Owner of three hugely popular Galway restaurants – including the Michelin-starred Aniar – JP McMahon has become one of the country’s most controversial chefs. He discusses Twitter spats, falling out with his head chef and best friend Enda McEvoy, the stresses of maintaining a successful business – and why so many chefs fall prey to sex, drink and drugs.
Arriving at Aniar restaurant on Dominick Street at midday on a balmy Tuesday, Hot Press finds its owner and head chef JP McMahon deep in conversation with his staff. “Sorry Olaf, but we’re not quite done here yet,” the 37-year-old restaurateur apologises. “I’ll meet you in the café across the road.”
Damn! Aniar is the first Galway restaurant ever to earn a Michelin star, and I’d been hoping we’d eat during the course of the interview. Stomach growling in protest, I cross the street and order an Americano.
Fifteen minutes later McMahon arrives, still apologising. The coffee shop is quite noisy so I suggest we go to the pub on the corner instead. A look of alarm crosses his face. He’d rather not go to that particular establishment. “The owner doesn’t like me very much,” he explains. “We had a falling-out over a loading bay.”
We opt to go to Neachtain’s on Quay Street instead.
With his red beard, wireless glasses and striking tattoos (he has a large butcher’s diagram of a pig on one arm), McMahon is a very familiar face (and body!) around Galway. He and his wife, Drigin Gaffey, own and run three successful local restaurants – Aniar, Cava Bodega (a Spanish tapas bar on Middle Street) and EAT Gastropub (in Massimo on Sea Road). I don’t know him personally, but his two young daughters attend the same school as my own children, so we’re on nodding terms.
Of course, McMahon is well-known outside of the City of the Tribes as well. A regular food columnist for The Irish Times, he’s something of a celebrity in foodie circles and has been known to hit the headlines occasionally. The departure of his head chef and best friend Enda McEvoy soon after Aniar won the Michelin star in 2013 raised a few eyebrows. Although the official word was that the split was amicable, the rumours say otherwise. McEvoy set up his own restaurant, Loam, which won its own star last year. Under new chef Ultan Cooke and then, following Cooke’s departure, McMahon himself, Aniar has so far successfully retained its star.
McMahon isn’t renowned for his diplomatic skills. In 2014, following a series of no-shows at Aniar, he posted an angry tweet on his @mistereatgalway account: “To the 7 people who didn’t show up in Aniar and booked. Go fuck yourself. We have only 28 seats.” The tweet went viral and he got dog’s abuse online. But you could see his point!
Just last week, he did it again with another tweet about the Galway Races: “Abusive customers. Drunk and disrespectful. People pissing and vomiting on door. I’ll close the restaurants for #GalwayRaces next year.”
Whether he will or not remains to be seen, but the publicity can’t have done any harm – especially given that many disgruntled locals agree that the Galway Races is getting out of hand.
We find a quiet booth in Neachtain’s and get going. Twitchy and animated, McMahon is obviously an intense type, as many hugely talented chefs tend to be.
OLAF TYARANSEN: What’s your earliest memory?
JP MCMAHON: I have very few memories of being very young, and then sometimes I’m not sure if they were photographs that I saw later on– but I definitely have memories of playing in the garden in Clondalkin. We were there until I was three or four, and I fell down the stairs and that’s probably why one of my teeth is crooked, because my father stuck it back up rather than going to the dentist. That’s what you did back then, you said, “Just stick it in and see if it works.”
You’re a Dubliner then?
I suppose I’m a confused Dubliner because I grew up in Kildare. My wife always attests that I went to school in Maynooth and therefore I’m from Kildare, but I just couldn’t be from Kildare (smiles). I don’t know what it is about Kildare, but I have an affinity for Dublin – not only the place, but for the history and for a lot of the writers. For me, spiritually or intellectually, Dublin is the place. Both my grandparents were from Dublin. I don’t really have anything other than school memories of Maynooth, and there’s no sense of belonging when I go there.
What kind of upbringing did you have?
A very average one. My father had a masters of physics, but he didn’t teach until we were much older. There were six of us and in the ‘80s he had no job, so most of the ‘80s is coloured by that. I mean, the television went and then the phone went and then the car went – and that was the latter half of the ‘80s. It was a difficult time, and myself and my brother were the two oldest of the six and so we felt that. But saying that, we definitely had good times. I don’t think I ever had a great talent for being happy, but we used to go out to my grandparents – one of them in Bray and one of them in Stillorgan – and, yeah, they were probably good times.
