Forest & Marcy’s Ciaran Sweeney – The Intersection of Irish Cuisine and Innovation
The Summer of ’69, sings Brian Adams, were the best days of his life. For Ciaran Sweeney, it is the summer of ’16 that will likely be forever etched in his memory. In the space of two weeks, Ciaran acquired the two most important titles of his life – first, that of father to baby Aoibheann, quickly followed by Head Chef of a petite neighbourhood restaurant called Forest & Marcy, currently the name on everyone’s lips.
The younger sister to John and Sandy Wyer’s exceedingly accomplished Forest Avenue, Forest & Marcy has made her presence felt on the Dublin food scene since opening day just 12 weeks ago. Named after two avenues in Sandy’s native Queens and New Yorkers’ propensity to pair street names together to pinpoint a place, Forest & Marcy is Ciaran’s new address and development kitchen for a new wave of Irish cuisine. While he now has a fixed abode, the last number of years saw Ciaran pop up around Dublin as one half of the Culinary Counter with S. Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 Mark Moriarty, proving himself to be one of the country’s most dynamic, forward-thinking chefs in the process.
Not just a petty childhood retort, ‘it takes one to know one’ seems to ring true in the case of exceptional chefs, with Sweeney earning his place on the radars of Mikael Viljanen and John Wyer. But before Ciaran would come to stand at a stove as head chef himself, he dedicated his early twenties to rising up the ranks and learning his trade the only way he knew how – ‘I threw myself into the deep end’.
For Donegal-born Ciaran this meant packing his life up and undertaking an unpaid stage at two Michelin starred Le Champignon Sauvage, which quickly turned into a full-time role. Ciaran recalls with great fondness his two years here and the close-kit relationship he enjoyed with chef David Everitt-Matthias and his wife Helen. ‘Christmas presents, birthday presents – we were all treated like family,’ he smiles.
Everitt-Matthias opened Ciaran’s eyes to the world of culinary possibility, ‘once I started to tap into the higher end it was quite addictive’ he confesses. ‘You want to progress, you want to go further and once you’re at that high end its hard to go back.’ Dublin was Ciaran’s next port of call and securing a job in Thornton’s rooted his culinary curiosity in Irish cuisine. Here he sowed the seeds of potential, which were then cultivated to new heights in The Greenhouse, where he worked his way up to become sous chef to the masterful Mikael Viljanen.
Extracting all he could in 3 years from such a gifted mentor and with a seriously well-rounded CV, Ciaran remembers starting to want to do his own thing, leading him to take a well-deserved step back to re-evaluate. This sojourn led him to James Sheridan’s Market Canteen, then in Blackrock. ‘I asked if he wanted a hand, he said come out and do a few days and I ended up staying nearly a year!’ he recalls. It seems this was just the tonic for Ciaran, as he remembers standing at the lone stove there, embracing being ‘back to cooking, back to basics, where you started, getting that love back into it again.’
Out of this less hectic pace, the Culinary Counter was born, with Forest Avenue a once-off venue on its tour of Dublin. This would be the first of many times Ciaran would take to the kitchen here, with John and Sandy recognising a rare talent when they saw it. Although fiercely humble, Ciaran concedes that the Wyers must have thought ‘Jesus this was really clever cuisine coming from two lads, they probably saw the potential.’
One thing led to another, with Ciaran coming to spend a couple of days a week with John in the kitchen, before being given his own six week residency to allow the spotlight to shine on his skills for everyone to see. When the time came for Forest Avenue’s little sister to arrive, Ciaran was the natural choice for John and Sandy, something for which he feels immensely grateful.
Not many people would do that because I had never been a head chef before… I was really grateful that they gave me the opportunity to come here and do this, they could have had anybody else out of hundreds of chefs they must know, but here we are!
If it was in any way a gamble, it would seem it has paid off, with rave reviews rolling in as standard. Forest & Marcy is quite a novel space, distinct from Dublin’s other open kitchens in its level of exposure. ‘There’s no hiding and that’s a lovely thing to my mind, the honesty of it all, what you see is what you get.’ This is not just reference to the intimidatingly open kitchen but also the fact that Forest & Marcy is a two man show with just Sweeney and Paddy Arnold, his sous chef.
Far from creating a pressurised environment, Ciaran feels ‘It’s a laid back atmosphere where you can have the craic as well as eat fine dining level food!’ He maintains that this unbarred interaction between chef and diner adds to the charm of Forest & Marcy:
We already have a lot of regulars and its a beautiful thing to be able to know their names, to have that interaction, to say to them we’re trying a new dish out, do you like it? That’s what I love about it. It’s seeing the reaction on people’s faces and seeing they are actually loving it.
