Singing the Praises of an Island Nation – Niall Sabongi Interview
It’s a mild Wednesday morning when I meet Niall Sabongi for our interview, and although there’s a chill in the air the sun is shining brightly and that sparkle is mirrored by Niall’s energy and big smile.
We’re sitting in The Seafood Café in Temple Bar, one of Sabongi’s restaurant ventures, chatting over coffee (black for Niall as he is “off dairy”) and water for me (I’ve already sipped two strong brews this morning). Talk turns to how this charismatic chef started his culinary journey. Niall says he was “born and raised in the restaurant industry here in Dublin. My dad had restaurants when we were kids and from 8 or 9 years of age I wanted to cook, so my dad used to let me into the kitchen, peeling prawns and hanging out with the chefs.”
Cooking was an instant love for Niall. “It was always just a passion that I had. During my transition year in school, I moved to France and I worked in Paris as a chef”, a time he describes as “deadly”. Following this, he moved to the UK, where he studied hotel and catering management in Westminster College of Catering.
Niall knows the restaurant business from all angles, “I’ve always bounced between front of house and the kitchen.” He even worked as a butler in Buckingham Palace, which he laughs about and describes as “mad”. Young students like Niall were brought in for catering events which paid great money, perfect to fund a students life. It was in London where he worked as a chef in the famed kitchen of the Dorchester and Le Gavroche.
I wonder, if his father wasn’t in the restaurant business would Niall still have followed this path? A question I put to Niall, “I don’t know, this has always been what I am, I’ve always been surrounded by food. In fact, my dad tried not to encourage me to go into the business because it’s not easy, but I’ve always enjoyed it and had so much fun.” He laughs and says “I love to eat, so this is the easiest way for me to do it”.
We’re chatting in The Seafood Café and I can smell heavenly aromas wafting from the kitchen. “At the moment we’re serving the new menu for The Seafood Café, which we just launched.”
“A lot of the menu is driven by what’s available and the seasons, and following the ethos of sustainability. We’re trying to use lesser known fish and lesser known ingredients, things you wouldn’t normally expect to be Irish but are, like squid, for example.”
I ask Niall what inspires the dishes on the menu, “a lot of is led by things that I enjoy or what I remember from childhood. There’s a dish on the menu called “When I Was 6″ and it’s just prawns grilled over the barbeque but, they remind me of when I was a child.” Niall likes to let the fish be the star of the plate, and admits they do very little to it, jokingly he says “to the point of neglect”.
The food isn’t posh, it’s really simple and the produce speaks for itself.”
Running Sustainable Seafood Ireland, another fishy venture from Sabongi, must also greatly affect the menu offering, to which Niall confirms “absolutely!” Continuing on he says, “we supply ourselves and about 30 other restaurants in Dublin. “The reason it began was that I wanted to be as close to the source as humanly possible. So it means that 100% of the fish that comes into our restaurants is passed by SSI and will pass by my hands every day.”
Just that morning I spotted SSI’s Instagram videos from a fish market in the south of England. Niall says that his supplier goes to the markets at 5.30am each day, to ensure they are getting the best fish. “I’ll be on the phone to him and he’ll bid on fish for me to make sure we get the absolute best fish. For example, you can’t fish seabass in Ireland because of the quotas so we source it from Brixham, where they have really small line boats to catch them.”
I can’t help but admire and giggle at Niall’s enthusiasm for this fresh produce, as he describes the seabass as “spanking, it’s ridiculously good”. While he tells me in his home life, he and his two little boys will eat fish around three times a week he also says “I do like a good steak too.”
When he’s not taking up the reigns in the restaurant kitchen, or his own home he likes to dine in Bastible, Lucky Tortise, Hang Dai or Clanbrassial House, which he says is “brilliant. If I’m going fancy I’ll go to The Greenhouse, Mickael is just brilliant, full stop.”
He says he likes to eat in restaurants much like his own. “All of our customers basically,” he says cheekily, with more than a few of his favourite restaurants using SSI for their fish supplies. “There’s such a wealth of small independently owned or chef operated places and I enjoy going to those places because it’s like what we’re doing, it’s not a big operation.”
Supporting these small local restaurants is a topic that is becoming more important as time goes on, with increasing numbers of diners not showing up for their bookings. This can impact smaller venues massively, who rely on every single booking, something Niall has had first-hand experience of. “In my other restaurant Klaw, we only have 12 seats so we don’t do bookings. We took them for the first week but we had two no-shows on the first day. So we said forget about it and scrapped it.”
I question his opinion on the idea of taking credit card details to secure booking deposits on reservations, something I wholeheartedly agree with. “I really don’t understand why there’s a big deal being made about it, we should just put the booking deposits on. If you cancel your dental appointment you get charged, so what’s the difference between that and a restaurant?”
Another issue facing the industry at the moment is the lack of chefs to fill our kitchens, something which Niall tells me massively affects his businesses. “It kind of stopped me from wanting to open more restaurants. It’s not just the chefs, it’s the whole industry. There are too many places and not enough staff to fill them, never mind customers.”
