The George V dining room is quite literally an Irish culinary destination fit for royalty. Ashford Castle’s grand gastronomic arena was constructed specially for the 1905 visit of the then Prince of Wales, who went on to become the Monarch after whom it is named. Ashford Castle, named Global Winner for Grand Luxury Hotel of the Year 2016 at The Luxury Travel Guide Awards as well as Best Resort Hotel in the United Kingdom and Ireland at Travel + Leisure ‘World’s Best’ Awards, is a revered resort on the global stage. Naturally, to live up to this esteemed reputation, George V is equipped with a chef capable of echoing his magnificent surroundings on a plate.
Trained in some of Paris’ most recognisable addresses including Le Bristol, Frenchman Philippe Farineau decided to set his sights further afield. Having come to Ireland from England, which he described as ‘not for him’ in 1998, Philippe began his Irish culinary journey in what was then one of the few Relais & Chateaux properties in Europe, The K Club, where he stayed for 18 months. “As a Frenchman, Relais and Chateaux is a part of our culture” he tells me, and this tie to his motherland convinced him to explore the prospects the Emerald Isle had to offer an ambitious young chef.
Somehow, 18 months in Kildare has turned into 18 years in Ireland and Philippe is quick to identify the deciding factor in his choice to remain here – “I stayed on mainly because of Irish people, I like the mentality, I like the way of living and I fell in love with the Irish way”, he says. An abundance of luxury five star properties from which to choose no doubt helped seal the deal for Philippe, who has manned the kitchen in the most opulent of Irish estates.
Moving on to become Sous Chef at five star Dromoland Castle before taking to Cork’s luxury Hayfield Manor as Executive Chef, I note that it was as if he set out to tour around Ireland’s finest hotels, and he laughs, concurring heartily, “I try anyway!”. As Executive Chef in Mayo’s Mount Falcon Estate, Philippe was awarded Best Chef in Connaught by the RAI three years in a row, making waves and building a stellar reputation on the Irish food scene, all the time with a defined destination in mind.
A year and a half after taking up the position of Executive Chef at Ashford Castle, Philippe is still genuinely in awe of his magnificent surroundings and proudly notes that “Ashford is probably the best of the best.” He recalls the Dromoland Castle Millenium staff party as the moment he knew he had found his dream destination – “the first time I drove into Ashford, I saw it and I said “That’s it. That’s where I want to be”.
Philippe had his French heart set on this Irish Fairy tale property, and he was so adamant that he would get there that everyone from his wife to his circle of friends knew if the position became available he would be the first to throw his hat in. Reflecting on how his plan has come to fruition, Philippe notes proudly that “it has always been my goal and even now when I go to work and see the Castle, it is big moment for me.”
Philippe’s Ashford Castle dream has come true, but as with every chef, success is achieved not without some sacrifice. He tells me of working 14 hour days, which see him staying on the estate, only returning to his family in Ballina on days off. “You need to be around, you need to be in the kitchen, you can’t expect to have a goal and not be in the kitchen and that’s the reason I work the way I do”, he tells me, the determination in his voice palpable.
While Philippe’s goal of becoming the Executive Chef at Ashford was once just that, a goal, achieving this has created fresh aspirations for the Frenchman. As the head of a team of 50 staff, Philippe is certainly not finished reaching for the stars.
“We have dreams, we have goals. We want to be the best hotel in Ireland and I want to be the best chef in Ireland. It is very important for me to have goals in my life, it doesn’t matter if you get there or not, if you have goals you work at your best.”
On the topic of goals, I have to ask if the plan for George V is to mirror the success of Lady Helen in Mount Juliet, or the Cliff Restaurant in The Cliffhouse, two exceptional hotel restaurants which have achieved Michelin stars of their own. Philippe confirms that such a distinction is what he is aiming for in George V, but it seems he sees himself as the conductor of a much wider culinary orchestra in the most grandiose setting imaginable.
Philippe notes that across the three on-site restaurants and from breakfast to Afternoon Tea, the benchmark he and his team reach for is the same – “The goal for us is to please every guest every day”, he tells me, noting that this standard has to be attained across the board, to ensure Ashford Castle is the best, in every facet of operation. The bottom line, Philippe says, is that every guest is served the same way, wherever they eat in Ashford, indulging in a fine dining experience or not.
No doubt a proud Frenchman, Philippe is nevertheless honest when asked how Irish produce shapes up in comparison to that available in his capital of gastronomy homeland. Passionate about the produce he can obtain just a stone’s throw from the Estate, Philippe believes “lamb from Achill Island is as good as what we can find in France. No doubt about it. The cheese, we have started to have some amazing producers, like blue cheese, Young Buck. The vegetables grown by organic producers here, like the carrots, are as good or even better than the ones in France”, he says.
Contemplating the surge in small Irish producers offering ingredients of exceptional quality, Philippe becomes more animated and is clearly impassioned by this artisan craft movement. “The products are coming along, in the last ten years there has been a massive, massive improvement here” he believes. “People coming with new ideas and you can see how we have changed. It is fantastic and amazing to see that. The produce is as good or even better here, as long as you find the right person.” Philippe sees this movement as a silver lining on the dark cloud of the recessionary times in Ireland.
People have learned, the recession has been good to Ireland in that regard because people had to start to think again. There’s lot of gin coming out, a lot of whiskey, ask yourself, would that happen if it was an easy life like 15 years ago? Maybe not.
Philippe’s unique selling point is far from just a catchy tagline he pays lip service to. “French Heart, Irish Produce” is the motto of a Frenchman so dedicated to utilising Irish produce that his haute cuisine menu involves the barest mention of Franco-luxury staple foie gras. Highlighting the fact that foie gras isn’t produced here in Ireland, which he says baffles him considering the prime climate for ducks and recent emergence of two escargot producers, Philippe has no desire to stray from his locavore sourcing policy. In Cong, Co. Mayo, Philippe is surrounded by a veritable treasure trove of producers.
“The producers working around here – Achill Lamb, Skeganhore duck – the people I work with, I know them and I know their product. It is so important to have the trust between us, I know they respect the animals, they get the right feeding. It is the duty of every chef to ensure that is being done properly.”
Philippe considers the support of smaller producers in the locality to be amongst the most important aspects of being a chef, believing wholeheartedly that “it is very important to find the right people, who keep the farm small enough that they are able to control it. When you go on a bigger scale, that’s where it goes wrong because you cannot control the way it should be.” Happier animals, he tells me, result in an end product of higher quality. This dedication to obtaining the finest produce available is where his French roots start to show.
As a lover of fine French produce, I couldn’t resist hitting Philippe with the ultimate clanger – French or Irish butter? Laughing wholeheartedly Philippe delivers a diplomatic verdict, noting he loves both, giving Cuinneog and Abernathay butter the seal of approval. “I love the butter from here and I don’t buy French butter, I don’t see the point. On my menu, all the dairy is Irish, I am working in Ireland, I don’t want to buy French products” he says, reinforcing the fact that our produce is world class.
From starter to dessert, he proudly states, the produce on Philippe’s menu is 99% Irish. These exceptional raw materials form the basis of Philippe’s ever-changing menu, the pinnacle of which is a 12 course Tasting Menu, throughout which allows Philippe to bring the environs of the Estate to life on a dozen plates. As foraging is a particular passion of Philippe’s, seaweed plucked from nearby shores is a staple feature on his menu, in one form or another such as Scallop & Dashi Broth with Seaweed Gnocchi. More inventive still, Philippe has been known to cure Achill lamb in Irish seawater – utilising every last ounce of flavour this island has to offer.
A truly passionate champion of Irish produce and an adopted Irishman at this stage, surely there is something Philippe misses about his homeland? “Apart from the sunshine, I do miss a good cassoulet!”, he laughs. “If I serve someone cassoulet here they ask why I’m just giving them beans for dinner… I’ve tried!”.
INTERVIEW BY DARINA COFFEY
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that(and greed) as the ultimate motivator, I realised that baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, fuelling my desire to focus on food in a serious way. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting.Darina Coffey Darina Coffey