Kevin Thornton: Losing Michelin star was ‘stab in the heart’

One of Ireland’s top chefs is to close his Dublin restaurant after more than 25 years

Kevin and Muriel Thornton at home in Ranelagh, Co Dublin. The couple plan to offer cooking masterclasses and high-end catering services for weddings and the corporate sector. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Kevin and Muriel Thornton at home in Ranelagh, Co Dublin. The couple plan to offer cooking masterclasses and high-end catering services for weddings and the corporate sector. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

 

Kevin Thornton will be bringing the curtain down on more than a quarter of a century at the top of Ireland’s fine dining table when he closes his restaurant on Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green next month.

He told The Irish Times that while the doors are closing for the last time on October 29th, he is not hanging up his chef’s whites just yet. He plans to concentrate on cooking masterclasses at his Ranelagh home and to move into the high-end corporate catering and wedding sector.

He and his wife Muriel will also be looking for a new space in which to open a restaurant but, they said, “bonkers” rents have meant that option is not currently on the table.

Thornton, from Cashel, Co Tipperary, was the first Irish chef to get a two-star award from Michelin. After five years at this ranking, his restaurant slipped to one-star status in 2006, before losing the second star last year.

The Thorntons first opened their eponymous restaurant on the Grand Canal in Portobello before moving to the five-star Fitzwilliam Hotel in the middle of the last decade.

Head chef Kevin has received multiple awards and been described as a “gastronomic legend”. His restaurant was once ranked number 25 in the 50 Best Restaurants in the World by Taste Magazine UK.

Passionate

Thornton’s was the second-oldest Michelin-starred restaurant in Ireland, after Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, until stripped of the accolade last September. Famously passionate about his food, Thornton was involved in a memorable altercation with a customer almost 10 years ago over a serving of chips.

While the couple said their decision to close was influenced by Michelin’s decision to strip their restaurant of its star – nine years after it was downgraded from two to one star – they said it was not the only factor.

Their lease on the hotel restaurant expired in July and while Thornton was given the option to extend it for seven years, the couple took the decision to go in a different direction.

“We were going to stay open until Christmas Eve but I have been working 18 hours a day for the last 30 years and I decided to take the break earlier,” the chef said.

“When we made the decision I was very sad and I was scared and I felt there was a void in my heart but now I am excited about what lies ahead,” Thornton said. “I need to have projects in my mind and now I do. This is not the end it is just the beginning of a whole new chapter.”

He admitted that the loss of the Michelin star was central to the move.

“After I lost it, I felt like someone had stabbed me in the heart. You put your heart and soul into this every single day and when someone criticises you and says you are not good enough, it feels like you have failed.

“But you have to tell yourself: ‘It is what it is’. Negative energy doesn’t produce anything good so why dwell on it if you don’t need to?”

He said he was looking forward to a break from the high intensity of the kitchen and drew parallels between fine dining and music and art. “We have to put on two shows a day, 365 days a year. That is very hardcore but it is what we do all of the time.”

Losing the star “was a big blow,” agreed Muriel but she said it was, perhaps, for the best. “Ultimately it did us a favour. For Kevin it was a huge shock but in a way it took the pressure off us and it allowed us to rethink exactly what it was we wanted to do.”

She said the popular masterclasses Thornton has been offering for several years, which concentrate on “basic things like pasta and stocks and bread and deboning”, would be central to their short-term future.

The couple also plan to offer high-end catering services for weddings and the corporate sector “although I prefer not to use the words high end, I prefer ‘special’,” he said.

The Thorntons have not ruled out a return to the restaurant business but have been deterred by rents which they believe are wildly excessive.

Rents

“Rents are bonkers,” Muriel said. “We have been 26 years in business and key money has never been a thing. But it is back now. We saw one tiny premises in the south inner city and it was looking for an annual rent of €40,000 which would have been doubled after a year. They also wanted €165,000 in key money. Someone is going to be prepared to pay that but it is just too much for what it was.”

Now that the decision to close the restaurant has been made, Thornton is allowing himself to relax a little and is hoping to indulge some of his other passions including travel, photography and music. This summer he travelled to France to see Iggy Pop play on three separate occasions.

“This is a chance to do what I want to do. Yes, people will be sad when the restaurant closes and we will be sad when it closes.

“Everyone wants to leave a legacy and I had this vision that I would leave the restaurant for my children but maybe that was selfishness on my part. The most important thing I can do is my best and that is what I want to keep on trying to do.”