A fallen star, but still burning

 

The Saturday Interview - Dylan McGrath:THERE WAS a time when Dylan McGrath, Michelin-starred chef, had barely minutes in the day to manage his life, sometime between lunch service and accelerating towards dinner.

His manner is polite but watchful, as it should be for a man who flamed through a television reality show about life in Mint, his Ranelagh restaurant, hurling foul abuse at ferocious volume, piling the pressure on all around him, splitting viewers between adoration and revulsion, only to crash and burn last May as “the arse fell out of Ireland”.

Most businesses die amid sympathy and sorrow. Mint’s implosion merely intensified the battle lines. For some, it was a morality tale whose egomaniac protagonist richly deserved what was coming to him; a sub-section conflated McGrath with all the blingy, naked emperors of the boom. For others, he was an Icarus who flew too close to the sun, a fanatical genius who dropped rich swirls of colour into beige, mundane lives, while – fatally – slipping the tedious constraints of a basic survival plan. By the time tiny Mint folded, he had a staff of nearly 20 for 37 chairs.

But Dylan McGrath was much more than a preening, reckless ego. There was always a plan. “Mint was always a stepping stone,” he says wearily, repeatedly. Blood, sweat and brilliance had built the team, won the star, created the buzz; he was negotiating with investors, peppering to take them all somewhere worthy, with luxuries like a reception area and maybe 60 chairs. Finally, choices he had dreamed of at 17 were materialising. A million euro investment deal was about to progress beyond a handshake; there was a serious approach from the Ritz Carlton in Enniskerry to take over the Gordon Ramsey operation.

“Finally I’m in a position where I can have the team – the 18 chefs – have whatever number I need on the floor. We’ve removed the stress, I don’t need to lose it anymore, I have people now, I can do this . . . Here we are, now we’re moving . . .” he says as through reviewing beloved old video footage.

Then, “Ireland changed within a week”. The investor walkedaway. The Ritz Carlton approach went no further. Mint hadn’t a hope of riding out a recession. “I lost €30,000. Gerard [Courtney, his business partner] lost his shirt. It’s just the f*****g time thing . . . Yeah, I was upset. It disappointed me hugely . . . I don’t like not getting my own way. Obviously.”

On mature reflection, did he really have to be such a complete “b******s” (to use his own lingo) to the staff? Some considered the television show even counter-productive.

“I’ve heard all that,” he says flatly. “It’s as simple as this. Would they go to a Manchester United match after they’d heard how Alex Ferguson talks to his team at half-time if they’re messing up? He’d go through the bloody roof. If you’re at the premier league of your sport and your craft and you have a team of people around you who are all coming to work every day, giving everything, the deal is, there is a consequence of bad performance. Call it me giving out, me kicking off, shouting abuse and ‘f**k this and that and the other’ . . . You’re talking about bright people here. They’re not idiots – you’re talking about creative, hard workers at the top of their game. If you’re standing in my kitchen with me, if you put up with me for six months, you’re f*****g good at what you do . . .”

And yet, abuse is not an essential ingredient of every Michelin-starred kitchen, is it?

“We’re trying to do the job of 15 to 20 guys or maybe more – so we’re all going at it to the end of the service . . . It’s not ruling with an iron rod but to hit that standard – you have to understand – they come to work, they know the rules, they’re gonna get it ripped out of them. Me deciding to be lenient? That just changes the game . . . ”

It’s a revelatory exchange. On the one hand, he admits it was a shortage of well-trained staff rather than industry norms that generated much of the abuse. On the other, he remains adamant that only a cook tempered in the white heat of a top kitchen like his will emerge as a proper, top-class chef.

“I had a meal in a three-star restaurant in San Sebastian recently. They had 30 chefs in the kitchen and very little shouting going on. The reason being, you have the staff to keep it consistent. But a restaurant takes time to build. The guys that worked for me, a huge amount of them knew why I was getting upset. They knew why I was driving them as hard as I could . . . You can’t tell me it doesn’t work. I had guys walking through the door that were barely commis chefs and when they’d leave me, they were strong, quick, like lightning . . . A year being put under that pressure changes you completely as a cook . . . ” But wasn’t there a streak of madness in a man so chronically short-staffed, yet who set himself a goal of a Michelin star within six months? “We were very short-staffed and it was a tall order . . . But I can’t be anything else. I was like a man possessed when I first came over.” He was going through 10 to 12 chefs a week at one point – “but they weren’t good chefs”, he says dismissively. “Guys working part time because they want to do a degree. A degree? To be a chef?”

