Shouting at buses

I have an advert running on Facebook and Instagram at the moment. I take these out once or twice a year to help promote my martial arts school. It’s an amateur affair but I like to think we punch above our weight in terms of marketing and so on – I’m lucky to have some really talented people who train with me and occasionally help out with their professional skills.

The results are that we have really good photography and graphics – it helps make us look more professional than maybe we really are. It’s still an amateur affair. 

Online ads are a mixed bag. It’s highly debatable that they draw people in, but other than the old fashioned practice of putting flyers on lampposts, it’s actually quite hard to spread the word about a club like mine. You go where the audience is, and in this case, the demographic of people who take up martial arts is predominantly online.

I spend around €100, targeted down to men and women between 18 and 40 within commutable distance of where we’re based in Harold’s Cross. For this money, I typically get a reach of around 13,500 people, and 52 of those clicked the link and of those, around 11 people out of all those people actually clicked the button and got in touch.

So yeah, that’s not a great result. 

The reason I’m writing about this is that there is another effect that happens when you run ads like this. Because we’re pushing our ‘messaging’ in front of people who haven’t gone looking for it, we get unsolicited feedback. And it’s not always pleasant.

Last week, I got three unpleasant messages. One guy accused us/me of being a conman, ripping people off. I’m not sure what his logic was – we actually offer a very competitive and substantial package of training. Whatever. That’s what the delete button is for. A second guy left two comments in quick succession, this time criticizing the training methodology Japanese martial arts use and have used for 500 years. Again, out with the ban hammer.

So, 13,500 people saw this ad, and a total of two people left negative feedback. This is the problem with ads – instead of people coming looking for us, we go out and push our message in front of people. A certain percentage aren’t interested, and hopefully our ads aren’t so intrusive that they’re annoyed by them.

Another percentage never knew we existed but are interested in martial arts, so that our ads could actually be a service to them. They’re the people we want to connect with.

Then there are the others. The troubled ones. I can’t really understand these people because I don’t feel the need to snipe and criticize others online. If I did have a problem with someone or something, I’d connect with them personally and put my issue to them. 

I wouldn’t do the digital equivalent of standing on the street, shouting at passing buses.

Anyway, if you’d like to take up a martial art, we’re taking students in from August 31st. Check it out at

Whatever happened to Blackberry?

I loved my Blackberry Pearl. It was the first consumer device that was directly targeted at consumers with a usable e-mail function, and as a self employed freelancer, it was incredibly liberating to have always on access to e-mail.

I also remember my first iPhone. Either an iPhone 3 or an iPhone 3GS – I’m no longer entirely sure. I do remember clearly however getting the device and very quickly wondering had I made a terrible mistake. The virtual on-screen keyboard seemed unusable and I recall a sinking feeling as I tried to use it and realised I’d signed up to an 18 month contract with this device. So I had no choice, I had to get used to it.

But get used to it I did, like pretty much everyone else. If you’re curious what happened exactly to RIM and it’s Blackberry platform, this recently released documentary on Youtube is excellent. Get a cup of coffee and enjoy.

Lockdown 2020

This blog hasn’t been updated in around five years. Time flies. This week, I was able to re-register my name as a domain. I used to own it many years ago but lost it when I didn’t pay the fees in time to retain it.

So the moral of the story – don’t put these things off.

Anyway, I’ve got it back, and that’s led to me sprucing up this site.

Like everyone else, I’m currently on week three of corona virus isolation, with the result that I have a little more time on my hands. I’ll try to upload some content here over the next few days. We’ll see what happens.

Spare a thought . . .

Spare a thought for all the chefs out there – tomorrow is Michelin Day – so this is like the day before their leaving cert results. Except they have to do it every year.BIB-white-profileI’ve worked with a few different chefs that hold or have held Michelin stars. They’re all quite different except in one regard – they’re extremely driven people. They literally live in their kitchens and their lives have been completely rearranged with the goal of producing the best possible food they can. Not everyone ‘gets’ that, and that’s fine.

To some people food is fuel. They have a few favourite dishes but basically they don’t understand or get fine dining or high end restaurants. They’re not wrong – it’s a highly personal thing. You either appreciate food as art or you don’t. I don’t judge – to each their own.

