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

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

Catching up & soundbites . . .

It’s been a busy couple of months, and as a result the blog has suffered. As a professional writer, blogging is something I only really do if I’m not busy – (the last thing I want to do after a long day writing is write more.) Anyway, with Christmas approaching, I’ve got some down time, so I’m going to post a bit more here.

To start with, here are some clips of interviews I’ve done recently that people might be interested in.

Nick Landers of the FT, on the rise of the celebrity chef

Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall, on cutting his hair

Nigella Lawson, on her love of potatoes.

Like most journalists, I record as much as possible when interviewing people. This makes transcribing interview notes much easier, and also means that I can be sure I’ve represented my interview subjects properly. I’ve been doing this for years, and have enormous amounts of audio data on my main work PC. It only recently occured to me that people might be interested in hearing snippets from there. Most of these are tounge-in-cheek excerpts, but if people are interested then I will consider posting fuller versions of these interviews.

Let’s Go Disco – the launch

So on Wednesday night we had the launch of Let’s Go Disco, with a party at the Cliff Townhouse on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. Excuse me in advance, but there will quite a few superlatives in this blog post – I don’t see a way around them, and if you can’t express pride at a book launch for a book your very proud of, then when can you?

Around 130 people squashed into the dining room of the Townhouse, quaffed saffron-flavoured prosecco, Hendricks gin and tonics made with juniper-flavoured ice cubes and canapés drawn from the recipes in the book. Three large plasma screens showed off high definition pictures from the book, as well as the video clip Shane O’Neill made especially for the occasion, and the book was officially launched by guest of honour Derek Bulmer.

Adriaan Bartels, general manager of the Cliffhouse Hotel in Ardmore gave the introduction, Martijn gave a touching speech about the project and the importance of the team that lie at the heart of the House Restaurant and expressed sadness that James Rehill couldn’t be there to enjoy the evening with his colleagues.

The speeches were then finished off by the legendary Derek Bulmer. For people who don’t know who Derek is, he was the editor in chief of the Michelin Guide for the UK and Ireland for twelve years and worked as an inspector with the Guide for over 30 years. He’s the guy who decided on giving – and taking away – the much coveted stars that mean so much for the chefs and restaurants that have them. Think of any of the big names chefs in the UK or Ireland – the Hestons and Gordons of this world – he’s the guy who had the final say on awarding them their stars.

Michelin is an intriguing institution, and at a time when there seems to be a new restaurant awards taking place every month, the Guide still has a special place. I got a chance to chat to Derek for quite a while, and I could easily see how he was able to maintain his anonymity for so long – he’s a delightful, charming and totally unprepossessing guy. I would never have guessed who he was.

We are very grateful that Derek agreed to write the foreword to Let’s Go Disco, as it’s the first time he’s done that. Since he retired from the Guide two years ago, he’s been free to talk about his experiences and give interviews but amazingly he said nobody else had asked him to write a foreword.

In his speech he talked at length about his experiences in Ireland, as he came here three times a year for twenty years, racking up significant mileage driving around Ireland and dining incognito. He maintains a fondness for this country and had some very interesting things to say.

So that’s it, the book has been launched and is available to buy. I’ve updated the page on my website dedicated to the book with some photos and details on where it can be bought – for the record you can get it at receiption at the Townhouse in Dublin and the Cliffhouse in Ardmore or from the Cliffhouse website here.

Some preview copies of the book went out in digital form a few weeks ago so there will probably be some reviews or comment in the press about it. I’ll post these up as I find them and try to maintain a web presence for the book going forward. On Twitter, the hashtag #letsgodisco has seen a fair bit of activity in the last few days so if you’re interested, you can go check that out.

Otherwise, please buy a copy and enjoy it.

A bluffer’s guide to game

Published in The Sunday Business Post Magazine on September 23rd, 2012. By Alex Meehan
Venison, pheasant, grouse, snipe: for food lovers, the reappearance of game is one of the highlights of autumn. It’s already popping up on restaurant menus around the country and will become a more frequent menu choice over the next couple of weeks.

