thought into it. This feels and sounds right, to me anyway.”

McFadden is not an impulsive personality. He took six months to mull over the offer to come home permanently to Dublin. “Fergal O’Connell, general manager of the hotel, contacted me in January last year,” he says. But it wasn’t until July that McFadden decided to leave Pied à Terre in London, where he was executive head chef, and move his career trajectory and his financial investment to Dublin.

Glovers Alley: Andy McFadden’s restaurant is in what used to Thornton’s, at the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Glovers Alley: Andy McFadden’s restaurant is in what used to Thornton’s, at the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Similarly, back at the start of his career, it took Australian chef Shane Osborn three attempts to lure the star student – he graduated top of his class at Tallaght Institute of Technology – to London, where McFadden joined him at the Pied à Terre and L’Autre Pied restaurant group.

This is where, save for a brief spell at a Michelin three-star in the Netherlands, he has remained for the past 11 years, moving between the two West End premises and retaining the Michelin star that each had been awarded.

“I am extremely lucky and extremely proud that since I’ve been a head chef I’ve always had a Michelin star,” he says.

This time around, he is in at the very beginning, creating his own version of what a restaurant should be. Is Michelin a factor in that?

“It’s not my main focus, my main goal. Obviously it’s what I’ve had before and I want to have it again, but I’m not going to be putting extra pressure on anyone. I am like a sponge, I absorb pressure, but I don’t want to have that in the back of my mind.

“I want to make this a successful business and I want to have happy staff. I’m not chasing anything. I want to create an environment and a business that works at a level that will, hopefully, be rewarded.”

When you work six, seven days a week, you don’t have time to spend money. I invested all mine into L’Autre and Pied à Terre, so that’s where I got my own dosh

He describes the venture as a partnership between himself and a backer. He is referring to Ampleforth, the hospitality group that owns the hotel, as well as the Bailey bar off Grafton Street.

So how does a 32-year-old working in an industry not known for its lavish pay scales come to have a wad of cash sufficiently deep to invest at this level?

McFadden laughs good-naturedly at the question. “When you work six, seven days a week, you don’t have time to spend money. There was always progression at L’Autre Pied; after my first year I became a director, then I became a shareholder. I invested all my money into L’Autre and Pied à Terre, so that’s where I got my own dosh.”

Glovers Alley: Andy McFadden’s restaurant is in what used to Thornton’s, at the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Glovers Alley: Andy McFadden’s restaurant is in what used to Thornton’s, at the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Joining McFadden in Glovers Alley are what he describes as his “dream team”. Aoife Noonan, formerly of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud and the John Farrell restaurant group, is executive pastry chef. Philip Roe, who is also returning to Ireland from the UK, is head chef. Ed Jolliffe joins as general manager from his position as head sommelier at Chapter One, and will be assisted by Laura Becker, formerly of Restaurant Forty One. James Brooke, ex-Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, is head sommelier.

The food offering is still being worked on when McFadden and I meet. “It’s not going to be a million miles away from what I’ve done, but there will be influences coming from Phily [Roe] and Aoife [Noonan] and where they’ve worked, what they know,” he says. “I don’t like pigeon-holing, but it is French cuisine, with modern influences.”

The menu will offer a two- or three-course set lunch (€35/€45), a more extensive four- or five-course option (€65/€80), a tasting menu (€105), and finally a chef’s choice menu surprise (€145).

Whole animals – lambs, pigs, deer, goat – as well as all of the game and poultry, will be bought and broken down in-house. Beef, too big to be handled in the restaurant kitchen, will be supplied by Peter Hannan from his Himalayan salt-aged stocks.

“The only pressure I had when I got my first head chef job at L’Autre Pied was to maintain the food cost, and the best way to do that, I figured, was to buy whole animals. Obviously it’s a lot more work for the guys in the kitchen, but they’re here all day anyway, so they may as well learn.”

McFadden’s kitchen looks like it will have an equal mix of male and female chefs (hiring is ongoing), and gender imbalance is not something he gives much thought to.

“It’s not an issue for me; we’re pretty much 50-50 here. In L’Autre Pied at one time it was an all-female kitchen, and me. Only for about two months, then it was all-male for a while. I don’t really think about it, and I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. Maybe it’s the way I was brought up. I grew up with three women, my mum and my sisters.”

Glovers Alley: Andy McFadden’s restaurant is in what used to Thornton’s, at the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Glovers Alley: Andy McFadden’s restaurant is in what used to Thornton’s, at the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Growing up in Tallaght, McFadden plotted his course from an early age. “At 14 I knew I definitely wanted to be a chef. At that time it was Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay – Jamie made it cool and Gordon showed you how to be the best.”

He started out as a kitchen porter at Luttrellstown Castle, where his uncle Neil McFadden was the chef, and followed that with summer jobs with Neven Maguire. Then, a first-year catering college placement almost derailed his budding culinary career.

He has spoken publicly in the past about the incident when a chef at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud dismissed him halfway through his work experience stint, telling him he’d never be a chef and leaving him in tears.

The culinary world is small, and now that he is back in Ireland, does he regret having shared that story?

“I only told the truth,” he says. “That’s not the only time I’ve gone through something tough in my career, but it was at the start of my career, and it was after I’d worked for someone like Neven Maguire, who is so good to his staff and such an amazing person.

“He and my uncle Neil and the college were telling me how good I was,” McFadden says of his bewilderment at the time. “I couldn’t comprehend what was going on. I was the top student in the college and I’d done two years part time with Neven and I thought everything was going well.”

The incident could have ended his career, but instead, he moved to L’Ecrivain and completed his placement there.

“That experience, maybe that’s what pushed me to get to where I am now,” he reflects. “I’ve sacked people before and we’ve all been sacked, but I don’t see how you can say to someone, ‘You’re not a chef, you’re not going to be a chef’. If I’m not a chef, I don’t know what I am.”

When you work seven days a week, without a day off for a whole year, you go slightly insane. I was exhausted and I wasn’t eating properly. I got down to six stone

There were further bumps to come along the culinary road, and McFadden is upfront about them.

“I’ll be honest, when you get a head chef job when you’re 25 and it’s a Michelin star restaurant, there’s pressure there. And I, being the type of personality that I am, I have to be there all the time. The way I look at it, it’s like football – the manager doesn’t take a day off when they play.

“L’Autre Pied was a seven-day a week operation. When you work seven days a week, without a day off for a whole year, you go slightly insane, and you’re not very nice, and I have gone through that phase.”

Is he taking about having a breakdown? “Yeah, I did. I was exhausted and I wasn’t eating properly. I got down to six stone.”

It’s an all-too familiar story. So did he take time out from the kitchen, to recover and regroup?

“What, when I was going nuts? Yes. We agreed to close the restaurant two days a week for a month, to get myself back on track.”

Yes, you read that correctly: eight days. Eight days, over the course of a month, to recover from mental and physical exhaustion.

At Glovers Alley, it’s going to be different, he says. The restaurant will be closed on Sundays and Mondays, for a start. And he believes he has a team in place that will enable him to share the weight of responsibility.

“You learn to trust people, and when you trust people they get better, and they’re going to work harder for you. All round it just becomes a better set-up.”

Glovers Alley is due to open on Friday, February 2nd

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