Veganism Cost Me Dream Job

Veganism Cost Me Dream Job

By 2009 I was ‘tripping the light fantastic’ as a journalist in the UK. I had landed a gig reviewing restaurants for the Spectator Magazine that once involved flying on a four-seater jet to France to sample the full range of Courvoisier’s Cognac. But as much as I reveled in luxurious dining a sense of guilt gnawed at the inequalities all too apparent on the streets of London: leaving the warmth of gastronomic hot spots, human misery was there for anyone to see.

Interrogating the environmental impact of the global food industry gave me further grounds for concern. In particular, Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma opened my eyes to the damage done by industrial farming, especially of livestock. Anyway, beneath a veneer of glamour I was being paid pittance for my writing, and with an increasingly threadbare wardrobe I was looking for a way home to Ireland.

On the back of teaching experience, and articles that were offering a more scholarly angle on food, I was given an opportunity to teach a course in UCD on the history of food. I also managed to get in on reviewing Irish restaurants for a well-known publication. The more I learnt the more my unease grew with the way the Irish food ‘story’ was being communicated through the media.

So six years ago I decided to quit eating meat. But in order to keep going as a restaurant reviewer – arbitrarily I see now – I continued occasionally consuming dairy products. I managed to get through a few reviews by carefully selecting restaurants with plenty of vegetarian options at a time when there were still no exclusively vegan restaurants in Dublin. But my decision came to a head when I visited Aniar in Galway which purports to present a menu based almost exclusively on Irish ingredients. Their head chef J.P. McMahon is a columnist for the meat-promoting Irish Times Magazine.

By then I had almost completely excluded dairy, and after the meal in Aniar I developed a sickness in my body, which reflected the unease of my soul. So I decided to assert the harsh truth: ‘In recent times native chefs have begun to forge an awareness of the best of Irish, but the gastronomic limitations of our agriculture which places focus on a limited number of commodities, mostly for export, is apparent.’ I then let slip that I had already given up meat and fish.

It is fair to say that my review got a bit caustic after that. I said chefs should not confuse vegetarians with ascetics, and that the lesser caloric value of most plants means that portions should, if anything, be larger than their meat and fish alternatives. I complained that I had received sufficient barley to thread a pearl necklace, which at €18.50 seemed pretty steep.

After filing the review I got no reply from the editor, and was saddled with the expenses from the outing. I did later recover them when my sister, a fellow journalist, met the editor of the magazine, still a well-known food writer, and demanded I should be paid.

It was a form of liberation to be able to write without fear of losing that little sinecure, and I was free to adopt a fully Vegan diet, or philosophy to put it more accurately. I could then let fly with a series of articles drawing attention to the grave damage that Irish farming is doing to our environment.

Not long afterwards I lost my job in UCD. I have no idea whether this had anything to do with my increasingly radical critique of Irish food and farming. So I had to develop career alternatives after that.

Over five years have passed since then, and I have passed through a number of stages as a Vegan. First came self-righteousness. The first Christmas I went to war with the rest of my family over having a turkey on the table. I reduced one of my sisters to tears, and even refused to sit down with them for the meal. It wasn’t pretty, and I realised that approach did nothing to advance my cause.

Next came evangelical zeal. I have long been an enthusiastic cook, so having worked out a number of interesting recipes I began hosting concerts in my parent’s home accompanied by suppers. I hope I opened up a few minds to the possibility of making really delicious meals purely from plant-based ingredients. Some incredible Irish musicians performed in the house, including the late great Louis Stewart – a short film was made of his first concernt. I went on to organise national tours for another band the Loafing Heroes who played in the house.

New interests arrived, and I passed into another stage that of Denial. I no longer wanted to be associated with Veganism, even though I maintained the philosophy, and the hours slaving in the kitchen for little reward brought little satisfaction. I had had enough of being the evangelist and moved to Prague for a year to focus on other writing and teaching.

Having returned to Dublin the stage I have entered is a more integrated form I call Acceptance. I no longer see attitudes to Veganism as a moral index – there are many other worthy causes – but I still earnestly wish that more would adopt the abolitionist philosophy, for the sake of the billions of domesticated animals cruelly incarcerated, and the damage animal agriculture does to the environment, not to mention human health.

Not long ago, a friend who recently converted to Veganism said something quite telling to me: ‘I would have gone Vegan ages ago, but I felt like you would have won the argument’. It shows that it is not good enough simply to win an argument. Everyone should hold on to their principles, but we can accept that even close friends and family may need time to adjust their moral lenses. You don’t need to give up the fight, but don’t target individuals for systemic failings.

Dining in Dublin: the good, the bad and the inedible

(Lecture delivered in the Little Museum of Dublin, December 2013)

We humans put a lot of store in food and its symbolic value. In fact our picky and refined approach distinguishes us from other primates who tend to retreat into a hidden corner to devour their fare.

But modern technology such as televisions, smart phones and tablets seems to be changing this. The anthropologist Jack Goody is scathing of the modern habit of avoiding social engagement while eating. A solitary form of consumption he says reverses the customary habit of ‘public input and private output’, making eating alone ‘the equivalent of shitting publicly’.

For that reason alone, meals are a crucial component in our lives and it is puzzling that the subject of food tends to be ignored in mainstream history. Although that is changing as historians begin to recognize the crucial importance of this univeral component of all human life. As the great gastronome Brillat-Savarin wrote: ‘it is the common bond which unites the nations of the world in reciprocal exchanges of objects serving for daily consumption.’

Indeed, any religious festival or life event that I can think of is marked by a feast or meal of some description. Food is both symbol and nutrition.