You can also find wild and farmed game at an increasing of specialist food shops, including Fallon & Byrne on Wicklow Street in Dublin city centre. According to Tom Meenaghan, executive chef in charge of Fallon & Byrne’s restaurant, game is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, most notably because a growing segment of the market is getting back in touch with the idea of seasonality.

“In general, we can now pretty much get whatever we want to eat, whenever we want it and while the convenience of that is great, it takes some of the fun and anticipation out of our diets,” he says.

“But for a lot of people interested in game, the fact that it’s a seasonal product is part of its appeal. They look forward to the season starting and getting more variety in their diets.”

Fallon & Byrne starts to offer game in September and it remains a feature of their butcher’s counter through to the start of February each year. Their game is sourced from Irish estates including Slane Castle and Dromoland Castle, as well as from suppliers in the UK and France.

“We prefer to offer Irish when we can, but it’s typically harder to source. At the start of the season, you tend to pay a little more for game because it’s still scarce so there’s a premium. As more game comes in, supply catches up with demand and it becomes a little cheaper.”

For people interested in preparing game at home but unsure of where to start, Meenaghan offers the following advice.

“First, find a knowledgeable butcher or supplier. The average butcher’s counter in a supermarket won’t want to know if you ask questions so you need someone who will give advice on how to prepare and cook the various kinds of game they offer.”

“Secondly, don’t be afraid to try something new. A lot of people are used to eating the same kinds of meats all the time – lamb, pork, chicken and beef – and have an idea that game is very strongly flavoured but this isn’t necessarily the case,” he says.

While people may have an idea that game needs to be aged to the point of near rancidity, or until ‘high’ as it’s known, the reality is that game typically isn’t aged anywhere near as long as it used to be.

“Venison for example is now usually sold aged only six to ten days – it doesn’t hang around. Traditionally that would have been anything up to three weeks. Same with pheasant, which was traditionally always served ‘high’ but people don’t want that anymore. Tastes change and people like lighter textures and flavours today,” says Meenaghan

Finding a source for truly wild game is often quite difficult, but aficionados insist that going wild is the best way to enjoy a truly Irish eating experience.

“Conventional non-game meats are all produced in a controlled environment, on a farm where their diet and health is strictly controlled. Wild game is just that, wild. It’s not held in captivity and can roam and fly wherever it wants,” says Michael Healy of Wild Irish Game, a supplier of wild game to the Irish retail and restaurant trade.

“Their diet is whatever they can forage for themselves. Deer in the mountains for example eat a diet which is as close to organic as you can get. Obviously, it’s not certified that way because they can roam onto farm lands and eat crops which aren’t organic, but they’re as close as makes no difference.”

“They eat an extremely natural diet. The same with wild birds — pigeons feed on berries for part of the year then move onto clover and right now they’re feeding mostly off standing crops and grains,” he says.

Healy doesn’t hunt himself, saying he has no interest in shooting animals for sport and that his business is strictly food orientated. He has spent 20 years building up a network of suppliers who meet Irish and European legal and food standards.

“Most of our game comes from Wicklow – almost every game species appears in abundance in Wicklow with the exception of woodcock and snipe which are more widespread on the west coast of Ireland. We buy from commercial producers such as pheasant and wild duck produced on large estates, from individual hunters and from state parks such as from the Wicklow Mountains National Park and from Coillte when it culls to control deer numbers.”

According to Healy, the modern market for game was helped a lot by the boom years of the Celtic tiger, when game was widely served in Irish restaurants. While demand has slowed compared to then, it’s still growing.

“We still see a lot of game sold in restaurants, particularly the better ones, and we’re seeing retail demand driven by retail outlets in Dublin like Donnybrook Fair, Cavistons in Glasthule, Molloys in Donnybrook, Lawlors in Rathmines, Buckley’s in Moore St and so on. Superquinn also stocks our game in the run up to Christmas.”