“I don’t know what other places do. When my chef is sick I go in the kitchen and cook, so I’d love to know how they manage it. It is really hard. Another thing that’s happened is that people have been promoted through the ranks faster than they should have. Some people don’t even have the basic knowledge of a kitchen let alone the management or organisational side of things. They haven’t got the basics sauce skills or knife skills.”
I wonder if we should be sourcing chefs from culinary schools to try and combat this issue. Niall says they have two students in at the minute.”It’s great when you get them in, but I think a lot of the courses aren’t focusing on one craft. You’re kind of dipping in and out of subjects. A little knowledge is dangerous.”
Continuing on he says, “If you train as a chef you need to do your three years and realise you’re coming out as a commis, and hone your craft and then move up to chef de partie. We’re lucky here that a lot of the time we’ll hire passionate foodies, and I’ll teach them how to cook.”
Does Niall think that this hands-on training of food lovers is more beneficial? “To a degree but you still need real trained chefs. In Klaw, it’s completely blended. You could be serving customers, then cooking or making a drink.” Working in Klaw means the staff have knowledge of each aspect of the restaurant, there’s no straight separation between chefs and waiting staff.
“Everyone is able to talk about the food, they’re not only serving the food but they’re the ones that cooked it too
It keeps the passion and fun alive which is cool. But that’s just unique to us, I don’t see it being something that’s going to help the industry.”
Looking to the year ahead Niall has ambitious plans to open Urban Monger, which will be a retailer, wholesalers and cooking school all in one. “Our wholesaler is going to be moving to a new big facility”. They had plans to open up on Georges Street but have since released the unit saying “it was just too big”. He tells me of the exciting plans, “the back part will be the wholesalers and the front will be a retail shop, that will double up as a cookery school in the evenings for domestic cooks who want to learn.”
Niall will be teaching these classes himself and says he might drag a few other chefs in to teach masterclasses too, an idea which I’m sure will be a roaring success. He excitedly tells me of his plans for a “big ice counter with loads of filleting done right in front of you. Somewhere you can get fish a la plancha served with some lemon and a glass of wine.”
While we are, as Niall often says an “island nation”, we don’t have an established fish eating culture as our Spanish or Italian cousins may. Niall says it’s because we don’t have the heritage of eating seafood.
We’re building a new food heritage and history, it starts now”
“In generations to come, this is what will become our food heritage hopefully. Like what people like JP McMahon are doing is what the future generations are going to know. They’ll know what seaweed is, they’ll see it on the beach and eat it, my kids already do. My eldest son will get a rock and start knocking off the limpets and we’ll go home and make seafood linguine.”
I ask Niall where he sees the future of Irish food heading. He thinks we will be “eating more from the island. We’ve all travelled so much now and we’ve so many influences coming in. It’s really exciting, there are some amazing chefs out there and amazing new restaurants opening up and they’re doing fantastic stuff. But it’s our producers that are deadly, everyone in the world is so amazed that we’re so close to the food source because we’re a tiny island. We’d know our producers personally, there’s no way you’d go to The States or anywhere else and know your suppliers by name.”
So what advice would this established restaurateur give to someone starting out in the industry? “If it was a young restauranteur I would advise them to learn how to cook. The first thing my dad ever said was “if you’re going to be in the business learn how to cook”. Otherwise, you don’t know your own product, if the food isn’t something you want to eat it and serve well then it’s not your restaurant, it will always be the head chefs restaurant.”
“To a young chef, I would say go and travel. Learn as much as you can but stay humble and graft. It’s not an easy job. One lad I know, I won’t mention his name but he’ll know who he is, he was asked what kind of chef he wanted to be and said “a celebrity chef” and he was being genuine,” he laughs with a fondness for the young chef.
“People think it’s an easy job but there are 25/30 years of sheer and utter graft to get there. If you’re really into it, it’s a great career and it’s changed massively. People aren’t doing the 6 or 7 double shifts a week. When I trained I was doing 5 doubles a week, and that was just standard. Here none of our chefs work more than 45 hours maximum and loads of other restaurants are on the same page. Places like Bastible close two days a week to make sure everyone gets two days off, that makes it a more appealing industry to come into.”
Look back at the past year Niall says “it was mental! We opened The Seafood Café and of course, all the awards we won were great. It was epic.” I ask him if there was any particular highlight that stands out, “I don’t think I could pick one highlight, it was good and bad. There was a massive body of work and I suppose I’m still trying to take stock of last year now. But the year ahead is exciting.”
Talking of the future and what lies ahead, Niall is looking forward to opening Urban Monger, something he describes as “awesomely exciting” and “something I’ve wanted to do forever”. He will also be venturing into the planned food hall in St.Andrew’s Church on Suffolk Street, and tells me “at the moment we’re just trying to get all of our ducks in a row so that goes smoothly.” We expect big things from this man in the coming year, and he’s definitely one to watch.