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.

Lullaby 1989

Someone sent me a link to this earlier today and watching it again for the first time in 24 years sent shivers down my spine.

I remember this being broadcast back in 1989 – I couldn’t tell you why but I was absolutely captivated. Robert Smith so perfectly captured the sense of alienation and difference that people like me felt. Amazing and spine tingling. It’s still amazing to me that they entered into the mainstream so successfully despite being really really odd. Hard to imagine that happening now.

Later in the year that this was broadcast, I managed to nag my sister Ruth into bringing me to my first concert when the Cure played the RDS. I think I still have the ticket stub somewhere.

It’s common to hear musicians like Robert Smith talk about how significant a moment it was when they first saw Bowie on Top of The Pops as Ziggy in 1972. For me, this was just as significant a moment.

Your name sir?

[RANT ON] Why is it tech companies insist on calling themselves names that start with lower case letters and then go on to include symbols that don’t mean anything? Okay, for a while in the 90s that was kind of fashionable, but why would you include a symbol in your name that isn’t actually phonetically pronounceable?

Bizarre. [/RANT OFF]

HFW asks ‘where does your food come from and do you care?’

By Alex Meehan. First published in The Sunday Business Post, February 17th, 2013.

“We don’t question the provenance of our food enough and how meat, chicken and fish find their way into the food chain has become no more controversial than how, say, a tin of beans or a loaf of sliced bread is made and that’s not right.”

026Sitting down to chat with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is never boring. A fervent believer in the role of good food in the lives of healthy people, he’s just at home talking about lightweight projects like his Three Good Things book as he is talking about complex food politics.

With over 21 cookbooks, multiple TV series, two restaurants and a cookery school to his name, the predominantly self-taught cook has pulled off one of the most difficult transitions in television – from light entertainment to current affairs.

His campaigning efforts to engage the public in the politics of food have forced supermarket chains to sit up and take notice and in the process, he’s become the poster boy for food with a social conscience. His efforts have focussed the public’s awareness on the importance of traceability, ethics and sustainability in the food chain.

With the horse meat scandal fresh in the memories of Irish consumers, it seems his ideas are as timely as ever.

“The big problem with our relationship with our food is that it’s changed so much. The industrialisation of meat production and the commodification of meat has turned it from something that is precious into processed product that we take for granted when really we shouldn’t,” he says.

The uneasy relationships that exist where big business and consumer interests collide has been a rich source of inspiration for Fearnley-Whittingstall. His campaigns have seen him take on the poultry industry in his Chicken Out TV series, while his Fish Fight series looked at the EU-driven directive that obliged fishermen to discard huge amounts of fish.

These efforts have brought the TV cook to a new kind of audience. But at the same time, it’s opened him up to a barrage of criticism.

HFW“There are some questions that just asking can make you very unpopular,” he says. “But there’s a huge ethical dimension to eating meat, and that’s something I’ve tried to confront head on.

The Chicken Out programme focussed on the plight of intensively farmed chickens and ultimately resulted in modest but significant changes in the percentage of free range chickens offered for sale in Ireland and the UK.

“That campaign certainly annoyed some people and they’ve had a fairly easy comeback — ‘who’s he to tell us what to eat? He’s a posh boy who’s made lots of money from his TV shows and books — he can afford to eat what he likes.’.”

“There are a couple of ways to answer that argument. The first is that I don’t think I’ve ever told people what to eat. All I’ve really tried to do is tell people how their food is being produced and then they can make the decision about whether they want to eat it or not,” he says.

“People will also sometimes say that factory farming is here to stay because we need cheap meat. Well, I’m afraid we patently don’t — vegetarianism is an option.”

Critics of the cook say that arguing that meat production should be exclusively free range is an elitist point of view. Not everyone can afford to pay for a free range chicken, and with many families on seriously reduced budgets, intensively farmed meat is an unavoidable consequence of recessionary times.

1344951110-hffw_tourBut Fearnley-Whittingstall feels this is a kind of straw man argument because eating ethically produced meat isn’t necessarily a matter of cost.

“You can’t duck the ethical question by defaulting to the economic argument,” he says.

“Of course, you can be accused of elitism if you can afford good meat, but meat is something I think we should only really be eating occasionally. It’s perfectly possible to eat a healthy and interesting diet that features meat occasionally rather than every day at every meal.”

“Also, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t make it okay to cause animals pain and suffering that their meat is then very cheap.”

Extrapolating out the line of thinking, he says that there may be a demand for lots of cheap meat and people willing to fulfil that demand might be able to run profitable businesses on a large scale but that doesn’t make it okay.

