- Lifestyle & Sports
- 06 Mar 19
The enfant terrible of Irish cooking, DYLAN McGRATH, has grown up but there’s still plenty of fire in his belly – and wildly inventive food coming out of his kitchens. Michelin stars, veganism, Brexit, bombs, Beyoncé and the agonising illness that threatened his career are all on the menu as STUART CLARK meets him in the newly opened Shelbourne Social.
Born on August 4, 1977 in Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital, chef Dylan McGrath spent his first six years in Carlow before being transplanted to the Falls Road at the heart of The Troubles.
“In Carlow we played cops and robbers, in Belfast it was hoods and Provis – the IRA and car thieves,” he noted when Hot Press first interviewed him back in 2009. “A lot of my friends were joyriders who, caught by the IRA, would’ve been either shot or given a heavy punishment beating. A bomb would go off in the distance, and you wouldn’t even remark on it because that was your everyday reality.”
“Fucked out” (as he eloquently put it) of Portrush Catering College, Dylan learned his chef-ly skills in Belfast’s starred Roscoff restaurant and in London, where he also received plenty of life lessons.
“I’ve seen punches thrown in a kitchen, headbutts and even a stabbing,” he told us at the time.
After further stints in San Sebastian, Vegas and New York, McGrath returned to Dublin, opened Mint and started getting food critics in a right old tizzy with “three or four ingredients – bam, bam, bam!” dishes like Langoustine Ravioli, Braised Pig’s Head & Pumpkin Soup (which was even more glorious than it sounds). A Michelin star followed. And then the recession hit.
Inspired, rather than cowed, by the death of the Celtic Tiger, he subsequently took up residence in Dublin 2 where his Rustic Stone and Fade St. Social restaurants and bars have proved that top-notch food doesn’t have to be excessively pricey or riven with gourmand snobbery. Indeed, everything was going very much according to plan, until in 2014, the former MasterChef Ireland judge was struck by a chronic back condition that ended up requiring major surgery.
“I was screaming at the top of my voice with pain,” Dylan revealed when he went public about what had been keeping him out of the kitchen. “My whole arm was numb. I couldn’t feel one whole side of my body or eat. I thought my life was over.”
Thankfully, that illness is a thing of the past. While still undergoing rigorous physio, McGrath’s workload is almost back to its pre-illness levels of craziness.
We’re snagging him today as he takes care of lunch service at Shelbourne Social, the split-level polished wood and plush leather banquette restaurant that opened before Christmas in D4. It’s a key component of the Number One Ballsbridge development where you’ll pay around €3,300 a month for a two-room apartment and upwards of €6,000 for one of the penthouses. Eye-wateringly costly or not, there have been plenty of takers.
Buzz-wise, the restaurant is pure Manhattan, chi-chi but not pretentious, with laughter, conversations and the clinking of glasses the overriding soundtrack. I’m easily the worst dressed person in the room, but then again I’m usually the worst dressed person in my local chipper. Dylan is all smiles as he pokes his head out of the kitchen door to see if we’re enjoying the Duck Paparadelle. The business empire may have got substantially bigger, but his almost boyish passion for food remains the same.
We’ll talk more about the grub later, but first let’s find out what makes Dylan McGrath tick…
Stuart Clark: When we met in 2009, I’d just come back from chatting to Liam Gallagher – and yours was by far the more rock ‘n’ roll of the two interviews. You laid into one of the chefs on an afternoon chat show. Have you mellowed since then?
Dylan McGrath: (Laughs) You’d have to ask other people that! I’m probably less judgmental of others than I was ten years ago. This is a tough old business to be in. We have a cost of living here, we have a minimum wage, we have a ratio to rent, we’ve a VAT bill. It’s remarkable how many different elements there are to opening and sustaining a place. You’d be surprised the amount of restaurants that look like they’re doing well but are struggling.
You’ve smaller ones run by passionate people who really, really care, who should be charging double. Standards cost money. There’ll be a lot of openings this year, but there will also be a lot of closures. The VAT increase on restaurants (up from 9% to 13.5%) isn’t very helpful. You can’t always absorb that. Dublin is full every weekend with people from abroad, all of whom are eating out. Restaurants are a big part of the city’s appeal. You don’t want them going home and saying, “Ireland’s expensive.”
And yet it feels like we’re nearly back to where we were before the crash.
We’re better than we were, without a doubt. We’ve done as we were told and taken austerity on the chin; we’ve been a good little boy! Ireland is in a much better place than it was twenty years ago, that’s for sure.
Going back to 2009, how much of a hedonist were you then?
When I was in my twenties, all I did was work. When I was doing Mint, and before that when I was in London with Tom Aikens, I’d sleep for three or four hours a night. It was relentless. I didn’t stop pushing my body, all day long. I was in the kitchen, not eating properly – which is ironic, I know – and working, working, working. I wasn’t looking after myself very well as a person. If I’d heaped drink and drugs on top of that, I wouldn’t have lasted.
There’s been a lot of talk about the mental health issues arising from that toxic kitchen culture.
