Where would our top chefs eat if they had the pick of world’s restaurants? And who would they dine with? Four of the biggest names in Irish food reveal their dream 24 hours of dining to.
WELCOME to our newly imagined world, where the usual logistical constraints around time and distance no longer apply, where even death holds no dominion over the selection of ideal dining companions. We have invited four of the country’s top food personalities to conjure up their ideal day of eating, drinking, and relaxing.
My day would begin in Cavan, in [renowned cheesemaker, of Corleggy Cheeses] Silke Cropp’s house, having breakfast. I know her well. I’m her number-one fan. She’s my raw-milk queen/guru and Tom, her son, is now also making the cheese. It just comes so naturally to her; she’s like a cheese freak of nature. I ring her and ask, ‘can I have a box of really freaky stuff,’ and she always gives me the freakiest stuff. Sometimes, we deep fry her ‘Cavanbert’ as a bit of a joke for the Christmas menu, a throwback to those old menus, years ago, with the deep-fried cheese. For breakfast, I’d like to have a goat gammon ‘ham’— she’s a massive fan of goat meat —glazed with mustard and some sauerkraut fried duck eggs and just some amazing breads. She does a lot of markets, so she’ll buy really cool bits and bobs from wherever she’s doing the market, and I’d have some really nice coffee made with a Chemex [high-quality filtered coffee-maker].
Then, I’d go to Belfast. I’d meet up with [cheesemaker] Mike Thomson and make some of his Young Buck cheese (one of my favourite blue cheeses in Ireland; another raw-milk cheese) then pick Mike up and go for pint in The George, before going to Ox Belfast for lunch—I’ve always wanted to go there. Then, I’d head to Pudding Row, in Sligo, for one of Dervla’s doughnuts and then, from there, to Cork, to eat at Ichigo Ichie, where I’d listen to Meatloaf, probably ‘Bat Out of Hell’, or maybe Madonna, with Miya [Takashi Miyazaki, chef/proprietor, Ichigo Ichie]. He’s a massive ’80s fan. We’d drink gin and tonics, or maybe sake cocktails, and then head down to Fingal Ferguson [of Gubbeen Farm] and maybe cook something on a barbecue, and then to Robbie Krawczyk’s place for dinner and then, after an ice cream, a 99, and then he can drop me home in his Porsche, if he still has it! Who would I travel with? I’d have to take Dave [Murphy, her partner and co-proprietor of Kai], Miya (even though we’re going to his place), and Lady Gaga and maybe Paul Flynn.
Maybe, once or twice a year at a push, I’ll go to a high-end restaurant, but when I’m away from work I much prefer simpler, comfort food. Neither would you describe me as active. I’ve lost three stone — you should have seen me a few years ago — but I’m quintessentially the man who likes to say ‘yes’ to everything! When you said, earlier, I had 24 hours, I was only half-joking when I said that could be a normal night out for me!
I first learnt my craft in grim, basement kitchens in London, in a very regimented, militaristic environment. I did love the food, but the sheer regimentation can be soul-destroying, so, after that, I started working out what my own style was and found I loved much freer food, not so obsessed with shapes and pretty plates. It was all about flavour and reintroducing joy. Fast forward 15 years and I was at the end of service, shagged after a busy week, when this puppy dog of a fella, Ivan Whelan, stuck his head through the pass. He was way too happy for me and annoyed the crap out of me. I couldn’t lift my head from out of the pot, but he was always really complimentary and I chilled out and we eventually became huge friends. That Cork crew — of him, Fingal [Ferguson], Ted [Berner, Wildside Catering] — was a huge influence on me. I marvel at their creativity and it chills me out being with people who love food as much as I do, but in a much freer way. When I’m in work, I am completely immersed in all the details, but when I get to West Cork… one night, I ended up naked in a hot tub, drinking White Russians, outside Fingal’s House at 3am! So, an ideal day for me would take place in West Cork.
