'The only thing I can do is not make any more mistakes'

 

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW: CONRAD GALLAGHER:Mention my name, says Conrad Gallagher, and people think ‘chef’and ‘paintings’. Then there was the bankruptcy in South Africa. Wherever he has gone, trouble has seemed to follow, but with his latest Dublin restaurant Gallagher hopes he has learned from past failures

CONRAD GALLAGHER is not immediately at ease being interviewed. And with good reason, perhaps, given that the former wunderkind turned enfant terribleof Irish food is as well known here for his financial failures as for his culinary genius.

There is no doubt he has made some enemies through his high profile career, as well as friends and fans, but he’s clearly eager to turn the page as he sits at a table in his newest restaurant, loquacious on the subjects he most enjoys – food, his new Aungier Street eaterie, his rise to fame – and less so on those that have brought him such unwelcome attention over the course of his dramatic career.

“My fall was a very hard and very public one,” he says of the media-saturated moment when his signature Dublin restaurant, Peacock Alley, hit the rocks some 10 years ago. It’s not a period he is eager to revisit, and his unhappiness about the coverage it engendered at the time clearly still runs just below the equanimous surface he presents. “Some people can do it quietly. Unfortunately [my fall] was blasted from one end of the world to the next.”

Conrad Gallagher has never been able to do things quietly. His most recent public fall involved a declaration of bankruptcy in South Africa, where he ran a restaurant and operated a consultancy. “I started investing heavily in property,” is how he explains it, and though he knows how it will read to Irish audiences, he doesn’t dodge the question. He says he joined forces with two business contacts, one with a real estate background and the other a developer, for a joint venture which sank much of his earnings into property. “There was a bit of a turn in the market, and that ran into difficulty and it needed cash, and it was the same sort of scenario again,” he says with evident weariness. “Here I was involved in a business I knew nothing about.” He ended up owing almost €200,000 to two main creditors and also came under investigation from the South African department of labour for allegedly failing to register his employees with a mandatory unemployment insurance fund.

“The bank was coming for me, and they were coming after me personally. They were getting their hands on anything that I owned. My home, my three homes, my two apartments, my restaurant – they were coming after it all. So as a result of it, I had to put my hands up in the air and say to them there was no way out of it.”

When his bankruptcy was declared, Gallagher was already in the process of relocating to Ireland, having decided to enrol his South Africa-born children in the Irish school system. It wasn’t long before his newest project followed. “I’ve kind of gone a whole circle,” he says, in reference to the small, red-hued restaurant in which we sit, his new “tasting room”, Salon des Saveurs. The restaurant has also brought about Gallagher’s return to the 2010 Bridgestone 100 Best Restaurants Guideafter a 10 year absence, with writers John and Sally McKenna calling him “one of the best cooks” in Ireland.

“The one lesson [I’ve learned] is that, I’ve never lost money when I was in with food. There’s obviously been lots of criticisms with me over the years but, rolling the clock forward now, I’m 39 years old and I’m probably back to what I was doing 15 years ago, and I would never venture out of food again.”

Food, after all, is where it all began, with Gallagher’s childhood growing up in a Donegal B&B ensuring he had hands-on experience from a very early age.

“We grew up in a house where everyone had their chores to do, but mine was always the cutting of the bacon, the cutting of the sausages, the slicing of the tomatoes, the cracking of the eggs for breakfast. Some of my first memories are of doing that.” This was back in an Ireland where food was still of the boiled or fried variety, and breakfasts were carnivorous and hearty, with home-made black pudding. “I actually remember my mother and granny sitting there with the blood and sewing up the stomach,” he recalls.

An a Donegal accent still pronounced despite all his travels, he describes in detail the start he got in a local hotel, where he pretended to be significantly older than his nine or 10 years to ensure he was taken on. “I was just fascinated with the whole thing, and at that stage I said to myself, ‘I definitely want to go into cooking’.” He defied his parents, who wanted him to complete his schooling, bowing out after the Group Certificate to concentrate on his choice of profession. The mix of stubbornness and chutzpah that was part of his rise to prominence is clearly something he has carried from his youth.

But it takes more than chutzpah to go from Killybegs to a Michelin star, and though Gallagher may not have had that accolade in his sights back in his teenage years, he still had the ambition to drive him from Donegal to New York. “I’d bought a couple of dozen cook books and I was beginning to form my own little style and I had my own ideas about food,” he recalls of his arrival stateside. He was 15 years old.

He left a country where meat and potatoes still reigned supreme. “The country didn’t have a good reputation for food. It had a reputation for great seafood and lovely game, but half the time it would be cooked to bejesus,” he says. “If you served beef with a bit of blood in it, it would be sent back to you . . . But, then again, they’d run you over for a raw oyster.”