“In the end I guess what bothers me is that the poultry business has been a fairly secret industry. If it’s an open industry and consumers make their decisions in the full knowledge of the facts, then I’m not going to argue with them. “

“The poultry industry in particular has traditionally been very closed to scrutiny. There was barbed wire around the farms that was meant to keep people out rather than chickens in. It was very hard to get access to film – next to impossible. Luckily we were able to find some more enlightened people in the industry who were willing to let us in.”

The resulting TV show had a concrete effect on consumption patterns, proving that it’s not when it comes to food politics, things aren’t as set in stone as they might seem.

“The statistics are different now. Before the campaign less than 5 per cent of poultry purchased in supermarkets in the UK was in any meaningful sense higher welfare. Now that’s pushing 15 per cent. Not all of that is free range but there has been a particularly big jump in the amount of indoor-produced RSPCA freedom foods poultry. Also, the whole industry has been looking more at breed selection in an effort to reduce mortality.”

“What happened with that campaign is that we made a significant number of life-long converts to either free range or higher welfare forms of chicken, and maybe a few fair weather converts as well. I’m pleased with that. I’d like it to have gone a lot further – we’re still looking at 85 per cent of poultry production being intensive in nature, but we made a difference.”

Fearnley-Whittingstall’s current TV project is a follow up to his 2011 Fish Fight series, entitled Fish Fight: Save Our Seas. That series succeeded in having the wasteful discard system banned by MEPs but this time he is attempting to tackle the issue of over fishing, the lofty ambition behind the campaign is to have new areas of marine protection declared around the world in order to protect fish stocks.

At a local level, he believes Irish consumers can do their bit to help manage our seas, starting with supporting local fishermen.

“One thing we can all do is this: we’ve got to stop hammering the same old species of fish over and over again. We need to diversify our tastes and spread our consumption over a range of sustainable fish, and not keep going for cod, farmed salmon, tinned tuna and prawns,” he says.

“Those four species make up over 80 per cent of all the fish we eat and you just know that’s not right when you hear that statistic. There is no easy answer here but if you live near the coast please support your local fishermen. Buy direct whenever you can and try to buy fish that’s landed near you and try to know where your fish comes from.”

Three Good Things – on a plate is published by Bloomsbury and is in the shops now, priced €36.50, while Fish Fight: Save Our Seas started February 14th and is broadcast on Channel 4 each Thursday evening at 9pm.

Eckhart Tolle at Google.

An interesting discussion with Eckhart Tolle at Google. In particular, I like his thoughts on the difference between information and wisdom in a digital age.

Tolle is an interesting man. Some of his ideas lean towards the pseudo-scientific, but the main thrust of his teachings on mindful living are extremely useful, and far outweigh any of the negatives. At least for me — your mileage may, as they say, vary.

The Italian Job: Gennaro Contaldo

By Alex Meehan. First published in The Sunday Business Post, February 17th, 2013.

IMG_2213Gennaro Contaldo is one of the most recognisable faces in the food world. A respected chef in his own right, he’s appeared in multiple TV series, written award winning food books and run successful restaurants but is still best known as mentor to TV’s reigning culinary giant Jamie Oliver.

In Dublin for a routine staff meeting at Jamie’s Italian in Dundrum, he’s taking the chefs through their paces, working on specials and making sure things are as they should be – this is his role in the chain and with more than 30 restaurants to look over, he spends a lot of time on the road.

On the morning I visit to interview him, it’s clear it’s a hands-on position – Trevor Oliver, Jamie’s Dad, and Contaldo address the floor staff together and work in the kitchen while Irish business partner Gerry Fitzpatrick looks on. The morning takes an immediate turn for the surreal when instead of a sit-down interview, he insists we need to get into the kitchen first.

He soon has me ricing potatoes to prepare potato gnocchi while he whips up two different sauces to go with our lunch. In five minutes flat, he’s prepared fresh gnocchi with smoked mozzarella, tomatoes, chilli, garlic and basil and a separate gnocchi dish with butternut squash, rosemary and garlic.

And just because the restaurant received an order of great looking giant Amalfi lemons that morning, he finishes with a linguine dish dressed with lemons and pecorino cheese.

“I started work in the kitchen at the age of about 10. My father was a linen dealer and I ended up in the kitchen by mistake. He had a good friend, Alfonzo, who had a restaurant in the next town to where we lived and one day he was called away and dropped me off there to be looked after,” he says.

“I was only meant to stay for the afternoon, but three years later I was still rushing there after school and on the holidays to learn as much as I could. I wanted to learn it all and the first thing I learned was to shut up and listen.”