When it comes to cooking, Fallon & Byrne’s Tom Meenaghan suggests that venison is the easiest game meat for the complete beginner.

“The thing to remember with venison, and with most game in fact, is that it’s very low in fat. That makes it super healthy but it has a drawback for the chef – you can’t overcook it or it will dry right out. It has to be served medium rare, or cooked in a liquid to keep it moist.”

“Loin of venison is easy to cook but it can be very expensive – comparable to fillet of beef. Instead, start with a slow cooked haunch of venison or a venison stew. Make a stew in the same way you might make a beef stew – with onions, carrots, red wine and mushrooms but use venison instead of beef and perhaps add in some juniper berries, which go particularly well with venison. You could even marinate the venison in red wine for a couple of days first to make it really tender,” he says.

When it comes to game birds, a key technique to remember is that layering strips of bacon on top of the birds can provide some extra fat to keep the breasts moist. Like all poultry, it’s usually better to detach the legs and cook them separately as they tend to require a little more time.

“Game birds tend to have very thin skins and not much fat content, so it can be hard to get the breast meat just right.”

The two classic ways or preparing game birds includes confiting them and roasting them. Because of the low fat content, slow cooking pheasant in goose fat produces a meltingly tender texture to the flesh. This can then be crisped up before serving in a pan for a really tasty dish.

“You can also roast game birds very successful. We do it in the restaurant by popping the whole birds into a pan breast-side down with a bit of oil and a knob of butter and searing them off for a few minutes on each breast. This takes four or five minutes, then you turn them right-side up again and put the pan into the oven.”

“After 15 or 20 minutes, depending on the size of the birds you take them out, detach the legs and put them back in while the meat rests. Small pigeons take only five or maybe eight minutes from start to finish with this method, because you can serve them rare. Pheasant needs to be cooked a bit more but needs to be moist. “

The classic accompaniments for game include all the things associated with the autumn and winter larder – root vegetables roasted or mashed, potatoes and celeriac and fruit based sauces such as plum or cranberry all work very well.

PANEL: What’s in season?

From August to early February – snipe
From early September to early February – venison
From early September to early February – partridge
From September to late January – wild duck
From September to late February – wild hare
From early September to late January – grouse

From late September to early February – woodcock
From early October to early February – pheasant

PANEL: Matching game to wine
By David Gallagher, Fallon & Byrne sommelier

Grouse or woodcock have a very strong, gamey-flavour that can cope with a full-flavoured red wine. Just avoid big tannic wines. A Northern Rhône wine such as Yves Cuilleron’s St Joseph (€32.95) would be a great match.

Wild Mallard duck has far more flavour than your average duck and so it needs a more flavoursome wine to match. An Australian Shiraz such as the delicious Turkey Flat Shiraz, Grenache, Mouvedre from the Barossa Valley (€29.95) should fit the bill.

Roast pheasant works very well with light, fruity varieties like pinot noir, especially those from North America or New Zealand. A delicious match would be the juicy Firesteed Pinot Noir from Oregon, USA (€20.95).

Venison is rich with a gamey flavour but is very lean. If you are roasting it try a red Burgundy such as the Givry Champ Nalot (€22.95) or if you are using it in a casserole, a beefier wine such as French Malbec like Cedre Heritage (€13.95) would work a treat. If you want to spoil yourself try the Chateau Du Cedre (€21.95).

Rabbit is normally paired with a lighter red such as a Côtes du Rhône, Chinon or Beaujolais, but something liked jugged rabbit can take a stronger flavour well. Try Alpha Zeta “A” Amarone (€31.95).

Guinea fowl is dark and more flavoursome than chicken, with a slight gamey taste. A rich, creamy white burgundy such as Olivier Leflaive’s St Romain (€28.95) is probably the best match.

Quail is a delicate bird with a fuller flavour that your average chicken, again this would be best with a full bodied white, this time why not try a good basic Bourgogne Blanc from Vincent Girardin (€18.95).