But you can’t deny the work. Even if you think it’s pretentious or elitist or whatever, behind it are squads of people who work harder than literally anyone else I know of (with the possible exception of nurses). The hours are grueling, the conditions harsh, the atmosphere often oppressive and usually most people don’t last.

For those that that do last and continue to work at the top, being recognised by the red book is a life’s ambition. Even then, if you win a star, the pressure starts all over again as you have to keep it the next year. Hard work indeed.

Best of luck to everyone who has had an inspector in, or even more worrying, had several inspectors in over the last year. Hope tomorrow is your day.

Long read: What Ferran did next?


By Alex Meehan. First published in The Sunday Business Post, June 28th, 2015.

It’s a relatively chilly day in April and chef Ferran Adria is walking a group of journalists around the elBulliFoundation buildings in Barcelona. It’s not what you’d expect as the latest expression of creativity from a man who is debatably the world’s greatest chef.

For a start, there is no food to be had and not a stainless steel kitchen surface in sight. Instead, the unassuming second storey industrial space is stuffed with trestle tables and earnest looking young people with fashionable clothes and thick rimmed glasses, tapping away on Apple laptops.

Thick white foam boards divide up the open plan space and are pin-cushioned with cuttings from magazines, books and print-outs from the web. Stick-it notes abound and the atmosphere is more like that of a university than a commercial kitchen. In fact, it feels more like a tech start-up than a culinary institute.

But then what Adria is attempting to do has more in common in terms of ambition with Google or Facebook than it does with his beloved elBulli restaurant – he wants to write the definitive work on food. All food, everywhere and at every point in history. Can it be done? He seems to think it can and if anyone can do it, it’s probably him.

Few people have had as big an impact on their chosen profession as Ferran Adria. Microsoft’s Bill Gates perhaps? Or Apple’s Steve Jobs. But in the world of high end gastronomy, there are few who would begrudge Adria the oft overused title of genius.

This is the man who powdered olive oil, who spherified sauces and who turned food into foam. Most importantly, this is the man who did it first, applying the kind of creativity to food previously reserved for music, painting, literature and art.

While he prefers to call his style of food deconstructionist in nature, he’s most closely associated with the style of cooking known as molecular gastronomy, and it’s difficult to overestimate just how influential it and he have been. Many of the current generation of top chefs spent time under Adria’s tutelage, including Noma’s René Redzepi, Mugaritz’s Andoni Luis Aduriz and Alinea’s Grant Achatz. His influence has travelled past those he’s personally trained as well.

Together with Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in the UK, Adria is considered the father of modernist cuisine and perhaps the most influential chef alive. His globally famous restaurant, elBulli, held three Michelin stars and regularly either topped San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list or hovered in the top three until abruptly closing its doors in July 2011.

IMG_8274The critics were perplexed – elBulli was only open to the public for six months each year, with the remaining six months dedicated to the research and development of new dishes, but a table here was amongst the most sought after reservations in the culinary world. If you’ve eaten in a high end restaurant in the last five years, the odds are you’ve been served deconstructed dishes created using techniques pioneered by Adria at elBulli.

From meats and fish cooked sous-vide in a vacuum sealed plastic bag to plates garnished with foams, freeze-dried powders, edible flowers or spherified liquids, the Spanish chef’s influence has been far reaching. The techniques he’s credited with popularising, if not outright inventing have changed the face of performance cooking.

Adria is probably best known for two particular techniques — creating edible foams by mixing flavour bases with a stabilising gelling agent such as lecithin that are then forced out of a nitrous oxide syphon to create a stable foam, and the technique of spherification, in which flavoured liquids are mixed with sodium alginate and then dropped into a bath of calcium chloride to create spheres of flavoured liquid resembling caviar. Both techniques are now found in restaurants all over the world.

However, he’s also credited with popularising the use of fluid gels using different gelling agents to create edible gels that are stable either cold or hot, as well as researching new thickening and emulsification agents that change the texture of food without affecting its flavour for use in professional kitchens.

In 2010, Ferran Adria and his brother Albert taught a culinary physics course entitled ‘Science and Cooking’ at Harvard University in the USA. A meal at elBulli was a dinner to boast about. Bookings were taken on one day each year for the following year, with only 8,000 seats available at an average price of €250 per diner.

The restaurant reportedly received more than two million requests for reservations each year, generating a respectable €2 million in revenue. Why close such a wildly successful restaurant at the peak of its success and influence?