IN NEW YORK, things were different. Gallagher started out in Blue Street in Queens, which developed such a reputation among the locals that the executive chef of the Plaza Hotel went to eat there. After his meal, he offered Gallagher an interview at the Donald Trump establishment. When he eventually took up a full-time position at the Plaza, Gallagher continued working in a Bronx restaurant on his weekly day off. “I was so young and I was alive, so it was no issue.”

Hard work and determination undoubtedly contributed to his New York successes, but so too did his unshakeable self-belief and a zeal for self-promotion still evident at moments when he slips in sentences like: “I think it was probably around that time that I was first invited to the White House . . .”

He met Bill Clinton, appeared on Good Morning America, and saw first-hand at the Plaza the kind of glamour that could come with his chosen profession. “We had a chef’s table in the kitchen, and I remember the first day I worked there Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson were sitting in there that lunchtime, and then that night Anthony Quinn was in there, and I could just see their affection for the chef and how important it was to be really good at your job because, when you were really good, this was the sort of level you could cook at.”

So Gallagher set his sights on becoming just that; his goal was to open his own place in New York and earn the kind of six-figure salaries executive chefs were bringing home. He mixed with Manhattan’s top French chefs, he nosed his way into some of the best restaurants by offering to work for free, and then he got offered the job as sous chef in the Waldorf Astoria’s new Peacock Alley, where he first got to cook for legendary French chef Alain Ducasse. When he had done his time at the Waldorf Astoria, Ducasse offered him a job in Monte Carlo, and Gallagher left New York. “It was never even a consideration to move back to Ireland,” he says.

Monte Carlo was to be his “final year’s grooming” before he went back to New York to open up his own place. But once the year was up, he decided to go home for Christmas. While back in Ireland, he met various top chefs, among them Alan O’Reilly, who offered him the position of head chef at his new bistro, Morels in Glasthule. It was only ever a temporary arrangement for Gallagher, who still intended to return to New York. So what changed?

“I started getting a lot of media attention here, I think. People started writing about Morels and the more people wrote about it the more opportunities came my way.” When a restaurant on Baggot Street became available, he jumped right in and opened the now legendary Peacock Alley. With all his culinary experience, this was Gallagher’s first stab at running his own business, a dream he had long held.

For Gallagher, this new enterprise was a chance to break the mould. “I said ‘I’m going to bring people with me on a journey. So if you want a piece of meat well done, that’s fine. But I’m not going to do a steak well done, I’ll do a nice piece of braised shoulder of lamb, and I’ll braise it for 12 hours’.”

GALLAGHER WAS READY to shake up the Irish palate, and he did so to great success with Peacock Alley, despite stories emerging of a temper to match his culinary talents. One tells of his exploding at a customer who had the audacity to ask for salt and pepper. Gallagher’s version of events is notably different. “When someone says to me, ‘Can we have salt and pepper?’, [I say] ‘You can, certainly, but will you do us a little favour? Will you just check it first because it’s fairly heavily seasoned’?”

He does admit to getting angry on occasion when he felt customers were being rude or lacking respect. “Looking back, it was very silly,” he says. “There were definitely childish things I did when I was younger. You must remember, I was 22 or 23, I was all fired up.” Even as he tells it, you can see that fire burns on a lower flame these days but, back then, it only seemed to fuel the rise of Peacock Alley, which garnered him a Michelin star at just 26, by which time it had been relocated to South William Street.

His culinary and business reach continued to expand with the opening of Lloyd’s Brasserie on Merrion Street, and his involvement in Christopher’s Brasserie at the Fitzwilliam Hotel, later reopened as Mango Toast. Peacock Alley moved premises again, this time at great expense to the Fitzwilliam Hotel. And then the cracks began to show, with unpaid suppliers, soaring rents, and a business that began to crumble into debt.

“I made one fatal error,” he says of the financial mistakes that put an end to Peacock Alley. “I basically had two strong businesses, that I was very much in control of, and although we had good weeks and bad weeks . . . and we made plenty of mistakes, plenty of mistakes, they were our mistakes, and we could always jump back from them. The problem is: we had invested a huge amount of money into moving, and problem after problem came.”

The suppliers? The spiralling debts? “The rest has been well documented,” he says and Gallagher clams up uncharacteristically, though not for long. “I kept it going as long as I could, cut as many staff as I could, cut my costs as much as I could, but the fixed costs were there, I couldn’t cut them any more,” he says, and there is some impatience in his voice. “The words ‘financial difficulty’ are very loosely used today but, back then, once you mentioned ‘financial difficulty’ what actually happens is you get labelled with it, and once there’s so much as a whisper of it, it spreads like wildfire. It all comes at you.” When the restaurants caved, the judgments made against him and his former businesses piled up; from banks, a wine merchant, landlords and a furniture supplier.

