A Local Hero – Chef Bryan McCarthy on Putting Cork Back on the Culinary Map
On the menu of Greenes restaurant in Cork city a list of local suppliers is titled “our Suppliers and Friends.” A statement that instills confidence in most diners though, truth be told, may seem unremarkable to some, so familiar are they with the ‘farm-to-fork’ ethos that’s so regularly asserted by eateries right across the spectrum now that they’ve become indifferent.
This gesture might even induce an eye roll from others, who have grown weary or even cynical of this ‘trend,’ which has caused some controversy in recent times due to a handful of restaurants making claims to partner with producers that don’t quite stack up.
But here, as with many of the true crusaders of the campaign, there is sincerity behind the statement. Speaking to Greenes head chef Bryan McCarthy he is positively effervescent with enthusiasm when speaking about the local legends that line his fridge and kitchen pantry.
In that charming Cork lilt Bryan can barely contain his excitement about the rare apple ice cider that one of his longstanding suppliers, Killahora Cidery just outisde the boundary of the city, has just developed, and extols the virtues of wasabi leaf and pineapple weed – two locally foraged greens which, he insists, taste bizarrely similar to their namesakes.
That irrepressible passion is equally evident in the plates of producer-led food he presents at the pass, each stamped with his hallmark style of cooking, which as he puts it himself: “Is very seasonal and is about extracting the maximum flavour from the quality ingredients on the plate.”
Speaking to him prior to the publication of the 2018 Michelin Guide for Great Britain and Ireland, the results announced on October 2nd, our conversation quickly turns to star speculation – a topic that both of us can get just as excited about.
Though Michelin inspectors have been paying close attention, visiting a number of times again this year, Bryan is up front in his belief that Greenes won’t be getting a star, and admits that they aren’t chasing one.
“Michelin is very concerned with consistency. We do pretty big numbers and keeping that consistency can be tough.”
“If I was to purposely chase a star I would open a forty-seater. Greenes is seventy six, almost double that ideal number.”
This strategy of concentrating culinary efforts on a smaller number of diners is effective, as proven by the likes of Heron and Grey who achieved the accolade in 2017 serving just sixty six people per week, but he says there is another, more long term, approach to wooing the French culinary guide.
“If you look at what Ross Lewis at Chapter One has done, he caters to bigger numbers but it took him seventeen years of working tirelessly, fine tuning their offering to get to the stage where the restaurant was running like a machine.”
“Cork’s restaurant scene has made a massive leap forward in the last two years, and I would like to think that all of those places have Michelin aspirations and will eventually get there and will put Cork back on the map.”
“I think Idás in Dingle have a great chance too – but to be honest, it would be a shame if Kerry was to beat Cork to a star!”
Despite the lack of transparency in their judgement he says the power of that little red book is undeniable. “I’m not sure about the general dining public, but for chefs and restaurateurs it is still the benchmark.”
His fascination with Michelin and the culinary world was first sparked during a summer job at a local pub, catering to the masses of tourists that flock to his tiny West Cork home town of Glandore.
Bolstered by the values ingrained in him from his small-scale, self-sufficient farming background, he honed his own style based on local produce and making everything from scratch – unless, he admits, there’s a supplier that can make it better than him.
“When that love that a producer puts into growing or making something comes through you can really taste it.”
He brought this ethos with him to Greenes four years ago guiding it from what was a classic French bistro into a restaurant that, while still being guided by Bryan’s classic French training, serves contemporary Irish food.
“It’s lighter than French cuisine, it’s about preserving the essence of the produce.”
Bryan says his style is probably best defined by his signature Pork Belly with Black Pudding, a dish that has gone through close to sixteen revisions to get to a stage where now he can’t take it off the menu without his regulars kicking up a fuss.
The same commitment to local produce, some of it foraged or grown in the restaurants own polytunnels, is insisted upon whether a diner orders a multi-course dinner at Greenes or one of the tapas style dishes, Gubbeen laden charcutuerie boards or even a cocktail at the newly opened cocktail bar adjoining the restaurant, Cask.
No shortcuts are taken, an ethos that is drilled into every member of the team from Bryan’s sous chef Veronica Ozores and restaurant manager and sommelier Frank Schiltkamp in Greenes to chef Rafal Ciba and bar manager Andy Ferreria at Cask.
Irish Bartender of the Year 2017, Andy is the latest addition to the family. First coming on a consultancy basis Bryan says the idea to replicate their produce led ethos in a unique ‘farm-to-glass’ cocktails menu captivated him and now he is now firm figure at Cork’s coolest cocktail.
This title was confirmed and then some when the bar was named Best Cocktail Bar in Ireland at the Sky Bar Awards just a few months after opening. “We were completely shocked by that, I think you can see that from the pictures!”
Along with plans to revamp Greenes in the next 18 months, Bryan is enjoying the freedom Cask has given him to have more fun with food.
Tapping into that uncorked culinary creativity he will open a quirky, ‘Momofuku-style’, takeaway on Barrack Street in mid-October called Bao Bai, serving Asian street food favourites made with the best local produce. “Our slogan is: ‘Steamy Love in a Bun’!”
While Cask has spurred on a renewed interest in the MacCurtain Street mecca Brian says it “has always been a very special place.”
“It’s a total customer experience, the food, the ambiance, the service, the waterfall, to get all that smack bang in the middle of the city is so unusual. We get people coming into the courtyard just to take photos!”
Just as he is a friend of his suppliers, Bryan is a friend to chefs from all over the Irish food community, and whether he’s inviting the likes of JP McMahon to work in his kitchen or popping up in another eatery himself, as he did twice for this year’s A Taste of West Cork festival, he believes collaboration is fundamental for the growth of Irish food.
“I learn something from every chef that’s in my kitchen and equally it’s great to get out there and see what other people are doing. It might just be something very small that you pick up but it’s those little things that keeps us all driving forward.”
“It’s about sharing knowledge in a community of chefs. It’s that Eurotoques mentality.”
“Over the past ten years if I was ever seeking advice on a technique or recipe I’ve always known I could pick up the phone to Wade Murphy, Ross Lewis, Mikael Viljanen or any of those chefs and they’ll always be able to help out – I’ll even get a message the next day to say ‘how did you get on?’”
Having spoken to Bryan on several occasions now, I’m pretty confident that whoever is on the receiving end of those phone calls too can sense the pure passion, enthusiasm and excitement for the progression of Irish food that positively radiates from the other end of the phone line.
Bryan McCarthy truly is a local food hero, a culinary champion that the Irish food community, from chefs to producers, is lucky to have in their corner fighting for the culinary cause.
For more information on Greenes and Cask visit greenesrestaurant.com.
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 completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters 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.