I’d go to Skibb Farmer’s Market and then I’d go sea kayaking with Jim Kennedy [of Atlantic Sea Kayaking]. I’m not a big breakfast man — I never can do lunch after it and I love lunch! The problem is when lunch keeps on going. I’d like to have lunch in Pilgrim’s. That place is lovely; it has that freedom about its food that I was talking about. Then, I’d take a trip to the islands and a cycle to meet people for a few hours, maybe eat a few oysters; go to Manning’s Emporium, in Ballylickey, to drink some wine. I’d like a bit of music thrown in there. It would be nice to meet Lloyd Cole along the way and I’ve sat beside [wine writer] Tomás Clancy at a few dinners and I could listen to him forever; such witty repartee and such knowledge. I went on a trip to Italy this year, with Ross Lewis, and we spent 48 hours laughing. Everyday life can be very serious, so it would be nice to bump into him along the way. I’m quite happy meeting strangers, as well, as long as someone is open and really nice. It’s all about great conversations, doing a few magical things in the morning, so you’re not drinking all the day—and I’d have to bring my wife, as well. She’d kill me if I didn’t say that!
It would be like rediscovering something that I never did. There’s a bit of a want, a bit of a need in me, to do something different like that. I think there’s a frustrated West Cork hippie inside me, struggling to get out.
I’d begin with breakfast in Ballymaloe. I have a lot of respect for Myrtle Allen and the family and what she has achieved, establishing the first Irish country house. It was the first cradle of Irish hospitality and they are the holders now, along with the other country house hotels. I was there just a few weeks ago, so I’d like to have breakfast in the same place, sitting outside the front door, looking at the stunning fields of golden-yellow rapeseed. I’d like to have Myrtle Allen and some of my other food heroes: Pierre Gagnaire, Paul Bocuse, and Luciano Tona, one of the most intelligent and food-knowledgeable people I have have ever come across. I’d start with Glenillen organic yogurt with fresh Irish raspberries, apple, and a bit of crunch, a few mixed seeds. Then, the full Irish fry, which I had last week — it was spanking — would bring tears to your eyes. No accompaniments, no condiments, no Worcester, no ketchup, nothing, and the flavour was off the charts: black and white pudding, sausage, bacon, egg, a big thick slice of soda bread, and Irish country butter and a nice piece of toasted sourdough; I like a bit of crunch with the fry. Then, a nice, full-strength double macchiato of roasted brown coffee. And me and my food heroes would be sitting there, talking about food, where it’s coming from, where it’s going, and the shared stories and experiences of our profession, past and present.
Then, I’d like to be taken to the back pier in Lough Hyne, near Baltimore, where it goes into the sea, overlooking the headland on the other side (one of the most beautiful places in Ireland) and I’d like to have a swim in the cold, deep water, then start into a buffet with [Woodcock Smokery Supremo] Sally Barnes serving her wild smoked salmon and some oysters from Kelly’s, in Galway; wild Irish crab toes from the Old Head of Kinsale, served by Marty Shanahan with some of his garlic-and-chilli butter (there’s not much to touch them) and I’d like to drink a Raveneau le Foret, 2005, with all that, before starting into Kevin Thornton’s stuffed pig trotter and then Kerry lamb, grilled over wood, and just rubbed with a little garlic oil (nothing else); some floury new potatoes with butter and a Romanée-Conti Grand Echézeaux 2000 magnum. That’s probably about 10k for that bottle alone, but you said I could have anything!
This would be the entertaining part of the day, so I’d like storytellers. I’m a great fan of John Creedon; an amazing storyteller and great company. Peter Ustinov, John Cleese, Spike Lee, and the man who always makes me laugh, Tommy Cooper.
Then, I’d like to make the most beautiful seascape drive in Ireland: Slea Head into Dingle, stopping along the way in Páidí Ó Sé’s, in Ventry, to talk to him and Jimmy Barry Murphy about their time in football and those days back when Cork could do the double. Then, I’d listen to Iarla Ó Lionáird singing ‘Fáinne Geal an Lae’. Then, I’d climb Mount Brandon and head down into Cloghane to pick cockles and mussels, like I do every June with my girls, and we’d cook a fresh pasta outside Murphy’s pub, on the pier, and have pints of Guinness with my entire family.