According to Adria, the restaurant itself apparently ran at a considerable loss – it employed over 40 chefs and while the business behind it made a profit, this mostly came from elBulli related books, catering products and personal appearances and lectures given by Adria, who the New York Times reported gets around €80,000 for an hour long lecture on creativity.

Aged just 53, the entire gastronomic world asked themselves the question ‘what will Adria do now?’ While he surely has little left to prove behind a stove, the answer has still taken many observers by surprise. His latest venture is the elBulliFoundation, a kind of umbrella vehicle for a few distinctly different projects.

The first is the reinvention of the former elBulli restaurant. Currently being remodelled and scheduled for a 2017 reopening, it is to be rebranded elBulli 1846—named for the number of original dishes created at the elBulli restaurant — and will function, we are told, as a cultural and educational centre rather than a restaurant.

The second and potentially most interesting is Bullipedia, a vehicle Adria has created to bridge the worlds of academia, science and knowledge acquisition with cooking and the art to be found in high end kitchens. The end goal is to create a repository of information on food and creativity and to refine and codify a new way of researching and categorising knowledge that Adria calls ‘sapiens’.

And as a proof of concept, the first subject matter to be tackled using the sapiens methodology is food. Right now, his team is mostly concerned with writing a series of books on food, producing work, he says, at the rate of one whole book’s worth a day.

Adria champions the creativity that is often attributed to cooking but which actually is rarely there. The majority of chefs are craftsmen rather than artists – their skills lie in reproducing things that other people have created. True creativity is something different, he believes:
“Although I could create a new dish with this tomato, it isn’t possible to create a new tomato.”

When the project is complete, the sum total of the group’s research and methodologies will all be published online for free, available as a resource forever but it will also be sold as an old fashioned set of books, a kind of Encyclopedia Britannica for the world of food.

In one corner of the Barcelona offices, staff members are cataloguing different styles of place settings, while an extensive library of cook books stands as testament to the internationality of the project. Books are organised by country – the only Irish entry on display is Colman Andrew’s Country Cooking of Ireland – and in a side area an impressive selection of Dom Perignon vintage bottles and labels are being studied.

“There is no definitive reference on champagne production and no catering college teaches this. There is nobody to teach it, because those that know it are busy working for the top champagne houses. So we are gathering their knowledge to make it available in catering schools around the world,” says Adria.

If the elBulliFoundation sounds difficult to understand, that’s because it is. Right now it’s impossible to assess just how significant its projects will prove to be, but what isn’t in doubt is that significant resources are being used to create it.

Adria has signed deals with a number of large corporate backers, in return for lending them his personal credibility and making himself available for commercial endorsements. He is a brand ambassador for Telefonica and has also worked with brewing company Estrella to bring his elBulli-created beer Inedit to a wider audience. It was recently launched in Ireland, retailing at around €8 for a 75cl bottle.

And then there are those lectures on creativity. On the day we meet in Barcelona, he spends the morning giving such a lecture, starting by addressing the room while holding a tomato and asking us the seemingly rhetorical question “what is this? Is it a natural product?”

Someone in the assembled crowd replies “only if it’s organic.” The answer seems self-evident, but only if you don’t think like Adria.

“Most people would say a fresh tomato is natural,” he says. “But the tomato has been domesticated by man, it’s the least natural thing in the world. A natural tomato does exist in the Andes but it’s inedible, it’s disgusting. Your preconceptions about what is natural are false.”

He continues. “What about a jar of tomato sauce from the supermarket? Would you use that at home? If you consider yourself a cook probably not. But you will use olive oil and dried pasta? What’s the difference?”

It’s this kind of thinking that has informed Adria’s entire career. What other people took for granted, he questioned. Just because something has always been done one way, doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way, or at the very least another and potentially more interesting way of doing it.

But if you never ask, you never know.

From dishwasher to top chef
Born in Barcelona in May 1962, Ferran Adria started his career in cooking like many before him and since — up to his elbows in hot soapy water.

A summer job washing dishes in a French restaurant in the Hotel Playafels in Castelldefels, Spain, quickly led to a job as an apprentice chef, and it was here that he first had his imagination fired by just how good the local cuisine of Barcelona and its surroundings could be.

He worked and travelled from Spain to Ibiza before being obliged to do military service with the Spanish navy, working as a cook. When he returned to civilian life at the age of 22, he applied to do a stage (unpaid trial) at a small but well regarded restaurant called El Bulli, in the remote coastal town of Roses around two hours north of Barcelona.

