"Treat it like it's yours, and one day it will be." Luke Matthews, one of the trio who opened Mews restaurant in Baltimore, west Cork last year, says he takes inspiration from these words, which he attributes to US chef Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame.
“That’s the way I’ve always worked,” says Matthews, who was sous chef at the Michelin-starred Harwood Arms in London when he decided, in 2014, to follow his dream and open his own restaurant.
Matthews and his friends and co-owners, Robert Collender and James Ellis, are typical of a new breed of young Irish chefs and front-of-house professionals who are putting their hard-earned cash, and their reputations, on the line and opening their own restaurants.
They might be in out of the way locations, or in what could politely be described as “up and coming” urban areas, or in challenging premises – a former market cafe with an outside loo comes to mind. But they’ve got one thing in common: they’re serving some of the most exciting and reasonably priced food served on this island.
So, what’s driving these young food entrepreneurs to abandon the security of a staff job, and steady progression up the traditional kitchen hierarchy, to go it alone? How do they find the right premises, and the finance to make them their own? And are they prepared for the challenges of running their own business?
Liz Matthews, who with her partner, Simon Barrett, opened Etto in Dublin's Merrion Row in October 2013, chronicles some of the challenges they faced as first-time restaurateurs: "Chairs broke under customers. A waitress's apron went on fire at a reviewer's table. You name it, it went wrong. With water restrictions in place, we didn't have any running water in the evenings, when we were busiest."
It hasn’t put them off though. “We hope to open a second restaurant in the coming year – and there are so many things we would do differently,” says Matthews.
Learning from the process is a recurring theme. James Sheridan and his partner, Soizic Humbert, saw the potential in the market cafe in Blackrock, Co Dublin, opening what was Canteen at the Market there before moving back to his home town to open Canteen Celbridge last month.
“Soizic and I started looking for a premises in 2013. We weren’t really sure how to go about it. Look up Daft.ie, call up the place, and show up with a deposit, right? Wrong, really wrong.
“We were basically laughed out of an estate agent’s office,” Sheridan says of their early attempts to find their first premises. “They just don’t want to know about you if you’re a small operator with no history of running a business – and who could blame them. The bank wasn’t exactly jumping up and down either. Soizic convinced me to rethink our strategy. Her rationale was we could run this business [Canteen at the Market] on our own with no outside help – and no more sneering estate agents.”
That market cafe in Blackrock has become something of a restaurant incubation unit, with Damien Grey and Andrew Heron taking over in December last year to launch Heron & Grey. They in turn are helping their younger staff, chefs Dan Marsalek and Roisin Gillen, get a taste of going it alone, by taking over the kitchen for a series of Sunday brunches.
It’s a generous move, and represents an interesting way of letting young chefs get some experience of running their own business, without massive investment.
Gavin McDonagh, chef-owner at Brioche in Ranelagh, suggests that young chefs be creative in the ways they get experience of going it alone. “Do a pop-up to test the market; maybe try to rent [space in] a restaurant that closes early, or on Sundays.”
Lynda Booth, who runs Dublin Cookery School in Blackrock, turns over her premises to students on her longer courses for one night towards the end of their studies, so they can run a pop-up restaurant. They serve 70 guests – who arrive together and get served together – and charge €40 for a five-course meal. "The pop-up is a team experience, as it would be in an actual restaurant, and it simulates the heat of the kitchen, coping with pressure while making sure the food is cooked to perfection," she says.
Booth believes the experience is useful in determining the students’ future paths. “It gives them a real taste of working at this level and at this pressure, and some love it and some don’t. I definitely see those few who have the flair and the stamina, and we can set them up with great kitchens and get them mentored.”
But even among those who thrive in a professional kitchen, not all will have what it takes to combine the roles of chef and proprietor. “Nothing prepares you for being a business owner, really, until you become one,” says Luke Matthews, who travelled the length of the Wild Atlantic Way with his business partners for six months before landing in Baltimore, where they found what they were looking for in a converted coachhouse in the village.
Having a business degree, which he was conferred with “many moons ago”, has of late proved useful to Barry Fitzgerald, who with his partner, Claremarie, opened Bastible in Dublin’s new restaurant hotspot, Portobello, in November last year. The couple found the premises they were looking for in six months, but not without difficulty. “Most good sites are snapped up through word of mouth, so unless you are well connected in food industry circles, it can be hugely frustrating.”