It is interesting to consider the origin of the dining table which is ‘descended from the sacrificial altars that were used to make offerings to the gods.’

French sociologist Bernard Kaufmann argues that its presence in the family-home, dating back to the 18th century, helped to produce the modern family, and certainly the arrangement, often hierarchically and in designated positions, of family members around a single table achieves a sense of togetherness that haphazard seating around a room will never achieve. This is played out in almost every restaurant experience.

We turn now to the emergence of the restaurant in eighteenth century France.

Before it gained popularity there was the simple table d’hote where a traiteur would present a large pot to the assembled diners who arrived at the appointed hour. This presented difficulties as agreed conventions were lacking on how diners would participate. The agronomist Arthur Young, travelling around France at the end of the 18th century, bemoaned the rudeness of greedy table-companions in hostelries throughout that country, saying that ‘the ducks were swept clean so quickly that I moved from the table without half a dinner’. An ascending bourgeois class were looking for something more recherché.

The restaurant was originally a place where medicinal broths were consumed and derives its names from the French verb ‘to restore’ or ‘to recuperate’. These originally specialised in medicinal broths.

The bourgeoisie found the experience they sought through the adaptation of the restaurant In her history, The Invention of the Restaurant (2000), Rebecca Sprang recalls how the restaurants of 18th century Paris differentiated themselves from other eateries by offering sustenance at any time of day, allowing for individualised portions in contrast to the traiteurs. Eventually restaurants began to offer more solid fare, thereby encroaching on the traiteurs.

The strict laws regulating the division of business between the different food guilds in France in the 18th century led to friction, culminating in a landmark court case in which the restaurateurs carried the day. This allowed the restaurant-style of eating, ‘characterized not by commonwealth but by compartmentalization’, to emerge as the dominant form of eating-out in the Western world.

Today, European restaurants invariably ‘plate’ each dish before presentation to the individual customer a style known as service a la Russe which replaced the more medieval display of service a la Francaise at the end of the nineteenth century. The elitist quality of the restaurant experience was part of its appeal. Indeed according to Sprang, the ‘restaurant fantasy implicitly required the presence of somebody outside: some poor devil with his nose pressed to the window’.

Thus, for our purposes a restaurant is more than merely an establishment where food is served. It involves the refinements of individual seating and usually separate portions for each individual. It also involves table service. A restaurant is synonymous with French food, though not exclusively. The dominance of French models is definitely apparent in the early history of Dublin restaurants, though this has clearly changed in recent decades.

Apart from the chefs, waiting staff and often indulgent investors, the most important person to a restaurant’s livelihood is the food critic. A bad review can sink a restaurant while praise can bring customers flooding in to the next big thing.

A food critic is also known as a gastronome and the first of this kind was Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière who wrote his Almanach des Gourmands in the wake of the Revolution.

He issued his pronouncements in the name of tradition as a member of the departed ancien regime. The son of a rich farmer-general, in his early life he displayed liberal tendencies but became disillusioned with the new order, condemning ‘everything that is despicable and vile; there in two words you have the Revolution’. He asserts: ‘I will never be the friend of a democrat. It is atrocious that men of letters should think as the majority do today (MacDonogh, 1997, p.203)’. According to his biographer MacDonogh (1987 p.41), he began to write about food after being told to write about something harmless or give up altogether. In this medium he ‘masked his vicious attacks behind harmless idioms’. Gastronomy became a vehicle for his reactionary views. An awareness of ‘good’ food revealed the true aristocrat. After the Revolution he founded what he referred to as a Jury des Degustateurs, and between 1803 and 1812 set about writing his Almanach des Gourmands. The aristocratic display of pre-Revolutionary France could re-emerge in the new forum of the public restaurant.

The gastronome in his most evolved form is not a professional cook. He is a man of letters. His real table is not the one where he eats but the one where he writes. It is with the flourish of the pen that they achieve success rather than through the extent of their knowledge as ultimately the gastronome is not the one who knows the most but the one who speaks best.

Curnonsky, the pen name of the great French food critic Maurice Edmond Sailland who was elected Prince Elect of Gastronomy by Le Soir magazine in 1927 describes the role as follows:

‘There are those who stare with gluttonous resentment, and those who snap impatient fingers at every passing waiter: those who flap huge newspapers in their companions’ faces, and those who shake defiant powder-puffs in their neighbours soup; those who devour bread to repletion, and those who chat so gaily, to the restaurant at large. But there are others, a chosen few who, having developed to a fine degree the study of physiognomy and, coupling this with a skilled pen or pencil, combine their talents in lightning sketches on the tablecloth.’

Pascal Ory poses the question “Does the chef make the gastronome or vice versa?

While it is clear is that culinary evolution is largely independent of gastronomic evaluation, without an audience chefs are unlikely to innovate. Just like if we cook only for ourselves we tend not to perform heroics, a cook without a responsive audience might take a functional approach. But innovation and high standards become an imperative when the food critic is there to evaluate. Even if they have nothing but contempt for the breed, virtuoso chefs usually require the validation of critical approval, and boundaries are only broken when gastronomes are there to describe them as such. More to the point, the imprimatur of the critic brings great rewards. Perhaps unfairly the pen is often mightier than the kitchen knife.

This lecture will thus include a short evaluation of the role of food criticism, restaurant criticism in particular, that elevated the standard of Irish food. Food criticism also serves as a vital primary source for what these Dublin restaurants were like.

Now, turning to the subject matter of the history of Dublin restaurants. What does that conjure in our minds?

