How Aimsir hit the jackpot: The story of a Michelin two-star restaurant

Aimsir: Jordan Bailey and Majken Bech-Bailey.  Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Michelin stars

Monday, October 7th, 2019
The Hurlingham Club, London

The great and the good of the British and Irish restaurant scene, more than 400 of them, are assembled at a swanky private members’ club in southwest London, nervously awaiting the start of the Michelin awards ceremony.

Among the last to arrive in the packed auditorium are a handsome young couple whose lives are about to change forever. As the famously clunky awards show unfolds, recipients of the new stars are called to the stage, and Ireland, north and south, has done well. But, still sitting quietly at the back are the Cornish chef Jordan Bailey and his Danish wife, Majken Bech-Bailey.

The room erupts, and the clearly shocked couple make their way to the podium, unable to hold back tears. ‘I don’t know what to say. I was not expecting that... It means so much,’ Jordan Bailey manages to say

And then the moment comes when the room erupts, and a clearly shocked Bailey and Bech-Bailey make their way to the podium, both trying, and failing, to hold back tears. “I don’t know what to say. I was not expecting that... It means so much,” Bailey manages to say.

The couple, who are jointly at the helm of Aimsir, a 24-seat restaurant and bar on the Cliff at Lyons hotel and country retreat, in Co Kildare, have gone straight into the Michelin Guide Great Britain & Ireland for 2020 with two stars. It’s a feat that is not unprecedented – Clare Smyth of Core did it in the 2019 edition, and Claude Bosi of Bibendum the year before – but nobody else has ever achieved it just 4½ months after opening. It is an incredible achievement. But, in reality, this project had been in the planning for quite some time.

How it all began

Thursday, June 7th, 2018
Love One cottage, Cliff at Lyons, Co Kildare

Rumours have been circulating in the restaurant industry about an exciting new venture being opened in Co Kildare by the former head chef at Maaemo, the three-star restaurant in Oslo, and I am here to meet the couple behind it.

Jordan Bailey strides across the courtyard, casually dressed in shorts, with a hand extended in welcome. Over glasses of elderflower cordial with a blowsy pink rose floating in it – a foretaste of the magic that Majken Bech-Bailey will bring to her alcohol-free-drinks pairings – the couple tell me their story and reveal their plans for Aimsir.

We want to give people one of the best meals they’ve ever had, something new, something interesting

They are a charming pair, basking in the afterglow of their wedding in Cornwall two months earlier, when they walked down the aisle in the seaside church where Bailey’s parents and grandparents also married. “My nan sings in the choir and my grandad took care of the church lawns. I knew if I was ever getting married it would have to be there,” Bailey says.

Their romance began 4½ years earlier at Henne Kirkeby Kro, the restaurant in Denmark where Bech-Bailey was working front of house. Bailey, who was at that time at Restaurant Sat Bains, in Nottingham in England, arrived for dinner and left with his future wife’s telephone number.

After a long-distance relationship blossomed, they joined forces at Maaemo. “We worked together for four months before Esben” – Esben Holmboe Bang, chef and owner of the restaurant – “knew we were a couple. We are very professional when we are working,” says Bech-Bailey.

Aimsir: Majken Bech-Bailey and Jordan Bailey. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Aimsir: Majken Bech-Bailey and Jordan Bailey

In the middle of 2017 Bailey decided he had achieved what he wanted to at Maaemo, and needed a new challenge. Job offers, from as far afield as Singapore and Shanghai, soon followed. But after a meeting with Charles Oak, project manager for Cliff at Lyons, and a visit to the property, where he was shown around by Barry and Gerri O’Callaghan, owners of the Cliff hospitality group, which also includes the Cliff House Hotel and Cliff Townhouse, a deal was done.

When we first meet, the couple have been in Ireland for six months, and are putting the finishing touches to a very polished plan – already at an advanced stage – for Aimsir. “It is going to be ambitious; I think that’s the word that sums it up,” Bailey says. “We want to give people one of the best meals they’ve ever had, something new, something interesting.”

Central to that is their intention to use only produce that is indigenous to Ireland, and its coastline, a concept that has taken them on an ongoing grand tour of Ireland’s leading artisan food producers, growers, fishermen and butchers.

They have another trick up their sleeves too. The pass, where each dish will be plated and garnished before the chefs deliver them to the diners, will be located in the dining room, rather than being a physical barrier between kitchen and front of house. They hope to be open by September, they say, once the building work and interior fit-out are completed. But that building work doesn’t quite go to plan.

