Interview with Anna Haugh by Tony Clayton Lea
Not many sparkling and highly successful careers have been started by the basic if not mundane task of opening a tin of fruit cocktail, but then we are not internationally renowned Dublin chef, Anna Haugh, who this week launches Anna Haugh at Conrad Dublin, an intrinsically Irish fine dining experience that sees the chef and her team evocatively reimagine Irish dishes. But before we get ahead of ourselves, what’s all this about a tin of fruit cocktail?
On a visit to the island of Jersey, where her sister lives, Anna recalls that upon being asked to open a tin of the aforementioned fruit cocktail, she walked into a professional kitchen to look for the tin opener. What happened next was, she says, virtually unexplainable.
“The minute I walked into that space something inside me frightened me; it was a feeling that whatever had been missing in my life was now there in front of me. It was quite strange. For starters, the kitchen was completely empty, and there was no action, none of the usual bustle that takes place in a kitchen. I can only describe it as a eureka moment, a point in time when I realised this is where I wanted to be. I had always loved cooking, and I knew that when I cooked time just slipped away – it was never slow-moving. I believe it’s a vocation, in that cooking chose me and not the other way around.”
Following her eureka moment, Anna returned to Dublin and informed her parents that she wanted to be a chef. They did not respond positively. “My parents would have seen it as one of the professions that were the least desirable because of workers’ rights. In his day, my father was a shop steward, and because of that he would have fought for people to have the right working hours, more respect, and not be made to work every morning, noon and night and not get paid for it. I was heading into a job that was famous for exactly those conditions, and my dad was not impressed. As a family, we really appreciated food and enjoyed it, but cooking was viewed more of a hobby and not as a route for employment.”
It took about ten years, says Anna, for her father to eventually stop trying to convince her that she had made a wrong career choice. “He turned around one day and apologised for giving me such a hard time. He said he didn’t understand that the restaurant I was then working in, a fine dining restaurant, was like going to a higher education place of learning, full of knowledge and skills.”
Despite the initially chilly reception to her career news, Anna says she never sensed discouragement from her parents. “Rather, I felt they were worried and protective of me. It was lovely that my dad turned around and wanted to say he was sorry, but it wasn’t something I needed to hear because when you feel loved, and you know that someone is proud of you, then you don’t have to. I truly believe that if you’re in a good and sincere environment, then you feel that within you.”
When asked about her early ambitions, Anna replies that she had no great notions about owning a restaurant (which she does – Myrtle, in Chelsea), working with acclaimed chefs (Derry Clarke at L’Ecrivan, Philip Howard at The Square, the Gordon Ramsey Group) or forging an enviable sidebar career on television (numerous cookery programmes, the latest of which is BBC’s Masterchef the Professionals). Rather, she admits, all she ever wanted “was to understand the food.” She wanted to be able to make delicious food, she continues, but also to understand why things worked. “I think the way I had been trained as a chef, particularly when I went to the UK, was that you were just someone in a kitchen, you weren’t going to be a leader one day. There were no big visions, then, but rather wanting to be good at my job, and, as I say, to understand food. As a result of that, things just ended up the way they are.”
Anna goes on to explain what exactly she means by ‘understanding food’. The phrase ‘practice makes perfect’ is relevant here, but so is instinctual awareness. “You can make a beautiful cake one day and think you have nailed how to make beautiful cakes. The next day, however, you make a cake, but it doesn’t work, and you don’t know why it hasn’t worked.” Here is where persistence, science, intuition, knowledge, and years of skill blend into the smoothest mixture you can imagine. “You have to figure out things. Were the eggs whisked enough? Did you add enough flour? Was the butter too hot when it was added? Each recipe has several things that can go right or wrong, and it takes years to figure out how fats work, how emulsions work, how egg yolks work, and how different temperatures can make or break a recipe. It takes decades to instinctively understand what you have to watch out for. It takes a long, long time to understand that, and before you do a lot of mistakes are made.”
From tins of fruit cocktail to figuring out things, it has been a lengthy but rewarding trip for Anna Haugh. Along the way, but perhaps more recently as her profile has increased, she has been contacted by people who might want to collaborate with her. On paper, this might seem ideal, but “very often, once you chat with them, the feeling is that you’re not on the same page.” When Anna met with Dublin’s five-star Conrad, however, things clicked. “I felt the two of us wanted the same vision of a restaurant that focuses on a fine dining Irish experience, which I feel is quite a momentous occasion for Dublin. For me to stand proudly and talk about the food of our ancestors, from stories to current producers and what they’re doing, interpreting recipes from my grandmothers and mother, is quite emotional for me.”
There is, agrees Anna, a genuine sense of connection, a joining of the dots between her, her family, and her Irish background. “The whole time when I was learning to cook I really thought the French knew what it was all about. Of course, there are lots of things the French have nailed, but there are many similarities between Irish and French food. Many cuisines have crossovers with Irish food, and it means so much to me to connect those dots not just for myself but also for other Irish people.”
It is a truism to say that you can take a person out of family, but you can’t take family out of the person. Anna once said that when she was starting her career, she was informed that to admit to being tired was a sign of acknowledging defeat. Does she still believe that? While she admits she doesn’t like to say the words ‘I’m tired’, the shop steward’s daughter certainly doesn’t encourage that with her staff.
“I really try my best to give them the best working environment they can be in,” she concludes. “I watch them when they’re there and make sure they’re okay. People pushing themselves too hard is not good for them or me. If staff overstretch themselves they will snap, and if they snap everything breaks. It’s important not to create a macho, bravado environment where people are never supposed to be sick or tired. Rather, encourage people to be responsible for themselves and their hours, and to have a good work/life balance.”
Anna Haugh at Conrad Dublin opens on Tuesday, October 25th.
Instagram: @annahaugh_conrad (All imagery above taken from Instagram)
Interview by: Tony Clayton-Lea – www.tonyclaytonlea.com