As he talks, it becomes evident that this honest, obsessive, driven man inculcated much of his mindset from equally obsessive, driven men. For example, in London he worked under the brilliant Tom Aikens for three years before opening Mint; three years of giving his all in 18-hour days beginning at 6am. And he gave a generous three months’ notice at the end. “But he wouldn’t relent, wouldn’t ease up on me . . . I was his head chef and he demanded 100 per cent from his team. I knew that was part of the game.”

A completely bonkers game? “Yeah, I’m not sure I understand it myself . . . I was working crazy hours but Tom in the same breath, also pushed himself beyond belief. He had two stars at 26, so Tom’s judgment and sacrifice were extreme – his commitment was extreme – so my judgment to keep up with him had to be. And when I was going to do my own thing, the negative things that Tom probably experienced in his career – the lack of support that he felt maybe in people he had worked for, maybe that came back on me . . . ”

AND YET, DYLAN MCGRATH is insightful enough to know that there must be other factors at play. It’s just high-end food, after all, not a solution to world hunger. What inspires such obsession?

He has considered the nature versus nurture debate and comes down on the nurture side, mostly. “I really do think you’re a blank page when you’re born . . . I have a very good argument on that for different family reasons that I won’t go into, can’t go into – but I genuinely do believe that if I had been pointed in a different direction [from catering college], that I would have excelled or I would have tried anyway . . .

“But then maybe if I was born into money, then I wouldn’t have felt that I needed to, if I was comfortable in my skin. They say that with workaholics and extremists – it’s a lot to do with fear of not becoming anything, you have to separate yourself and you have to be unique. I remember at 17, scurrying around in my head as to where I was going and what I was doing. What is the difference between me and them? How do I separate myself? There was incredible pressure that I used to put on me, that I needed to find what path to go. Cooking was literally the first thing that came and landed in my lap and the only reason it was cooking was because it meant I could leave Poleglass . . . ”

“Terrible things would happen. I remember looking out our back window late one night and seeing a neighbour of mine, a guy I used to play with every day, being handed over to the IRA by his own father to be beaten up, because they said he was an incurable thief . . . There was a different set of rules up there.”

He steered clear of trouble because his mother “would have killed me. She held me very tight . . . ”

His mother is a McGrath, one of 13 children of an army chef reared in the Curragh camp. She and Dylan were a tight, self-sufficient pair before she married a Belfast man, and gave him step-brothers. He will only say that at 27, he deliberately reverted to his mother’s surname because “I felt very much like my mother’s son more than anything else”.

Meanwhile, he left school with six or seven GCSEs, obviously bright but unmotivated, living on a very un-cheffy diet of tinned creamed rice, brown sauce sandwiches and oranges. “But somewhere along the line I decided that I needed to give myself more choice, that the quality of life on offer to me as a young man growing up in that environment was very limited. I knew I wanted an awful lot more out of my life.”

Portrush catering college was the road out. But even then, high on his newfound freedom, “getting stoned and drunk and running amok at 17”, he remembers  having “this thing in my head from the word go – ‘I’m going to be the best chef’. But I had no idea how to do it”.

His obsessive insistence on cooking sauces fresh to order for mundane catering college lunches marked him out. He read White Heat, by Marco Pierre White (a Michelin two-star in his 20s) and recognised something of himself. He moved to London and began the frantic, relentless quest for knowledge and perfection, living alone, barely sustaining relationships. “I was very absent, very distant. Women could be a pain in the ass . . . It was a very hard time and I put myself through a lot. There was a time when I was gonna be done learning. I think it was a bit extreme . . . But you know,” he stresses, “I didn’t just do it for the love of the food. I did it to make a better life for myself. I’d go back to my mum’s house for holidays and then back to London and as hard as London was, I wasn’t stopping [in Poleglass]. I was never going back there.”

Which would, you might think, make his current situation all the more distressing.

Maybe not. Because by this account, although Dylan McGrath may have lost his raison d’être, he has found himself. The man once described as “as volatile as Beethoven in labour” has discovered family ties, friendship, craic and slagging with his three brothers. “We have a great family base. That’s my rock.”

