I walk into the hustle and bustle of Fallon & Byrne and head upstairs to The Dining Room, noticing the shift in noise as the staff are all behind the scenes, preparing to open in an hour. I’m offered a coffee before Hugh Higgins walks out in his chef uniform, seeming slightly nervous. “Don’t worry, we’re just having a chat!” Hugh tells me he is rarely open to doing interviews of this sort, so I feel very lucky to be sitting with someone of his caliber. A man with an impressive history in the industry, working his way through the likes of Momofoku in New York, to Forrest Avenue and Luna, and most recently, allta.
Starting his position as Development Chef at Fallon & Byrne in March, Hugh had been working in small start-ups and new openings up until then. He says that it was intense, but “you’re dictating the systems and standards that are put in place, so coming in somewhere that I haven’t been involved in the set up of, and something of this scale, has been a challenge.”
“There’s a lot to get around, there’s a lot of people,” he says. I asked him what drew him to Fallon & Byrne, given that it is such a big jump from the projects he had undertaken before.
“The potential… there’s very few places in Ireland, for one, but in Europe, that have the potential to achieve what can be done in here. The bakery, the butchery, the seasonal vegetables that we sell here. One of the things I want to get in the next couple of years is work directly with a farmer who grows all the stuff for us. We’re such a unique size, we’re not a supermarket, we’re not a corner shop, we’re kind of in between.”
With what Hugh has in mind for Fallon & Byrne, I wonder what changes he plans to put in place under his direction.
“What Fallon & Byrne is known for is the produce, and that’s something I think they need to play on a lot more… If you work directly with a farmer… you can a) help them, and b) get the best seasonal produce you can from a local source. That’s something I think we should be pushing to do a lot more. Same with The Dining Room and The Wine Cellar, push the seasonality through and use what we have in the shop and showcase that there, and link everything together… and blur those lines [between each entity at Fallon & Byrne].”
The unique thing about Fallon & Byrne is that they have access to produce that you won’t usually find in a lot of other places in Ireland. Naturally, they source a lot of artisan Irish products, but they have cheeses, meats and fish sourced from all over Europe that aren’t as accessible in other locations, and Hugh points out that this is something he really wants to highlight and focus on as development chef.
I ask Hugh what his day-to-day would be in this new role. He mentions that there are over 180 people working in the building, so even getting to grips with that was a challenge. “I try to say hello to as many people as I can.”
“At the moment, we’re trying to change the coffee dock downstairs and update all the pastries, we make them all in house… I was just laminating some dough before I came up… There was 86 different items coming out of that pastry kitchen when I started… I want to streamline it slightly, make it flexible and change it more frequently – make it seasonal.”
The change is still very clear to Hugh – he would go from waking up one morning, having an idea for a special to serve and have it on the menu and on the plates that same night. Now, there needs to be a lot more foresight, especially with the number of people involved in making decisions at Fallon & Byrne. This is why Hugh wants to work closer with a supplier, “they can give you what’s coming in a month, what’s coming in two weeks, what’s coming in three months with what they’re planting now, so it gives you more control over that.”
In terms of ideas that Hugh has for Fallon & Byrne, he wants to introduce more fermented products to be sold.
“Fallon & Byrne has always been something that supports small producers and… got them on their feet, like Harry’s Nut Butter and White Masu have been on the shelves since the get go… then you can start using those products in [The Dining Room] and The Wine Cellar.”
Right now, they’re gearing up for Christmas, which they have been preparing for since the summer. “I’m all Christmass’ed out!” But, I asked him about Christmas anyway… ’tis (almost) the season after all!
“Christmas is all about bringing people together. I would just show up and get tasked with something in the kitchen.” He also loved the Christmas pudding getting lit on fire, also because it had whiskey in it… and his mother would make them a trifle full of sherry, another favourite of his growing up!
His favourite part of a Christmas dinner was always the stuffing. “Sausage meat, breadcrumbs, thyme, lots of herbs, sage, onion, garlic… that was the thing I’d always go back to for seconds, and then you can make a great sandwich with it.” Controversial opinion, but Hugh believes that the sandwich you make the day after Christmas is better than the actual Christmas dinner…
We move on from Christmas now (much to his relief!), and I ask him about what he’d consider to be his signature dish. “I get bored really easily, I don’t like to do the same thing.” It seems like most chefs never really have a signature dish they always go back to! Hugh says that this is the great thing about cooking though, it changes all the time, whether it’s your tastebuds or your techniques.
“You need to constantly evolve. It’s become a very fast-paced industry, it’s constantly evolving and changing and there’s new places opening all the time. You really need to keep on striving to do new things, otherwise you’ll get forgotten about and left behind.”
