Master of the Old School – John Healy on Service and Suesey Street
John Healy is a busy man; busier than you might expect someone to be after two heart attacks and a transplant. This is clearly not a man who is going to sit around and take it easy, everything he does is infused with a sense of energetic urgency, like he has a limited time frame in which to get things done.
This could be a result of years of multi-tasking running services in premium hotels and restaurants but it could also have been intensified by his health problems. Due to the amount of coverage on the subject, John is reluctant to go into too much detail about it. “I don’t speak about it anymore, people ask how I am and I tell them I’m great. It’s fantastic, I feel very lucky and very blessed.”
Surely anyone who has been through the journey John has would be forgiven for wanting to take it easy. Not John though, even during the height of his health issues he was busy running a high end guest house in Portugal. Now he has taken on another challenge as the Restaurant Manager of Suesey Street on Fitzwilliam Place.
You have to do what you love and what your passion is. I tried to do consultancy work and I did two years of teaching, I was a lecturer in Galway University, then this came up. I met Fiona, who owns here and she says we didn’t have an interview, we had a meeting of minds. We nattered for three hours and I was like, I would love to come and work here. I thought go back and do what you do best, and I love doing this.
John’s passion is evident when he talks about Suesey Street, sweeping his arm around to highlight the opulent surroundings. The unique venue was only one factor in John’s decision to take on the demanding role, the other being the Suesey Street team. Besides hitting it off with owner Fiona, John has a great relationship with Head Chef Graeme Dodrill. Together they focus on the wellbeing of the staff and have created a healthy and supportive environment for them. “Most of the guys here live a very healthy life. We all take care of ourselves and the people around us. Everybody eats properly and I try to educate them how to live their lives, take care of yourself and sleep properly, take your time off and your holidays.”
The wellness of his staff is a priority for John because he knows all too well the dangers of becoming overworked. The increasing speed of the industry means staff have to become more efficient and juggle lots of different roles. This is the case in Suesey Street and John wants to ensure the staff are well equipped for the challenge. “They’ve got to work faster and be more knowledgeable and be able to do more. Now a restaurant manager has got to do the schedules, the rotas, hire staff, fire staff, do the marketing, PR, organisation, the stocktake, serve tables, be the host and everything else as well.”
John embraces the increasing remit like a seasoned pro, unfazed by anything and totally unflappable. He is of an era when these skills were drilled into service staff during years spent in classical training, something that he says is sorely missing in the industry today. “I don’t see the training that I and the old timers in town got. That’s why we’re still here, because there’s no people coming up behind us who can do what we do. That’s what I’m afraid of for the business.”
He is concerned that young Irish people are only concerned with making money and not focused on investing in a service orientated skill set. In his early career, John trained in the best hotels in London with ‘old school’ restaurant managers that instilled a strict set of standards in him. He maintains it was a different level of service than what he was used to in Ireland and John was forced to start again, working his way up from the bottom of the ladder.
For a while John emulated the service of his superiors, adopting their subservient airs and manners before finding his own style. The changing world brought an end to some of the class divisions and John found diners responding to his warmth and natural charm.
I suppose I was at the coal face of experimenting with those lines of familiarity, how far you can push those lines when you know your regular customers. Where do you actually stop and say that’s enough. We, being Irish, know that stuff intuitively. We don’t cross barriers and we know our own place, and knowing your own place when you are doing this kind of service is very very important. I’ve seen a lot of the guys try to copy what I do and emulate what we do in restaurants who fail miserably at it.
John treats every customer the same way and he refuses to put celebrities on a pedestal. “Treat everyone the same and the whole room sees it. You run around the room and make everybody feel fabulous and you give them a little piece of you and a little piece of your service. That’s your game plan, that’s what I create.”
John’s role on TV3’s The Restaurant means he is still in regular contact with lots of celebrities and well known faces. He speaks rather fondly of the celebrity chefs that impressed him the most by bringing their passion to proceedings, people like Rozanna Purcell and Norah Casey. “There were a few of them who came in and really brought their A game. The passion people have for food is amazing and it never ceases to amaze me what chefs do and what people can do in kitchens, you can see and feel their passion. When someone brings that to the show and they’re not a professional that’s astounding, I really take my hat off to them because they cook to such a level of professionalism they should be very very proud of.”!
A lot of the entertainment on the show comes, not from the chefs, but from the critics. After Paolo Tullio sadly passed away last year, Marco Pierre White was brought on to the panel alongside Tom Doorley and weekly guest critics. The most talked about moment from this year’s series, besides Rory Cowan’s Rainbow Cake, was a tense moment at the critic’s table where Tom challenged Marco over his ‘patronising’ opinions. John said he was instructed not to interfere. “You let it go because it’s good television. Any stuff like that is great. Marco is such a force and has such an ego. He’s very dramatic but he says it as it is and doesn’t take any shit from anybody. He can be quite rude when he wants to be but I get on very well with him, he obviously liked what I did and that was fine.” John’s opinion is to let him do his thing, whether he’s two hours late or refuses to have his picture taken.
Most celebrities run in their own time zone, most of them are happy in their own fabulosity so let them be there, they deserve it. He’s worked very hard and he changed kitchens around the world and chefs adore him for good reason. If the man wants to be two hours late, deal with it. That’s what he is. You’re not going to get him on time because that’s who he is, you have to play that fiddle to that tune. He’s going to do it when he wants to do it and nobody can tell him anything else.
Of course when John has to deal with difficult people it is phrased in just the right way, as per his total professionalism. According to him it’s not what you’re saying, it’s how you say it. Many an explosive situation has been resolved with a quiet word from John and this is a skill he has honed over the years. “You have to read people carefully and know what you can do. That is down to experience and you can’t buy experience. You can’t buy 30 years on the floor looking after people and you can’t teach anybody that, it comes with longevity, of reading situations in seconds.”
John is bringing that experience to bear in Suesey Street as their location and an increasingly competitive industry means they have to be ‘all things to all people’. They are aiming for accessibility in the restaurant and with their private venue No. 25 next door, they want to provide something for everyone. “I think you have to be very flexible to what people want these days, that you are giving them the value for money that they are looking for as well as creating a product that people want to buy. The style of food has gone back to basics a lot, we’re going back to bistro brasserie where it’s a good plate but a stylish and well-executed plate.”
Restaurants have to adapt to customer demand and catering for a new generation of allergen mad millennials is just another facet of the changing industry for John. As younger customers move their weekend socialising from the pub to eateries, people are looking for a different kind of dining experience. “It’s changed so much and it’s absolutely astounding what’s happened to the industry in Dublin. From not enough restaurants to too many restaurants. You have to change and move on, you can’t sit and be sad for the things gone by. You gotta keep going and change your game plan to suit what’s going on around you and be aware of it.”
It must require a lot of energy to keep up with the constantly changing trends and John has that in spades. His infectious passion and drive will ensure that the service you receive in Suesey Street will make you feel like a star.
Book your table in Suesey Street here.
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