Finding the right spot isn't the only obstacle to be overcome: there are financial considerations too. "Key money for leases is back – and huge – and also the cost of fit- outs can be very high," Gavin McDonagh says. Wade Murphy, chef-owner at 1826 Adare, cites the red tape involved in opening a business as a major deterrent, as well as finances. "It's a struggle to save the cash you need to open a business."
Once you’ve got the premises, the lessons come thick and fast. “Plan for success. We thought we could run the business with five staff members; now we have 10 full-time employees and two part-time,” says Barry Fitzgerald.
Luke Matthews, too, underestimated demand for tables at Mews in high season. “We didn’t have any staff really, during our first season, so it was often very exhausting. We were spending 24 hours a day in the same building, with little sleep, but we made it work.”
“The biggest lesson we’ve learned is to put trust in the people we work with. When we opened Etto, we tried to do everything ourselves,” Liz Matthews says. Áine Maguire , chef proprietor at The Idle Wall in Westport, also recommends getting the right staff. “Finding the right people to work with you and share your enthusiasm and passion is the hardest thing. But when you do, it’s a very pleasant thing indeed.”
Having a good team brings obligations too. “You’re responsible for people’s livelihoods. You have a duty to ensure your employees are well looked after in all aspects of their employment,” says Wade Murphy. “I’m very lucky that Elaine [Murphy’s wife] has a lot of experience in matters such as HR, accounting and front of house. I imagine I would struggle if I was on my own.”
On the other hand, the upsides, for those who make it as chef-proprietors, are numerous. “I get to choose what I want to cook, the hours I want to open, the people I want to work with ... what more could a chef want?” says Barry Fitzgerald.
THE POP-UP OPTION
Pop-ups have become the route for young chefs to get a taste of running their own restaurant.
San Pellegrino young chef of the year 2015 Mark Moriarty and Ciaran Sweeney, now head chef at Forest & Marcy in Dublin, set up Culinary Counter in 2014. "I had just finished college and wanted some experience cooking my own dishes for the paying public as well as getting my name out there. I learned that the food and cooking is the easy part: that's what we knew. Everything else was more challenging, from ticket structure to marketing to accounting, as well as making sure the atmosphere was right, and the toilets were clean," Moriarty says.
Sweeney also went the pop-up route, doing a Sunday night residency at Forest & Marcy’s sister restaurant, Forest Avenue, before becoming head chef.
Since winning the young chef title, Moriarty has done pop-ups in association with San Pellegrino in London, Milan, Melbourne, Sydney, Charleston, Singapore, Amalfi, Paris, Switzerland, Moscow, Cape Town and Johannesburg, with Hong Kong next month, and a final three-day pop-up in Dublin in October, before he hands over the title.
Grainne O'Keefe, senior sous chef at Pichet in Dublin, is a partner, with Bobby Lawn, in BiGpopups. They have run one dinner – a seven-course menu in Dublin restaurant Brother Hubbard – and say they're keen to do another, if they can find the right venue.
“The main lesson we learned was that we should pre-sell the tickets. If you get people cancelling last minute, it brings your figures down unexpectedly,” O’Keefe says.
Eric Heilig and Floriane Loup's North East pop-up serves food inspired by Heilig's Pomeranian heritage. Heilig is a chef at Luna in Dublin, and Loup is reservations manager at The Pig's Ear. Heilig says he started doing pop-ups "as a platform to approach ingredients and food in a more personal way. I now know what culinary direction I want to follow when opening my own restaurant."
Opening a restaurant – the voices of experience
Don't risk everything. Only gamble what you can afford to lose (Luke Matthews, Mews)
Make time to eat and sleep, otherwise you won't be able to deal with the challenges that incessantly present themselves in the early days (Liz Matthews, Etto)
Be rigorous in your planning and make sure you understand, clearly, the financial obligations of every decision you make (James Sheridan, Canteen Celbridge)
Find a good accountant to manage the admin side of things; chefs are creative but not always good business people (Gavin McDonagh, Brioche)
Have a good business plan, know what you want to do and stay true to that (Wade Murphy, 1826 Adare)
Try to surround yourself with like minded people; you can't do it all yourself (Barry Fitzgerald, Bastible)
Do a start your own business course – and team up with a manager(Áine Maguire, The Idle Wall)