I must admit that growing up in a reasonably affluent Dublin household I did not have a huge exposure. We went to restaurants or trattoria when we were on holidays in France or Italy, there might be the odd meal in restaurant like Da Vincenzo for a special occasion or the odd illicit and sometimes regrettable Chinese dinner but there was no recognisable Irish food culture evident in Dublin until the 1990s. Hiberno-French restaurants like Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud’s or Thornton’s were not family restaurants, although somewhere like Roly’s Bistro did create a wider diffusion of French dining habits, albeit at prices that would have excluded most. However, as time went by I did encounter some of the more fashionable restaurants and I even worked in one called Mint whose chef Dylan McGrath became the enfant terrible of the Irish restaurant scene before he became the sympathetic and health-conscious individual we know today: but more of that later.

As you will know Dublin was the second city of the British Empire until end of the eighteenth century. After the Act of Union of 1801 many of the prosperous land owners departed the city and, indeed, by the start of the twentieth century Belfast’s population was greater. But it retained a residual aristocracy and gentry who formed the clientele for the few restaurants that did emerge toward century’s end. However, the absence, into the twentieth century of a significant bourgeois class meant there was little demand for restaurants for those on middling incomes.

It is also perhaps unfortunate for the gastronomic inheritance of this country to be colonised by the English who Voltaire described as being a nation of 42 religions but only two sauces. It is also worth recognising that Ireland was a poor country by European standards in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. The Great Famine was among the most devastating of its kind in human history. Perhaps in response culinary celebration was muted.

There were of course places where food was purchased and consumed prior to the emergence of restaurants; many French chefs had already emigrated to Ireland to work in aristocratic households and gentlemen’s clubs by the time the first recognisable restaurant emerged in Dublin in 1861.

The Café du Paris on Lincoln Place was intriguingly linked to a Turkish baths on the same premises. They advertised both dinners ‘a la carte and table d’hote; choicest wines and liqueurs of all kinds, [and] Ices.

Any history of Dublin restaurants must linger longingly in the shadow of the legendary Jammet’s which was founded by two brothers from the Pyrennes Michel and Francois Jammet in 1901. They purchased the Burlington Restaurant and Oyster Saloon on Andrew’s Street in 1901 and renamed it Jammet’s.

Michel had been chef to the lord lieutenant so knew all about what appealed to the aristocracy whose descendents continued to patronise the establishment until its demise in 1967.

In 1908 Francois Jammet returned to Paris leaving his brother in sole charge until 1927 when he handed the reigns to his Belvedere educated son Louis. By that time it had moved to Nassau Street to the site of the Porterhouse Central where you can bop the night away. We can only imagine how Jammet’s illustrious patrons would feel about that.

One observer from the 1940s describes the interior of the restaurant: ‘the main dining room was pure French second Empire, with a lovely faded patina to the furniture, snow white linens, well cut crystal, monogrammed porcelain, gourmet sized silver-plated cutlery and gleaming decanters.’ It was the hangout for artists and the literary set such as W.B. Yeats and the Michael MacLiommar and Dudley Edwards as well as wealthy professionals and men of commerce.

The family first lived in Queen’s Park, Monkstown but moved to the sixteenth century Kill Abbey in the 1940s. There vegetables were grown for the restaurant a home grown philosophy that we are seeing increasingly in Dublin restaurant’s today.

A 1928 article in Vogue describes Jammet’s as ‘one of Europe’s best restaurants … crowded with gourmets and wits, where the sole and the grouse was divine.’

It was during the years of the Second World War that Jammet’s really came into its own as being the location for the ‘finest French cooking between the fall of France and the liberation of Paris.’ Like other Irish restaurants Jammet’s managed to evade restrictive rationing and serve customers the fare they were accustomed to.

According to one observer ‘American servicemen, cigar-chomping and in full uniform, were streaming across the neutral border to sample the fabulous food in the prodigious quantities available here.’

If Jammet’s was the location for Allied excess another long-established restaurant the Red Bank was the place of Axis intrigue. On April 22nd 1939 the German colony in Ireland celebrated the birthday of Adolf Hitler there. The Irish Times records: ‘A large portrait of Herr Hitler occupied special position in the special decorations. On either side of it were swastikas and every guest wore a swastika or Nazi party badges.’

Disturbingly in May 1940 as the Nazis Blitzkrieged through Europe, the ‘Irish Friends of Germany’ (aka the National Club) held a meeting in the restaurant that was attended by 50 people. George Griffin, veteran anti-Semite and ex Blueshirt, spoke on the subject of the ‘The Jewish Stranglehold on Ireland’. Griffin mentioned many Jews by name and went onto advocate that ‘… we should never pass a Jew on the street without openly insulting him’.

But Jewish émigrés were themselves involved in the restaurant trade and could dish out their own retribution. It is said that revenge is a dish best served cold but for Austrian Jews Erwin and Lisl Strunz from Vienna it could be salty too.

They escaped from Vienna in 1938 and purchased a premises on Merrion Row which they called the Unicorn. They bought it for a song as Irish people thought the premises was haunted because W.B. Yeats had conducted séances there.

Lisl would cook her mainly Austrian dishes while Erwin entertained at the front of house. He reminisced ‘during Christmas 1940 when all the lights had gone out over Europe I played my guitar in the restaurant and sang Christmas carols and folk songs in eight languages.

But not all comers were welcome. When Edouard Hempel and his acolytes from the German legation visited Erwin became apoplectic with rage. But he kept his wits about him and calmly took their orders. Before each plates was delivered he doused each one with enough salt to clear a frosty driveway. Hempel nearly choked and the whole table walked out and never returned.