Were you scarred by that?
A little bit. I mean when the economy came back, I don’t think I was as affected as much the second time, after the crash, because we had just opened Cava. It never felt as bad to me, as things were in the ‘80s. I mean, you got your brother’s clothes. All the clothes from the winter went up to the attic. They came back down the next winter... There wasn’t a lot of money. It wasn’t really until, say, the mid-‘90s, when a lot of money came back to the country, that our father started teaching in the university in Maynooth and then things stabilised, but growing up in the ‘80s was definitely difficult.
What were you like at school?
I wasn’t very academic at all. I enjoyed school, but I didn’t fare very well. I did mostly pass subjects. I went back to college as a mature student so I see myself as a very late learner. I came top in English in university in my final year. There was all this emphasis on the Leaving Cert. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I got 250 points. I always say to people, “OK, I have a few restaurants and I have a degree, but it’s not what you do in your teens that’s necessarily going to make you – you’re going to do something later on.” I got expelled from school in the end. I had a troubled time between 16 and 17, and I was just rebelling a lot and dying my hair red and fuckin’ all sorts of messing.
But your hair is already red!
I dyed it chilli red! (laughs) I was being sent home and fuckin’ floodin the bathroom and doing all sorts of things. Just typical teenage behaviour. I’m sure I’d give myself a slap now if I saw myself. It’s all a learning curve.
What kind of food did you eat at home?
We ate very conservatively. I still remember the first day we had pasta as a monumental event, sometime in the late ‘80s. Before that it was just meat and two veg. You had fish on Monday and offal on another day, and you went to your grandparents. The posh grandparents always had the table set – before breakfast you’d set the table and then you’d eat, and then you’d set the table for dinner, then lunch. You weren’t allowed out until the table was completely set. And then my granny in Bray – a pure working class Fianna Fail head – liked grilling sausages until they were black and beans that tasted like aluminium. They were the two poles of being brought up in terms of food.
So where did the interest in food come from?
I was always interested in food. I did home economics, not necessarily out of choice. I had bad asthma when I was a kid and it was that or woodwork, so I went into home economics with two lads, and the rest were women. I actually left school for a period of time at about 15 and I went cheffing for a summer. I continued to chef until December, and it didn’t work out and I went back to fifth year. I suppose that coloured what I wanted to do when I left school. I liked cooking and I always saw it as a means to travel.
What did you do when you finished school?
I cheffed for a while. I did an awful lot of things. I was a postman for a while. I worked in shops. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. After school, for some reason, I got really into writing and into poetry. Francis Ledwidge was a relative on my grandmother’s side and someone gave me one of his books, and I read that and I suppose I got into poetry and started to write poetry. I liked Heaney at that stage. My brother actually gave me an anthology and that was the first time I read Beckett.
Which is pretty impressive for a guy who barely got through school!
A lot of the time I was reading and writing, I was actually trying to make up for secondary school, where I did nothing. So I read a lot and taught myself an awful lot about everything – about French philosophy and all sorts of things that I suppose I never did in school. And I just worked, and a lot of my work fed into to how much reading time it would give me. I have a very obsessive personality, and when I start to do something I follow it through. I still have that. I still enjoy writing and I write an awful lot just for myself.
What kind of stuff?
I write fiction and drama and poetry (shrugs), but cooking was always something that brought in a wage. When I first moved down to Galway in ’99, I started working in Fat Freddy’s [restaurant], and then me and my wife went off to Edinburgh and I cooked there, and then we came to Cork and I cooked in Cork.
When did you get married?
We met in ‘99 and we got married in 2008. Then we opened Cava together. We travelled together and she was actually cooking as well, and also doing front of house. Then she went back to college to do a Masters in drama and she did that for a while. I wouldn’t say the ambition was to do something else, but cooking was always there as a failsafe. After I did my degree and I started my PhD, cooking was something I went back to, because cooking was always something I knew, and it gave you a wage.
When did you get your first tattoo?
I think when I was 16. I got a little Celtic tattoo. And then when I was 17, I got a Jim Morrison one. I think now I have about 14.
Where’s the Jim Morrison one?