And it’s a great conversation to have. The catering industry is full of people pushing themselves beyond where they should be pushing themselves. You have to ask yourself, “What am I actually getting from all that ambition?” Anxiety or a stroke? It’s like, am I driving the bus or is it driving me? Eventually, your body says, “No, it’s not happening.” And then you’ve got to pick up the bits. You just can’t keep it up. It’s as simple as that.
How’s your physical health now?
I was fucking fucked. I had an operation and my body didn’t heal properly. One side of it was just dead. It’s been a long haul, coming up to three years, to get back to some sort of decent health. When I could walk, I was hobbling around with a stick. I couldn’t exercise and put on weight. Fortunately, I was able to rely on the really good people I have around me to keep moving things forward. I was in physio again today. I’m always watching what I eat, which at the moment is a lot of raw fish and straightforward meat and veg. Nothing past 7.30 at night. As a young person your mentality is that you’re bulletproof. But you’re not.
Dublin is a gossipy city, but it was a while before I heard: “Dylan’s been in the wars.”
These things always get out, don’t they? I don’t know why me being fucking sick is news, but it seemed to be.
As a chef, you have to jump through hoops for the sake of a Michelin star. Are you over all of that?
No, no, not at all. I’m actually in talks at the minute to do a small, little restaurant that allows a handful of guys to cook in a specific way. Very high end, you know, sweet breads and truffles.
The really sexy stuff…
Luxury ingredients at a certain price. There are three new Michelin star restaurants down in Cork. All small little places doing 15, 20 covers maybe and being really creative. It’s not relying on the fact that it does numbers. If I cooked that sort of food here, we’d be dead. You’d frighten the horses. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be a brilliant pot of prawns with a corn stock that you mix at the table. We’re tossing the pappardelle into whole wheels of Parmesan. I’m doing a stew at the minute where we grill the raclette cheese and, again, scrape it into the stew at the table.
Sounds fantastic. Keep going!
We’ve brilliant beef done with excellent pickled onion rings. We’ve a Wagyu burger – man, it’s good! – and chicken wings with an Asian twist. We’ve put a ‘nearly cooked’ appetiser section on. The RDS and the Aviva are both round the corner, so we’re doing a sharing concept on rugby match days. You just rip up some good chicken we’ve smoked in-house and have it with, maybe, a little side-car of foie gras mashed potatoes. Or we’ll put a whole trout on the table. They’re not high-end Michelin-pleasing dishes, they’re crowd-pleasers.
Your signature starter is the hot curd bread, which you can have with butter and honey for six euro and shaved foie gras for twenty-two.
The Chinese, the Lebanese, the Japanese, the Moroccans, the Americans: everyone’s done a version of the hot-style bread. We wanted to do something that was local, so we looked at fermented potato but we couldn’t get the texture right. We got a flavour from goat’s curd, so that’s what’s on the menu. We cook it as large pieces of bread, which you rip up and have with your pulled lamb or your hen’s egg or whatever. It’s turning the bread course into an appetizer. I had a guy in here recently who was in charge of selling a £100 million bread company. He was like, “Keep cooking that to order, it’s brilliant.” I like doing complicated, but simple can also be fucking awesome. This is not a fine dining restaurant; we’re trying to bring quality to the middle market.
Did being an anchor tenant in a building like One Ballsbridge make Shelbourne Social a no-brainer for you?
There’s always a risk, always a gamble. You need to be aware of where the country’s at; you need to be aware of what’s here in terms of community and the densely populated corporate area that is Shelbourne Road, and then try to bring something that would be embraced on this side of the city. So I went across to America and looked at some of the different food trends over there. I love Spain and Barcelona, although in that case I should call it Cataluña. All of our restaurants are unique. They have to be different to what else is out there.
Having grown up in Belfast, what’s your take on Brexit?
It looks to me that Britain’s in major fucking trouble. I mean, there’s so many different ways this can unfold. We’re going to be the only English-speaking country in Europe. Noticing a lot of the customers around here, and the different people moving to Ireland or thinking of moving here, it could be a positive. For Ireland, not Britain. If they don’t do something soon, they’re going be hemorrhaging businesses. They probably already are.
What about the role the DUP are playing in what I regard as a wanton act of self-harm?
Northern Ireland and its silly backwards thinking, which has been steeped in legacy and the passing on of ‘traditions’ from one generation to another. I’ve watched a few interviews with normal, hard-working business people in the Protestant community who get what’s at stake. The others and the DUP, especially, will only start getting it when they’re directly affected in their pockets. By then it’ll be too late.
My mother, who’s 89, from Kent and a life-long Conservative supporter, has developed a pathological hatred of Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley Jr.
To us it’s kind of amusing, because it’s throwing these people who no one cared about into the spotlight. It is what it is. It won’t last forever. At some point it will stop. What’s most important is for Ireland to stay optimistic, and continue to try and be innovative and creative. And I think we’ve a great forward-thinking country.
A bunch of gammony Brits were complaining that their favourite high street pastry purveyors, Gregg’s, were kowtowing to the P.C. brigade, bringing out a Quorn-y ‘Vegan Roll’ version of their clog-the-artery sausage rolls.
