People of 2016: Michelin star winners Andrew Heron and Damien Grey
Do other chefs resent the meteoric rise of their tiny Blackrock restaurant with its one working burner and no toilet? ‘Hell yeah,’ says one half of the groundbreaking duo
Andrew Heron was “borderline rude” to a woman who rang on a busy Tuesday morning at the end of September. He was sitting down to work through that week’s menu with his business partner, the chef Damien Grey.
“She was like, ‘I wonder could I have a moment of your time?’ I was thinking, Moment of your time? That’s merchant services” – who manage credit-card machines for restaurants. “I don’t want to talk to these guys again this month, because they call all the time.”
Was it about a booking, Heron asked. “So she said, ‘Well, no. Would Damien Grey be there?’ ‘Whoa, how do you know Damien Grey?’ ‘Well, this is Rebecca Burr, the head of Michelin. ’ ”
It was quiet enough in Heron and Grey’s tiny restaurant in Blackrock Market, in south Co Dublin, for Grey to have overheard what the caller just said. The two men stared wide eyed at each other and forgot to breathe for a moment.
“Rebecca, you should really open with that next time. I’d have been much more respectful,” Heron said after picking his jaw off the table. But yes, he agreed, they would be able to fly to London for “an event” Michelin was having six days later. Burr asked them to keep the award a secret until then.
They stood up, locked the door and went across the road to a pub for two pints to celebrate. Their tiny restaurant with no toilets and one working burner had just won a Michelin star.
It’s another Tuesday morning in Heron & Grey, and an engineer has just fixed the stove. The next day marks a year since they arrived here to take over what had been the restaurant Canteen. An official passing of the torch was recorded for social media. It was a blowtorch, which Canteen’s chef, James Sheridan, used to heat plates because of space restrictions.
Like a Fiat Bambino, in which with long enough arms you could wipe the rear windscreen from the driver’s seat, Heron & Grey is tiny. But its address has been an incubator for an exciting generation of cheffing talent. Sheridan, young chef of the year Mark Moriarty, and Ciaran Sweeney, of Forest & Marcy, honed their talents here. Not bad for a former greasy spoon in a half-roofed street market.
Grey and Heron can’t praise their predecessors enough. Sheridan and his partner, Soizic Humbert, came from a fine-dining background to build a terrific restaurant here. When they decided last year to relocate to Celbridge, in Co Kildare, they handed Grey and Heron the keys, the blowtorch and a fully booked December diary.
“James and Soizic left us an amazing gift,” Grey says. They put a destination restaurant in a residential area with no passing trade in a market after hours. They broke so many barriers for us to come through and to keep it going.”
Those customers who had booked were not impressed with the new faces. People warned them that they had a lot to live up to.
“The pressure was so high I was actually hyperventilating in the kitchen, because I’d never had to deal with the customers,” Grey says. “I was always able to hide behind the manager, hide behind the walls. I could hide, and I could be the chef in the back of the kitchen and shout, ‘Why aren’t they eating that?’ All that was gone, and I had no one to hide behind. It was an amazing feeling, because you instantly had to grow up and go into restaurateur mode.”
There are big personalities in this small space. Grey calls his partner the Heron; Heron slags Grey about his first attempts at front-of-house schmoozing – a clunky “g’day” in his broadest Australian accent – and about how he now has to be dragged away from tables back to the kitchen. The surprise is that the pair met just six months before they opened a restaurant together.
Grey was working at Chapter One, on Parnell Square in Dublin, and Heron was at Luna, on Drury Street, when they were introduced by a mutual friend.
“We met up, and the first thing I said to him was, ‘I want to be in the top 50’ ” – the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list – “ ‘in 10 years.’ And he said, ‘Okay’. And that was it,” Grey says.
The two met every week in their downtime on Sundays or Mondays.
“We talked a lot about our own opinions of a restaurant, why we thought certain ones worked and certain ones didn’t, and how you might apply technique to doing one ourselves,” Heron says.
He was hooked when, at their first meeting, Grey started drawing pictures of food. It’s something they still do with menus, as well as mapping the flavour profiles like a join-the-dots picture, so tastes get bounced around rather than staying in one groove.
The two came from opposite ends of the restaurant world: Grey had been cooking in Michelin kitchens for 22 years; Heron had little or no experience of fine dining.
“I went to Chapter One 10 years ago to make up with my now wife, because of a fight,” Grey says.
Bookings went mad after the news of the Michelin star broke, and Heron & Grey is booked up until August 2017. They are delighted rather than daunted by the accolade.
Their working relationship is still robust.
“I’m not nice to Damien,” Heron says. “After we got the star two of our friends came in, and he put up a dessert course. They were like, ‘Oh my God, it’s amazing.’ I said, ‘It’s shit. It needs this and this. That’s not working. Throw it away.’ And that was just before service. That’s why it works. He criticises me, I criticise him.”
Do they think other chefs resent their meteoric rise?
“I hope not. I doubt it,” Heron says.
Grey comes back to the table after checking his now fully working stove and answers the same question with, “Hell, yeah. I’d be pissed if I’d been out there for years trying to get a star.”
Heron explains with mock patience that he’s just given a more diplomatic answer.
Why do they think they got the star?
“Jonathan, the first Michelin guy, said it’s happy food. That’s what he said: ‘This is very happy food. I’m eating it, and it tastes happy,’ ” Grey says.
Is it good to be a happy story in 2016?
“Yeah, it’s awesome,” Grey says.
And their plans for the new year?
“He’s going on honeymoon,” Grey says, gesturing to Heron. “And I’m building a toilet.”
See inside Heron & Grey, by Bryan O’Brien, at irishtimes.com