Here (rolls up leg of right trouser: it’s a portrait of the late singer). For me, they’re like personal markers. I mean there’s always something quite personal. I like Beckett and Joyce, and I have quotes from them tattooed on me.
What was the Morrison one about?
I just loved The Doors. I still love the music of The Doors, but I suppose as any teenager you have that kind of ‘60s/’70s revival in the mid-‘90s and you had The Doors. I was in a band and I played guitar and all of us were into The Doors. I suppose I liked that sense of freedom, plus Morrison’s lyrics, his interest in Nietzsche and all these different things, I was like, ”Oh my god, I’m into those things!” So it was something to identify with. It’s on my leg so I hardly ever think about. It’s there and I did it when I was 17 and it’s a nice marker. In the same way I have a pig tattooed on me now – so it’s part of me.
You used to be a vegetarian, didn’t you?
Yeah (laughs). I was a vegetarian from about 16 to 21. I think I became a vegetarian as a rebellious teenager into ethical considerations and not eating meat and different things. I remember I was down in Cork and I was still cheffing and I’d get an awful slagging from other chefs: “You have to taste the meat!” And sometimes I’d have to taste it. Anyway, I started eating meat again and I enjoy it. I still love veg. I still love making veg a really important part of food, and sometimes making the vegetables the star of the dish. But I’m not a vegetarian anymore.
Restaurant workers are renowned for their hedonistic tendencies. Was it a sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle when you started cheffing?
Absolutely! There was a lot of drinking and a lot of not going to bed, and then going into work and getting an hour’s sleep. That was the culture and I followed it to a certain degree, but I’m not the best drinker in the world. I love drinking and I love wine, but I have very little tolerance for hangovers. I get the worst hangovers: that was my saving grace – that I could never deal with being hungover very well, and that would always stop me.
What about drugs?
I was never big into drugs. I smoked hash, but I never got into the psychedelic side of things. I was always tempted.
Even though you were into The Doors?
I remember plenty of times there was a tab of acid right in front of me, and I was always tempted but I never did it. I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of my imagination, but I have a very active imagination – and I’ve had enough fucking psychological issues without having to take acid!
How do you mean?
I already feel like I’m borderline unstable: “It could maybe turn out good – maybe I’ll take this now.” Many times it was magic mushroom season, and the lads would end up making mushroom tea, and – I don’t know why, but always there’s a fear of the unknown. I’d never end up doing them. I suppose I always want to try and live it vicariously – and I suppose I do that very well by experiencing life very vicariously and looking at other people. I do that a lot through cooking and travelling. That’s why I like reading accounts of people being in different states – whether it’s Burroughs or Bacon. I get something from that.
What about coke or speed?
No. Never (shakes head).
Have you ever had sex in the kitchen?
I’ve had sex in the restaurant, but never in the kitchen! I’ve found plenty of my staff having sex in the restaurant. It’s funny because once or twice you open the door – it’s after hours – and you go, “Oh yeah, sorry... yes... see ye later!” And it’s not even, “What are ye doing having sex on table 15?” (laughs). But then it’s almost just part of it. It’s almost accepted. It’s a very bizarre lifestyle. Maybe that’s what attracted me so much to cooking initially, the kinda rock ‘n’ roll element. It was so far removed from how it was when I grew up. All of a sudden you were in this environment where it’s ok to be drunk, it’s ok to come in hungover. It’s so removed –and particularly when I’ve spent most of my formative years in Galway, from about 20 to 23 or 24, and I came back when I was 26. That influenced me a lot.
You went to UCC as a mature student. Was that all you were doing?
For two years I saved a lot of money from cheffing when I knew I was gonna go back to college. So for the first two years I didn’t have to work and I literally treated it like a 9 to 5 job, and I did well. It was good – there were a lot of shit things about the country, but the fact that I was able to go back to get a mature student’s allowance was amazing. Effectively, I was getting €280 a week to go to college – I think it’s terrible that it’s getting more and more difficult to get that. I see myself now as a product of that, and if you can get more people in their 20s and 30s as a mature student to go to college and give them €300 euros a week and they come out better off, then I think it’s money well spent.
It’s an investment.
Yeah, it’s an investment. It’s not free education: you’re investing in people. And then when we came back to Galway, I was doing a PhD, I was teaching down in Cork part time on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and I just started cheffing again. I went back to Fat Freddy’s and I was doing part-time on the weekends and I did that for a year or two.
