JP McMahon on Michelin, Defining Irish Cuisine and Creating a Legacy
JP McMahon doesn’t just have just a few strings to his bow, he has an orchestra. Chef, restaurateur, cookery book writer, food columnist, teacher in his own cookery school, food activist, father, and husband are just some of the titles he juggles on a day-to-day basis, all while he continues work on PhD on food in the work of James Joyce. A former student of Art History, the outspoken chef approaches the food world with an academic lens; constantly investigating and researching; poking and prodding at areas of the industry that some are just happy to let be.
“I like making challenges for myself,” admits JP, who runs three restaurants in Galway with his wife Drigín; Cava Bodega, EAT, and the Michelin starred Aniar. “I have been travelling around doing stages in various kitchens and looking to see how we can develop Aniar, and ultimately see how we can get a second star. That is the ultimate goal but it is a very fickle thing because there is no criteria.”
By making the tables bigger, decreasing the number of seats to just 20, moving the kitchen out into the dining space, and serving a set 10 course tasting menu, JP hopes to create a more theatrical atmosphere at Aniar. “The food is good, but we are looking how we can change the experience, and doing fewer customers will make the food better, and the service better too.” But just like everyone else, he can only guess these changes will be what the cryptic Michelin inspectors will be looking for.
“It very much depends on where you are. Michelin is not one thing. Michelin in Singapore is very different to Michelin in Ireland or Japan. You really have to try to put your ear to the ground and listen to what may or may not work. They constantly say it’s about the food, but my reading of that is that when the service and element is heightened your food is better, because food is a very holistic thing for me.”
“It is still one of the most independent qualifications that you can get. You can’t buy it, you can’t invite them in, you just have to work and hope that it works out. It’s like a double-edged sword I suppose, you just have to take the good with the bad; it’s brilliant getting it and it’s terrible to lose it.”
“For me, you always have what you call survivor’s guilt when you survive and other don’t, and you don’t know why. That’s the difficulty. For years when we had a star and the Greenhouse didn’t I would always feel guilty, I mean you would always try to appreciate your own achievements, but it’s always defined in relation to others. Of course, when Thornton’s lost theirs I was gutted. I don’t understand it, but it made sense to Michelin. Sometimes the system seems brilliant and other times it’s not as transparent as you’d like it to be.”
A modern-day Michelin, means that you can track the trail of an inspector via Twitter, and restaurateurs get to chat to them when they visit, like JP did this April. He was 90% confident before the announcement on October 3rd that he would retain his precious star, as he did, but admitted announcement day would still be like “Christmas Day when you’re a kid” – “but maybe that’s not a good parallel, because Santa might not come and give you any presents,” he adds, laughing. “But Santa has always been here for the past five years, so we are hoping he’ll come again.”
Despite recent backbiting of the guide in the media, JP respects the Michelin guide and it is “in the business of trying to promote restaurants, and if the restaurants aren’t with them then there’s a miscommunication.”
He has time for the “more fashionable”, but less transparent, World 50 Best list too. “I love it because it’s exciting and you get to see who come out on top, it’s like the Olympics or something. Michelin is a much more slow burning trail of consistency.” Like many others, though, he despairs as to why there are 3 British restaurants in the top 50 and none from Ireland, and why they the judges don’t come to Ireland at all. But rather “than just give out”, JP wants to do something to change that.
One of the ways he hopes to tap into that global awareness is through Food on the Edge, the ‘Irish food symposium’ for which JP will bring over 50 top chefs from all over the world to Galway on Cotober 24th and 25th; to discuss the future of food, and to show them what Ireland has to offer. “They’ll come here, eat here and then go away, and the media will follow them, and the public will follow them.”
“FOTE is only in year two now, and I am hoping by year five FOTE will have a legacy of bringing chefs to Ireland who know Irish food, Irish ingredients, and a new Irish cuisine that I think has yet to be defined.”
JP expresses his interpretation of modern Irish food on the plates he serves at Aniar, and regularly posts photos on social media of dishes, like ‘potato, lovage cep, pine’ and ‘lamb, leek, sea beet’, with the hashtag #IrishFood.
JP admits the food at Aniar is at the same time hyper-local and internationally influenced: “From the Spanish it’s that transforming the mundane to the magical; from the Nordics it’s that wild purity of their ingredients; and from the Japanese it’s how they treat seafood and seaweed to create the most amazing umami rich dishes. There’s no reason why we can’t borrow and learn because at some stage everybody borrows and learns.”
Though we are “still dipping our feet into the water” in the quest to define Irish food, JP believes it will be our ingredients, like seaweed (“it should be our national vegetable”), seafood, dairy, beef and pudding, that will form the root of our cuisine.