The only slight negative to the non-existent kitchen walls? Having nowhere to hide means mis en place is a long slog throughout the entire day ahead of dinner service – ‘you have to be so prepared and organisation is key – you can’t be in the shits and in a mess when working in front of customers!’ he laughs.
On the food front, Ciaran doesn’t just speak of an Irish cuisine, he actively seeks to develop it. He explains the thought process behind a mussel, potato and seaweed dish, its motivation, its conscious anchor in not just in Irish produce but in Irish tradition.
You look back a hundred years ago in Ireland at the way people were cooking – they were preserving, they were using everything and then with convenience foods we lost all that tradition, and I think we can take some of those things back slowly and modernise them.
He cites his granny’s potato ‘fadge’, a traditional Ulster dish, as inspiration for his fermented potato bread – already somewhat of a signature dish. While recognising that there are many very high quality restaurants producing exceptional food with Irish ingredients he asks himself “are diners eating there and thinking ‘we’re in Ireland’?”
I want people to recognise that they are eating in Ireland. I’m only tapping at it at the minute, its early days but I’d like to progress even further into it. We’re starting out slowly but that’s where we’d like to get to.
Ciaran is a massive part of this movement towards a freshly defined Irish cuisine and is keen to ensure that this is instilled in the younger generation of chefs to keep the momentum going. It is obvious that his passion for cooking is matched by his desire to pass his skills and knowledge on to young chefs.
The way in which he was trained has conditioned his own approach to new talent – he is keen to nurture the way he was nurtured. There is a gentleness in him as he speaks with great admiration for young Seán Gleason, an industrious 16 year old undertaking a stage with him at Forest & Marcy for the summer, just as he did did to learn the ropes.
It’s so hard to find that in young people now, especially with the chef crisis, but you have to try to nurture them and look after them. When I see people like that I always think about how David helped me and I strive to do the exact same thing.
On tackling the crisis, Ciaran notes that ‘it’s a tough industry but it is getting better’ and the first step is creating sustainable conditions to avoid chef burn-out, such as scaling back to a four day week in restaurants. The second, is down to teaching – ‘If you just give young people opportunities to come in and treat them well you shouldn’t have a problem’ he advises, ‘give them your time, it is the most important ingredient.’
While he speaks with such enthusiasm for the job he clearly loves, the words dedication and drive crop up frequently throughout the conversation as he stresses ‘don’t get me wrong, it is difficult.‘ I ask how this hectic transition to head chef and father manages to work and the answer is simple – his partner Mary. ‘Without her it wouldn’t work. She knows my dedication and my drive and she knew this was coming at the same time and she never once stopped me’ he says smiling.
Having met Ciaran during his Greenhouse days, Mary understands just how much passion goes into fuelling his dream but he strikes a balance as best he can.
My days off are my days off and I spend them with my family, I try to do what I can during the week and in the middle of the night to help her out but she has been amazing these past few months, she’s all over it yet she’s also supportive of what I’m doing.
And what he is doing is no small feat, undoubtedly contributing to putting Ireland on the culinary world map. At an international level, Ciaran laments the lack of Irish presence on the San Pellegrino Top 100 list but is optimistic that Ireland is slowly becoming a go-to for culinary tourism, between JP McMahon’s Food on the Edge and the massive achievement of his close friend Mark, who often pops in to give a hand in Forest & Marcy.
Restaurants like here, Forest Avenue and The Greenhouse are starting to really strive for a very high level and show people its not just about basic bacon and cabbage here, this is a destination for people to come and eat. That’s the most inspiring thing is seeing people starting to recognise that.
He also notes that young chefs are now coming here for stages, when once he had considered uprooting and honing his craft in European culinary meccas himself. It seems Scandinavia’s loss was our gain and remaining here, Ciaran is committed to the cause of cultivating Irish cuisine.
Ciaran is a front runner in the new generation of white t-shirt under apron chefs. This new uniform says that the chef’s focus is on paring back to move forward, not trying to be a culinary magician but a purveyor of all out flavour. This is exactly what Ciaran means when he tells me that, for him, the flavour of a dish ‘has to sing’ – nothing more and nothing less.
In Forest & Marcy, Ciaran’s food is doing something which is rather unique: it is genuinely exciting people. The most exciting part? It seems Ciaran has only just begun, claiming his place as one of Ireland’s food champions – no doubt he will give Aoibheann much to be proud of in the years to come.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that (and greed) as the ultimate motivators, I quickly realised that home-baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, which fuelled my desire to set my focus on food in a serious way. Working with The Taste allows me to satiate this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me as I share my food adventures and hopefully inspire others to indulge their passion for cooking and food in the process!