We know that chefs get their gloves on, but we would never have thought they’d be getting their groove on, as well. Surprise, surprise, then, when it was revealed in the first quarter of 2021 that no less a public figure and one of Ireland’s best-known chefs, Neven Maguire, maneuvered if not manipulated the decks when he was a much younger man. He hesitates at the description of him as a DJ (“that’s putting it a bit strong”) but readily admits that his love of music has continued as the years have passed.
“I used to do sessions in the River Club in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, on a Wednesday and Saturday after service. I was a trainee chef at the time. I wasn’t paid, but I was thrilled to do it and I really enjoyed it. There is a lot of music that I loved back then that I still love now. I have about three thousand vinyl records with loads of dance music from France and Germany. It ranges from Paul van Dyk to Tony De Vit to Scooter. When Amelda, my wife, got all the gear out of the attic – it had been a 21st Birthday present – I had no idea I would have so much fun, and that people would be so interested.” If Covid and lockdowns had never happened, does Neven think he wouldn’t have rediscovered the decks? Or been too busy to even think about them? Once Amelda found them and got them reconditioned, he says, he certainly would have found time – of which there was plenty of in 2020 and for the first half of 2021. “I had time last year to spend with family and have fun with decks as well as cook at home.”
Speaking of cooking, that is now very much back on the agenda. I ask Neven is he all set for the reopening of the hospitality business, his acclaimed MacNean House & Restaurant (in Blacklion, County Cavan), and does he expect certain things to be different from the way they used to be pre-Covid times?
“I’m not sure it will ever get back to exactly the way things were,” he cautions. “It will definitely take a long time. The new reality is that the virus will be lurking, and we have to be continuously vigilant. Hygiene has always been a priority for us at MacNean, but there is even more emphasis now. Our tables were already very well-spaced at two metres so I don’t think there will be further change there, but we have reduced our number of customers, as that worked well last year.”
Does he think will the business ever be the same again? He certainly hopes so. “Our job at MacNean is still the same – we will continue to support our fabulous local food producers, and we will continue to provide a great dining experience for people who enjoy food and conversation. Thankfully, we have very heavy advance bookings, but we get cancellations so always check us out!”
The past 16 or so months, he says, have been tough on his staff and on his business. The pandemic notwithstanding, however, Neven, his business and his work colleagues are still standing. A little battered and bruised, perhaps, but by no means down and out. “We are all so glad to be back working.” He certainly wasn’t twiddling his thumbs during and in-between the various lockdowns. “I did a lot of videos with Dunnes for the Simply Better range. I kept on writing for the Farmers Journal and chatting with Marty Whelan on Lyric FM each Friday. Plus, when travel was allowed, we were able to get a new series of programmes recorded in Majorca for a forthcoming RTE series. That said, we all missed the buzz of customers.”
We circle back to music and how crucial it is that restaurants get the balance right, not only in music styles but in volume levels. Music is an important part of the atmosphere and overall experience, he says, “but it depends very much on the restaurant. It shouldn’t compete for attention. A restaurant is a place where you are with people you enjoy and eat food you enjoy. People and food are the stars.” I suggest that some restaurants don’t get the balance at all right, but Neven points out that music preferences are acutely subjective. At MacNean, he says, “we have a different playlist for breakfast and dinner, and when guests check in, we have Lyric FM on in the rooms. People say it sets the tone to relax.” What kind of music is played at MacNean, Blacklion, I ask – I’m presuming it isn’t what you love listening to on your headphones? “You can rest assured it isn’t me as I want our customers to stay! We use Spotify – Blathín, Clare and Gary keep it fresh and updated.”
And so it goes on. People back for indoor dining, the thrum of conversations, the popping of corks, the glug-glug-glug of wine being poured, and work continuing apace. Lessons have been learned, of course, and different work practices have been applied. In an Irish Times interview at the start of 2021, Neven disclosed he was planning to ever-so-slightly slow down his work pace. Eight months later does that still hold true, or has the bug of being at the coal face of the restaurant business bitten even deeper? “I was working too hard and driving too much,” he admits. “Thankfully, I never had an accident but there were times when I was very tired, and I stayed in Dublin rather than drive home. But then you miss family breakfast and I love that part of the day. I was thrilled with how well cookery demos over Zoom have worked, and I can do those from home. I love all the work I do, but I’m going to be more careful to ensure that I get home time and family time.”
With the previous question in mind, as well as the re-opening of MacNean House & Restaurant, what’s in the pipeline for him for the remainder of this year and into 2022? A cookbook for children is on the way, he reveals, as well as the aforementioned imminent RTE television series.
“We keep on adding new things to the Cook range in Dunnes, and I will keep working with Simply Better. We all just hope that once restaurants open, they stay open. And no, before you ask, I won’t be performing in the 3Arena, and yes, I will keep supporting Manchester United!”
WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA
Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland