WE ARE the forgotten ones, the lost generation sandwiched in between the old traditionalists wielding their cabbage and hairy bacon and the nouveaux foodies with their Italian truffle butter and tonka beans. We are the convenience food generation, half-raised and ill-served by a diet of crispy pancakes, Bird’s trifle, Angel Delight, Vesta curries, Smash potato, Pot Noodles, frozen chips and whatever other Frankenstein’s monster the boys in the lab could conjure up.
Convenience food gained its first foothold in Ireland in the late 1970s. Back then, it wasn’t an indicator of low social status: save rare dissenters, it was widely viewed as the upside of progress. Advertisers encouraged mothers not to waste hours cooking, the better to spend the saved time doing some “real mothering”.
Chef Paul Flynn, star of RTÉ’s upcoming TV programme, Paul Flynn’s Irish Food Adventure, remembers it well. “My mother wasn’t a very good cook — she’d be the first to admit she’d burn water,” says Flynn. “I was the last of eight and I think she just got fed up with cooking by the time I came along. It wasn’t all convenience food. It was a big fish house, unusual then even in a seaside town like Dungarvan, but by the time I came along there was a lot of the crispy pancakes, loads of stuff out of the tin and, by Jesus, I ate everything.
“I met Richard Corrigan and he had a completely different Irish childhood, out hunting rabbits for the dinner table, eating all sorts of amazing things. I went to a small school with a lot of country boys but I don’t remember anyone at all hunting rabbits or anything like that. We all ate the crispy pancakes.”
Flynn first tasted “real” food on a scouting trip to France. “Chicken with tarragon, I’d never tasted tarragon before. All the other boys were spitting it out but I think I ate theirs as well. It was a eureka moment.”
His first job was in Merry’s Gastropub. “It was the best restaurant in Waterford at the time,” says Flynn, “and after the first week I loved it. But I also wanted to get out of Dungarvan. I moved to London a day after my 18th birthday.”
Flynn took a “crappy” job for the first year in London but acquired a copy of the Michelin Guide and wrote to over 30 of the top restaurants, eventually getting an offer from Nico Ladenis of Chez Nico, a small, family-run restaurant. It also happened to be one of only four restaurants in Britain with two Michelin stars. “He was tough but he took care of people. Although, he sacked me once for going out with his daughter!”
Ladenis made him head chef at the age of 23. “Your whole life revolved around chasing three stars. I had 16 chefs under me and I used to wake up with nosebleeds thinking of the day ahead. He taught me an enormous amount, and also what not to do. He was not the most technical of chefs, and neither am I, but he was a mighty man for flavour, flavour underpinned every dish.”
Chez Nico eventually got the third star — just four months after Flynn had left, having done all the work but missing out on the kudos. “It was fucking hard, I spent all those years chasing that star. At the time I was totally gutted, though it means nothing to me now.”
Flynn returned to Ireland to helm La Stampa in Dublin, to universal acclaim and a plethora of gongs, but just two years later, in 1997, he made the bold move of opening The Tannery in his hometown. Trade had to be attracted from beyond Dungarvan to ensure survival. It has done more than that: chef of the year, restaurant of the year, cookery school of the year; the gongs kept coming.
While Flynn’s disarming protestations of a lack of technical ability should be taken with a large pinch of salt, there is no doubting his commitment to simplicity.
The new TV show is based on his wonderful An Irish Adventure With Food — part cookbook, part autobiography — and Flynn’s passion for food is evident. He’d love if the whole world shared that passion, but never preaches to the audience.
“I believe in simple, affordable food with humble ingredients,” he says. “Anyone can cook really good food at home and make it taste fantastic.”
Convenience food is still around, of course, but even avid consumers now recognise it for what it is, very much a second-class foodstuff.
In episode two, Flynn sets out to cook a meal for a very demanding audience — his family — pitting his own version of crispy pancakes and Bird’s trifle against the originals.
“I used to love these things,” says Flynn. “Not anymore. Replicating it was tortuous, to be honest. Ironically, it became nearly the most complicated thing in the whole series. I was driven mad. I was thinking why would you bother. Hence ‘convenience food’, I suppose.”
It may have driven Flynn mad but it makes for great television.
“I hope it’s different, not just a straight cookery programme, not just recipes. I haven’t always wanted to be on TV but when the idea of basing the series around the book came up, I could see how it became a story, and I was much more interested in telling a story — my story.”
Some story it is.