By Alex Meehan. First published in The Sunday Business Post, June 2nd, 2013.
When restaurateur and chef Kevin Thornton first opened his doors in Dublin along with his wife Muriel in 1989, he had no money, no equipment and not much in the way of expectations.
His first kitchen had a cooker with two rings and a single oven but almost a quarter of a century later, the husband and wife team are still at the forefront of Irish gastronomy. Thornton’s eponymous restaurant celebrates its 25 anniversary next year, and despite having a reputation for being occasionally prickly with journalists, when the Sunday Business Post sat down over coffee with him recently, he was in in expansive form.
“25 years is a long time for any business to be around, but doubly so for a restaurant. We started in a funny way, in 1989 when someone asked us one Saturday if we wanted to open a restaurant and we opened the Wine Epergne in Rathmines the following Wednesday,” he says.
With interest rates running at 20 per cent and more at the time, trying to get any kind of business off the ground was a challenging proposition.
“We didn’t have a penny and it was a horrendous time to be trying to start up. We couldn’t get an overdraft from the bank so we did it entirely on our own. I knew suppliers from various jobs over the years and thankfully we had a good reputation for honesty so they gave us credit.”
“The restaurant had a tiny kitchen and we couldn’t afford a fan so we knocked a hole in the wall and I wired up a fan I found somewhere. I’d worked in some excellent restaurants and was used to fancy kitchens with great equipment but none of that mattered because this time, this kitchen was mine.”
“When we started out we had a computer but obviously there was no internet. Paper slips for credit cards had to be sent off and would take three days to come back and American Express card payments had to be sent to London and took two weeks. Even though Dublin had always had good restaurants, at that time the economy was in a terrible state.”
Thornton says he knows exactly why his business did well while others fell by the wayside – he fostered a healthy disregard for what everyone else was doing and instead suited himself.
“We didn’t really care what people wanted, we just decided to open and do the kind of restaurant that we wanted to do. That was more important to us than whether there was an opening in the market or anything like that– because really we didn’t start a business. We opened in order to be able to do the kind of restaurant and food that we loved. I’m very lucky that my wife had faith in me and was able to make things work.”
“Looking back, we were also ignorant because we presumed that the restaurant business was all about the food when really it’s not – it’s about the entire experience.”
If he didn’t know much about business, Thornton did know food. A Cashel-native, an early placement in a catering course at the Galway Regional Technical College led to work in Waltons, a Michelin starred restaurant in London’s South Kensington, before the chef spent time travelling in Belgium, Canada and Switzerland, learning about gastronomy and viticulture.
However it was a stint in the legendary Paul Boccuse’s l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges in Lyon that set him on the path he’s still on today.
“Back then it wasn’t cool to be a chef at all. It was a last resort for a lot of people. I liked working in kitchens though. In London I worked with a load of Scottish guys who were good to me but it was hard graft, often from 8am to 11:30pm each night. But I wanted to learn and that’s the standard life of a chef,” he says.
“Of course it was really difficult. Incredibly difficult. I worked with some crazy people. It was a military set up and that’s how you had to look at it. It was so intense that you had to get out of it after a while because if you didn’t, it would screw up your mind. I was a bit of a hippy at the time but I was lucky because my interest in photography gave me a safety valve that I could use to get away in my head.”
The young chef travelled as a way to broaden his skill base and to indulge a joint love of travel and photography.
“Being a chef allowed me to travel – it’s a skill that you can pretty much take anywhere in the world and that appealed to me.”
Back in Dublin, the Wine Epergne was a success but in 1995, the chef and his wife closed it in order to open their first eponymous restaurant – Thornton’s in Portobello, Dublin. Awarded its first Michelin star within a year of opening, the tiny 30-seater restaurant quickly made Thornton known as one of the country’s premier chefs.
A second Michelin star followed in 2001 – the first time two stars had been awarded in Ireland. In 2002 the restaurant moved again to its current location in the Fitzwilliam Hotel on St Stephen’s Green, this time keeping its name.
“The major value that Michelin has to us is that it validates what we do internationally. If we were to rely solely on Irish customers we wouldn’t be in business – that’s the reality. The guide is valuable because a lot of people use it when they travel to decide where to eat. That’s what it was invented for, to help people travelling outside of their usual areas to know where was worth visiting,” he says.