SOME 10 YEARS LATER, he’s clearly eager to put it all behind him, but at the time trouble seemed intent on following him, to a less than successful restaurant in London, and even to New York, where though he had a thriving new business on his hands, he was arrested in 2003 having failed to turn up to a Dublin court to face charges for his alleged theft of three paintings that had previously hung in the Fitzwilliam Hotel.

“The whole thing was a misunderstanding,” is Gallagher’s take on events. “From day one I said the paintings belonged to me . . . It unfortunately became a circus, me being the person on stage.”

Prior to his extradition, he was held in the Brooklyn Detention Centre, where he was attacked by a Colombian drug lord, ending up with two cracked ribs “among other things”. That, too, he wants to put behind him. “It’s actually so long ago now, it’s even so long since I’ve even thought about it, I’ve just moved on from that.” The final outcome was that he was found not guilty.

“The whole thing was nonsense, but the unfortunate thing for me is that the label and the stigma just stays there, you know?”

In the end, Gallagher was acquitted of the charges of theft by Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, though three weeks after the trial, Ampleforth Ltd, owner of the Fitzwilliam, lodged a Police Property Application, asking Dublin District Court to declare it as owner. In the end, Gallagher dropped his ownership claims and the paintings were returned to the hotel.

Yet he is only too aware of how the legacy of these court proceedings still resonates whenever his name comes up. Mention Conrad Gallagher and “chef and paintings are the two things [that come to people’s minds]”. After New York came South Africa, with his second wife, Candice Coetzee, and a consultancy business that brought him to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Abu Dhabi. By the time the creditors came baying for blood in South Africa, his family had already relocated to Ireland where his two children from his marriage to Coetzee – he also has a daughter from an earlier relationship with chef and Irish Times food writer Domini Kemp – were enrolled in school. Was he concerned about returning to start afresh in Ireland?

“I must deal with my critics,” he says, though he also says he has many loyal customers from his Peacock Alley days. “I must deal with the people that may have disregard for me, and there’s obviously people who want to hurt me and there’s people that want to close doors on me that may start opening, and I must deal with that.”

He has also learned to scale back the ambition that has landed him in trouble so many times. “Where I’m at in business, ambition-wise, is to pay my bloody bills on time. And take a small salary. That’s where my ambitions are right now. I don’t want to be Donald Trump right now, I just want to keep my head above water, pay my bills, keep my family happy.”

There was a time when taking risks was part of Gallagher’s modus operandi. Not any more, he says. “I would be very afraid of taking any sort of chance right now. On anything.” Some might suggest that opening a tasting restaurant in a country in recession is a risk in itself, but Gallagher dismisses the worries, confident that by keeping it small and manageable in an affordable location, and focusing on good food and customer service, he’ll keep on an even keel.

Salon des Saveurs was opened to little fanfare in January. “We didn’t have a huge amount of money to start doing opening nights and parties and trial runs, you know. The day the staff came in, they had to be bloody paid.” Gallagher is upbeat about his newest venture. “I’m back to loving what I’m doing again, and that’s cooking and taking care of customers.” With a new head chef, Paul Carroll, he can also fit in time for family and for his restaurant consultancy business, which he now operates from Dublin. While he is quick to clarify that he is still the same Conrad Gallagher – “Don’t think for a second that I’m not the exact same control freak that I was” – at 39 he is a lot less cocksure than the twenty-something rockstar chef that left these shores 10 years ago.

Regrets? “Of course. Loads of regrets. Of course there’s regrets. Too many to mention, you know. I still have a family to provide for, and the show must go on. I must keep going. What use am I if I can’t get up in the morning and keep going?”

As Gallagher sees it, it’s time to put the past behind him. “I am where I am now, and the only way, the only thing I can do, is not make any more mistakes, learn from what’s happened and move on.”

EARLY YEARS

Born March 12th, 1971 and grew up near Letterkenny in Donegal, in the family BB

CAREER

Went from Donegal to Blue Street restaurant in New York, then on to the Plaza and the Waldorf Astoria, putting in a year in Alain Ducasse’s three-Michelin-starred Monte Carlo restaurant before returning to head up Morels in Glasthule, and finally open his own place, Peacock Alley. After the latter hit the rocks, he opened an unsuccessful London venture, a successful New York lounge bar called Traffic, and the Geisha Wok and Noodle Bar in South Africa, where he also operated a consultancy business. The consultancy has moved back to Dublin, where he has opened a new restaurant, Salon des Saveurs, on Aungier Street.

FAMILY

One daughter from a relationship with chef Domini Kemp. His first marriage was to Californian Jennifer Harrison, whom he later divorced. He is now married to Candice Coetzee, with whom he has two children.