A taste of tradition: JP McMahon's food bible

A taste of tradition: JP McMahon's food bible

Head chef at Michelin-starred Aniar, JP McMahon’s new cookbook is a celebration — and a historical dispatch — of Irish food, writes Joe McNamee.

Celebrity chef and restaurateur JP McMahon is a busy man at the best of times, running his Galway-based restaurants (Cava Bodega, Tartare Cafe & Wine Bar, and Aniar) as well as overseeing theannual Food on the Edge symposium that attracts an array of renowned international chefs to the west each year.

JP McMahon
JP McMahon

But that workload has ramped up even further with the release of The Irish Cookbook, which sees him hitting the Irish and international promotional circuit over the coming months, including, unsurprisingly, given the title and content, the US for St Patrick’s Day.

McMahon, the second of six children, grew up in Maynooth where his father was a physics lecturer at the nearby university. “We were a typical Irish family,” he recalls, “not a particular emphasis on food.

“My mum cooked, we had fish on Fridays, stew on another day. We didn’t dine out a lot but my first big food memory is having spag bol in a hotel in Tipperary and thinking about food as pleasure rather than just fuel.”

His asthma forcing him to opt for home economics over woodwork, McMahon found he enjoyed cooking, taking a summer job when he was 15 in a local Italian restaurant and continuing working in kitchens after leaving school, before moving to Cork to do Art History and English at UCC.

He returned to Galway and split his time between cheffing and teaching in UCC’s Art History department. Then, in 2008, he and now wife Drigín got the opportunity, through a small loan from family members, to open a restaurant, Cava, serving tapas and sharing plates.

“The two of us had always loved Spain,” says McMahon, “so we loved the idea of food as pleasure, of sharing and communality.

We hadn’t been brought up with that in Ireland and it took time for people to get used to it and to sharing dishes.

In 2011, he and Drigín, in partnership with chef Enda McEvoy, now the Michelin-starred chef-proprietor of Galway’s Loam restaurant, opened Aniar. In 2013, the Irish food world and, indeed, its owners were stunned when it was awarded a Michelin star.

Aniar Restuarant, Galway
Aniar Restuarant, Galway

“We didn’t have massive expectations or budget,” says McMahon.

“We thought of is it as a bistro. Enda had earned a [Michelin] Bib Gourmand at [another restaurant] Sheridan’s but a Michelin star was never on the spectrum. What we were doing was different and new and the client base wasn’t there initially, but 14 months later everything changed. It was like an avalanche. We went from me taking reservations on my phone while cooking in Cava to having to hire a receptionist.”

The award brought a whole new clientele tow hat has always been a deceptively unadorned and decidedly unpretentious space, many bearing myriad preconceptions of what a Michelin-starred restaurant should be.

“It was fairly difficult for the next year,” recalls McMahon, “there was a lot of pressure on the floor and the kitchen because we had just fallen into it when we started. Even the tables and chairs came in for criticism.

The difference between having a star and not was that people started handing you their coats when they came in.

A year later, McEvoy left to open Loam and these days McMahon runs the kitchen.

“Having a Michelin star is like playing the cup final every night and you just cannot afford to lose. We take each year as it comes, Aniar runs at a loss and Cava subsidises it — most Michelin-star restaurants run at a loss; they are projects of passion.

I would say most Michelin-star restaurants are only at a breakeven point — there is more profit selling a bag of chips than a Michelin-star dinner.

"It is a labour of love, like an artistic project that needs funding, you give it to the audience, almost like going to the theatre.”

McMahon begins The Irish Cookbook with an extensive social history of Irish cooking since prehistoric times, before offering his own take on Irish cooking, past and present, combining traditional recipes, employing multiple sources, some dating back centuries, with recipes from the Aniar kitchen, retooled for the home cook.

“It is for chefs, historians, and home cooks. Some people will read to cook from it, some will buy it because it is a nice cookbook on Irish food,” says McMahon, “I love history but it’s not a history book. All the recipes are designed to be reproduced at home — that was one of the dividing lines between what we put in and what we left out.”

While there is initially nothing to startle the horses and plenty of old familiar favourites such as colcannon and Irish stew, there are outliers such as smoked eel porridge, hardly a dish any Irish child will be wolfing down before school. But it fits with McMahon’s desire to innovate with traditional ingredients.

“I wanted to be as imaginative as possible. Smoked eel and oats are a very important part of our tradition and having a savoury porridge represents that. Some recipes are historical or traditional, some we have done in Aniar over 10 years, and some are from myimagination where we have no direct evidence.

“They all take the produce as the starting point and then the external influence comes next, which is your spices, your ports and sherries, which have been in Ireland for the best part of a thousand years and have just as much right to be considered as Irish cuisine.

"I began from the position of [locavore] Aniar, which meant no lemon, no pepper, that Nordic model of using ingredients from your terroir, then I realised I was wrong. I haven’t changed the [ethos] of Aniar though I came close.

"For me, spices were a big stumbling block at the start. Cinnamon came over with the Normans, probably the Vikings, so we have every right to call it part of Irish cuisine.

"I wasn’t looking for an essential quality of Irishness, I wasn’t trying to define it. I was trying to think about the past and the present in the way that can have [Cork-based Michelin-star chef] Takashi [Miyazaki] cooking contemporary Irish food through a Japanese lens or all the new Polish or Brazilian chefs cooking in Ireland now who will have a considerable influence on where Irish food goes in the future. Food migrates all the time.”

Celebrity chef and restaurateur JP McMahon is a busy man at the best of times, running his Galway-based restaurants (Cava Bodega, Tartare Cafe & Wine Bar, and Aniar) as well as overseeing the annual Food on the Edge symposium that attracts an array of renowned international chefs to the west each year.

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