Delays, delays, delays

Wednesday, November 7th, 2018
Aimsir’s opening date has been pushed out to March 2019, but a series of preview evenings, open to the public, has been arranged. We are back in the sweetly named Love One cottage, for a press preview of the Elements of Aimsir pop-up, where groups of 10 will sit around the dining table and get their first taste of what is to come.

Bailey is joined in the cottage’s well-equipped but very normal domestic kitchen by Tom Downes, who was also on the Maaemo team and has been hired as chef de partie. Out front, Bech-Bailey is demonstrating her perfectly honed front-of-house skills – the perfect pitch of professionalism and easy, relaxed warmth – alongside her newly signed sommelier, Cathryn Steunenberg, formerly of Chapter One and Ashford Castle.

The small team send out 11 servings of exquisite food, from tiny delicate snacks to more substantial plates, dessert and petits fours. In what will become a signature move, the meat course – wild mallard on this occasion – is preceded by the animal’s heart, or a portion of it, transformed into something unexpected and unbelievably delicious.

Aimsir: carrots cooked in their own juice with roasted bone marrow, Kalak malted barley, seaweed and smoked bacon broth. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Aimsir: carrots cooked in their own juice with roasted bone marrow, Kalak malted barley, seaweed and smoked bacon broth
Aimsir: Crown Prince pumpkin juiced for a savoury sauce, sea buckthorn gel and split pumpkin-seed brittle. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Aimsir: Crown Prince pumpkin juiced for a savoury sauce, sea buckthorn gel and split pumpkin-seed brittle

“Does he understand the Irish palate?” pings a message that lands during dinner, from a chef friend eager to know more about what is planned for Aimsir. Foraged, pickled and preserved foods nod towards Bailey’s Nordic experience, but his first menu, and every one since, kicks off with a Ballymakenny Violetta potato filled with Boyne Valley Bán cheese, pickled Drummond House black garlic and garlic scapes. So yes, oh yes he does, is the answer to that question.

I eat my first ever oyster, a dainty Flaggy Shore specimen poached in fermented buckwheat butter and Highbank Orchards apple balsamic, and marvel at the harmonious, beautifully balanced dishes that follow. This is going to be big, even bigger than we anticipated, is the consensus among the cabal of food writers gathered around the table.

Final preparations

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019
It is the last day of April, and the builders – well, a good many of them – are still on site. Aimsir is far from ready to greet its first paying customers, who are due through the doors in just over a week. Before that are a press preview and a series of soft openings for colleagues, friends, family and suppliers.

There may be a thick coating of dust everywhere, but the bones of Aimsir have been revealed, and are stunning. A dramatic burnt-larch-clad entrance opens to a stylish and comfortable bar with a wall of glass looking out to the planted garden, with its orchard and raised beds.

Mallard hanging in storage at Aimsir in Co Kildare. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

A corridor – more a runway, really – leading from the bar to the restaurant is lined with cabinets behind which wines are chilling, and meat and fish are ageing. Pickles and preserves are also on display, a giant botanical jewellery box of bottles and jars glinting in the subdued light.

“This is the dream,” Bailey says, surveying the dining room, with its midnight-blue walls on one side and gold-flecked beige on the other, bespoke Irish-oak furnishings and smoked-oak and limestone floors. The kitchen – they call it the “cooking suite” – is partially exposed, visible through glass from counter level up. Six generous circular tables are dotted around the room, which is dominated by the two handcrafted oak workstations. From one Bailey and his team – with their tweezers – will put the finishing touches to their dishes; from the other Bech-Bailey and her team will orchestrate the front-of-house and drinks service.

Nothing has been left to chance in these final few days before opening. “We did a big tasting on Saturday night that went on until very early Sunday morning; we didn’t finish until 5.30am, and we started at 6pm,” Bailey tells me.

Aimsir’s official preview

Thursday, May 2nd, 2019
What a difference a couple of days can make.Aimsir is now all shipshape and shiny and ready to wow. This is a restaurant that has seemingly sprung from the womb fully formed, and there is a sense that the team is giddily relieved to be finally putting the theory into practice.

The cocktail list created by Aimsir’s mixologist, Rose OToole, may be on offer at the bar, but that’s the closest you’ll come to a menu here, until it is time to leave, when you will be presented with a forensic record of all 18 servings of food you have just experienced. In the dining room you won’t be left guessing what each dish is, though: that information is relayed by the chefs as they deliver the plates to the diners. By the end of the evening you’ll have met practically all of the team.

