It seems that the days of the stand alone restaurant might be coming to a close. Earlier this year hospitality giant the Mercantile Group announced a merger with the Capital Bars Group which will see the organisation swell to nearly 15 establishments. As the economy improves, more and more venues and restaurants are opening all over Ireland, increasingly as part of groups.
Fiachra Kenny is the head chef at The Green Hen, a French brasserie on Exchequer Street in Dublin. He says that being part of a large group has lots of benefits, like allowing them to hold on to staff that they have invested in. “It’s definitely good to have that support system there. Being part of a group, if anybody gets tired in a certain venue you can always move them to a different one. So with any of my guys if they’re looking to move or change, I usually try and move them or change them within the group.”
Fiachra’s confidence in the abilities of the chefs in the Mercantile Group is well founded as he himself has experience in another group restaurant, Pichet, where he worked with head chef Stephen Gibson. It seems Pichet is something of a training ground for talent in the group as many of their most prominent chefs have done a stint there. “We all started out with Stephen: Matt in Marcel’s, Damien up in Tavern. I look at what the other guys are doing and see the influence there from where we all came from.”
When it comes to taking on new chefs and their training, Fiachra likes to support creativity. He says it is important to keep his team interested and motivated to keep learning. “I’m not going to dictate and tell them no, that’s wrong, I’ll guide them. I don’t discourage people trying something new because if people are trying something new, they might discover something great. As a head chef it’s your job to teach, to lead people. People aren’t going to learn if they’re held back, you have to let people be free to do what they want to do, to learn that.”
The most important thing his team have to learn however is respect. Fiachra believes respect is the foundation for all cooking. “I think they have to respect the kitchen and respect the trade, respect the produce and just understand that if you’re going to be doing this for people you need to do it with the utmost care. If you’re not interested, if you’re just here for the pay cheque, it’s probably not the right place for you.” When that respect doesn’t translate in his kitchen, Fiachra responds in a calmer manner than his early days. He credits his maturing management style to the patience he has learned as a father; his son Caleb is now one. Fiachra also says that overreacting is bad for the industry.
I used to be way more intense, I was slightly more aggressive in my management style whereas now I’ve learned to accept things. I’ve worked with some difficult chefs but you need to be a good leader, you can’t have your team see you lose it so you have to just learn to roll with the small things. Obviously I’m not afraid to speak up or let a yell when something goes wrong, just to get someone back in line, but I tend not to throw my weight around or bully people; I don’t like that.
This calm attitude to his kitchen and its operation means Fiachra isn’t sweating the small stuff. Nowadays, the only thing that gets under his skin and annoys him is when he feels he has had a bad service. “If I don’t feel I’ve done the best that I can do that really bugs me. If I have a service where it just feels like things aren’t going the way they should be going, if it seems like it’s a struggle to do something that we should be able to do, I tend to get upset with that sort of thing.”
It is an admirable bug bear as it shows that Fiachra has a real pride in his work and the dishes that come out of his kitchen. He inherited a strong work ethic from his father who had his own business and worked very hard to provide for his family. Life has come full circle now that Fiachra is so dedicated. His wife Michelle is in marketing and has been very understanding through years of long hours studying and working. “She’s incredibly supportive of everything I do, so I have to take my hat off to her putting up with me working long and opposite hours. When we have time off together we try to make the most of it, it’s very much family time.”
Time off is a rarity for Fiachra as The Green Hen is thriving on Exchequer Street and is open seven days a week. He is really committed to creating a style there that reflects the French roots of the brasserie and contains a strong local element.
I’d always try to use what we have on hand and the produce that’s available on our doorstep as opposed to getting stuff shipped in from all around the world. Cutting out the distance between where it’s grown, from the farm to the table, you’re always going to get a better flavour. So if you’re getting stuff that’s been grown in Rush or out in Lusk or anything like that, it’s definitely going to have better flavours cause it tastes like the area you’re in.
To stay true to local provenance Fiachra says you have to look to the seasons as they determine what produce is best at any given time of year. As he is relying on fresh local ingredients that taste great, Fiachra explains he doesn’t have to over-complicate his dishes; what grows together goes together. “I don’t try to put too much on a plate, I just try to make an honest plate of food so what you see is what you get. With good produce there’s very little you have to do with flavour, it just tastes good. At the end of the day all you want is for food to taste like what it should.”
Fiachra loves this time of year when he can get his hands on vibrant greens and colourful produce but he is also a fan of autumn and winter ‘hibernation foods’, comfort driven dishes like braised meats and slow cooked joints. This rich food is synonymous with French cooking and doesn’t leave much room for health focused dishes on menus at The Green Hen. According to Fiachra, their customers don’t take to attempts at healthier meals. “I did try to put on a pearl barley broth and the flavours were incredible but people didn’t want it cause they thought it looked too healthy. I find a lot of customers when they come in just want to eat bad and enjoy themselves and forget about it.”
The food at The Green Hen may not be what the health conscious would go for but the restaurant could soon be forced to take a step in that direction if calorie counting legislation comes to pass. Fiachra thinks it’s not realistic to expect chefs to keep track of everything they put in a dish.
I just don’t see how it’s going to work because a lot of cooking is down to your natural instinct. I don’t necessarily follow recipes to a T, you have to put your own slant on it, your own instinct. We generally add a bit of this and a bit of that just to make the flavour work. You can’t measure a dab of this or a dab of that like how much fat is in that little bit if butter we put into that sauce?
He is also adamant that people go out to dinner not to count their calories but to enjoy coming together over a meal. “When people look at it you don’t go out for dinner to count what you’re eating, you go out to dinner to enjoy what you’re eating. If you start breaking it down saying ‘I can’t eat this because it’s this much’ as opposed to just enjoying it and having that conviviality, sitting around with people, you’re going to lose that.”
That is the atmosphere Fiachra wants to create in The Green Hen, a convivial place where people can come together over plates of good honest food. They are now catering to night owls too with a late night menu of small tasting plates, charcuterie and cheese boards. The idea came from owner Paul Rooney’s travels abroad where he was inspired by the late night venues in Australia and New York. Fiachra has fully embraced the idea by customising some of his regular dishes to make use of the produce he already has in the kitchen. He says it is great for those who work late. “When we started out there wasn’t that many people around doing that sort of thing at the bar. I had to take what I had here and adapt it so you get a smaller sort of more bite size like a tasting plate. There’s definitely a space for that sort of thing where people who work in the industry might want to go get a drink and a bite to eat after they finish their shift. That’s sort of what we’re aiming for.”
For the moment Fiachra is focusing on his late night offering and looking forward to the upcoming Taste of Dublin festival in June. At the head of one of Dublin’s busiest restaurants it would be easy for him to rest on his laurels but Fiachra keeps working hard and putting pressure on himself to improve all the time.
I suppose in a way I have those expectations of myself, for finding that flavour that’s going to be like wow. Even with that lamb dish we put on, I actually surprised myself when I tasted it. I wouldn’t say I’m the best chef in the world, I wouldn’t say I’m the most successful but I’m definitely a work in progress and that’s how I’d see it. I’m not looking for awards or accolades but I’m definitely going to work hard at what I love doing and in the meantime hopefully surprise myself some more and enjoy working with guys who want to work alongside me.
Alison has been writing since she could hold a pen, which came in handy for her degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies. She has been working in media since graduating and is the latest features writer for TheTaste.
Writing for TheTaste allows her to combine her passion for the written word with her love of food and drink. Find her on Twitter @AliDalyo