You opened Cava in 2008. How did you fund that?
We opened with next to no money. The bank wouldn’t give us anything. I got money from my father and from my brother, and we didn’t really know what we were doing at all. I wanted to explore Spanish food. It’s all I wanted to do – so I thought “OK, let’s open a tapas restaurant!” We loved Spain, we’ve been there a lot and my wife’s brother lived there. A lot of my sense of Spain I got through reading. Everything I do is through reading. I wouldn’t say I’m an intellectual, but I’m very cerebral.
Is your wife equally cerebral?
My wife is much more experiential, she wants to go and do it and I’ll just read and learn it that way. When we opened Cava first, we had a lot of disgruntled Spaniards going, “How long did you live in Spain for?” And I had never lived in Spain. I’ve travelled there and I just love the food. I mean, you look at food and you apply your own practice to it. We had Spanish chefs come through and we had a lot of help from everyone – like I mean Jess [Murphy] and Enda [McEvoy] gave us a hand. And we got there.
How was business initially?
It took about two years to get off the ground. They were a hard two years and it really wasn’t until Tom Doorley gave us a review in 2010 or 2011 – I remember Seamus [Sheridan] brought him in one evening and he wrote in The Irish Times that we were one of the best tapas bars in Ireland, and that really changed things. For the next three years things were good, and in that period we opened up Aniar. Sheridans on the Docks had closed. I was a good friend of Enda’s [who had been head chef at Sheridan’s – OT]. I suppose I wanted to open up another restaurant and explore something else.
You picked a funny time to open a new place...
Yeah, the downside is that it was five years ago. It had been an extremely difficult year and I don’t know how much I lost, probably about €100,000. It was something that I personally wanted to keep going and the pressure was there. It was soaking up all of Cava’s profits – all of it! – and I just didn’t want to let it go. I knew it was something unique and when we were awarded the [Michelin] star the place just fucking exploded. It exploded in a good way and a bad way. It exploded into international attention for six months. After the star, we were full every single night.
Did winning the Michelin star put a lot of pressure on you?
Oh, it put a massive amount of pressure on me, particularly, but on myself and Enda and my wife. I mean I was best friends with Enda, his wife was best friends with my wife, and all of a sudden the restaurant imploded and to a certain degree we lost control.
Imploded or exploded?
A little bit of both in the sense that – say with bookings – before you got the star you could do the reservations yourself on your phone, because there wouldn’t be that many and we weren’t particularly busy. And then it was like Saturday night for six months. We got the star in October – and nine months after that there wasn’t one person left in the kitchen who had been there when we got the star.
Why was that?
I wouldn’t say that was the consequence of the star. Enda always said that he would be there for two years, and I understood that, but it was such a massive achievement – because it’s something Enda always wanted.
How about you?
For me, it wasn’t something I ever thought about much. When we opened, Sheridan’s had a Bib Gourmand, so we set it up in a sense that it’d be really nice to get one, too.
Explain a Bib Gormand for the uninitiated...
A Bib Gourmand is like good value eating. I wouldn’t say that it’s below the star, but it’s an accreditation for good value eating. It’s not a star, but it’s more than an entry level – and that’s what we thought we’d get. We didn’t have loads of money to put into the dining room. My brother was front of house. We had no receptionist. We opened Aniar with €60,000 and the kitchen cost €40,000 so we didn’t have an awful lot of money. So to get that star was just... All of a sudden, there was all this attention on Enda and on myself. That caused a lot of problems as well because it became like… who owns the star? Is it the restaurant or is it the chef?
Who does own the star?
Of course, we wouldn’t have gotten it without Enda. But Enda wouldn’t have gotten it without the restaurant.
Are you guys still friends?
No. Unfortunately not, no. For as much as I would love to be, circumstances, just you know…. (pauses). He was the best man at my wedding. We were best friends for 17 years. Did a Michelin star destroy that? I dunno. I went one way and Enda went another way.
Have you eaten in Loam?
