The Highlights of 2018 and the Hopes of 2019 – JP McMahon Interview

JP McMahon Interview

JP is an instantly recognisable face on the culinary scene in Ireland, and even further afield with his ever-expanding network of chefs, producers, suppliers, and passionate foodies. I spoke with the esteemed chef to look back at 2018, its highs and lows and to talk about what the future holds.

October 2018 not only saw Ireland awarded three new Michelin stars but saw the retention of its already awarded eateries. One of these included JP’s Galway restaurant Aniar, “The anxiety [about retaining their star] never goes away, even though it’s very stable and we don’t feel like we’re going to lose it. But then saying that, I’m sure Thornton’s didn’t realise they were going to lose their star”.

“Its an ongoing affirmation from an international perspective. The difficulty with Aniar is that most of our guests are not from Ireland and until the Irish palate catches up with Aniar, and the way that we are, we’ll always be a kind of little niche avant garde place.”

He admits that “it’s a different style of dining to what people have experienced. People are used to Chapter One or Patrik Guildbauds, which are a completely different style of food, but they’re only coming from the perspective of Michelin. \they come in with the wrong hat on and they don’t get what we do.”

Aniar is different in its ethos as it only uses Irish ingredients, which means they “cut out a lot of stuff”. Reading the menu you can almost taste the Nordic influence that he says they are very inspired by. 99% of people who come in really enjoy it, it’s just about getting people to make that leap of faith, particularly Irish people. He even tells me that while his own parents understand the concept of what he’s doing, particularly his father, they would still choose to go to Cava, JP’s Spanish tapas style restaurant.

Sometimes people say it’s a bit acidic and we focus on flavours people don’t generally focus on. Most of our food is wrapped around salt, fat and sugar.” JP says out palates “don’t take acidity as well as Asian countries do, apart than lemon or the odd bit or soy sauce, that’s about it and that’s something we think about a lot in Anair.”

Championing Irish food “was really one of the purposes of Food On The Edge.” He wanted “to bring the chefs over to Ireland so they could see it first hand”. FOTE is a two-day symposium where chefs from Ireland and abroad gather in Galway for a series of interesting and enlightening talks. I attended 2018’s FOTE and a resounding message I took from it was the admiration international chefs had for Irish produce and suppliers, to which JP says “often it takes someone outside your circle or outside your city to reaffirm what you already have.”

I ask JP why he thinks so many international chefs are recognising the standard of Irish produce. “We always had it [great produce], you can go back to the 19th century and see that. People have gone abroad and realised what we have is just as good, if not better and then come home to celebrate it. I think in the last 20 years, you’ve had people who’ve travelled. I think the internet and travel are probably the most important factors. ”

Admittedly he says there are certain face you want in attendace at FOTE. “You want the guys from Mugaritz and the three-star chefs. But it’s always the ones that you didn’t know that much about who you have invited, because they’re doing something good and they always come out with a really great talk.” One of the highlights of last years FOTE was Ross Lewis talking about Myrtle Allen, which he describes at “electric”.

What does FOTE 2019 look like? “Our theme is going to be migration. I want to look at the way food travels between places and also how food is used culturally. Once again we’ll be inviting the worlds best chefs but we’re also looking for chefs who are on the front line, doing stuff that’s really interesting in terms of food politics and so the community will continue to grow and we’ll bring back four or five of the same people.”

JP admits they are “still hoping to move” the venue for FOTE, and the chef has spoken about his desire to bring it to the Aran Islands. He exclaims, “I’d love to put it on the islands but I think I would need some serious capital” He sends out a proposition that “if the government wants to sponsor me I absolutely will move it”. JP laughs saying “we’d literally have to build a tent for everyone”

I think that’s something that we should do but collectively. FOTE costs about €440,000 to put on and a lot of that is private funding, and some of it comes from our own restaurant. Unfortunately, government support is lacking, so what do you do? You have to go more into the private domain but the more you do that, the more compromises you have to make.”

I still wonder at the top level do we realise how important food is”

“I think at the ground level people like ourselves get it, but I still think to most people food is just a commodity and they want the cheapest deal.”

FOTE is just one of the many interests to JP. He is an outspoken advocate for food education, and I wonder why he is so passionate about this cause? “Maybe it’s because I did home economics in school and I have kids now. Yet 22 years after I’ve left school people still have no idea how to cook and it’s a tragedy.”

He believes a food subject in school curriculum should be something in our education system, asking “could it be mandatory, could it be rebranded? The image of home economics is still very much seen as a girls subject. The subject itself doesn’t need to change, it’s the image that needs to change.”

“You can see the kids outside school every day eating curry chips. The diet of lots of school kids is appalling”. For an accomplished chef like JP, seeing the poor diets of the children in his community must be disheartening. On a positive note, he informs me that they are “meeting with people involved in the curriculum. It’s an ongoing thing with FOTE about putting a subject on in primary school, to talk about how you do it. It’s not a question about if it will happen but how it will happen, and how that process goes.”

He confesses that he would “love Ireland to do something first. We always do stuff after other countries. It would be great if Ireland was the first Europen country to have this and to recognise the importance of food”. He concedes that “probably somewhere like Denmark will do it first.”

2018 also saw a huge conversation about the lack of chefs in Ireland, with restaurants all over the country crying out for cooks. This problem also affected JP. “We lost two chefs, one Canadian and one Australian. The government wouldn’t renew their visas even though we appealed it.”