Aimsir’s menu is seasonal, but there are some things that seem destined to become cornerstones, such as that epic potato snack; the soda bread made with heritage grains, served with raw-milk butter; and a petit four of toasted koji tart with molasses and Teeling whiskey cream. All three have been on the menu since the very beginning, back in the Elements of Aimsir pop-up days.

Star talk

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019
The food scribes are back in Kildare for a taste of the autumn-winter menu – Aimsir is generous with its invitations – and this time the conversations revolve around the upcoming Michelin awards. Several Irish journalists have been invited to attend, which is unusual, so there is much speculation about the possible reasons for this.

The team is on its first night back after a short break. The bosses spent it in Mexico. And will they be following that with a quick trip to London on Monday, I ask. The answer is noncommittal. Michelin likes to keep everyone wondering.

Aimsir: chefs at the pass, which sits in the dining room
Aimsir: chefs at the pass, which sits in the dining room

Dinner is another 18-item voyage of discovery. There are some familiar dishes but lots of new ones, too, and the prodigious sourcing now extends to identifying the boat, and skipper, responsible for landing the fish course. Take a bow, Capt Seán Óg Ward of the Elaine Marie. The megrim sole, fished off the Donegal coast, is “gently steamed in a fig leaf with slices of acidic green strawberry, brown butter sauce, salted green elderberries and herbs from the garden”.

Dinner is just as accomplished as it was in May, but there is a different feeling in the dining room, and at the bar. It’s as if the team own the space now rather than merely occupying it. Service has settled into an easy routine that, as with all the best hospitality, seems effortless.

A bit of a blur

Monday, October 7th, 2019
The Hurlingham Club, London

“We were both genuinely shocked,” Bailey says after the Michelin stars have been presented and the tears of joy have been wiped away. “What everyone saw was true emotion and reaction from us both. We had nowhere to hide. The first thing I noticed was our pumpkin dish” – on the TV screen on stage – “and then, after that, it all went a bit blurry. We were both physically paralysed, and just overcome with emotion. Our bodies started to shake uncontrollably. We had to be lifted up off our seats by the people around us, including Paul Cunningham and Garrey Dawson, Majken’s mentors from Henne Kirkeby Kro.”

Aimsir: Majken Bech-Bailey and Jordan Bailey with their colleagues Tom Downes, James Bevan, Tim Davies, Lewis Vimpany, Andy Rouche, Róisín O’Connor, Rose OToole, Cathryn Steunenberg, Ewa Cios, Martin Copper and Róisín Lande. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Aimsir: Front: Tom Downes, Jordan Bailey and Majken Bech-Bailey. Back: Roisin Lande, Andy Roche, Irad Jusic, Martin Cooper, Lewis Vimpany, James Bevan, Tim Davies, Ewa Cios, Catherine Steunenberg, Roisin O'Connor and Rose O Toole. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

It transpires that the couple have known for a month that they were in the running for an accolade but not what level it would be at. “We received our invitation via email. It was early on a Monday morning, and I was still in bed at home when Majken came running in and woke me, fairly violently, with excitement at the news.” They celebrate with dinner at Holborn Dining Room and join the rest of the Irish gang for celebratory champagne at Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill.

Life changer

Wednesday, October 9th, 2019
“It was a strange feeling,” Bailey says of going into their first dinner service since the awards ceremony. “Physically nothing had changed, and we did the same things as we did the previous week, other than a couple of new dishes, but it did feel different.

“The easiest way to explain the feeling is to compare it to the feeling I had when Majken and I got married. It’s a massive, life-changing milestone; there are celebrations, and you feel different somehow, but when you get back to your normal routine nothing has actually changed.”

And what’s next? Are three stars in sight? “As long as we stay extremely ambitious as a team and constantly try to improve from one day to the next, then I think we are on a good path... If we can achieve this in five months, imagine where we will be in five years.”

For Bech-Bailey the best part of the journey they have been on since arriving in Ireland in January 2018 is the warm welcome they have received. “We are not Irish, but the support we have had from the industry and our guests has been incredible. There is such a sense of family in Ireland. I want people to feel a part of this restaurant, and this comes from how Ireland has embraced us and welcomed us.”

Tables at Aimsir are sold out until the end of the year; January 2020 reservations will be released on Friday, November 1st

Irish Times
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