Yeah, absolutely! I love Loam. I mean, more restaurants like Aniar and Loam are good for the city. I don’t know. My wife and Enda’s wife aren’t friends anymore, either. At the start, the only way I can conceptualise it is that Enda didn’t like talking to the media. He wanted to be in the kitchen. So I talked to the media. I did a lot of the PR stuff for Aniar, tried to put the message out there, and once we won the star there was still that thing where Enda would go, “You talk to them.” So I would talk to them, and I suppose I got associated with the star as well. I kept on saying to people that I own the restaurant. At that stage, I wasn’t cooking in it that much and now I’m cooking in it full-time.
You’re the head chef at Aniar now?
I ended up back in Aniar out of sheer necessity, because I love the project. I went through Enda leaving and it was massively difficult to fill that position. My friend Ultan [Cooke} from London came over, and then Ultan only stayed two years again. It came to the point where it’s such a particular project that I couldn’t find anyone. I mean, it’s not the kind of place where you just advertise. I’ve been there since the beginning. It’s part of my life. It’s a project of passion. Cava funds it. I mean, I love it.
Is Aniar profitable?
It’s not making any money, not at all. It loses money. Last year we lost 80 grand, and this year, touching wood, we’ll lose 40. That’s why I went back in as well. We want to see what way we can do it. Cava’s very stable now. My wife keeps going, “How long are you gonna keep Aniar going? At what point do you decide that’s enough?”
Why do you keep it open if it’s losing so much money?
Aniar has brought a lot of international recognition to Galway – and not only to myself. I’m a very extroverted person and I like meeting new people. So Aniar got the star and I had organised the Food Festival. Fáilte Ireland had the Food Champion Programme and I had the chance to go over to Canada and I met the guy who started Cook It Raw, and he brought me down to Charleston. I suppose I got involved in this circuit and that didn’t help either, because I think Enda begrudged a lot of that – and that’s fair enough, I absolutely understand, but I didn’t take it from him. It was there and I just did it. It has a certain amount of survival instinct as well.
What do you mean?
It’s like this restaurant is going to close unless I do this – and that’s one of the downsides of it. When we opened it, we didn’t know what was going to happen, whereas when Ultan came on board, I was like, “Ultan, you’re going to be running the kitchen and I’m going to do all the external work for Aniar and that’s the way that we divide it.” We had an understanding from when we started, whereas myself and Enda never had that choice.
You hadn’t anticipated the success?
It was like being hit with an avalanche. All of a sudden we were working in the kitchen together. I learned so much from Enda, I followed his lead, and worked on the floor, and enjoyed it as well. Then this fucking star came along and, as I said, the whole place exploded and it was so hard to keep it going. The only constant was my brother and even to this day, not to take anything away from Ultan or Enda, the year after Enda left, we kept the star – and it was because of my brother on the floor.
What did he do?
Well, he was the one constant. Even when Michelin came in, he was the one they talked to, and he was the one who makes or breaks it. They enjoyed the food, but I mean the food is the easiest thing to get right, because once we had a way of doing the food then we could keep that going. It’s the front of house that do an awful lot. That’s why I still never call myself a Michelin star chef, even though it’s two years now that we’ve kept it. The restaurant has a star and there are four or five chefs needed in there. They’re all needed. If the front of house isn’t good, then you’ve nothing, you’ve nothing at all.
If you’re not a Michelin star chef then what are you?
I see myself as the director of the place, I’m the conductor of an orchestra. People play instruments and I conduct them, and maybe I don’t play the instrument as well. You have to go with what you’re best at. For me in terms of being a restaurateur, I love ideas and I love following ideas through – and I know a lot of people follow those ideas. So we do Eat Gastropub. I just say, I want to do really good gastropub food, then you’ve got to bring a lot of people in, and same in Aniar, you’ve gotta bring a lot of people in. And sometimes people begrudge you for that because they say you’ve got less talent than the people you’re employing. I mean my talent is ideas, and that’s what I enjoy.
Do you ever regret winning the Michelin star?
Sometimes. Sometimes I’d prefer to have more friends. I’ve lost a lot of friends through the star, and I’ve attracted a lot of good and bad press. Half of me regrets it, and the other half of me enjoys it. I’ve seen an awful lot of the world that I wouldn’t have seen and I really enjoy that. It’s not something I’d ever pursue again. I’d never open up another restaurant to get a star.
Isn’t the problem really that when you win a Michelin star, you absolutely have to retain it or people think your restaurant has declined?
That’s the Catch-22. I’d hate to lose it, but I’d never pursue it again. We had them in this year and I couldn’t sleep the night before.