IMG_2258
Contaldo comes across as a really genuine guy, and is exactly the same in person as he is on TV. He’s been living in the UK for over 40 years, yet he retains a charmingly dense Italian accent. However life wasn’t simple for the young chef when he arrived in the UK in the late 1960s.

With many years of professional cooking under his belt, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of regional Italian cuisine, he expected to hit the ground running, cooking the dishes he knew and loved from home. But there were problems when he got his first job as a chef in London.

“There were dishes on the menu that didn’t exist in Italy and there were also dishes that were completely different even though they had the same names,” he says.

“I worked in a restaurant bang in the middle of Mayfair and on my first day I was asked to make a spaghetti carbonara – ‘easy’ I thought, ‘I know this’. By then I’d been all over Italy and I knew my job upside down and inside out. But the head chef said ‘can I show you how we make it?’ I said ‘of course’ and I couldn’t believe my eyes when he started to make a béchamel sauce and then started adding cheese.”

Béchamel sauce is made with butter, flour and milk but proper spaghetti carbonara uses none of these – it’s made with raw beaten egg, using the residual heat in cooked pasta to cook the egg into a creamy silky sauce – no Italian worth their salt adds cream or uses a béchamel type of sauce in a proper carbonara.

“It was awful, just disgusting. But it got worse – after he’d made this gloopy thick sauce, he added it to spaghetti which was pre-boiled. They used to cook all the pasta for the restaurant in advance and then reheat it when the orders came in. I couldn’t believe it.”

“It was so far from authentic Italian cuisine I didn’t know what to say. I tried to argue with the guy but all he’d say was ‘this is how the customers want it’ but I couldn’t bring myself to cook such rubbish. They fired me on the spot.”

IMG_2263Contaldo says this approach to Italian cooking was common in the 1970s and the food served in many restaurants of the day bore little resemblance to that found in Italy.

“That was very common at the time. Many of the Italian people who turned up in the UK and decided to open restaurants weren’t necessarily great cooks. They improvised and made-up what they didn’t know,” says Contaldo.

Things have moved on enormously in Ireland and the UK, he believes, but even now it can be hard to find truly authentic Italian food.

“What’s changed since the 1970s is that now people travel a lot more. More and more Irish and English people have visited Italy and realise that what was being served at home isn’t the same as what was being served in Italy. Their tastes have changed.”

“It also started to become a lot easier to get quality ingredients. I remember when you could only buy olive oil in a pharmacy– it was used for cleaning out your ears,” he says. “Now you can get extra virgin olive oil everywhere.”

Recovering from his disastrous start, Contaldo went on to have a successful career in London, working with respected Italian chef Antonio Carluccio and later, co-owning his own influential restaurant Passione.

“I worked with Antonio for a long time – he’s a fantastic chef. We offered London customers much more authentic traditional dishes and pretty soon, we started to see these versions of our dishes appearing on other Italian restaurant menus. But for a long time, it was hard work,” he says.

In Ireland Contaldo is best known for his TV work with Carluccio and with his protégé Jamie Oliver. He’s been involved in the Jamie’s Italian chain since it launched in 2008. Oliver turned up on Contaldo’s doorstep as a teenager looking for work, having asked around and being told that Carluccio’s Neal Street restaurant was the best in London.

Contaldo is philosophical about the meeting – it wasn’t unusual for young chefs to appear at the back door looking for work but he would send them away to apply at the restaurant’s office. Something about the teenager’s sincerity impressed him however, and Contaldo took him on. Oliver did a stint as a pastry chef before moving on to the River Café as a sous chef.

“Jamie comes from a humble family. His dad Trevor was a chef with his own pub, and Jamie grew up in the kitchen with his dad. But when he was 14 or 15, he decided to go down to London, to improve his skills and to bring them back to the family pub. He went to catering college but at the time cooking training emphasised French food much more than Italian.”

“But Jamie decided he wanted to focus on Italy. It’s the simplicity that got him – it’s not so sauce based and there’s nowhere to hide if you make a mistake. It’s quick and it’s based around quality produce,” he says.

“So one morning at 7am he knocked on my door. I looked at him and to be honest I was pretty annoyed. I’d been in work until late the night before and was back in at the crack of dawn, so I was tired and a bit irritable. He had a mop of curly blonde hair and looked a quarter of his age.”

“He had a spark, something about him. I wanted to teach him because I thought he had something. He asked lots of questions, people liked him and he clicked. After two or three weeks, he was doing everything. He was the first in and last out every day and he worked hard.”

Twenty years later the pair are working together again. Contaldo works full time with the Jamie’s Italian chain  and the pair have perhaps the most unlikely friendship and partnership in the food industry. Contaldo says at 64 he’s twice Oliver’s age yet the two have never had a significant disagreement and that their business relationship hasn’t damaged their friendship — he works “with Jamie for us.”