Thornton thinks the guide’s famous one, two and three star awards are mostly misunderstood.
“It’s not accidental that people don’t understand them. It is deliberately a bit mysterious because Michelin doesn’t say in black and white exactly what each award means or how to get it. A star just means ‘good food in its category’, so in theory a chipper could have a star. There have always been Michelin star restaurants in Ireland – when I was growing up there was one in Cashel, two in Cork and so on. But there were only ever two two-stars awarded in Ireland.”
Thornton’s restaurant lost its second star in 2005, but it has retained the remaining star since then. The chef himself is philosophical about the loss of the accolade.
“When you lose a star, it’s a weight off your shoulders. What it did for us was allow us to re-evaluate what we were doing in the first place. Was it the type of restaurant we wanted? We didn’t want to run a place where the staff thought they were better than the customer, where it was so stuffy that people were afraid of being judged? A lot of people have that perception of multi starred restaurants and it can scare some people away.”
“When we had two stars we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to live up to that. You want to push on and continually improve and that’s hard. Losing one allowed us to make some changes. I actually think that what we’re doing now is better than what we were doing then, and the difference is that once again, we’re doing it for us and not to conform to an idea of what we should be doing. I cook for myself and secondly for the customers,” he says.
In recent years, there has been a couple of instances where Michelin-starred chefs have apparently given back their stars, most notably Marco Pierre White, the youngest chef to have been awarded the top accolade of three stars. However Thornton is sceptical of such claims. For a start, he says, it’s not possible to return stars. That’s not how the system works.
“You can’t give a Michelin star back. You’re anonymously assessed and then you go in their book so the only way to do it would be to consciously cook badly. Michelin comes along after the fact – they award stars based on the standard you set for yourself and a star is really just on loan for the year that you hold it.”
“Anyone who says they’re giving a star back is doing so for the publicity, that’s all.”
The recession in recent years hasn’t been kind to the restaurant trade, but Thornton says his business is doing well and that prudent business decisions in the boom years have served them well.
“Things are going well for us. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not going to be buying a helicopter or private jet anytime soon but we can pay our bills and make our way. Muriel is really good at what she does. We’re a partnership and without her I would have been out of business long ago.”
“In the boom years, people got caught up in the bullshit but we made a conscious decision not to,” he says.
“When the boom came along we benefitted from it, of course, like everyone else. But when we bought our house and built our business, we based our finances on where we would be if there was a crash.”
In retrospect, he says, that looks very clever but at the time there were people in Dublin opening five or six restaurants.
“We had people knocking on our door every week wanting to back us and I’m so glad we didn’t do it. At one point we considered expanding and looked at a building with a price tag of €27 million. It was lunacy looking back on it, but the financing was there to support it. The business was and is extremely important to us and for many years we took it a little too personally. We’d always said we wanted to be masters of our own destiny so we didn’t expand when people were throwing money at us.”
Today, Thornton’s is one of the only high end restaurants fully owned by a chef-patron.
“If you look at Dublin, there are only four or five of us in the city who are purely on our own – the rest have other people backing them. So it’s very hard to really do your own thing and not have to compromise or work around what someone else wants you to do. Any person who opens their doors needs to be given credit – it’s a tough job. But at the same time, it’s their choice so just shut up about it and get on with it.”
“It’s like people who give out about the country – we choose to live here so shut up and get on with it, or leave.”
A challenge for anyone operating at the higher end of the market is the knock on effects of austerity, according to Thornton.
“The problem is that even people with money are afraid to be seen spending it. They’re painfully aware of the appearances of things. We opened in a recession so that’s the kind of ethic we have. The cost of running a restaurant at this level is so expensive, you need the support of your customers. You need volume — a community of customers to keep it going.”
“I saw a survey a few years ago that said that there were only around 100,000 people in the entire country who ate out – they supported the entire industry. That’s not enough although things have improved slightly in the last year. The recession has closed a lot of restaurants but things are starting to move again and people are starting to go out.”
The problem for people like me is that most of that business is being done with food priced between €5 and €12, and most of the restaurants that have opened have done so at that price point. My problem is that I’m so interested in the product and in doing things properly that this is a trend that’s not touching me.”