And then, to finish the night, I’d like to be transported to the Bullman pub, in Kinsale, as the sun is going down, have a bit of lobster salad from Pierce, and I’d like to listen to Dean Martin singing ‘Little Ol’ Wine Drinker Me’, and then hear Van Morrison and his band recreating the Live at the Grand Opera House album. And then I’m fit for bed!
I’d have breakfast on the cliffs of Ballyandreen, near Ballycotton. It is one of our favourite things to do in the summer: pack a huge picnic basket, with sourdough bread from our Breadshed, our country butter made with Jersey cream, marmalade, some freshly squeezed orange juice, with ice, in a bottle, soda bread, flasks of coffee and tea, rashers, sausages, eggs, sliced mushrooms, Spotted Dog [sweet white soda bread with raisins or currants], soak some oats in water and crush some strawberries, raspberries for a bircher, pack the whole lot up, and spread out some rugs on the spongy grass that’s been there for centuries and never turned. When the kids were young, we’d gather driftwood, but now we cheat and bring some firelighters and the sports page, and we’d cook the sausages, rashers, eggs and mushrooms over the fire. Oh, my God, the tastes are so amazing. We did it during Litfest with some of our favourite chefs and I’d like to invite them all back again, as my guests for the day. Alice Waters, Claudia Roden, Madhur Jaffrey, Chad Robertson were all there and they all said it had been their favourite moment in Ireland. They just loved it. They have all done the Michelin three-star restaurants, but this was such a special moment for them to have a simple little breakfast, cooked outside over the fire in such a beautiful place, overlooking Ballycotton and the bay.
Then, I’d gather all my lovely team from the cookery school: the teachers and the gardeners and everyone would all pile on to a bus to drive down to Cunnamore Pier, in West Cork, and get the boat across to Hare Island, and then we’d walk up the winding lane, past all the honeysuckle and rock roses, in the sunshine, to Island Cottage Restaurant, where John Desmond and Ellmary Fenton would cook us a very special lunch of wild salmon crudo with lovely, warm soda bread from the oven, and duck breast, with crispy fried potatoes and a green veg from the garden. Then, a lovely green salad and some local farmhouse cheese (Durrus or Gubbeen) in perfect condition, and then one of their lovley soufflés (gran marnier or lemon), with soft, whipped cream and a shot of good, strong coffee to keep us awake for the afternoon, after all that lovely food, then down to the beach for a swim — heaven!
Then, we’d continue island-hopping. We’d fly over to Inis Meáin and, this time, I’d bring Michelle Obama, EU Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, Leo Varadkar, and Patrick Holden, CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust, and soil scientist, David Beecher.
We’d fly over and see all the stone walls — we can get the boat back to support both boat and plane. Then, we’d get a boat and go out and catch some fresh mackerel, stopping on the way back to chisel sea urchins from the rocks.
Then, we’d go up to Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites and give the fish to the chef/proprietor, Ruairí de Blacam, while we started with a bowl of periwinkles and a pin; that will separate the men from the boys!
Ruairí would prepare a spanking, fresh mackerel sashimi with this gorgeous Asian dressing he does; one of the best I’ve ever eaten. Then, we’ll have a lovely plate of raw sea urchins, then beautifully tender lobster with greens and squid ink mayo, and then, for pudding, we want a surprise from Ruairí: the last time it was a panna cotta, with primrose all over the top.
The reason I’d have those guests is because I’d like Patrick and David to explain to Phil Hogan why we need to promote a different, more sustainable form of agriculture that rewarded those farmers who protect the soil and build up soil carbon — at the moment, the polluter isn’t paying and those looking after the land properly aren’t being rewarded.
Michelle Obama would explain why it is so important to do this on a worldwide scale and I’d be pushing Leo to have another referendum to see if people would like to see Ireland working towards becoming the Organic Food Island, for the future prosperity of our farmers, the health of the nation, and as an example to the world. Then, we’d go to the evening opera in the gardens of the castle in Lismore, in Co Waterford. I love the whole ambience. It would be heavenly, the air heavy with scents and then, that lovely windy road home from Lismore and off to bed!