After the war the Unicorn was sold to an Italian family the Sidoli’s and it brought exotic ingredients like pasta to its Dublin clientele. It also involved females chefs which was unusual for the male dominated profession in Dublin.

Another immigrant who came to Ireland to work in the restaurant trade was Zenon Geldof a Belgian citizen who set up a restaurant called Café Belge. His grandson Bob retained an ambition to feed the world.

Steeped in the haute cuisine tradition of Escoffier Jammet’s continued to prosper after the war when it was joined by other restaurants including The Russell. Mac Con Iomaire argues that on a per capita basis in the 1950s Ireland was the gastronomic capital of the British Isles. Although this may not have been that big an achievement as by the 1950s English food has reached a nadir. Elizabeth David wrote of her experience in one English restaurant of the time: ‘there was no excuse, none, for such unspeakably unpleasant meals as in that dining room were put in front of me. To my agonized homesickness for the sun and southern food was added an embattled rage that we should be asked – and should accept – the endurance of such cooking.’

Standards do not appear to have been that much higher in Ireland. One chef working at that time recalls: ‘The standard of cuisine when I was 14,15,16,-20 was poor. It was very poor. For instance the Clarence Hotel, they used to have pig cheeks on and the clergy used to come in and eat them. Pigs cheeks, and damn it all you’d get was corned beef or some bloody thing.’

Another chef was shocked when he entered one hotel kitchen: ‘It was horrible, it was the dirtiest and filthiest kitchen I had been in my whole life. I don’t know how anyone got away with it! … there were stalagmites of big black fat all around on the floor.’

This may have been because there was no serious critique of Irish restaurants until as late as the 1980s. Farmar suggests that an absolute rule among the Irish middle class in the 1960s was never to talk about food: ‘to enjoy eating as such was unbecoming to a serious person’. He quotes an American commentator who claimed cooking in Ireland was: ‘a necessary chore rather than an artistic ceremony and that in restaurants ‘nine out of ten ordered steak every time with nine out of ten ordering chips with it’(1991: 180-182).

But Dublin certainly did have fine dining establishments that were considered among the best in the world. The Russell was one of only eight restaurants that received three stars from Egon Ronay in 1963. In 1965 he wrote: ‘words fail us in describing the brilliance of the cuisine and the elegant and luxurious restaurant which must rank amongst the best in the world.’

Declan Ryan describes his time working there:

‘They [the Russell] were the greatest shower that God ever made. They fought like devils and they cooked like angels … I don’t think you’d get away with the sort of tactics he must have used on those guys today, but they could cook like magic.’

Egon Ronay was also bewitched by the retro glamour of Jammet’s ‘As if by magic the turn of the century as been fully preserved beyond the swing of the door … Space, grace, the charm of small red leather armcahairs, fin-de-siecle murals and marble oyster counters exude a bygone age. Ritz and Escoffier would feel at home here.’

But Jammet’s was not cheap. When John Lennon dined there in the early 1960s he drew a self-portrait and commented ‘the other three are saving up to come here’.

But by the end of the 1960s Dublin was changing as many of the old ascendancy who had been the patrons of restaurants like Jammets were dying out, and moreover, structural changes were occurring as an emerging bourgeois moved to suburban homes where they acquired motor cars. This jeopardised city centre establishments like Jammet’s which did not have parking facilities and it closed its doors in 1967. Unfortunately its hope of moving out to the suburbs to another premises was not realised. A form of obituary was written in the Irish Times from 1967 read:

‘The Dublin that most of know is changing. In some ways for the best; but in the process so much that gave its special character to the city has been allowed to rot or has been swept away. Rumours that Jammet’s was for sale fitted into the sad story …  it was as old as the oldest Dubliner and it represented the best of its kind when there were much fewer restaurants than it boasts today … Many who read the news of the sale of the restaurant here and abroad will be oppressed with nostalgic regret … M. Jammet [was] formerly chef to Lord Cadogan when the last but one of the expansive Viceroys returned to England. For 67 years Dublin has had evidence of how well that pro-consul did himself and his guests.’

The decade of the 1970s with its high oil prices and wealth taxes dealt a series of body blows to high class Dublin restaurants and emphasised what a precarious enterprise it is. It is instructive that only five restaurants Beaufield Mews (1950), The Unicorn (1938 but moved premises in 1960), Nicos (1964), The Lord Edward (1969) and the Trocadero (1956) date back to before the 1970s.

The 1970s witnessed a swing in gastronomic gravity to County Cork where restaurants like Arbutus Lodge, and Ballylickey and Ballymalloe houses pioneered a locavore approach that brought critical acclaim.

But Dublin still had some famous, some would say notorious, restaurants at this time many of them associated with Charles J. Haughey who despite a ‘flawed pedigree’ was a more devoted gastronome than his political rival Garret FitzGerald who claimed to eat no vegetables bar peas and white asparagus.

The appeal of these haute cuisine restaurants lay in their exclusivity, the sense that when one dined there one entered an elite world where money was no object. One restaurateur of the time was taken by surprise by the demand for fine wine: ‘They were drinking vintage port by the bottle, they were drinking 1952 brandy or Armagnac by the glass and we were just staggered.’

Perhaps this can be explained by how in an era of brown envelopes restaurant bills could always be paid for in cash.