At home, however, he prefers to move away from meat and really make his meals veg-focused. Funnily enough, he admits to me that he had no idea what celeriac was until he was 21. “I was in L’Ecrivain, someone told me to go get the celeriac and I said, ‘What the f*ck is that!?'”
I asked Hugh about his earliest memory surrounding food. He grew up in an all-boys household, which often meant fighting for food at meal times. “We had an Aga, so it would take forever to cook anything so you wouldn’t eat until very late and we’d all be very hungry and snapping at each other, so it was always fighting.” Despite all of that, his core memory was that his family always sat down together for a meal, no matter what.
“Food has always been something that has brought people together… and that’s something we need to establish [at Fallon & Byrne]… try and get a community out of here. I did my thesis on the importance of the family meal, so it’s something I find very important. Food brings people together… it’s always nice to watch people enjoy food.”
Something that may surprise a lot of people (including Hugh himself), is that he went to do a computer and business degree in college when he first left school. “I could not stand it. If you talk to anyone I know, I don’t even know how to put photographs on Instagram. I’m a technophobe, I don’t know how to do anything.”
The thing that drew him to the kitchen was the people and the buzz. He started working in Avoca at 15 for work experience, and the people were what brought him back to working in kitchens years later. “Meeting people from different walks of life, different countries, different experiences, different cultures. I really enjoyed that part of it.”
His start in L’Ecrivain during his college placement was what pushed him in the high-end style of cooking, but he notes that he’s always learning. Also, he still needs to have music playing in the kitchen!
With an abundance of incredible Irish producers, both in general and at the fingertips of Hugh and Fallon & Byrne, I asked him which would be his favourite. He notes Boyne Valley Cheese, and:
“Probably cliché, but McNally’s [Family Farm]. We started using McNally’s in Mulberry Gardens 12 years ago… just the difference in taste between something organic and something that’s not was revolutionary for me at the time, and I’ve been using them ever since.”
His love for working in the Irish food industry comes from both the great producers, especially with the recent increase of great food in Ireland, and the people. He notes how much we export our food, and even the people in Ireland have started to appreciate the food offerings we have here. In terms of influencing his cooking, he notes John Wyre from Forrest Avenue, whom he worked for for a number of years.
His favourite dish he’d ever cooked, was simultaneously the ugliest dish he’d ever cooked:
“Jerusalem artichokes, roasted in butter, garlic and thyme for like an hour and a half, glaze them up with miso and black apple glaze and thrown into a wood-fired oven so it got a real char on the outside. Underneath there was roast onion, with an ice wine gel. It was sweet, acidic, burnt-y, char-y, soft sunflower seed miso on top, and then Cais na Tire cheese foam on top, and crispy artichokes. But, all you could see was this white cloud… it was really ugly. But it tasted delicious! I do like the ugly delicious thing, not to plagiarise David Chang…”
He saved it by saying that he loves the element of surprise. “You dig away at it, it’s like an adventure.” I tell him I’ll take his word for it. He says he did something similar in Fallon & Byrne – there was a Burrata and peach salad that he served upside down with leaves covering it, so you peel it open… almost like a present.
For a quick-fire round:
His favourite restaurant to visit that he will never get sick of is Forrest Avenue, and he gives a special mention to Etto and Uno Mas. A less ‘cheffy’ answer – he loves Dublin Pizza Company.
If he was ever stuck on a deserted island, the one dish he would never get sick of eating would be sandwiches, specifically a grilled cheese. He notes that he loves a kimchi grilled cheese, so let this inspire you for lunch some day!
His favourite cuisine to cook and eat is Italian, which is also his favourite destination to visit for food, specifically Sicily. He notes that food seems to hold a bit more importance there, and across the rest of the Mediterranean as well.
His favourite food is a Spaghetti Bolognese, which he says is “sad and childish” (I disagree!), but he notes that he loves it for the nostalgic element.
His favourite dish that they serve in Fallon & Byrne was one that was seasonally available in the summer – a peach salad with homemade goat’s ricotta, with a dressing made out of the reduced whey from the same ricotta, served with parma ham, and an amaretto dressing.
The best piece of advice he received for the industry: plan your day. Also, enjoy it!
Interview with Hugh Higgins, Development Chef at Fallon & Byrne
I’m a Palestinian who grew up in Cyprus and moved to Dublin in 2013, so I’ve had a mishmash of different cultures and cuisines surrounding me my whole life. I’m an avid foodie, and after realising that life as a lawyer was not for me, I studied media and became a radio host for Dublin City FM. I’m now writing for TheTaste full time, but I also have my own food blog where you can find a mixture of restaurant reviews and the occasional recipe. I talk a lot about being Palestinian; to be honest, I talk a lot in general. That’s why I did radio!