Moving with the Seasons – Chef Niall O’Sullivan of BANG Restaurant
In last month’s TheTaste our intrepid taster Niamh Mannion dined at BANG restaurant. She closed her review with a strong statement, “the food was outstanding and the whole experience was one that I will not forget quickly”. Understandably this remark piqued my interest, and to get to the bottom of this enduring impression I went to the source, head chef Niall O’Sullivan.
While every restaurant nowadays seems to boast the provenance of their ingredients, promoting seasonal, local foods and traditional food methods is much as a pastime for Niall as it is his professional instinct. Co-founder of Nádúr Collective, an initiative which hosts wild food pop-ups, leads foraging expeditions, and generally raises awareness of the bountiful wild food, Niall has strong links to the land. Add to that an allegiance to ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking, homemade charcuterie, fermentation and brining, this is a chef who puts his passions on a plate.
Niall, a Killiney native, says he still has the same excitement for the kitchen as when he walked “off the street, totally cold” into the kitchen at Wrights Brasserie in Monkstown as a teenager. He went on to complete a degree in Culinary Arts and honed his skills in a number of Dublin restaurants, including the Cavistons Group and Dalis in Blackrock. Then, six years ago, he traveled to live and work in Melbourne,
“I got to the point where I was working as a head chef and felt a change was needed, a reboot. If it wasn’t Australia I would have done something else different with food”
A rite of passage for many young chefs Niall made the move to Australia’s food capital with his wife Erika and three young children, Niamh, Ava and Tadgh. Niall says he is glad he went at this stage of his life, “going there older, as opposed to being 18 and just going on the piss, and going with family, I think I absorbed much more.” Niall travelled up prior to his family, with seven trials lined up during a two week trip. He landed a job in one hatted restaurant Gills in the very last trial, “I think I was so exhausted by the whole experience that I had gone beyond over thinking it and just went in and went to work, not a bother.”
Niall says he always had experience rather than emigration in mind, “we went with the plan to go for a year and a half, but it was always going to make me more employable, it was always going to be beneficial. There was only positives to be had.” On returning to Dublin, Niall took the post of head chef at Isabel’s bistro on Baggot Street, then moved on to East Side Tavern, before settling at BANG. The immersion in the diverse food culture of Australia has made a lasting impression on the chef, and while now far from Victoria’s coastal capital, what Niall learnt in Melbourne’s kitchens has evidently made it’s way to Merrion Row.
“The biggest thing I noticed the quality of the product, eating in season is just standard in Australia. In the kitchens it’s first nature to change the menu with the seasons. I think that’s really lacking here,” says Niall. “I went to the supermarket last night and the first massive display was of blueberries from Chile, strawberries from Spain and raspberries from Morocco. That’s what’s wrong with this situation. We are eating strawberries in February.”
“At BANG we are really striving hard to use Irish produce and really striving hard to be seasonal and people don’t always necessarily appreciate that but you have to keep going with it”
“Working with artisan producers and sourcing seasonal ingredients is not always the easiest route and it’s easier to just go with the generic,” admits Niall. Though his commitment to serving quality food means he exploit’s BANG’s long established network of artisan producers and suppliers everyday to source the freshest produce. “There won’t be any dish that will be on the menu the whole year around. Coming into the spring, things are getting a bit lighter and a bit greener. We started cooking a few dishes with octopus this week,” Niall says with obvious enthusiasm. “I get excited about what’s coming into season, at the moment with are using bianchetto truffles, a spring truffle, it’s a short enough season but the quality is cracking.”
Inspired by the MAD Symposium, an annual food convention in Copenhagen since Niall established Nádúr Collective with two like-minded chefs, Paul Quinn and Dave Gallagher. “With Nádúr it forces you to think of seasonality, it forces you to look at what’s in your locality and it gives you much more of a connection.” Niall says their mission is simply to share their passion for wild food, “it’s really flexible. It’s not a set business with a monetary goal”.
In keeping with BANG’s seasonal ethos Niall incorporates wild foods where possible, “we might use some sea beet, or infuse our butter with douglas fir. We use different types of sorrel and at the moment in our celeriac dish we are using Alexander which is similar to lovage or celery but has a bit more of a hit.” Foraging also offers Niall a sanctuary away from his station,
“a big part of it is that it’s the complete opposite environment to working in a kitchen. You are out in the middle of nowhere and won’t see anyone for three hours. It’s a complete counter point to working 15 hours days with ten lads”
Along with seasonal, local foods his travels inspired an interest in ‘nose to tail’ cooking and homemade charcuteries, “I love different types of offal. We’ve used pigs heads and we make our own black pudding here, and we have hanger steak on the menu at the moment.” “The oxtail and bone marrow gnocchi is very popular on the menu too,” Niall adds. He has an increased respect for other traditional food methods too such as fermentation and brining, “the biggest change in my cooking from Australia was brining. The difference it makes to meat and fish is just phenomenal. From the tenderisation of meat to the flavour it’s just works on so many different level.”
“Going to Australia I went into the kitchen and I would see a completely new way of doing something I had been doing for ten years. You just have an open mind,” Niall says. This open mindedness is something that has been encouraged at BANG, “we are never closed off to ideas, a technique, a dish or a type of food. We get in an ingredient and we might try it five different ways.”
On how he hopes to make his mark at the restaurant he says; “BANG has an established following. I’m relatively new but rather than make any drastic changes I want to build on what has made it successful. We want to experiment with the menu a little bit more, and with different formats.”
“It’s about trying different things and seeing what people want. None of the ingredients are on the plate just because they are wild or unusual, it’s all flavour driven, if something works it works”
When it comes to food outside the kitchen Niall says that while he would never say no to a pizza and a cold beer, the flavours of the Middle East, that the family discovered while in Australia, are more likely inspire dinner at the O’Sullivan household. An influence that has crept onto the menu at BANG too, where a warm salad of Irish heirloom carrots, Moroccan spices, puffed quinoa & hazelnut dukka is included among the starters.
Though pleasing the crowd at home in Greystones is sometimes more of challenge then pleasing paying guests at the restaurant, “my daughter Niamh would try anything; offal, pigs ears, black pudding, no problem. My daughter Ava is a vegetarian and Tagdgh’s a coeliac, so there are lot of different boxes to be ticked at dinner time.”
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 a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree 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.