An Empire State of Mind – Serial Restaurateur John Farrell
“A good restaurateur is a well travelled restaurateur,” says John Farrell, the man behind some of Dublin’s most pioneering restaurants: Super Miss Sue, Luna, Cervi, 777, Dillinger’s and The Butcher Grill. Each one of them, with their innovative concepts, talented chefs at the helm, and slick service, would not be out of place in any of the world’s leading food cities.
I met with John in the moody darkness of his basement restaurant, Luna. Illuminated only by the shaft of light coming from the street above, and the warm red glow of the Campari lined bar, the room oozes sex appeal and Mad Men style glamour. John paces the floor on the phone, discussing intensely the specifics of marble topped tables, before sitting down with a stiff drink; that added to a sweeping fringe, the dark shades hooked on his shirt collar, and arms etched with tattoos, he could easily pass for a rock star.
Like Luna, every member of the John Farrell restaurant group has a distinct personality, but each is stamped with John’s trademark eye for detail; his talent and passion for carpentry and furniture design, giving him the tools to bring his visions to life.
As a teenager, due to a lack of funds, he was unable to pursue this passion as a career. Instead he began, by default, working in the restaurant industry. “I was in South Africa and I went into the recruitment agency and the woman had a Rolodex. She had just two jobs; selling insurance, or a trainee in a kitchen. I took the insurance job, but three weeks later I came back and said ‘is that job in the kitchen still available?'”
The rest isn’t exactly history just yet, but, with a fascinating childhood that saw him travel between Ballymun, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, and a growing empire of restaurants, there is little doubt that it will be.
“My dad saw advertisements in the paper to work as a tradesman in Africa, so he went to be a station master in Botswana, and that’s where he met my mum,” says John of the origins of his African roots. The couple came back to Ireland for a period, to get married and to start a family. When John was three and his sister eleven months older, the family moved back to Botswana, but just six months later John’s father tragically died in a car accident.
The family moved back to Dublin, and settled in Ballymun. “One of my uncles lived in the 15 storey flats, we were a bit posher and lived in the seven storey flats,” he laughs. Despite the notorious reputation of the Ballymun flats during the 1970s and ’80s John insists he has fond memories of growing up there.”I had a great time, it was deadly!” he says, recalling with a mischievous grin one incident where he and a pal were dangled over the edge of the flats by some older kids.
While he chose not to disclose this to his mother, other unfavourable activities couldn’t go unnoticed. “There was a lot of heroin, and three or four people had jumped off the flats, so she was scared.” John says the breaking point for his mother came when a 15 year old who lived below them overdosed.
“I remember him being carried out in a black zip lock bag, because he had taken a heroin overdose. It was an accident, he wasn’t even one of those kids who were leaving syringes on the stairs.”
When John was aged 11, the family moved back to Africa, but scarcely settled in one spot. “My mum travelled everywhere, she was crazy. I spent a bit of time in foster homes, so myself and my sister got separated for a while, nothing too major. My mum didn’t have much support,” John explains.
Working in restaurants in Cape Town from the age of 18, the sense of being part of a family drew him into the industry. When he moved back to Dublin in 1999, he joined another family, at Il Primo; run by well known restaurateur Dieter Bergman. “Dieter was gregarious character, a lovable rogue. I learnt a lot from him, he was kinda like a father figure in a way, I learnt what not to do!”
Working alongside him in Il Primo, what John describes as ‘The school of Dieter Bergman’, were Ronan Ryan, Temple Garner, and Elaine Murphy; all of whom have gone to open up their own restaurants. “It’s closed now, which is sad. I sometimes walk down Montague street and look at it and say ‘I wish I’d kept a diary’. Some of the stuff that went on was crazy.” Farrell ended up with a one-quarter share in Il Primo, but sold his shares to open Dillinger’s in Ranelagh in 2009.
At the height of the recession, this might have been a case of bad timing had it not been for what had gone before it; Dylan McGrath’s recently Michelin star appointed Mint restaurant, which had gone into liquidation. “There was a lot of media attention when we opened up as just because of what it had been, and everyone was curious as to what was going to go there,” says John. “Then everything happened really quickly – The Butcher Grill opened next in November 2010.”
