‘We just lost our Michelin star. Sh*t, I want it back’

Liath chef and owner Damien Grey on his way into the Michelin star awards for 2020, held in October in London. Photograph: Another Avenue
Chef Damien Grey put his and his wife’s life savings – and a €160,000 loan – on the line to run his own Michelin-starred restaurant

“At 12 o’clock tonight, we lose our star. I want it back. Sh*t, I want it back.” On January 29th, 2019, chef Damien Grey spoke those words to camera, and they became the inspiration behind Chasing Stars, a new documentary that follows his 10-month journey from co-ownership of Heron & Grey, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Dublin, through the break-up of that partnership and closure of the business, and on to the creation and launch of a new restaurant, Liath.

November is Food Month in The Irish Times. irishtimes.com/foodmonth
November is Food Month in The Irish Times. irishtimes.com/foodmonth

By any standards, it has been a rollercoaster year for Grey, an Australian who has been in Ireland for 18 years. It began with the dissolution of his business partnership with Andrew Heron, with whom he established Heron & Grey, the tiny 22-seat restaurant in Blackrock market in south Co Dublin that captured the attention of Michelin, publishers of the world’s most influential restaurant guide. They awarded it one-star status within months of opening in 2016.

Last autumn, Heron told Grey that he was pulling out of the business. The doors closed in January and re-opened in March, with a completely revamped interior and only one name over the door – Liath, meaning Grey in Irish.

Getting to that point almost broke the chef, mentally, physically and financially, and it’s all laid bare in Chasing Stars, a 55-minute film made by independent production company Another Avenue, which is due to be screened on RTÉ One on November 28th.

“I’m petrified; it’s a big thing for me. I am really letting people in. In this documentary, they see everything, they see me exposed, right down to how much of a risk I took,” Grey says. The risk involved not just his livelihood and reputation, but his and his wife Claudine’s life savings. He also took out a €160,000 loan to finance the takeover, revamp and relaunch of the restaurant. “I’ve got everything on the line.”

Last month, Grey found himself once again heading to the Michelin awards ceremony in London, the restaurant industry’s annual Oscars. It was his first attendance as a solo chef proprietor, and his first with a film crew in tow. “I’m very nervous now, because I don’t know which way it’s going to go. It is the bloody biggest gamble I’ve taken in my life,” he says to camera, while being driven through London. At the entrance to the Hurlingham Club, venue for the awards ceremony, the last shot is of Grey with both hands raised, fingers crossed.

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As a chef, you don’t get asked to this ceremony unless you have retained a star rating, or won a new one, and Grey had high hopes. “There had been a lot of speculation about Liath getting a star, but there was also speculation that Liath could go to two [stars], so that had created a lot of confusion in my head,” he says when we meet in his restaurant this week to discuss the documentary.

The film crew from Another Avenue weren’t allowed to attend the Michelin ceremony, so they watched the live stream, ready to capture the moment when Liath became a Michelin-starred restaurant. But that’s not how it panned out. Grey wasn’t called to the stage that day along with all the recipients of new stars.

The Liath team. Photograph: Another Avenue
The Liath team. Photograph: Another Avenue
Damien Grey and Fingal Ferguson In Gubeen Farmhouse. Photograph: Another Avenue
Damien Grey and Fingal Ferguson of Gubeen Smokehouse. Photograph: Another Avenue
Mark Cribben of Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms and Damien Grey in Tipperary. Photograph: Another Avenue
Mark Cribben of Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms and Damien Grey in Tipperary. Photograph: Another Avenue

“I’m sitting beside [fellow chefs] Jordan Bailey from Aimsir, and Enda McEvoy from Loam, either side of me, and so all the one-stars are announced, then the two-stars are announced, then it went to three, and I’m still sitting there ... and it's over. I was like, okay, what’s going on?” Grey says.

“My phone was absolutely hopping, and then social media broke that we had a star. I had my phone in one hand and was trying to flick through the [just released] Michelin book to look for Liath. There was a point where I didn’t know if we had one or not, and I was worried that we hadn’t made it.”

Michelin later clarify that the star had transferred from Heron & Grey to Liath, and Chasing Stars takes up the action back at the restaurant, where champagne is being poured for diners, to celebrate the news. “We didn’t know we had a star until the end of the ceremony,” Grey explains on screen, dedicating the achievement to his team in the kitchen.

But it feels a bit flat, this Michelin message, in contrast to the mood throughout the earlier part of the film, from the gut-wrenching reality of bringing his dream to life, to the upbeat scenes where the chef travels to meet some of the people who have inspired him. In Chicago he goes behind the scenes at Tock, the restaurant software company that drives his reservations system, with its creator Nick Kokonas. He meets his food idol Grant Achatz in the kitchen at Alinea, and cooks with Mexican chef Diana Dávila.

Nick Kokonas and Damien Grey at Tock HQ in Chicago. Photograph: Another Avenue
Nick Kokonas and Damien Grey at Tock HQ in Chicago. Photograph: Another Avenue
Damien Grey and Chef Diana Dávila in Mi Tocaya. Photograph: Another Avenue
Damien Grey and chef Diana Dávila in Mi Tocaya. Photograph: Another Avenue
Matt Orlando and Damien Grey in Amass Restaurant Copenhagen. Photograph: Another Avenue
Matt Orlando and Damien Grey in Amass Restaurant Copenhagen. Photograph: Another Avenue

In Copenhagen, he catches up with his old Heron & Grey kitchen colleague Eric Heilig and former Noma head chef Matt Orlando. Closer to home there are segments with suppliers including Fingal Fergus of Gubbeen Smokehouse and Mark Cribben of Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms, and beautifully shot footage out on the water with the Lough Neagh fishermen.

This is not Grey’s first experience in front of a TV camera – he was part of the kitchen team for the first four series of The Restaurant, when it was on RTÉ 15 years ago – and he made this documentary with the same production company that was responsible for those early episodes.

But he’s hoping for a different outcome from this collaboration. “I was young and inexperienced. I really enjoyed it, but the problem was I just got cocky and I thought I was the bees knees,” he says of that early exposure.

This time around, Grey says he is doing it to promote his restaurant, and also to spread the word about what’s happening in the Irish food scene. “I believe in Ireland. The rest of the world is making these documentaries about amazing food, but nothing has come out of Ireland, yet we are cooking crazy, crazy food.”

Chasing Stars is on RTÉ One on November 28th at 10.15pm