2 minutes with Irish chef JP McMahon – who loves a spag bol and has never cooked seal

The chef and cookery author breaks down his culinary habits for Ella Walker.
2 minutes with Irish chef JP McMahon – who loves a spag bol and has never cooked seal
Author of the Irish Cookbook, JP McMahon. Picture: Phaidon/Ed Scholfield/PA.

Chef, author and Galway-based restaurateur JP McMahon recently researched and put together The Irish Cookbook, a compendium of Irish recipes, drawing on a colossal culinary history.

Here, he talks about the simplicity of pizza, the importance of salt, and the lamb stews of his childhood… 

Your death row meal would be… 

It’d have to be spaghetti Bolognese. I grew up making it, and it’s the first exotic food I ever had – when I was 11 or 12 – and I thought, ‘This is just the most amazing thing I’ve ever had in my life’. I tell the kids now and they’re like, ‘What are you like?’ The thing you still can’t make is… I’ve never cooked alligator, and I’ve cooked a lot of different things. I presume it’s the same as cooking meat, but I’m very adventurous when it comes to eating and cooking, I always like experimenting. 

Cooking is a scaffold for me, it’s a way to make things more digestible. I think when you can cook a variety of things, it’s just transplanting those ideas onto something else. I had seal once, and I imagine that’d be very difficult. I had it in Newfoundland and it was a big flipper in a pizza oven. I presume you just cook it low and slow, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin butchering a seal.

Your favourite store-cupboard essential has to be… 

Salt, I love salt – and different varieties. We’ve got a producer near us, Achill Island Sea Salt, for me I think it’s as good as Maldon. I love what salt does to food, and I think it’s sometimes underappreciated, because people are afraid of it now they think it’s unhealthy. Of course, salt and sugar can contribute to bad health, but anything can, it depends how you use it. When you have really good salt, it just changes the meal. It’s like the petrol you put in a car, it gets it going.

The kitchen utensil you couldn’t live without is… 

I’d be lost without my Thermomix in the kitchen – a food processor that can heat. It’d be between that and the blow torch. I cook so much fish, and I do so much with a blow torch. I always love showing people how to cook with a blow torch, because it’s just the most interesting thing, and it’s cool – you can do it at parties.

Your late-night snack of choice has to be…

Pizza or ice cream – I’m very partial to pizza. There’s actually a place that does pizza Bolognese, and I love that! It’s just so nice. And I’m a fiend for ice cream. I try and stay away from it, because you start eating it and you can’t stop. 

Soda bread from The Irish Cookbook by Jp McMahon. Picture: Phaidon/Anita Murphy/Zania Koppe/PA.
Soda bread from The Irish Cookbook by Jp McMahon. Picture: Phaidon/Anita Murphy/Zania Koppe/PA.

Your signature dish is… 

Oysters and seaweed. We have a little dish with oysters, seaweed and trout roe, and we dress it with extra virgin rapeseed oil, seaweed vinegar and some sea salt, but it’s one we do a lot. If I have to be remembered for anything, that would be enough for me. If someone said, ‘Oh he did a nice seaweed and oysters dish’, I’d be like, ‘That’s grand’.

You like your eggs… 

Scrambled, but softly scrambled, not overdone.

Your childhood dinners were…

We had a specific day for everything. I remember we had shepherd’s pie a lot, and then fish, I never really liked the fish, I have memories of bony whiting. But it was the Eighties, so we had Crispy Findus Pancakes – they still do them! I think now they’re a trendy thing to eat, which is so funny. There was six of us at home and my mum cooked dinners for everyone. Lamb stew with barley, a lot of that, and then when the Italian revolution came in the late Eighties, my father started making lasagne and spaghetti Bolognese.

Last night you ate… 

My brother has an Italian restaurant, so I had gnocchi. I have a Spanish restaurant and he has an Italian restaurant. I just love tapas and that sharing culture. I’m always torn between our Michelin starred restaurant, and the tapas bar which serves about 10 times as many people.

If you’re ordering takeout, it has to be…

Indian, I really like lamb korma with rice and peas and garlic naan.

Your ultimate hangover cure is… 

Other than drinking more wine, I’d say it depends how hungover I’d be. I’d either go for a run or eat a massive breakfast, the big full Irish. It really depends what spectrum I’m on. I always think the best hangover cure is to actually stay in bed, get up about 6 o’clock when it’s gone, but that doesn’t happen too often, because I’ve got two kids. Kids are good for not getting hungover too often, because they keep you on your toes.

You really cannot stomach…

Mechanically reclaimed meat, that annoys me a lot, and it’s in nearly everything now, like a chicken fillet roll, which isn’t actually a chicken fillet at all, it’s a homogenised mess, and the pork which is on most of the pizzas. Fast food becomes junk food – it’s not the food itself that’s bad, it’s what we’ve done to it. 

Fast food can be the best in the world, chicken and chips can be the most amazing meal you can have, you just have to make them nicely. 

It’s what we do to these things, and because we try to make them as cheap as possible, it gives nose to tail a really bad name, because I love nose to tail and I love trying to use every part of it, but when you try to hoover a carcass [and make] ‘the third breast’ from the bits of it, most of the time when you get chicken in a petrol station in a breaded form, it’s that reclaimed meat.

The Irish Cookbook by JP McMahon, photography and styling by Anita Murphy and Zania Koppe, is published by Phaidon. Available now.

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