Chef Johnnie Cooke: “I Like to Cook Food that Sings and Dances”
A lot has changed since chef Johnnie Cooke became a pioneer in serving Mediterranean flavours in Ireland back in the nineties at the long-lived Cooke’s Café. Long story short; tapas, jamón and paella have entered the local foodie dictionary and diners have come to expect the challenging combo of top quality and good value. Add to that the importance placed in provenance, traceability and even instagramability of the dishes and it will feel like a successful restaurateur is not far from a magician.
But at 54, and after taking over The Restaurant at Brown Thomas, Cooke doesn’t rely on trickery to awe guests. His work shows the consistency of a professional with passion, a trait that “you either have or you don’t”, he points out, as he recalls reading cookbooks from a young age and soon after, at 16, beginning a career that would see him working in Spain and California, places that just like his hometown, Howth, have vibrant coastal lifestyles and fine seafood to go with them.
“A Piscean at heart”, Johnnie grew up by the sea and although he’s not a fisherman, he tells me he wakes up at 4:30 am every morning. His youngest son -he has a 4 year old boy and a 28 year old daughter- is the one that wakes him up. And although his restaurant is what keeps him busy most of the day, Johnnie enjoys cooking at home for the family. “I like Mexican food, roast beef on Sundays, Moroccan tahine and paella”, he says, and this eclectic mix between the spicy, the Mediterranean and the local is not only seen at the Cooke’s family table, the menu at The Restaurant in Brown Thomas is also filled with nods to these cuisines.
Not a literal transalation
“If you cook for a long time, knowing what works becomes second nature”, says Johnnie, adding that he “cooks by eye, using instinct” and that he “translates recipes” to his own taste. “I like chorizo in a paella”, he points out, when asked about Jamie Oliver’s recent rendition of the Spanish classic that caused quite a stir among purists.
And just as his cooking doesn’t get lost in translation, he has put a lot of effort into making The Restaurant stand out and become more than just a pleasant checkpoint in which shoppers stop to recharge with generic soup and sandwiches or afternoon teas completely void of personality. “My aim is for this place to be a destination restaurant, not just the in-store restaurant”, when asked how does he plan to achieve that, his first resource is “word of mouth”, together with social media and a refreshment of the style of food and service.
“Sometimes the simple things are the best, a good fish for example, keep it simple”, Cooke had made The Restaurant more approachable and modern, his menu comprised of the “clean, fresh and simple flavours” that he loves.
But how to make simplicity exciting? “By getting the best possible ingredients and presenting them in a colourful, appealing and balanced way”, he says.
On changing preferences
Johnnie’s is truly a balancing act. He is, after all, at Brown Thomas, well aware that ultra-experimental, completely unheard of dishes might alienate visitors that would rather something with a softer edge, but still showing character. However, nowadays he has more room to play with that a even just a few years ago.
“People have travelled more and are willing to try new things”, the presence of woks, paella pans and mortars among the shop area confirms his words. “People’s taste is changing in Ireland, customers are looking for more flavour, and spicy foods are becoming bigger, as well as healthy options”, he adds that “even kids are trying spicy foods now.”
Besides exposing you to new foods, “the experience of travel opens your mind to many things”, and all those influences come together for Cooke to “create food that sings and dances. That has a bit of zing and excites tastebuds.”
Even The Restaurant’s wine list is an example of this new perspective. You’ll find equilibrium between France and other Old World classics and New World bottles. When asked about his favourite wines, Cooke takes a moment before pointing out Côte-Rôtie for reds and Puligny-Montrachet for whites.
As we talked about an anecdote he shared on a recent interview on going to bed with a copy of The Joy of Cooking when he was a boy, I asked this cookbook aficionado for his top choice nowadays. Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, by Pellegrino Artusi, first published in 1891, a masterpiece that he found “very inspirational.”
And just before we say goodbye, he mentions that they’re about to open another restaurant in Brown Thomas, also under his watch. The Green Bean, on the second floor, which will be a showcase of “flavours of the world”, and it’s scheduled to open its doors early on 2017. Yet another reason for this Piscean to consider that “the restaurant scene in Ireland is good” and to wake up at 4:30 am with a smile.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.