The Mirabeau (1972-1984) in Sandycove will always be associated with its celebrit chef patron Sean Kinsella who drove a Rolls Royce and wore Louis Copeland suits. He counted Haughey as a friend and attended Christmas parties in Kinsealy, Haughey’s mansion home. Kinsella chose not to trouble prospective diners by putting prices on his menus, warning them ‘you can get by on £10 per head in The Mirabeau, but if you have to worry about the prices don’t go there.’

Kinsella describes how his restaurant operated:

‘the waiters would take the food in, in its natural state, and then I’d come in, and I’d say Mr Smith you are having your usual wine’ and he’d say: ‘oh yes Sean’ , the bloke wouldn’t know what I was talking about, but around the table, they would be saying ‘oh, yer man is a regular here’ It was psychological, now I was not going to give him a bottle of plonk and he’s not going to worry if he pays fifty or a hundred pounds for it if he is able to reciprocate the treatment that he got abroad. And then you get the other side of the coin, a chap phones me up and says to me ‘I hope to get engaged tonight’ and I say no problem come around eight, and he says there is only one problem, my fiancé and I only eat burgers’, and I say no problem, so they arrived and I told the waiter ‘don’t give them the menu, give them a bit of melon, and the main course, and give them a bit of dinner. And in the visitors book, he wrote ‘she said, yes’, and wrote ‘I’ll remember the burger’

[We might contrast this approach with the response of one famous chef to the request for a plate of chips.]

[(Optional) Kinsella continues:

‘We made people feel that they were coming into somebody’s home, either Audrey would meet them or I’d meet them … If you were there at two or three in the morning, the chairs were not being put up on the tables around you and would you mind paying your bill at the reception … We built up a relationship with customers, and if we knew a man’s wife was having a baby, Audrey would go down to St. Michael’s … with a bunch of flowers and a bottle of champagne.]

Others were less impressed by the vulgarity of the large portions on offer and unfortunately for Kinsella the revenue commissioners may not been impressed by his rather opaque financial dealings. The restaurant went into voluntary liquidation in 1984.

Another restaurant associated with CJ was The Coq Hardi (1977) on Pembroke Road. It drew its custom from an emerging corporate class and boasted a wine cellar which was voted the best in Britain and Ireland in the Egon Ronay guide at one point. This was an excellent business strategy as wealthy customers could entertain clients with stupendously expensive bottles wines which would be put on expense accounts.

The Moriarty tribunal revealed in 1999 that Haughey accumulated huge bills at the Coq Hardi that came out of the public purse, including one year when £15,000 was spent from the ‘Leader’s Allowance’ in the restaurant.

At one point the former Taoiseach spent £500 on a bottle of 1967 Chateau d’Yquem when dining with a group of guests, who included the wine critic of a major British newspaper.

An ‘apocryphal’ story emerged about CJ treating his Cabinet to dinner at Le Coq Hardi. The then Taoiseach chose beef as his main course and when the waiter asked him “And the vegetables, sir?”, he is said to have replied: “They’ll have the same.”

But a new broom was sweeping through the Dublin restaurant scene at this time in the shape of an acerbic restaurant critic called Helen Lucy Burke.

We have discussed the importance of the critic in improving standards, and also providing critical approval for unnoticed chefs. The culinary standards of Dublin restaurants were not high in the 1970s and 1980s: it was common practice for even expensive restaurants to plate vegetables before service and microwave them when required.

Dublin restaurant did not have to endure informed and sustained criticism until Burke’s arrival on the scene. She began writing for the Sunday Tribune in 1985 and later in Magil magazine.

According to one chef of that time: ‘Lucy Burke was writing and she was causing such mayhem that people began to take notice … She was the one that really led. A lot followed you know.’

Burke recalls that she used to have to wear disguises and put on foreign accents to avoid detection. A legendary article in Magill entitled The Peacock, the Critic and the Blind Pussy revealed how even a successful chef like Conrad Gallagher could fret over Burke’s caustic pen. [the blind pussy in case you are wondering refers to the critic’s pet for whom a doggy bag was requested].

She described the offering in one restaurant in the following terms: ‘my plain green salad was tired before I started to eat it and I too became tired and left it … [while] the toast melba was like damp cardboard.

But she would praise restaurants she felt deserved it, describing one encounter as an ‘exquisite event’ and even thanking God for another restaurant she could conscientiously praise.

A favourable review could have customers streaming through the door and her words were used to advertise establishments in newspapers.

One devotee of Burke’s was CJ himself who apparently put a lot of store in Burke’s appraisals. He once met her at a party and told her that he always went to the restaurants she favourably reviewed.

When Conrad Gallagher (whose real name is Patrick – he took the name Conrad from the famous hotelier Conrad Hilton) opened Peacock Alley in 1995 he had most critics gushing with praise.

His fusion cooking breathed life into the Dublin restaurant scene. He rejected the city’s gastronomic inheritance just as many people were beginning to reject stifling Catholic morality; it is perhaps no coincidence that the right to divorce was passed in a referendum the same year his restaurant opened.

He said: ‘I use light Mediterranean style ingredients like pepper, basil, olive oil and garlic. I don’t like using cream or butter or heavy sauces. I also use Californian ingredients like rocket salad.

But Gallagher’s demise when his financial affairs and hedonism caused his restaurant to come a cropper was perhaps a foretaste for the future demise of the wider economy.

Another restaurant that suffered at the end of the boom was the new Unicorn. The Unicorn was to the noughties what Jammet’s was to the 1930s, the place where the great and good assembled, including literary demi-gods like Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel. Although the standard of its food does not seem to have reached the level of its illustrious predecessor.