In 2012, John established Ireland’s only contemporary Mexican restaurant; 777. Inspired by the bold flavours of Mexico, and modern techniques used by chef Rene Ortiz at La Esquina in New York, he carefully researched the venture; working with Ortiz, and flying his chefs, including head chef Adam Dun, formerly of Rockpool restaurant in Sydney, to Mexico.
“You can’t do something like 777 without researching the cuisine and the culture, without having actually gone there.”
Super Miss Sue, on Drury Street, came in 2014, and has evolved into three distinct parts; upstairs the old school Italian-style seafood Cafe, and Cervi, a gourmet chipper; followed in 2015 by Luna, the grown up restaurant inspired by 1950s mobster New York. “I had a big problem with electricity down here. I had a €100,000 induction kitchen that I couldn’t use. It was a struggle, because I couldn’t do what I wanted to do initially,” says John.
“I wanted that feeling, when you go out to eat it’s occasion, you want that excitement, banter; that’s the whole point. It’s escapism.”
After much heart break and long delays, John forcibly wrestled his vision into reality. “I love it, it’s turned into something beautiful. I’m intimidated by it sometimes, I walk past and I look through the window and I say ‘I can’t go in there looking like this!’ I am very proud of it, and so is Karl (Whelan, head chef at SMS), we give each a slap on the back every day and pinch each other.”
Luna is named after John’s two and half year old daughter, who lives in North Carolina with her mother Jill Pitko, an American sculptor. “It’s actually funny how Luna happened,” says John. “We had already split up, she wanted to go back to her family in the States, but were still friends. It was the last week before she left and I brought two bottles of wine home, just to see her off …” Six weeks later he received a text message to say he was going to be a father. “The two of us were delighted. We were together 10 years, we were so happy,” John says.
John shows me a picture of Luna in a yellow dress at the opening night of Luna, the same picture he proudly totes as his Twitter profile picture. “I wanted to give her stuff that I didn’t get. I am fortunate enough to be able to do that. It’s just me over here, so I don’t need that much, and Jill is a great mother.” John visits Luna five or six times and year, and talks to her everyday. “She loves food. I was FaceTiming with her yesterday and I’m walking through the kitchen, and she doesn’t want to look at me!” he beams.
Settled into one of Luna’s leather booths, John seems at home in the restaurant, though he says it took sometime to figure out his place. “I decided very early on I didn’t want to work in the restaurants. I had watched what it had done to some people. I wanted to eat in them, and walk in and make sure everything was working, but I didn’t want to get involved with the day-to-day running of them.” His strategy is to set up a team of experts around him, enabling John to do what he does best; travelling, staying progressive, creating concepts, and executing them with precision.
“I surround myself with people who are really talented, with the food, and on the floor, and I can control the look and design of the place.”
With his talent for design, John has the tools to make his visions a reality. “It’s very hard for restaurateurs when they rely on other designers and architects. What they have in their minds of what they want their place to look like, it never turns out like that. The designer often has their own agenda, and the poor guy who’s opening the restaurant their whole vision is changed. I’m lucky in that sense, that I can control all of it.” “You have to get the interior right, or else the whole thing is pointless. If you get them (food, service and interior) all right then you hit the jackpot.”
Defending the emphasis he puts on the aesthetics John says: “a lot of people slag concept restaurants, but their restaurants are concepts; your concept is that you are not a concept, that’s your concept!” “It keeps it exciting. It would be boring to do the same thing over and over again. But we back it up; the food is good, the wine is good,” he adds.
“We’re not a Michelin star restaurant, and we’re not trying to get a Michelin star. Why would you want to? You have to obey all these rules, and you have to worry about being inspected. We do what we do and we don’t want to be judged by some book.”
His creativity is irrepressible. In the same breath as saying he is “done with restaurants”, he tells me about project that he has been focused on for the past year is Blackbird. “It’s like a Shake Shack, but it’s chicken orientated, and it’s going to be all over the world. It’s registered in 130 countries,” John says of his latest venture. “It’s like a grown up McDonald’s. It’s a fast food joint with integrity,” he adds. Currently in the midst of working on the design, and recipes, with Karl and 777 chef Adam, John plans to open in Dublin in February, followed soon after by London and New York.
Though he has travelled all over the world, John Farrell is hoping that Blackbird will give him wings; the freedom to do what he wants most. “Yes, I’m kind of done with restaurants, but Blackbird will be different, it’s going to be all over the world. Basically, I want to see Luna more.”
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.