El Bulli was opened in 1964 by German Dr Hans Schilling and his Czech wife Marketa, and named after their pet bulldogs. It achieved success as a French restaurant long before Adria set foot there, albeit with a reputation for a different kind of cuisine. It was awarded a Michelin star in 1976, and when Adria joined in 1983 he was very much a junior. He managed to turn his stage into a full time job as a chef de partie, or junior line chef, and it wasn’t long until his talent and unique acumen shone through.

He was encouraged to travel and broaden his culinary palate see what was happening elsewhere in Europe, and he spent a significant period working with renowned chefs in France before returning to be made head chef in 1987. It was around this time,that he started to experiment with the chemistry of food, re-examining dogmatic ideas about cooking techniques and applying a degree of scientific rigour to the chemical changes that the organic compounds in food undergo when cooked.

While he wasn’t the first to do this – Harold McGee’s seminal work on this subject ‘On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen’ was first published in 1984 – Adria applied a degree of flair and creativity to his cooking that won acclaim all around the world. El Bulli’s second Michelin star arrived in 1990 with a third coming in 1997, and it was first voted to the top of Restaurant Magazine’s World’s 50 Best List in 2002. It held that position on five separate occasions.

Panel out – Dining out in Barcelona today
ElBulli might be closed but it’s still possible to sample some of the magic that went on there. Ferran Adria’s brother – and culinary star in his own right – Albert Adria operates five restaurants in Barcelona. He was the pastry chef at elBulli until 2006 , and the rigourous discipline and attention to detail required to fill that position now finds its expression in his efforts to turn a small area of Barcelona into what he terms “a culinary theme park”.

All of the restaurants can be found within walking distance of the Plaça d’Espanya end of Barcelona’s main arterial road Gran Via. The most celebrated is the contemporary tapas restaurant Tickets, opened in 2010 and awarded its first Michelin star in 2014.

The food here is highly creative, served in a space reminiscent of a Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The dessert room in particular is kitted out with oversized cartoon strawberries hanging from the ceiling. Dessert here is a particular treat – Albert Adria was declared the world’s best pastry chef in the recently announced World’s 50 Best Restaurant’s awards.

Bodega 1900 is an old fashioned tapas restaurant, with only a few nods towards the techniques used to build the Adria name – it features hanging hams, nautical interior décor and perfect execution of Catalonian classics like snow crab on toast, tomato salad, salted prawns and Iberico ham croquettes.

Pakta is a fusion restaurant serving a hybrid cuisine bringing together Japanese and Peruvian cooking, served in a small restaurant kitted out to perfectly mesh Japanese aesthetics with South American flair. It describes its food as ‘nikkei’ in style, referring to the name Japanese people use for emigrants of Japanese descent who have settled elsewhere. Pakta holds a Michelin star.

Hoja Santa is a Mexican haute cuisine restaurant, the big brother of the groups less formal Nino Viejo restaurant, specialising in tacos and botanas, a kind of Mexican snack or appetiser.

Albert Adria will be a speaker at the upcoming Food on the Edge symposium to be held in Galway on October 19 and 20 this year. For more information, visit

Book review: Becoming Steve Jobs, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli


By Alex Meehan. First published in The Sunday Business Post, May 24th, 2015.

When it comes to Apple there are two kinds of people – those who ‘get’ the company and those who think the other kind have been indoctrinated into a cult.

If you think that Apple fans are irrational in their love for what is, after all, a commercial entity then you probably think that Steve Jobs was every bit as messed up as his personal myth suggests. An unpleasant control freak who fathered a child and — even after a DNA test confirmed his parentage — refused for years to have anything to do with them.

Someone who could be an arrogant bully and ruthless when it came to using those around him and discarding them as soon as his interest waned.

But those who ‘get’ Apple largely appreciate that while Steve Jobs was a flawed human being, he nevertheless had a colossal effect on the way millions of people around the world live their lives, debatably more so than anyone else in his industry.

Becoming Steve Jobs is the second but by far the most interesting major biography of Jobs to appear since he died in 2011. The first, Walter Isaacson’s ‘Steve Jobs,’ was authorised by Jobs himself but was largely disappointing. While Isaacson got hours of personal interviews with his subject and was reportedly told that his un-vetted book should be a warts and all dissection of Jobs’ life, it failed to get under the skin of why Jobs and his company have endured.