Barry Egan wrote a farewell article in 2011

‘Friday afternoons on the terrace of the Unicorn that edged woozily into the evenings became something of an established ritual — Bill Clinton could even turn up — as he did last year. It was all about the interaction between the group. Friends at one table were sometimes joined by others, who attended for short periods or drifted about the periphery of the group. There would always be a model or two, a pop star, a visiting dignitary playing out their role on the stage that was the Unicorn. On a good night, and there were many good nights, it was like a rollicking Noel Coward play at the Gate.’

I should add that the restaurant has re-opened under new management.

A restaurant I was intimately familiar with was Mint Restaurant in Ranelagh where I worked for an unforgettable week in 2006. A few months later after the restaurant secured a Michelin star and its chef Dylan McGrath had come to national prominence after a TV show called Pressure Cooker showed him in action I published an account of my time there for the Sunday Tribune.

I wrote: ‘As the week went by the chefs around me began to greet me with more than a contemptuous grunt. This might have owed something to the fact that I was becoming a veteran. Most new chefs didn’t last the day. Only a chef who really wanted to learn from a master could possibly endure the invective levelled at them. Also, as the week wore on, I was asked to work longer hours as my body adjusted to the bowed back and repetitive chopping, though each night I would still return home to lie on the cold asphalt. But I could hardly complain, given that Dylan and the other chefs worked harder than me. They all arrived before eight in the morning and only finished late at night

By the end of the week, I had come to realise that I could derive no satisfaction from work of this monotonous cruelty. I felt a certain macho pride that Dylan urged me to stay when I announced I was leaving, but this kind of acceptance came at too great a price. I had fallen out of love with food.’

It is hard to chart the future of restaurants in Dublin. There is less appetite for expensive dining but there is at last a discernible middle market and a good array of ethnic offerings. It remains a very tough business with high turnover. Often it is a labour of love or even a vanity project. The history of Dublin restaurants shows how volatile the market is.

There is also a lot more critical appraisal of Dublin restaurants in all major publications and now, increasingly, online. The issue of food is covered more and more in the media as we explore issues like sustainability, provenance, human health and animal welfare.

One exotic trend that we see emerging is an appetite for raw and plant-based food, a further move away from Escoffier orthodoxy. Dublin actually had its first vegetarian restaurant in 1908 but recent years have seen an increasing demand for more healthy offerings. Dublin now has its first fully raw and vegan restaurant Sseduced in Temple Bar.

We have also witnessed the emergence of pop up restaurants that come and go in the space of a few days. One such is called Living Dinners run by Katie Sanderson. It offers a completely raw menu to its patrons including dishes including a living lasagne made with a pistachio pesto and a cashew nut cream cheese. The customer’s of Jammet’s might baulk at that!

But the dynamism and short-lived nature of the restaurant trade means that new ideas will emerge especially as tastes change. And even if the restaurants don’t stick around the appetite for the food will. It’s amazing to think that rocket was exotic in 1995. Now you’d find it in your local Spar.

We now want to know where ingredients come from and increasingly we want to feel restored by the experience of going out for a meal. This brings us back to the original meaning of a restaurant. The excess of haute cuisine is no longer universally desired and we prefer a more affordable version of the restaurant experience where there are less poor devils were their noses pressed against the window.

Excess and hedonism is increasingly reserved for the Christmas jumper brigade.

Happy Christmas everybody.


‘It’s life Jim, but not as we know it’

I realise it is unprofessional to read another restaurant review before writing my own, but then who sets the rules? Aqua Nueva is just so unusual that I felt like drawing inspiration from elsewhere.

So I turned to A. A. Gill, the black prince of British gastronomy and self-appointed scourge of wicked restaurateurs across the land, whose choice prose, laden with malice, has inspired so many pallid imitations and reduced the contemporary restaurant review to a kind of blood sport, not far removed from badger baiting.

An important point to remember is that any dining is a singular and once-off experience, and diners have different tastes: one man’s hovering waiter is another’s pristine service, and if we are to discount Dolly the sheep, no piece of meat is the same as the next. Furthermore, kitchen staff turnover with great rapidity, especially in London, and with them the composition of any dish. Finally, architectural tastes are famously subjective, just look at our 1960s inheritance. Readers of reviews should season well.

Gill gave Aqua Nueva one star out of a potential five, but his reasons for doing so are obscure. As is typical with the playground bully/News Corporation-speak style he favours, one dish he orders, ‘egg-yolk in jelly’, is described as being ‘like a big wine gum of puss’. There seems little doubt that this dish was ordered precisely for the sake of the withering put-down, indeed there is no indication that he even tasted it. One assumes that the esteemed gastronome cannot reference that taste.

Gill goes on to describe another dish as ‘edible but not pleasurable’, while the jamon iberico is grudgingly called ‘good’ but it ‘is not always £18’; though we find no price comparison. He reserves most of his considerable venom, however, for an architectural feature:

‘There are things hanging from the roof, hundreds of things, thousands of turned wooden things, streams like trolls’ shower curtains. Who knows what they’re for, or why they are. It’s a suspended avalanche of trine. Spindles, or butt plugs.’

Suffice to say he doesn’t like the effect, and the playground bully emerges again, but lacking is any acknowledgement of the individuality of his own preferences. He is, it is clear, the sole arbiter of taste.

Gill’s experience certainly did not chime with my own. In fact I thoroughly enjoyed my meal, though Aqua Nueva is not the sort of restaurant where I would usually dine. Then again, I choose to live outside the metropolis and my tastes tend to be antediluvian.

With an Old English scholar of considerable appetite, I entered, or should I say ascended to Aqua Nueva which is above a department store on Regent’s Street.

Restaurants are generally intimately connected to street life so by taking a lift up to the fifth floor it did seem like we were entering another dimension: ‘Gosh, it’s like a restaurant on the Starship Enterprise’ was my friend’s startled reaction after passing through the separate Japanese restaurant and cocktail bar into a Spanish restaurant which housed a substantial tapas bar and a sprawling balcony area with views over the city. The wooden thingamajigs hanging in the tapas restaurant are clearly not to everyone’s taste but they do create a faintly oriental mystique.

We were welcomed by a hostess who made Lieutenant Uhura in her pomp look positively dowdy, and decided to munch our way through a selection of tapas to whet appetites.

We stuck to the stalwarts: patatas bravas, tortilla espanol, pan con tomate, jamon iberico, croquettas and two of their specials: carpaccio of monkfish and lamb chops in a red wine jus and tarragon cream. We were also presented with two types of mojo, a delicious Canarian condiment that combines olive oil, in the first case with blended peppers and the second, avocado. The standard tapas were almost faultless; they clearly source their jamon well, my only quibble was with the absence of béchamel to offset the spicy sauce of the patatas, and the fact that the croquettas were lacking a little in jamon. The lamb was divine, tarragon smoothing the passage of the heavy dairy, but I felt the monkfish did not work as it lacked any discernible accompaniment to the raw fish taste.

Appetites suitably whetted, we turned our attention to the business of the main course which we were to sit down to in the restaurant. By this stage the bar area was beginning to throb with an assembling glamorous clientele who had materialized, as if by transporter, to create the atmosphere of a nightclub.

To drink I chose an Albarinho, that washed through my palate like the invigorating crash of a Galician wave, before, I might add, the Prestige sullied those waters. For mains I went for a monkfish with olive crust and my colleague chose the ox tail, a popular choice, it seems.

I found my monkfish a little austere, perhaps over-cooked, but the scholar was enraptured by his choice which he pronounced ‘Special’; and indeed a taste confirmed that this under-utilised cut had been cooked to smooth perfection.

For dessert I chose a yoghurt ice cream with apple which appealed to my preference for desserts of a refreshing type, which leads rather too often to lemon sorbet, but here I found a sweet with a bite not burdensome on the constitution.

Predictably, my accomplice, in line with a policy of gargantua so favoured by the Ancients, chose the indulgent ‘chocolate chocolate chocolate’ which ceased his digression on the venerable Bede, for a few minutes at least, while he devoured it to the last morsel.

Overall we emerged, or descended, very happy and amused by our encounter. This is dining but not as we know it, a swashbuckling establishment in the heart of the metropolis with views over planet earth.

‘A certain je ne sais quoi oh so very special’

Published in Spectator Scoff 2010

Jane Grigson once wrote that the history of cookery is in some way like the history of language. That so much English vocabulary is not of Old English origin shows how easily accretions have been assimilated. Similarly British cookery has absorbed influences from a wide variety of sources to the extent that it is very hard to say what is indigenous anymore – just look at the emergence of the distinctive British curry.

On the other hand, in terms of native produce, the countryside is unlikely ever to be dotted with olive groves or banana plantations, at least in this lifetime.

Genuinely British cuisine cannot aspire to authenticity without emphasising locally-grown produce which imparts an unmistakable terroir. Even Elizabeth David who, while broadening the horizons of British gastronomy after the War, tended to disparage British produce, admitted that a ‘country’s national food appears completely authentic only in that country’. A Spaghetti al Ragú eaten within sight of Bologna’s duomo will never taste the same as a Spagh-Bol even if the latter is consumed close to Spaghetti Junction.

In attempting to develop a genuinely British cuisine, chef’s struggle against a legacy where consumption was often seen in empirical, calorific terms, and not considered a topic for polite conversation. Perhaps this was a product of Britain’s early urbanisation and attendant distance from the land, or maybe the reason lies deeper in the country’s cultural inheritance.

Whites Bar and Kitchen in Steynham, Sussex, is one restaurant pioneering such an integration of cookery with terroir, placing an emphasis on locally-sourced ingredients and a premium on the kind of skills that were honed during head-chef Stuart Dove’s tenure under Gordon Ramsay.

If this is ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ it is not apparent, as an open plan integrates dining and cookery in a setting that combines the Tudor wood framing of the original tavern with sleek modern comfort and rich colouring. The presence in the bar area of a large flat-screen monitor revealing the goings-on of the kitchen might be considered too modish for some tastes, but it shows the pride which they take in their work; more entertaining than watching Chelsea, I say.

The reception we weary travellers received was genuinely hospitable in time-honoured country style, but before getting down to our labours a short pre-prandial stroll was called for in the bright spring sunshine. Only miles from the sea side, a salty breeze carried a soupçon of Gallic warmth.

Picturesque Steyning revealed a vegetable shop with produce of the most lustrous quality, a favourable augur for our forthcoming repast. Here my thespian comrade reminded me of the words of Uncle Monty from Withnail and I: ‘I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts – prostitutes for the bees. There is, you’ll agree, a certain je ne sais quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot’.

On our return, and in keeping with the theme of terroir, I decided to order a local wine, Chapel Down Bacchus 2007. What is generally the cursory tasting produced a startling effect: a thunderous bouquet transported me to a scene of Maypoles and the crack of leather on willow; perhaps the wine creates different effects elsewhere.

Whites’s menu charts the generally minimal food miles of each dish, and while some might quibble that this merely identifies the main ingredient, at least there is an effort that goes beyond the usual platitudes.