I thought the Michelin reviewers were anonymous. How did you know they were coming?
There are a lot of signs that would point to it: a British mobile phone number, a table for one booked three months in advance. Sometimes they come in in twos and fours, but a lot of times they travel alone. At the end of it, they always come into the kitchen, so then you know. They show you the little card from Michelin. They never really talk to you about the meal, they ask you a few questions and all that. They engage, and it’s a much more positive experience than it was five years ago. Before, you didn’t really know what was going on but it’s still nerve-racking and a lot of the chefs in there live for it.
Are you not expected to?
It’s not that I don’t live for it – and I’d hate to lose it. But I hate it when it becomes all-consuming. There’s a very good documentary called The Madness of Michelin on YouTube. It’s a BBC documentary and, I mean, chefs kill themselves over it. Chefs have died over it. I wouldn’t say it’s a fool’s gold, but the getting it is a lot different from keeping it. So getting the star is one thing, maintaining it is a lot more difficult. You get it and you don’t know why you get it – for being great, for different reasons. And then you realise. ‘Oh, we need keep it!’ What do we do? Do we do more? Do we do the same? Do we not innovate? Do we innovate too much – and then you lose it? So it’s a constant war.
You’ve had a few Twitter spats...
Yeah, I’ve had a few (shrugs). The internet has been a driving force in our food culture. I don’t think any of our generation would have gotten to where we have as quickly had it not been for the internet. The previous generation had to work a lot harder. When I talk to, say, Ross Lewis in Chapter One, he had to travel places to learn recipes. He had to go places and physically work there. Whereas now you just go on the internet, google it, and you find great recipes. Nothing will take away from the actual physical experience, but you can get to where you want to go a lot quicker now. Social media has played a huge part in that.
But it’s got its downside too.
I have made so many contacts in places all around the world just because of Twitter. You end up in the Rocky Mountains because of someone you met on Twitter. And that’s the good side of Twitter. The bad side is that it’s kind of an in-between world, where sometimes you say things and they don’t mean anything. And sometimes you say things and they mean everything. Why do some things get picked up and others don’t? Like the recent thing I said about the Galway Races. It was a throwaway comment that I’m tired of people pissing and shitting against the door and that I’m going to close next year.
I know the Races are messy, but did that actually happen?
Oh yeah! Absolutely. Not only this year, but every year there’s an incident. This year someone had a piss on the door and one of my staff had to open the door and say, “Sorry, do you mind? There are still people in the restaurant here.” And then another woman had her arse stuck to the window, because her dress was tucked in. So I was in the kitchen and people at table 6 were laughing saying, “There’s an arse there,” so I had to go out and tell her, “Do you mind?” Last year someone vomited on the doorstep of Cava during service – and you want to fucking punch them!
Are you seriously going to close for the Races next year?
Definitely Aniar. Absolutely. It’s the wrong time, the wrong market.
Surely you make a lot of money during Race Week?
It’s a myth that all this money comes into the city. Well, it does – but it mostly comes into the pubs and hotels and, to a certain degree, into the restaurants. Cava does very well out of Race Week. The week before, with the Arts Festival, is a much nicer week. And I think, rather than just continue giving out every year – I mean this must be the fifth year and people just get fucking sick of me giving out. Don’t get me wrong: I love fucking drinking, and I love food and drinking. I love the culture. I love the European wine bar model. I love Sheridan’s Wine Bar – meat, cheese, drinking and all that. But the sense of drinking the cheapest pints possible, and getting a load of takeaway, for me is not culture.
And the Races are mired in that?
The Galway Races is not the most important week of the year in Galway. I know it has seemed that way for years. We have such good festivals down in Galway – the Arts Festival, the Film Fleadh, the Theatre Festival, Barboro [Children’s Festival], the Food Festival, and so on. Galway is the city of festivals and every year more festivals come through, and you find you’re busy in November when you weren’t six years ago. We’re only open five days. This year, the Tuesday and Wednesday were a disaster, Thursday we had a load of no shows – that was when your man had a slash in the door. Friday was quiet because the Races were on at night, and Saturday was busy. So it was pretty much down to one day. So I think it’s time to call it a day, for me and Aniar, in Race Week.
You’ve complained on Twitter about people booking and then not showing up. Do you ever suspect that it’s other restaurateurs trying to fuck up your business?