In contrast, Becoming Steve Jobs delivers in spades what Isaacson’s significantly thicker work didn’t. In particular people interested in the intersection between Job’s personality — his strengths, weaknesses, successes and failures – and the success of his company will find this a fascinating read.

Whereas Apple design guru Jony Ive didn’t take part in Isaacson’s book and was subsequently quoted as saying his regard “couldn’t be lower” for the book, he was extensively interviewed for Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli’s book, as was Tim Cook, Bill Gates and Job’s widow Laurene Powell Jobs.

The resulting book has as good a claim as any to be a semi-official official Apple-endorsed account of its founder’s life and influence on the company. Schlender and Tetzeli trace Jobs’ life, starting with his pivotal early relationship with initial Apple partner Steve Wozniak and their first meeting in 1971 to the creation of the first Apple computer in 1976 in the Jobs’ family Palo Alto garage.

From there, the book covers the major episodes in Jobs career and life, from Apple’s earliest days to Job’s early mistakes and steep learning curve as a business leader, culminating in his notorious sacking from the company he helped found in 1985.

This book goes into much more detail on the founding of NeXT and Job’s acquisition of Pixar in 1986 than Isaacson’s book does, and in the process rounds out the story of how Jobs coped with this period of his life when he seems to have largely felt as if he had been cast into the abyss. His subsequent return to Apple in 1996 is extensively documented, as is the manner in which he brought the company from near bankruptcy to profitability in just two years.

In his second stint at the head of Apple, Jobs oversaw the introduction of the iMac, iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad as well as introducing Apple’s high street network of stores and creating the iTunes store and App store.

At the heart of Schlender and Tatzeli’s book is the central thesis that Jobs was never really about the technology he sold. In particular, once he returned to Apple he cultivated a level of detachment from the company’s products that allowed him to constantly focus on the next thing.

At a time when the IT world was largely obsessed with processor speeds and storage capacity, from the early 1990s onwards, he understood that what really mattered and continues to matter is the user experience. The average person on the street doesn’t care how their car works, or their phone or laptop for that matter — they only care about how easy it is to use, how reliable it is and what it lets them do.

And this is the point that continues to confound those who don’t understand why the general public queues up on launch day to hand over more money than they need to in order to get the latest Apple gadget. Jobs moved the conversation on past the point of technical specifications and humanised the way people interact with the technology around them.

Schlender first met Jobs in 1986 while working as a journalist for The Wall Street Journal covering Silicon Valley. His relationship with him seems to have been at times close but also complex in nature. The two men maintained contact for over twenty years and at times Jobs took a close interest in his family and personal health.

The closing chapters of the book, dealing with Jobs illness and decline make for an emotional read. It’s clear that Schlender regrets some of his interactions with his subject. Becoming Steve Jobs is an important book for the additional light it sheds on Jobs, his company and his life and it seems likely that part of its success is due to the investment its authors have in getting their story right.

No doubting Thomasina

By Alex Meehan. First published in The Sunday Business Post, April 20th, 2014.

Former Masterchef UK winner Thomasina Miers is very far from typical of her peers.

tommiNine years after her 2005 win she’s one of a very small number of people to actually win the competition and then turn that into a successful food career.

The owner of four Mexican-themed restaurants under the Wahaca brand, she’s published books, fronted TV series for Channel Four and is currently organising a chilli festival to be held in the east end of London called Chilli Chilli Bang Bang.

To say the day job fell by the wayside would be an understatement, but Miers is very clear about what Masterchef brings and what it doesn’t.

“Masterchef really helps if you are already on your mission and know what you want,” she says. “But a win doesn’t guarantee you anything.”

By the time Miers was on the show, she says she knew exactly what she wanted out of it and wasn’t starting from scratch.

“I had already spent a year living in Mexico researching Mexican food and was writing my first book, Soup Kitchen. I knew that I wanted to work in food and I was fully on that path.”

“Gregg Wallace and John Torode saw that this was not just a TV show for me. I had food pulsing through my blood. So I think if you are already at that stage then Masterchef can really push you and give you confidence,” she says.

But she says, winning is no guarantee of anything, and the reality is that anyone hoping to turn a win into a career in food still has all their work ahead of them when the show ends.

