His mother's son
COVER STORY:No shouting, no swearing. Whatever has happened to Dylan McGrath, and what’s next for the firebrand chef whose gentle mentoring on ‘MasterChef’ was one of the show’s big surprises? MARIE-CLAIRE DIGBYfinds out
IT’S 11.30 ON A Saturday morning, and staff in pristine whites are diligently polishing the metal barriers around the outside seating at Rustic Stone. Inside, the smell of cleaning fluid lies heavy in the air. Restaurants aren’t glamorous places out of opening hours, and this one is no exception. But it seems as if the grime squad is on hyper-alert here. Could it be that the boss is on the prowl?
Yes, Dylan McGrath, all brooding eyes and commanding presence, is indeed in the house. We’re meeting to talk about Rustic Stone Raw, his new venture into healthy food – cooked as little as possible (if at all), served quickly, priced reasonably, and aimed at lunchtime diners. And, of course, I want to get the inside track on MasterChef, which reached its conclusion on Thursday night when McGrath and his fellow judge Nick Munier chose 28-year-old Mary Carney to be Ireland’s first recipient of the title.
I am a little anxious about this encounter. I’ve experienced at first hand the loud, angry words percolating from the kitchen during dinner at Mint, the Ranelagh restaurant where he gained a Michelin star in 2008, and some would say destroyed his reputation in the process. They’d be referring to The Pressure Cooker, the 2008 RTÉ television documentary that charted his hunt for Michelin recognition, and portrayed him as an angry young man in relentless pursuit of perfection in the kitchen, at any cost.
But my trepidation dissipates when McGrath greets me warmly, offers coffee and returns with pint-sized takeaway cups he’s had to go and buy elsewhere, as the restaurant’s coffee machine is not yet turned on. The sight of him rummaging in his man-bag for a box of artificial sweetners softens his “hard man” reputation. And there’s sincerity in those arresting eyes – one brown, one green.
When Mint became one of the first restaurant casualties of the recession, closing its doors in 2009, there was little sympathy for McGrath, and for a year and a half, little was heard of the Belfast man. So who is this new, chilled out Dylan McGrath who has been winning over the cynics and charming TV viewers with his sympathetic mentoring of amateur chefs, and what has brought about the change?
“My mother passed away in December and I spent a couple of months with her before she passed,” he says. “She made me promise on her death bed that I would never curse on TV again. Because she was on her death bed, she made it clear. And after she passed, I just thought, you know mum, why not.”
Mother and son were very close, and McGrath, who was known as Dylan Creaney growing up in west Belfast, took her name in adulthood. He’s frank about the reason for the change: “My mum met a man. They had my brothers and sisters. I grew up. Their relationship failed and they broke up. I think that she got the worse end of the bargain, but I won’t go into it. Some day I will, but right now it’s about protecting the integrity of the family. I thought, you know what, I am going back to my mother’s maiden name because I am my mother’s son, that’s who I am. The name that I’d been raised with didn’t matter. I didn’t want to be that, that was not me.
“The world’s a very different place without your mother,” he says, his sense of loss still very near the surface almost a year after her death. The world’s also a different place when you’ve been at the very top of your professional game, and had it snatched away.
McGrath was out of work for 18 months after Mint closed. “I realised that if I was going to continue to cook at that level, I was going to have to leave. Where could I go ? I couldn’t go to L’Écrivain and be a sous chef . . . . I couldn’t go to Guilbaud. Where was I going to go? I ended up cooking privately, tried to live within my means, and wherever I could do a one-off gig for a decent sum of money, I did it. It was tough.
“I seriously looked at going away, to America. I was offered a position in an amazing restaurant in Chicago, Alinea.” This was an amazing opportunity, so why didn’t he go? “My mum was dying, she had cancer and I was trying to talk her into doing chemotherapy.”
So he stayed in Ireland and last August launched Rustic Stone, a mid-market restaurant where you can have a giant slab of meat served on a sizzling hotplate, or pick at a superfood salad. It’s been a great success, but it’s not Mint, and it’s not Michelin material. So how did McGrath, the manic perfectionist, come to change course so dramatically?
“I started to put on weight. I was going out with a girl who was very clued into nutrition. I suppose she looked at food in a different way than me. It wasn’t about flavour for her, it was about how it reacted to her body as well as how it made her feel.” He’s talking about Erika Doolan, who works with him and is responsible for the nutritional information that goes into the menu at Rustic Stone. The pair are no longer romantically involved, but still have a professional and personal relationship. “She is still my best friend, we’re very close,” McGrath says.
Mount Anville-educated Doolan says that when she and McGrath met – “in a nightclub, not very romantic” – she “couldn’t believe he was a chef with a Michelin star, but he knew nothing about nutrition”. McGrath’s interest in nutrition has grown from their friendship, but Doolan says she “still has to hold his hand back when he reaches for the salt”.
Despite getting a lukewarm reception from food critics in its early days – “they just didn’t get it”, McGrath says – Rustic Stone is doing well in tough times and reservations can be hard to come by. But there’s a sense that this isn’t it for McGrath. Does he miss his “other life” in the kitchen? “I do miss the love [he repeatedly describes Mint as a labour of love]. I do miss the work, I do miss the satisfaction, the creativity. I miss the inner achievement of it and going, yes, I’m really happy with that.”
So will he be returning to that style of cooking? “Absolutely, but it’s time to be smart. I am older, I can’t rely on that work to solidify my life. I have to understand other restaurants, other concepts, other needs of diners.” He says he wants to continue to learn how to create successful businesses, and he’s proud of what he has achieved at Rustic Stone. “It’s not supposed to be perfect. It’s relaxed and casual and fun.” Much like the new, improved McGrath himself.
He’s 34 now (sharing an August 4th birthday with his co-judge Nick Munier) and since that 2008 documentary aired, he has gone from being despised for his arrogance and admired for his prodigious talent – in not quite equal measure – to surprising and winning around viewers with his performance on MasterChef. And it seems it’s not just an act for the cameras.
A member of the production team says: “He took his mentoring job very seriously. Whatever skills he felt they were lacking, he took it upon himself to make sure that they were challenged in that department. He was very disappointed when contestants failed and never seemed to be considering what would make the best TV, which is always the danger.”
McGrath says his main objectives going on MasterChef were to be fair and to be honest. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, so I was kinda like, just be yourself and hopefully that’ll shine through.” It seems that the promise he made to his mother is one that he’ll be keeping.
Dylan McGrath on. . .
MasterChef Ireland winner Mary Carney: “From the start Mary had a lightness of hand that was really, really impressive, I didn’t think you’d see that in an amateur. There were times when she cooked stuff and it just made the competition so much more worthwhile that there was someone like her in it.”
What makes a great chef
“You either have the ability to go – this is what a three-star meal is, I can feel this chef on the plate, I can see his point, this is touching me in a way that is like ‘Oh my God’. You either connect with that or you don’t.”
Winning a Michelin star
“They sent me a sticker for the window. I kind of looked at it and thought, wow, all that work for a sticker for the window.”
Running the kitchen at Mint
“I was actually f**king mad by this stage.”
“I got into this to make my life better. I worked really hard not because I was a maniac, but because I wanted to make a better life. When I was growing up I didn’t have a lot of choice and I wanted to provide that choice for myself.”
What’s next “I want to keep with the nutrition buzz right now because I think people are really responding to it and I am learning a lot. I think it’s interesting to try to put flavour and health together because a lot of the healthy stuff, nutritional stuff, is quite off-putting for diners. Raw is about applying as little heat, as little work, to the food as you can, to bring out the flavour.”