Richard Corrigan: ‘Those hipster, tattooed chefs with their f***in’ beards? They’re everywhere’
The Irish chef on his London restaurants, Brexit, and the project that almost sank him
Richard Corrigan at Virginia Park Lodge in Co Cavan, the venture that threatened his restaurant empire. Photographs: Dara Mac Dónaill
Richard Corrigan is the kind of guy you want to end up sitting beside at a wedding where you don’t know anyone, or a dinner you didn’t want to attend. “Come in, come in!” he shouts (he is very noisy – I could have heard him from Piccadilly Circus) as he welcomes me into a small office above Bentley’s Oyster Bar and Grill, one of his three London restaurants. “Will you have a glass of Champagne? We’ll have some rock oysters later.”
A British restaurant critic once remarked, rather tartly, that if Corrigan cooked as well as he talked “he would undoubtedly be the best chef in the world”. Me, I’m ready for a chat.
On the London restaurant scene, Corrigan is synonymous with Ireland. Every year, he holds a St Patrick’s Day celebration – a giddy morning of limitless oysters, smoked salmon, Dublin Bay prawns, stout and Champagne – at his Mayfair gaff, Corrigan’s, and everybody who can squeeze through the doors does. At 10am, it’s already a heaving party.
When Corrigan, in that booming voice of his, throws everyone out at 12.30 so that the restaurant can get on with lunch service, nobody wants to leave. “Okay, that’s it. Happy St Patrick’s Day to all! Now go home!” Every year I marvel at his showmanship and generosity.
Born and brought up in Co Meath, Corrigan is a farmer’s son. They were poor – it was “subsistence living”, he says – but he loved the freedom of the countryside.
“My wife is a psychotherapist and when I tell her about drowning kittens on the farm she thinks I must be damaged, but no. We were poor in terms of cash but in other ways we were rich. We lived off the land. We had milk from the cows, fruit trees, a vegetable garden – when I was very young that was ploughed by horse – and people would bring stuff, a fish they’d caught or a bit of game.
“We had to go to the well for fresh water for tea – the water in the house was brackish – and we cured our own bacon. My mother could do great things with a cabbage, our own butter and a bit of pork. There wasn’t a lot of finesse to it, but it was good, though God, the bacon was salty. It was a good life. Sitting in the long grass listening to corncrakes, stealing from orchards, being out and about from dawn till dusk . . . that’s not cheffy romanticism, I did that.’
His first exposure to catering was in the local hotel where he got a part-time job. “I immediately loved it. I loved the chaos, the chef bellowing ‘Ten rounds of ham and salad sandwiches!’ He bangs his hand on his desk. “Now I get to manage that kind of chaos. I like bringing order to that, I love the buzz of it. I have a bit of a Generalissimo complex, to be honest with you.” He beams.
The family farm went to the eldest of his six siblings and Corrigan left for a cheffing job in the Netherlands when he was 17 (where he educated himself by reading Beckett and Flann O’Brien and started listening to the Smiths and the Dead Kennedys).
But he believes his upbringing has contributed hugely to his success. “I was raised a Catholic, but a farmer’s outlook is very Presbyterian. I am very Presbyterian about paying my bills. And my work ethic is huge. If you really want money you can find easy ways of making it, ways that allow you to sit on your arse most of the time, but that’s not what I’m about.”
He didn’t like the constant anxiety, though, of being a restaurateur. The first place he owned, Lindsay House in London’s Soho, was much loved but he never knew whether he’d make it to the next month. He believed that thinking bigger would actually be more secure in the long run (and in any case, “farmers always want to move up the hill”).
After a decade of punishing hours, partying, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Damien Hirst (“I thought I was cool, but really I wasn’t cool at all”) and hard drinking, he got serious. He bought Bentley’s, a gloriously old-fashioned, clubby seafood restaurant and bar in Piccadilly, in 2006, then opened Corrigan’s, his luxurious Mayfair restaurant, in 2009. Given that these straddled the 2008 financial crash, this could be seen as a little foolhardy. Bentley’s, once legendary, had failed under successive owners and critics were sceptical about anyone being able to turn it round, but Corrigan put it back on the map.
The purchase of Virginia Park Lodge, an 18th-century country estate in Co Cavan, in 2013, fulfilled a dream. Built as a hunting lodge for Lord Headfort (one of Ireland’s richest men), Corrigan got married there and completely fell for it. “It was an idyllic place in my head. The main house was in a bad state, but it had 150 acres of parkland and gardens. I saw what it could be. If you come from a family that plants trees, you will end up planting trees. I wanted to create something special there.”
Corrigan went at it with his usual enthusiasm, putting in vegetable gardens, greenhouses, chicken coops, orchards and totally refurbishing the house and outbuildings. But he underestimated what it would take. “Virginia Park Lodge could really have hurt me. It could have brought me right down. There was a point last year when I just thought ‘Oh Christ’,” he puts his head in his hands. “I didn’t have enough capital to transform the place as quickly as I wanted to. The dry rot, the sheer size of the site, the fact that it’s not just a restaurant . . . It’s like a hungry baby that just keeps saying ‘Feed me! Feed me!’ I am doing things there more slowly now and it’s working but it has humbled me – in the right way.”