“The food world is really tough, it is long hours for not much money. It’s physically very demanding,” she says.

Before her stint on Masterchef, Miers had already graduated from the Ballymaloe Cookery School and she credits the experience of studying with the Allens for a large part of her philosophy on food.

“My real start in food came from meeting Clarissa Dickson Wright when I was 26 and was really kind of struggling to know what to do. She found out that I was totally passionate about food and said ‘well that is what you should be working in then if that is where your passion lies’,” says Miers.

“And she said ‘the first place you need to go is Ballymaloe’.”

Dickson Wright was a friend of Darina Allen’s and made the necessary introductions for Miers. She attended for a three month stint and describes the experience as an epiphany.

“I have cooked since I was six but there I learned more than just recipes. They teach a total philosophy about food, about the importance of food ingredients, about the footprint food has on the Earth, about how things are grown and sourced and how food can be eaten in ways that are completely sustainable and holistic,” she says.

“At Ballymaloe all their food waste goes to their chickens, they compost and there is a complete cycle and really that has informed my whole philosophy and that has stayed with me to today.”

According to Miers, all of her Wahaca restaurants recycle their food waste and have done since the first outlet opened in August 2007. She feels so strongly about this approach to handling food waste that late last year she was involved in organising a one-off food event in London – The Pig Idea – to draw attention to a ban on feeding food waste to pigs, a practice as old as porcine domestication.

“We raised eight pigs on Stepney City Farm over last summer and then last November we served five thousand portions of pulled pork, cassoulet and other porky treats in Trafalgar Square with the proceeds from the pigs,” she says.

Behind the event was the urge to do something to help small pig farmers in the UK, many of whom are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet because of legal restrictions in place since the foot and mouth crisis.

Restrictions on the kinds of waste food that can be feed to pigs is leaving farmers having to rely on soy and other vegetable feeds that are more expensive and mostly have to be imported.

The Pig Idea was to let restaurants and supermarkets sell their food waste to processing plants to be heat-treated in large volumes. This could then be safely, cheaply and sustainably fed to pigs.

“Ballymaloe were one of the backers of that initiative, so I’ve stayed in touch with them all the way through,” she says.

Miers’ extracurricular energies are currently focused on her upcoming Chilli Chilli Bang Bang festival, scheduled for May 9th and 10th in Dalston.

Celebrating all things fiery hot, this event involves chef demos, chilli-based street food from around the world, a spice market, a hot sauce deli and chilli tequila cocktails.

“We’re expecting around 5,000 people and we’ll have food from around the world with chilli in it as well as demos from chefs like Giorgio Locatelli, Sam Clark from Moro, Gizzi Erskine, Atul Kochhar – lots of people actually,” she says.

“I also have a new book due out– Chilli Notes – which focuses on chilli recipe from around the world.”

Chilli is an unusual food in that it’s hard to think of another ingredient, with the possible exception of truffles, that gets so fetishised. People can and do spend years developing the perfect chilli recipe and chilli competitions are common in the US.

Miers isn’t surprised by this, insisting that the humble chilli is in a class of its own as an ingredient.

“Well, they are pretty magical fruit. They are an analgesic and anti-diuretic and anti-carcinogenic and of course a good chilli hit releases lots of endorphins so they make you feel good. You get a kind of mini-high,” she says.

“But not only do they make you feel good they are good for you in other ways. If you eat a lot of chillies your metabolism speeds up and generally will work faster and I know some people who advocate them for helping to lose weight,” she says.

“There are over 200 varieties of chillies and they all have different kind of flavours and you can use them either dried or fresh. They are incredibly versatile and in my cooking I like to use them to season food. A bit like black pepper, you can just put a touch of chilli in lots of dishes and it just heightens all the flavours.”

Miers says she would like to open a Wahaca branch in Ireland, but it’s still only a theoretical plan. In the meantime, she will be attending the Ballymaloe Literary Festival in May and intends to make the most of the opportunity to visit a country she says is genuinely amongst her favourite.

“When I lived in Ireland I got pretty stuck in and really loved it. I am absolutely passionate about it and the food culture there, so I try to go back as often as I can, at least once a year.”

Incoming . . .

It’s been a while since this blog was updated so I shall start adding content again from today, starting with some food journalism. Hope you’re hungry.

Kevin Thornton’s Consuming Passions

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.

thorntonHis 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.