Look, supply and demand. If people want to eat more healthily or they feel like they’re making a moral choice or it’s really fashionable to be in the no meat/ no dairy/no eggs/no anything club, we have to have choices. We’re a restaurant. At the minute one of the guys in the kitchen is making a mayonnaise with no dairy.
I did a week as a vegan recently for the Pat Kenny Show, and made a wicked mayo out of soya milk, lemon juice and canola oil.
Get in the kitchen! I’m in the camp where if I can get it to taste good and it belongs in the dish, then I’m a fan. It’s challenging for us as chefs because the flavour’s in the fat.
Yes, but would you date a vegan?
(Laughs) No, I don’t think so! It’d be a bit like going out with a devil worshipper. It’s sacrilegious somehow. Look, everybody makes their choices differently. I just think it’s very difficult to keep the flavour because there’s so many things you can’t have. Like, do you want an apple? There are rules in cooking relating to cream and fat. I’ve always found that there’s the flavour camp and the health camp. What we’ve tried to do in Rustic Stone is join the two. If we just had healthy dishes we wouldn’t do the business. I need a steak and a burger on the menu, but we’ve also got a Superfood Salad and a vegan dessert that I’m proud to put my name to.
Would you do an upmarket supermarket line like Heston Blumenthal has for Waitrose?
I’ve been offered different things. If something is going to be a lot of time and effort and isn’t going to equate to more than just a cottage industry, then it has to be a “no!” We’re back to population again – the UK’s, what, 60 million-plus? North and South combined, Ireland’s under seven million. If you look at everything I’ve done since coming home twelve years ago, it’s contributed to the overall state of what I’m building. They’re worth the time; they’re worth the effort; they’re worth the leadership; they’re worth the commitment.
Were you an Anthony Bourdain fan?
I was aware of him, of course. I’ve read Kitchen Confidential.
Any parallels with your early career?
(Laughs) Not violent enough! No, look, Anthony was a culinary adventurer who made people aware of lots of different types of food and restaurants. He’d tell you about that off-the-beaten-track place for sushi or a hot dog or a kebab. You can’t beat that.
He famously told Madonna to “fuck off” when she rocked up at his brasserie in Manhattan with her own germ-free egg yolks and asked him to make her an omelette. Have you had any bizarre celebrity requests?
Just recently, somebody wanted a load of sushi brought onto a private jet. We did it for two or three days. Some people like to live like that and we’re happy to accommodate them. When musicians play gigs in Dublin, Fade Street and Rustic are among the restaurants they tend to visit. We’ve had Jay-Z and Beyoncé in… who we didn’t tell to fuck off!
What’s your go-to comfort food?
People like to think that chefs live on lobster and truffles, but I’m a roast chicken guy. I like a big Sunday lunch. Lots of gravy. It reminds me of home.
In our last interview, you painted a very vivid picture of what it was like growing up on the Falls Road.
When I go back now and visit family, it’s phenomenal how they’ve managed to climb out of this deep, dark hole. For it to be relatively normal after the murders and killings on both sides. The way it spiraled out of control was really, really crazy. The people I know that were hurt in it. The people I know that were damaged in it. The places you couldn’t go. The beatings. It’s amazing that they were able to park all that stuff. And it’s because normal people don’t want to go back to that.
When I saw the bomb going off in Derry the other day on TV, my blood went cold.
It looked like a news bulletin from the 1970s, didn’t it? You’re going back to a time when Catholics couldn’t vote. Basic civil rights. I don’t see anything like that time now, but there are still dangers. Never underestimate how bad the remaining bad guys are. If there’s a hard border, they’ll look to exploit it in all sorts of different ways.
With the likes of Ox and George’s Market, Belfast is a great food city. Would you do a restaurant there?
I’ve been asked this many times, and the answer’s always been “no.” As much as I love it and my family are there, Belfast is very small. It’s only 300,000 people. Everything it needs is in the communities. The communities are isolated. They don’t venture into town on Saturday night.
Which is a hangover from when bombs would go off in the city-centre, without fail, every Saturday at 9pm.
It’s still a wilderness. I think you need to transport about two million people and dump them into Belfast. Maybe import them like the settlers from Scotland all over again. Draw people, you know? I think Belfast needs a bigger population for it to really function. Having said that, some of the people who are making it there are world class. I love Ox and we had a lovely meal as well in Michael Deane’s Eipic, which is that 20, 25-cover thing I was talking about. Michael’s a bit like us in that he’s had to create all these different offerings – Meat Locker, Love Fish, Deane’s Deli – to make the overall thing work. He’s the definition of a food hero.
Have you looked at London or New York and thought, “I’d love to have a go there”?
I think it’s possible to develop a style of restaurant that could work in other cities. It’s an interesting time where more and more people want to be relaxed and have a fun night out. Right now, I’m focused on being here. I think I’m phenomenally fortunate that I can live among my family and still be in business. I’m going to continue to try and be innovative and see where it takes me next.
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