Ebullient again, Corrigan shows me photographs taken that day: healthy, happy looking young gardeners (there is a 10-strong team) holding armfuls of crimson beets, collecting pumpkins, picking plums and even tending grapes. In the last five months, the gardens have provided all the fruit and vegetables used in Corrigan’s London restaurants as well as the kitchen at Virginia Park Lodge. And he practises the gardening he grew up with: no chemicals or pesticides are used. “You can’t imagine the difference that makes,” he says. “I can eat a plate of kale from there just stewed in a bit of butter. I can roast roots and enjoy them as much as beef.”
What he is creating at Virginia Park Lodge, he tells me, will still be flourishing in 200 years’ time. “Really, restaurants come and go but this is what I will leave behind.”
I wonder if he is worried about being left behind as a chef. His cooking is not considered groundbreaking. He’s not fermenting this or pickling that or worrying about new Nordic influences. “I’ll tell you what the Scandinavian thing has done. It has encouraged chefs to produce some surprising stuff, and that’s good, but there’s a danger of it being imitated and imitated badly. And that chef philosopher thing? I can’t stand it. It’s so self-conscious.” His volume is increasing. “Those hipster, tattooed chefs with their f***in’ beards? They’re everywhere – from Denver to Dublin. Christ, is there a nursery just breeding them?
“I don’t want a tasting menu. I just bake my bread and cook my fish. I want young herring the way you eat it in Holland – the new season’s herring, the babies that are salted in barrels – with a bit of chopped onion and frozen gin. You don’t need any foam, and you don’t need ‘single barrel’ anything to drink with it. I hanker after a new season herring more than anything. I will allow you to put a bit of warm sauerkraut in the shell of an oyster and then put the oyster back on top. But doing anything more than that is food anarchy. You have to respect great ingredients. They shouldn’t be touched by someone with culinary ambition,” he practically chews the word and spits it out. “And I don’t want my food intellectualised.”
He’s not happy about Brexit either. Quite a few of his staff – mostly Poles – have already returned home. But he is more worried about its effect on Ireland. “I come from a troubled land. I come from the border area. And nobody here knows just how easy it is for a match – casually thrown – to set things ablaze in Irish politics. The situation there needed to be left alone for another generation. There are still too many conflicting views and hurts on both sides. I think John Major did a great job in helping to bring about peace and he did it all quietly, in a gentle, warm manner. And Paisley changed,” he smiles wickedly.
“Maybe Paisley saw what was on the other side of the pearly gates and he thought he’d better change! But seriously, the Troubles scarred us. We saw levels of hatred and violence that nobody should be exposed to, especially from the border area right up to Co Antrim. I don’t want to return to that. And when Boris Johnson talks about Brexit and compares the Irish border to one between two boroughs of London I just think ‘You cheeky f***er’. He really does have a masters in talking shit.”
I don’t imagine it’s easy for Corrigan’s wife, Maria, who he’s been married to for almost 30 years, to cope with such straight talking, such energy, such strong emotions. “Oh, Maria became much easier to live with after she trained to be a psychotherapist,” he quips. “I think that in every marriage, one of you should become a therapist to ensure longevity of the relationship.”
Maria Corrigan works for The Tavistock, one of the most reputable establishments in the UK dealing with mental-health problems. “She’s the one with the big brain,” says Corrigan. “She thinks all chefs, well, anyone in the creative industries really, is scarred in some way. And chefs are mercurial creatures. We crawl out of our holes after midnight and then we go drinking. I think a lot of us have ADHD.”
“You don’t seem that troubled to me,” I say.
“Well, I’m not too sure, to be honest with you. I think we all suffer from something or other. The dark clouds do come in.” Corrigan says he knew he was “punching above my weight” when he started going out with Maria. “I took her to the Gavroche very early on. I didn’t know I’d be able to pay the bloody bill – I was always broke – but I wanted her to see my world. They treated us like royalty – as they do everyone – and I was able to settle the bill, but I couldn’t afford a pint of milk on the way home for my breakfast the next morning. I had nothing left.”
He is tremendously proud of Maria – “It’s women who get things done, men love to talk and get patted on the back, women actually do stuff” – and their three children. The eldest, Richie, is manager of a restaurant in Hong Kong, Jessie is in restaurant PR in London and the youngest is still at school. “Maria despairs of me though,” he points at the ancient-looking donkey jacket hanging on the door of his office. ‘She always says ‘Would you look at the state of you!’”
We head to the bar downstairs for the oysters he loves, some pearly-fleshed turbot with a golden pool of herbed Hollandaise and corn – the sweetest stuff – from the Virginia Park gardens. We’re soon talking food again. He gets ideas from books – Jane Grigson, Claudia Roden, volumes from way back – as he reads widely and hungrily.
One minute he is exalting the cooking of Iran – “Aggggh, the Persians!” – then we’re onto figs and why they work well with a tobacco syrup. Of course, we end up back in Ireland, thinking about rabbits cooked in a cast-iron pan with wild garlic leaves (“eat the rabbit with your hands and share it with people who are ravishingly [SIC]hungry”) and colcannon with a lake of salty butter melting on top.
The last thing he says to me, apart from “goodbye”, is “Yum yum yum yum yum,” delivered in a low, greedy growl. God, the man loves food.
Corrigan is so up for life it’s a tonic. You don’t even need Champagne to feel happy when you’re with him. I thought about colcannon all the way home.