Before descending on Galway last year, JP says many of the visiting chefs, like Albert Adrià of legendary Spanish restaurant elBulli and two Michellin starred chef Nathan Outlaw, knew nothing of Irish produce, but were blown away when presented with the spectrum of Ireland’s bounty. “We just take it for granted, like we have people who are coming from Mexico who couldn’t get over our bread and butter, because they just do not have butter in Mexico.”
Aside from creating a platform from which to shout about Irish food, FOTE will continue the conversation and exchange of ideas on the future of food that JP started last year; a topic that not only encompasses issues of sustainability in terms of the food we are producing, but also the sustainability of the industry. He asks: “is casual dining the way forward if you want to affect the most amount of people? Is fine dining sustainable in relation to that? Can chefs continue to work 17 or 18 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week?”
“All of these issues are the same the world over, it’s about bringing people together and trying to make the industry more sustainable one small change at a time.”
These changes must come from the chefs, says JP, who he believes have a responsibility to make food better for the next generation. “Because of social media, it is no longer possible to just sit there and accept the industry the way it is; whether you want more women in the industry, fewer hours or better working conditions. The power is now there for all chefs.”
“By highlighting these issues and forcing people to think about them, they can stop making excuses about them. You don’t have to settle, things can change and I think people can change them.”
JP certainly puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to projects he believes in. Despite failing to raise a target of €100,000 for Farmer, his farm-to-fork fast food venture, in a Kickstarter campaign, he has not given up on the project.
“For me it was about trying to get what we do at Cava and Eat out to more people, and the only way to do that was to try to mirror another aspect of the industry that serves a lot of people, and that’s fast food,” explains JP. “Fast Food is not going to go away. It’s there, it’s cheap and it’s accessible. We are not going to counter that with another fine dining or casual dining restaurant. I want to show good food can be used in many, many different ways.”
Now, with the idea off the ground, JP says in the long-term they hope to open a restaurant, but the project won’t be rushed. “We could set up in a posh area of a capital city and say ‘this is just for you guys’. But for me, it’s not about being trendy. Is that going to affect the people I want to effect? For me, it’s about asking how can we open Farmer in the middle of Ireland and make people want to go to it.”
JP hasn’t survived 8 years in this notoriously fickle industry based on altruism alone, however. Behind these admirable ideals is a business man, who recognises that there is a profit to be made. “The profit margin for fast food is astronomical, even if you use produce that is maybe 50% more it would still be sustainable. The profit margin on a bag of chips is massive, like 1000%, we are used to dealing with profit margins that are two or three percent. Particularly in Aniar, where the last thing you are worrying about it making profit, you are worried about staying open.”
The chef says that his priority isn’t owning a holiday house in France however: “it’s down to where your concerns are, and mine is for food. You have to make money, but it’s about how much do you need to make, if your staff and suppliers are paid and the restaurants are functioning, it’s down to how much more do you want?” “That’s why we have always tried to put the money from our restaurants into other restaurants and ideas. I mean last year FOTE cost us €80,000, personally, and that money came from Cava.”
“Restaurants in Ireland need to make a choice, particularly the ones that are making a lot of money, and ask ‘who am I benefiting? Is it myself or the society that serves me? I’m not on some kind of social mission but I just think it’s just important to get our food right.”
He is constantly pushing himself, and setting targets to better himself and the projects he is working on. To address what he calls ‘the female question’, he has doubled the number of female speakers at FOTE this year. “I don’t know why it is that you have to try so much harder to get them to come. But I’ve set myself the goal to get 15 here next year. I won’t get 50/50 straight away, that’s not how the industry works.”
And he has ambitions to push the boundaries of the event even further: “We’re hoping to bring FOTE to a castle outside Galway next year, I want to try to keep moving it and not just rest on our laurels. We want to try to make it a little more difficult for ourselves. By year five I want it on the Aran Islands, that’s one of our goals. I want to get people to see different things.”
At Aniar he makes things uncomfortable in the kitchen by excluding the us of “external influences” that are not grown in Ireland, like lemon and black pepper. Committed to “exploring and investigating the food that we have”, instead he uses homemade vinegars for acidity, like pairing mackerel with a celery vinegar rather than lemon or lime for example, unearthing new flavour profiles in the process.
As well as renovating the kitchen in Aniar, early next year he will trial a four day week to give his staff an extra day off, but will balance out the loss of a day’s revenue by, for the first time, doing lunch on Saturdays. “I think it is absolutely possible in the world of Michelin to have a restaurant that gives staff three days off, and I want to do it in Ireland to show that it is possible.”
Why does he have to make things so difficult for himself? “I don’t know why I make my life difficult, or as my wife says why I make her life difficult, when I decide these things and the consequences are all of a sudden I’ve an international symposium to organise!” he laughs.
“I guess we are just trying to challenge ourselves, to make things a little bit better. I suppose all I can do is leave the industry a little better than I found it, that’s ultimately all you can really do.”
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.