Johnny Sarkozi is the head chef at Brabazon Restaurant at Tankardstown House, an award-winning, fine dining restaurant just outside Slane, Co. Meath.
While culinary skills do indeed run in the family, with his great-grandmother, grandfather, and uncle, all chefs in various sectors, Johnny never considered his cooking skills as a career path until he was 26 years of age. After a few years of study and experience in his native country of Romania, Johnny made the move to Ireland, where his passion for food really came to life.
Johnny began his career in Ireland working in La Mere Zou on St. Stephen’s Green, alongside Chef Graham Dodrill and Chef David O’Byrne. Followed by some more wonderful experience in L’Ecrivain under Chef Derry Clarke, he moved to Scholar’s Townhouse Hotel in Drogheda, Co. Louth.
Johnny first arrived to Tankardstown as a sous chef, but soon wanted to further develop his experience and climb the ranks. His career path continued in various restaurants before making a triumphant return to Brabazon Restaurant as head chef in 2018.
Johnny’s skills and passion for food are evident in his menus at Brabazon Restaurant. From lunch to tasting menus, each is created with great care and attention to detail, seasonality and local produce. Johnny has built relationships with local producers in the Boyne Valley, using as much local and seasonal produce as possible. In addition to this he enjoys working with the kitchen gardeners at Tankardstown and has a strong influence on the produce grown in the polytunnels and walled kitchen garden. The menus change frequently depending on what the local forager turns up with or what the kitchen gardener deems to be in perfect condition.
Where do you cook and what do you love most about your restaurant?
I joined Brabazon Restaurant 5 years ago and I’ve enjoyed every moment. Tankardstown is like a second home for me where the staff are like my second family. From the lovely exterior and interior setting of the restaurant, the kitchen gardens, my kitchen, the staff, and the management, working in the Brabazon is a dream come true.
Restaurants you will never get sick of visiting?
I have always enjoyed going to restaurants where chefs are continuously pushing the boundaries in creating new and exciting dishes.
What is the best food memory you have?
Although I worked alongside a lot of good chefs cooking different cuisines from Spanish tapas to Michelin standard plates, my most fond memories go back to the times when, as a child, I’d be spending my summer holidays in my grandparents’ house back in Transylvania. A simple dish like stewed carrots with garlic brings me back instantaneously to those happy days.
Describe your food philosophy.
One of my philosophies is that in order to produce great food you either have to purchase top shelf ingredients or to take ordinary produce and to turn it into an extraordinary product. In our restaurant we take the second approach, always using due diligence when it comes to food cost. We try to use everything regardless of its cost price. Even in the case of a simple ingredient like broccoli or cauliflower we wouldn’t only use the florets but the stem and leaves as well.
Here at Tankardstown we are fortunate enough to have our own gardens, where we grow not only vegetables but also fruit and herbs. Our bees provide us with the tastiest honey money can’t buy. From our woodlands we forage mushrooms, elderflower, berries, and nuts.
What do you cook when you don’t feel like cooking?
When in the restaurant, regardless of whether I feel like cooking or not there is a job that needs to be done and personal issues or states of mind cannot alter the cooking process, however if I’m at home and don’t feel like cooking (which doesn’t happen very often) I would “knock up” a quick pasta dish.
Why do you love working in the Irish food industry?
I love it because the industry as a whole never fails to surprise me. All the great chefs, the beautiful restaurants and hotels, the passionate farmers, and growers, the high standard of ingredients. From the nicest fish, seafood, seaweed that the Irish coasts has to offer to the best beef in Europe, makes Ireland a Mecca for any cook with a passion.
Throughout the years I’ve managed to build up quite a collection of cookbooks. I love most of them, but I’d have to say that my favourite ones would be “Modernist cuisine” by Nathan Myhrvold and “The Food Lab” by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
What is the one ingredient you cannot stand?
Fresh oysters. Oysters are one of those ingredients you either love or hate, and well, I hate them.
I’d like to improve my pastry and baking skills.
Who has influenced your cooking the most?
Like I have said previously, throughout the years I’ve worked with a lot of chefs, some good, some not so good, but I always remember with great pleasure the times spent in the kitchen under the guidance of Robbie Krawczyk in Brabazon Restaurant, and Lumir Tušek and Derry Clarke in L’Ecrivain Restaurant. These chefs were the ones whom not only taught me a lot in regards to food but also work ethic and conduct.
Irish chef you admire most?
I believe the Irish food industry has evolved greatly in the last few years and there are a lot of chefs who inspire and draw admiration to themselves, but if I were to choose only one chef whom I admire the most I’d have to say Jordan Bailey. He raised the bar so high at Aimsir that he can only get the admiration of any cook in the land.
Best piece of advice you’ve received?
Just work hard and keep pushing yourself every day and if you can do a something better, just do it!
Favourite coffee spot?
I really enjoy having a coffee and a nice lunch in Rocksalt in Blackrock, Co. Louth. Whether it’s a lovely sunny summer day and I can dine al fresco, or if it’s a gloomy winter morning, Rocksalt has its own unique charm, and chef Conor Prendergast, who previously worked here at Brabazon Restaurant, always puts the best of the best on his plates.
Favourite Irish producer/ ingredients?
The variety in the Irish food producing sector full of amazing, passionate farmers and growers but there are two producers who are close to my heart and with whom I’ve been working closely for over 8 years. Maria Flynn from Ballymakenny Farm, Co. Louth and Dave Heffernan from Little Cress in Co. Meath. Two producers who always surprise me with new and exciting things.
You are stuck on an island, you can pick a dish to eat forever without getting tired of it, what would you eat?
This is a difficult one as I’d probably get sick of any food eventually, but I think I would pick pizza.
A skill you’re working on mastering.
There isn’t a skill in particular I work on mastering, just cooking in general as I believe every day is a school day in the kitchen and a chef never stops learning.
Cooking at home yay or nay?
On my days off I am the cook at home as well, but in general my wife does all the cooking. Every husband would like for his wife to cook like his mother, well I’m fortunate enough to have that.
A Chat With Johnny Sarkozi, Head Chef at Tankardstown House