It’s hardly surprising that central to this is the love of a good woman. He met Erica Doolin, a drama teacher, in a club a year ago, and it was “very intense, instant. She has a very strange effect on me. She’s brilliant, a very normal girl, very cool . . . She has chilled me out an awful lot. We don’t argue. For somebody like me who would have been so intense and highly strung – apparently – Erica doesn’t seem to bring out those things in me. She seems to relax me naturally, just who she is. We’re very close.”

He also appears to have found that elusive quality of life. “For the first time, I’m finding a balance . . . I’m understanding how to enjoy myself. I’m understanding about removing stress from my life. I’m not the stress head I was. Now I’m not saying that if I was to get back into the kitchen in the morning that I wouldn’t be back to some of my old ways, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the way I used to be . . . I think I was very unhappy in my 20s. I’ve more happiness in me now. I’ve better relationships that I love and care about a lot better . . . I’ve changed an awful lot.”

But are these the late discoveries of a drowning man? “No, it’s not about what happened with Mint. This is going on now for two years. I closed Mint in my head long before it closed. I think as you get older, a certain amount of maturity kicks in and you regard your life as more precious . . . and you see yourself as having a bit more self-worth than you had when you were younger.”

He is acutely aware of his obsessive nature. “I can’t let anything else take its place wholly but I can let a few things take its place.”

IN THE MEANTIME, HE IS occupying himself by working as a consultant to various hotels and restaurants and running tasting evenings – events are coming up at the Nuremore in Carrickmacross and at Clontarf Castle. Glimpses of the stress-head Dylan appear in the form of an edgy sweep of crumbs off our lunch table with his sleeve, a scarily critical eye on the over-cooked duck and a pretty unforgiving take on Dublin restaurant cuisine. “I’m working on concepts for new restaurants . . . There’s still loads of room in the middle level Dublin market for innovation. Everyone’s doing the same stuff . . . still cooking fish and chips and mushy peas and taking 20 quid for it. The best food you’ll ever eat will be a reflection of the nostalgic food that reminds you of home. I genuinely think that if Ireland is to get two or three Michelin stars, they’ll have to come from where we feel comfortable and remind us of what we are.”

But isn’t that what the likes of Richard Corrigan is doing? “Richard’s food reflects his Irishness,” he says tartly. “It’s hearty simple cooking that Richard can achieve by not being here. It’s fish and chips and fish pie and I’m not slagging it . . . It doesn’t take much to get it right . . . I’m really interested now that I’m applying what I do to the middle market. I have a number of opportunities and I’m negotiating a few of those.” The one certainty is that he wants to stay in Ireland. “I’m Irish. My mother is very sick, has been for a couple of years. I don’t have to do what I do in London anymore. I would rather keep going here. Obviously it’s really difficult to stand here and not be allowed to do what I do, to evolve inside Ireland.”

The failure of Mint doesn’t appear to have dented his faith in himself, however. “People think ‘oh yeah, you’ve learned a big lesson, you’ve been taken down a peg or two, oh you’re humble now’ – but that’s Ireland for you. They love to see you like that but I don’t think I’ve changed that much. If you gave me the tools and said off you go, I’d be away again. I’d still have people coming to work for me every day and learning their craft just like I learned mine off someone else.”

Will he be less shouty? “I think it’ll come with maturity and I think the next time I do a gastronomic restaurant I don’t think I’ll have a shortage of staff at quite the level that I had . . . Also if I was to do a middle-of-the-road restaurant and I didn’t have the weight of a Michelin [star] and that perfection, I think I’d be a little less stressed. It’s not just about stress though. I think it’s also about creating an environment where, if you get it right, you’re laughing and if you don’t you’re not.”

Dylan McGrath laughing? He can you know.

Early years:32-year-old McGrath was born in Dublin, before moving to Carlow and then on to Poleglass, Belfast

Career:In London, he worked under chef Tom Aikens for three years before returning to Dublin to open Mint in Ranelagh. Despite critical acclaim, it closed earlier this year

Pivotal moment:For him, it was being given a Michelin star in 2008. For the public, it was the RTÉ series The Pressure Cooker, charting his push for the star, but through which his aggressive style in the kitchen made him a household name