I don’t think so. One of my staff says this must be people fucking you up, because you give out so much. I couldn’t imagine that someone would be that fucking nasty, but maybe they are. Maybe I’m naïve.
Why don’t you just take their credit card details in advance?
We don’t have a culture of taking credit cards in Ireland. People always go, “Just take the card details and charge for a cancellation.” Maybe in Dublin, but not here. If people refuse to give you a credit card, maybe you can refuse to take the booking once, but you can’t do that four times in a row. It’s a business. And by and large a lot of people say, “I’m not going to give you my credit card and what are you going to do about it?” Most of the time, you’ll take the booking anyway.
Do you try to charge for cancellations?
To date, we’ve only charged one person for not showing up. I still say to people, “Just ring us. Ring us half-an-hour before.” We had eight – four twos – not show up on the Thursday of the Races – just fucking ignorant people, not answering the phone, hang up on you, tell you to “fuck off!” Thursday at the Races is the worst day. Everybody should close on Thursday because it’s just all-day street drinking everywhere. I’m not giving out about the pub trade, because that’s not what’s fucking us up. I don’t have people who are in the pubs coming down to have a slash against the window of Aniar. It’s just street drinking.
Are there double standards in operation here?
If that was Rag Week, they would stop it straight away, but they don’t stop it – because it’s the Races. So that means the city needs to question itself by asking, “Why is it ok to be really fucked-up in public sometimes, and not ok to be fucked-up at other times?” And the answer is because there’s a lot of money behind it.
Do you have a bad temper?
Sometimes. My wife would say I do. I think I have a repressed bad temper. It builds up and builds up. I think I have that Irish thing where you don’t articulate, you don’t talk enough, you just fucking repress things – and then all of a sudden you lose the plot. And possibly, one of the defining moments of my life would be the falling-out between myself and Enda. The friendship, the two best men at my wedding were both chefs and me – and now none of us talk anymore.
Is there an underlying reason?
Possibly that was because we weren’t able to talk enough, we weren’t able to sit down unless we were drunk and then things would come out. We weren’t able to sit down and say, “Do you know what I don’t like about that?” But we never did that, we just drifted apart. Our kids are still friends. Sometimes I just think, ‘What a load of bollocks, fuck it, it’s just food!’ People have gone to war, I’m sure, over fucking less, but we just had food. If we had guns it would be a different fucking story.
How do you let off steam?
I still train a bit. I run and try and release it somehow. I think it’s really important in the restaurant industry that you do some kind of physical activity, because the only alternative to that is drink, drugs, sex and coke. I see that changing. You look at restaurateurs in London: they used to be heroin addicts and now they run marathons. Or now they do 10Ks. It’s either/or. Either you go down that route and it fucking kills you or you go the other route where you go, “I have to call it a day.” It’s still so hard: you’ve just been molested for four hours and all you want to do is have a drink.
Do you drink much after work?
It’s still something I struggle with every fucking week. I say, “God, I should try and fucking drink less.” Because you’re in a restaurant and there’s wine. You have a glass or two, then there’s three or four, and then you’re fucking up again, the kids are there, and then you’re back into work. It’s a cycle, and it’s very, very hard to break that.
Is that changing?
I see a lot of the younger chefs and they’re not like that. They go to the gym on their days off or they cycle to work. It’s a good thing. You try and make the environment more sustainable. And I suppose I see myself somewhere in the middle. I don’t take massive amounts of drugs, but I enjoy drinking. I don’t cycle to work, either. I’m not that pure. But I’ve seen too many chefs just fuck themselves up. And then they die. I’ve had a few friends die.
When was the last time you cried?
God(pauses), I don’t know. It wasn’t too long ago. I’m not a very good crier. I mean, the last monumental time I cried was probably at my grandfather’s funeral years ago. I do cry now and then. I suffer from depression. I take fucking medication. I’ve suffered from panic attacks my whole life, and sometimes the shit gets on top of you and you fucking break down. I’d never cry in public. But sometimes I cry just out of sheer fucking frustration.
Do you have a motto in life?
I suppose this (shows Beckett tattoo on left arm: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”). I’ve had a lot of failure in life. I think failure is something that we see as not being part of the process of being successful. But if I hadn’t failed so much, I wouldn’t have got to where I am. Failure can be your friend.