Meanwhile, the Jamie’s Italian juggernaut shows no signs of slowing. There are already more than 30 restaurants in the chain with one in Ireland in Dundrum, and plans to open more in Perth in Australia, St Petersburg and VivoCity in Singapore, as well as more in the UK in 2013 alone.

“I have the freedom to do whatever I want. I travel to all the restaurants constantly, looking at the specials and helping each of the restaurants solve the problems that they need help and advice for. I cook a lot – I get behind the stove as often as possible,” he says.

“I get tired obviously – after two or three hours hard graft I’m done but the younger guys and girls, the 25 year olds, can go and go just like I did when I was their age.”

“We do sourcing all the time. It’s a matter of love and passion, searching for the best local produce for each restaurant. Here in Ireland, you have the most amazing meat, great beef and lamb. Sure, you don’t have lemons or olive oil, but as much as possible we used local ingredients and in Ireland you genuinely have some of the best produce in the world. The fish here is great, you have the best fish.”

“There are some things – prosciutto, mozzarella, olive oil, lemons – that have to come from Italy, but as much as possible we work locally.”

iOS 7: first impressions

So I’ve been using iOS7 on my phone for the last two days and thought I’d post something about it.photo

Firstly though, some people will want to know how I have it now when it was barely announced this week and isn’t available to the public until the autumn.

I don’t actually actually have ‘it’ because nobody does, outside Apple itself. What I have is a pre-release beta version. Apple released this build to developers this week so that they can get working on apps that will complement the operating system well in advance.

And actually, anyone can have it now. You just have to register with Apple as an app developer. It costs around €80 and then you can download and install it. Doing so entails a certain risk because by definition beta software isn’t fully finished.

However in this case, the ios7 beta seems pretty stable to me. There are one or two niggling little things that are obviously not quite right, but to all intents and purposes, it works properly and all the functions seem ready to go.

Because it’s beta software, it’s not really fair to write a review of it. Any review published now doesn’t reflect the experience that customers will have when they download the finished version later this year.photo 2

But I do think I can give an opinion, with the caveat that I won’t mention something about it which I feel is likely to be fixed by the time it appears. First impressions? It’s fantastic. A really great operating system that is substantially different in look and feel from iOS6.

Some things will take some getting used to. For instance, the colour scheme is challenging at first. I think it’s no coincidence that Apple has used a white phone in all its promo videos as the colours it’s using now for its flagship app icons look better with that body colour.

Undoubtedly lots of people will be turned off by the bold use of colour and typography, but please remember that Apple was faced with an impossible task here. This operating system is used by so many millions of people that it’s not unfair to say that almost everyone is familiar with it. How do you make a product that makes everyone happy?

photo 1You can’t really. If you’re clever you try to make a product that makes you happy and you hope that this is acceptable to enough people that it’s a success. I think that with iOS 7 Apple has decided not to be all things to all people, and that’s to be lauded. Some people will be put off by the look of it, but you know what, it grows on you.

I looked at my wife’s iPhone 4 next to my iPhone 5 last night to compare the two, and when you see them together, iOS6 looks old fashioned, heavy and clumsy. iOS 7 looks light and vibrant and modern.

Will it age well? We’ll have to see but for now I can’t see myself uninstalling this for iOS 6.

The SBP, onwards and upwards.

As I’m sure most media-watchers in Ireland are aware, the Sunday Business Post newspaper recently exited an examinership process. The court appointed examiner from Grant Thornton managed to find a new owner for the company and has secured its future in the short to medium term.

Today, the creditor’s meeting was held at which people owed money by the paper would find out how much they would actually get. As is normal with such things, the Revenue Commissioners and Dublin City Council got all their money, while lesser creditors of various classes got proportionally less.

As a freelance journalist who works with the Sunday Business Post a lot, it looks like I will get 15 per cent of what I’m actually owed. (For a variety of reasons, I actually hadn’t written that much for the paper in the period concerned, so I wasn’t owed that much. It was still a sizable sum of money but less than some are owed and more than others.)

One part of me can’t help but feel an injustice at not getting fairly paid for work that was done and delivered to a high level of professionalism . . . but another part is just extremely glad that the paper is surviving.

If my contribution to its survival is a couple of hundred euro, then I think that’s a price that’s well worth paying and I’m happy to pay it.

The Sunday Business Post is staffed by a great group of people and has broken some fantastic stories over the years. I’ve worked for it for approximately 19 years and think it’s a genuinely important fixture in the Irish media world.

We would be poorer off as a society without it.

Onwards and upwards.