At that price point, Thornton points out, corners have to be cut. He’d like to see more transparency from restaurateurs selling cut price produce.
“If you’re paying €5 for a chicken dish, where did the chicken come from? We produce 10,000 chickens in Ireland a day but we consume 30,000 – so that’s money going overseas. Likewise sea bass – it comes from the Mediterranean and from Greece and jumbo prawns come from Thailand and so on.”
“Is it sustainable? We’ll find out, but tell the diner where their meal comes from. Be transparent. If they want cheap, then give them cheap but there’s a price to pay for that. Why is New Zealand lamb cheaper than Irish? It’s because the cost of producing lamb here is so expensive that it’s actually cheaper to fly it from the other side of the world.”
In his younger days, the chef says he wasn’t particularly good at managing his time – with the restaurant and his family life leaving little time left over for extracurricular activities. However, a meeting with publisher Trevor White and the founders of aid body Connect Ethiopia, has led to the chef spending time in the northern Ethiopian town of Lalibela.
“I work from a food-centric point of view, everything from teaching them to grow vegetables to improving food hygiene. It’s basics stuff but it’s important. It’s common in poor countries that receive charity to find that the thinking changes – the idea is get people thinking again in self-sufficient way, about the value of working and not just being handed something. We try to get them to be proud of their own food and to steer then clear of westernised foods that can’t be made there.”
Part of Connect Ethiopia’s ethos is that rather than raising money for Africa, it sends business people from Ireland to Ethopia to teach business skills.
“There is no money involved, it’s all about knowledge and I love that idea. I feel really privileged to be involved and lalibela is an amazing place. It’s known as the Jerusalem of Africa and a lot of people go on pilgrimage to see the churches there that are hewn out of the rock.”
“The idea behind my involvement is to help improve standards and create a centre of excellence that would teach people to be self-sufficient and help them get themselves off the ground. They have a Mediterranean climate – warm but not super hot but the lack of water is a major issue.”
In Ethiopia, Thornton has been able to learn about the local foods and cooking techniques, while passing on the benefit of his knowledge and expertise.
“Ethopia is vast, a massive place. The most magical thing is that you can go back in time there and see how our ancestors were living thousands of years ago. I visited some of the nomadic tribes there to see how they live. Because I thought that this could help me understand some of the problems in Lalibella better.”
“For example, they make a fermented crepe-like bread called injera with teff flour. The teff plant has been cultivated since 8,000 BC so it’s literally the food of our ancestors. It’s a kind of grass that produces only seven grains per head but it grows in only four months. The problem is that it only rains once a year so it’s hard to get enough.”
“Injera is served with most meals, along with stews. It’s an acquired taste let’s just say – it looks a little like carpet underlay. They normally ferment it for three or four days, but we tried fermenting it for only for a day and when it’s cooked it’s fresher.”
Thornton says that to him, a key part of his work is that it’s not his place to get them to change their ways, but rather to help them adapt their cuisine to cooking methods that are more efficient or which preserve more nutrients.
“I’ve also helped them to make cheese. They have cows but strangely not much cheese making culture, although there is a kind of rancid cottage cheese. Cows are an important source of food in Ethiopia, and they use them in ways we don’t. For example, the tribes drink cow’s blood as a valuable source of protein and minerals. They don’t kill the cow to do this – the animal is worth far more alive than dead — they pierce the neck and drain a pint in the morning and a pint in the evening, closing up the wound in the meantime.”
“These are foods from the beginning of time,” he says.
2013 represents the third year Thornton has worked with the project, and he’s visited Lalibela seven times so far.
“It’s incredibly gratifying to see progress being made between trips. I have brought down seeds and then come back to see vegetable gardens in full bloom, it’s amazing. They’re growing tomatoes and aubergines, celeriac and celery – things which are good for them. I’ve gotten them then to swop the vegetables with each other – we’ve also set up cooking schools to encourage tourists to stay a little longer, spend a little more.”
“They do Ethiopian food, teaching people how to make local dishes. We’re coming to the end of things, but it’s not finished yet. They’re becoming more self-sufficient and that’s very gratifying, even though there more work to do. It’s not finished yet, so I can’t move on from it yet,” he says.