With maritime air currents still on the nose, I craved the fruit of the nearby shoreline. Perhaps it is a mistake to order a daily special, but the prospect of soft-shelled crab was all too enticing to start, while I couldn’t resist the notion of scallops as a main.

The crab arrived whole in a golden light batter accompanied by a bright winter salad of shredded carrot, cress and alas my food kryptonite: raw red onion. The fact that the crab had kindly moulted its shell obviated the need for any embarrassing cracking, and the flesh was suitably sweet. What got me really racy though was the dressing which I discovered was a slow reduction of ginger, soy, chilli, coriander and a little olive oil that provided a joyous marriage of multicultural elements with native ingredients.

For my main six plump scallops arrived like miniature jellies from childhood birthday parties, architecturally accompanied by sautéed potatoes and kale, of the lustrous quality that I had earlier seen, cooked to a tee in luxurious butter. I was beginning to agree with Uncle Monty’s pronouncements.

Instead of dessert, to finish I chose the locally-sourced cheeses, and was disappointed. Perhaps they just needed more time at room temperature but the cheddar was a bit soapy, and the local ‘brie’ was simply ersatz and would have them chortling across La Manche.

Overall, by employing culinary skills of a high order to produce dishes with the finest local ingredients, Whites put themselves at the cutting edge of British gastronomy. A transitory diner can feel a smug sense of satisfaction at the lack of food miles before embarking on the long trip home!

In the cold mid-winter

(Published in the Spectator Scoff, 2010)

Ireland displays a curious relationship with food. The fecund landscape offers a wide variety of wild foods; river fish, fowl, shell fish, and seaweed all abound, while cattle farming has long made Ireland one of Europe’s leading beef and dairy producers. Yet, in general, people here display an indifference to food, or at least an unwillingness to discuss it.

This impression was affirmed by a trip to Birr, County Offaly, for a New Year’s party themed on Russian fairy tale that I attended in the spectacular setting of Birr castle, a portion of which Earl Rosse had generously put at the disposal of revellers to celebrate the occasion in spectacular fashion.

Accompanied by a loyal Sancho Panza, we set out on the already icy roads from Dublin in mid-afternoon in order to avoid the expected big freeze. Stopping off first in our B&B we changed into Russian costume. I donned a suitably warm fur hat, piled on the layers and admired my Leon Trotsky-inspired goatee which gave me the look of an itinerant commissar. Meanwhile, my partner decided after some soul-searching to wear his tight-fitting, paper-thin, Argentine tuxedo, and, oddly, a beret; his pedigree looked confused, to say the least. A confused Russian émigré lost in a Parisian brothel perhaps.

Temperatures were dropping rapidly as we made our way into the town, so we gravitated to a local hostelry for a warming aperitif before what we hoped would be a fortifying meal. We were greeted by a wonderfully authentic Irish pub, containing pictures of the ancient sport of hurling covering most of the walls, and a rogues’ gallery suitable for such a joint.

Immediately conversation was struck up. I decided to play devil’s advocate by asking them whether the current all-conquering Kilkenny team, a neighbouring county, were the greatest of all time. One character grew particularly animated, becoming red-faced as he struggled to contain the words that burst forth, recalling Offaly teams from bygone eras who had fought so bravely with their scant resources. When conversation turned to great players of the past, hushed tones descended as the celestial performances of the Corkman Christy Ring were remembered.

Conversation was flying at this stage, and remarkably the publican gave us our next whiskey on the house, an almost unheard of generosity in Irish pubs. By now, the hour had reached seven and my thoughts were turning to the evening meal. Polite inquiry as to where one might find a decent bite to eat was greeted with bewilderment and slight mirth. I asked one fellow patron what he had done for his evening meal, and he replied that he had eaten at five o’clock. A celebratory New Year’s meal was certainly not on the agenda; eating appeared to be one more daily chore to be completed with little enthusiasm. Anyway, I was told that there was the chipper next door, and two Chinese restaurants in the town, but obviously no cuisine of any local provenance.

We trudged out of the pub, still unsure of where we would dine, past a shop containing pictures of the local hero, Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowan, alongside the chipper that emitted a poisonous smell of grease which suggested that to eat there would have been akin to self-harm. Meanwhile, my companion, owing to the cold, had borrowed my fur hat, and unfortunately, this new combination with the tight-fitting trousers and scarlet cummerbund was drawing the unwelcome attention of the local corner boys who began, to his intense irritation, to assail him with wolf whistles.

At last we found the sanctuary of the Chinese restaurant, and were given a pleasant window seat. Owing to the usual book-length menus found in Chinese restaurants I followed my habitual policy of ordering whatever set menu is on offer. Bitter experience has taught that these contain dishes more fresh-tasting than the a la carte alternative.

Having no expectations is a good idea before dining out, and so we were surprised by the quality of the corn and chicken soup which had a pleasing taste of thick chicken stock, and restorative warmth. What followed was a more or less standard Chinese meal that one finds in most parts of Europe, though never, one suspects, in China itself, except perhaps Hong Kong, of delicately fried meats and sweet sauces.

I couldn’t help noticing that some of our fellow diners, had eschewed the usual choices, and were making their way through the local favourites of curried chips and doughy chicken balls with sweet and sour sauce.

Suitably revived, we departed from the restaurant and made our way to the dark gates of the castle renowned for containing what was for almost a century the largest telescope in the world. We entered high-ceilinged rooms lit by candlelight and warmed by great fires, hundreds had made it from around the country to appear in their Russian-inspired regalia, but for a fuller account of the goings on there the social pages should be consulted.