In almost ‘catch 22’ fashion JP tells me that “particularly in Aniar we’ve had hundreds of people dying to work there and then we can’t get them visas”. While Ireland is no doubt becoming a food destination, JP wonders “we have the whole European market, and then you think where are the chefs? Unfortunately what we’re missing is in the middle, we’re missing a good standard or calibre of chefs. We’ve loads of younger inexperienced chefs coming up and the top ones are leaving.”

we need to attract really good chefs”

Looking to the future JP expresses he would love to see Aniar have more local customers, admitting “I can’t fit enough people into Cava even though Aniar is the international flagship.” Cava Bodega is a hugely popular spot on the Galway dining scene. It seems we Irish have embraced the flavours of the Meditteranean but are still a little wary of the Nordic touches found in Aniar. “But that’s the way the nature of dining is going. I always say to the younger chefs, if you’re going to open up casual dining with really good ethics, it’s the way forward, it’s the way you can reach the most amount of people.”

JP informs me he has “a few projects in the works. We’re working on an Irish food cookbook. It’s about 600 pages long at the moment, that’s due to be out in 2020 so I’ll probably spend most of 2019 writing that.”

“I have a few trips planned, one to Canada and one to Scotland as well. I probably did too much travelling last year, I was away almost once a month. It looks good on paper but it’s not fun when you’re doing it.” In 2019 JP is hoping for a better work/life balance as his busy schedule leaves his kids “wondering where I am.”

Talking about the future of Irish food JP thinks “it’s going to be diverse. Personally, I would love more shellfish and seaweed in our daily diet.” He tells me he thinks the food scene “will end up looking something like New York, where you can get everything. Dublin is already like that but I’d like to get a balance between restaurants that would focus on Irish produce and then marry it with international flavours.”

“I still think most restaurants are using Irish produce, but I’d love the ones that aren’t to engage more, to make sure their core products are Irish. Then that helps the general community. Most of the vegetables that we sell in Ireland are still imported, so then you’d wonder where all our own vegetables are?”

Recently we read shocking figures regarding Ireland’s imports of potatoes from the Central Statistics Office. In 2017, we imported 72,000 tonnes of potatoes. The irony of people thinking us Irish are potato mad farmers isn’t lost here, when in fact we can’t even provide enough of this staple product.

Speaking about this JP ponders, “Why do we need potatoes from Israel in Ireland? Nothing against Israel or their potatoes but shouldn’t we have enough? The responsibility is then on the person. We as customers need to educate ourselves, so hopefully, if someone reads this article they’ll think twice.”

JP tells me we’re also importing asparagus from Peru, even off-season, to which he admits “I think it does nothing for anyone, it doesn’t taste great. I don’t think it does anything for the people in Peru because it’s exported. We get it in November and December just because we want an asparagus salad.” JP believes in eating seasonally with our own produce, “we should have a kale salad or celeriac instead.”

“I was talking about this with avocados”, the now infamous avocado-gate where every media outlet in the country was contacting JP about his comments on this green delight. “It’s not that I have anything against the avocado, it’s just that it represents a certain way of thinking. We take a product that’s healthy and we automatically think it’s sustainable because it’s healthy. But nothing is sustainable in and of itself.”

“It’s easy to say a vegan diet is better than a meat-eating diet, but why don’t we say it depends on where all the food comes from. If you have a diet that’s based on 90% of products that aren’t made in this country – how is that sustainable? ”

And that’s always the question I would ask people who are on any kind of diet, whether its vegan or paleo – where is the food coming from?”

It’s clear that food is much more than just a commodity to JP. You can almost hear the inner workings of his mind as he analyses the subject. “I think if you really want to look at your diet, look at where you’re from and ask what do we produce in Ireland. We produce meat and fish really well, so for me it makes more sense to eat meat in Ireland.”

JP sees the patterns in diets worldwide, where the landscape affects what produce is available. “Perhaps in the middle east where they have lovely citrus fruits and vegetables, you could say it’s easy to be a vegetarian or vegan. But you can’t just go up to Greenland and say vegan is better, where would they get their vegetables from? It’s always these blanket surveys and statistics that say ‘this is better’ and it doesn’t take into account your local environment and who you interact with.”

For me it’s always about people; who do you buy from, do you know them.

“One of our producers is Ronan. We’ve been buying stuff from him for 10 years and our relationship is a really nice thing. If you just go in and buy stuff in a plastic bag that’s not a relationship. For me, it’s interesting to think about when we want to follow a certain diet, how much of that produce is produced outside of Ireland and they’re the kind of things people aren’t talking about, they’re more difficult questions and people get upset.”

“It’s easy to say red meat is bad – if people are coastal people how can you tell them to be vegan when they live on fish. It’s a very complicated idea and a very grey area.”

“You can’t stop food travelling, if it didn’t we wouldn’t have farming but I it’s just interesting to think about.”

Looking towards the new year JP believes “fermentation is going to be big, particularly with NOMA’s book. It will be interesting to see the impact of that book and what they’ve been doing in the last couple of years in terms of research. And koji, I just see it everywhere, even one of our chefs in Aniar is messing around with it.”

There seems to be no stopping for this ambitious chef, and with him singing the praises of Irish food and fighting for a better understanding of this ever-changing and growing subject I think the future of Irish food is in capable hands. The sky is truly the limit and 2019 is going to be an exciting year both for JP and the Irish food scene.

JP McMahon Interview

Sinéad is a Culinary Arts graduate from DIT. She is a passionate cook with a love of fine dining and modern Irish cuisine. A gin lover, Sinéad loves seeking out cosy new pubs and sampling a variety of craft beers.

If she’s not dining out, Sinéad loves travelling the world exploring new cultures and cuisines. Working with TheTaste allows Sinéad to fully immerse herself in the Irish food industry.

Sinead Smyth Sinead Smyth

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