“Man, it’s just been really crazy!” Aniar restaurant’s Enda McEvoy looks proud and happy, but also slightly shell-shocked. It’s not simply that he married the mother of his two toddlers last month. Within a fortnight of his nuptials, the small but perfectly formed eaterie of which he’s head chef was awarded Galway’s first-ever Michelin star in the 2013 edition of food bible The Michelin Guide...
“Our phone began to ring the moment it was announced,” the 35-year-old chef laughs. “Straight away, we were booked out for two weeks solid. Every night since has been like a Saturday night.”
Situated on Dominick St. in the city’s lively West End, and owned by restaurateurs JP McMahon and his wife Drigin Gaffey, Aniar only opened 13 months ago. While it’s unusual for such a young restaurant to be awarded the accolade, the Michelin Guide inspectors have had their eyes on the talented Irish chef for quite some time. He first came to their attention when he was cheffing in cheesemonger Seamus Sheridan’s acclaimed Sheridan’s On The Docks.
“Rebecca Burr, who’s now editor of the UK and Ireland edition – she wasn’t editor at the time – came into Sheridan’s On The Docks one night and said, ‘Hello, I’m with the Guide and I’d like to put you in our book’. I had a great conversation with her. And it turned out that when I was working in [two-starred restaurant] Noma in Copenhagen after the Docks closed, she was the one who reviewed it.”
Born and raised in Virginia, Co. Cavan, McEvoy doesn’t come from an especially foody family. “We ate very simple food at home,” he says. “My parents owned a supermarket, though, so while it wasn’t haute cuisine we were always food-orientated. We kept pigs and chickens, my dad was always going out shooting, and my brother was a horticulturist. We grew up beside a big forest so we were always fishing, snaring rabbits and that sort of thing.”
His first kitchen job was in Germany at 17, when he worked a summer as porter in a Black Forest restaurant. However, it took a few years – during which time he studied English and Sociology at NUI Maynooth – before McEvoy decided to make cooking his career. Having cooked further in Germany, Spain and the UK, he returned home to work in Galway’s Nimmo’s in the mid-noughties. From there he moved to the wine bar above Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, before becoming head chef at Sheridan’s On The Docks.
Despite rave reviews, that restaurant closed in 2010 when the landlord pulled the plug without warning.
“It was really heartbreaking,” he sighs. “We’d put so much work into it and were really building it up, and then it just closed overnight. Thankfully, Seamus and I are still very, very close, which is great. It was horrible the way things happened. All a learning curve, though.”
Having “fannied about for a while” (including a stint in Denmark), he returned to Galway last year when JP McMahon asked him to work in Aniar.
“When I was asked to work here, I didn’t see any reason to work so many hours if I wasn’t going to be able to do exactly what I wanted to do. So I explained my concept of terroir – basically take everything that’s in this area and put it on a plate.”
The 2013 Michelin Guide states that the restaurant team “offers fairly simple surroundings and focus their attention where it really matters: on excellent quality food.”
“We just use ingredients from the west of Ireland. We can’t use salt because no-one is producing salt. I can’t live without lemons because they have an aroma and acidity that you don’t get with anything else. Pretty much everything else – meat, herbs and veg – is produced locally.”
A softly-spoken and unassuming type (unlike certain other Michelin-starred chefs), McEvoy maintains that humility is an essential quality for high-end cheffing. “You can’t be ego-driven and cook something that’s lovely and delicate and balanced,” he says. “Especially in a small kitchen. You’ve basically got four hours to shine and, within that time, everyone has to have a role. You have to be equidistant from each other; it’s like a maths problem. You have to have eyes in the back of your head, you need to be aware of people around you. And you need to be cool-headed and even-tempered. You can’t lose your mind because then everyone else loses theirs.
“All you’re doing is making food for people and trying to keep yourself happy at the same time,” he continues. “I try to keep that in mind. Because you lose so much – you lose your family time, your health isn’t the best. You’re working night-time hours in a little box with shit ventilation half the time. Once you can keep your head, in a humble sort of way, you’re on to a winner.”