Ed Cooney THe Merrion Hotel
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‘We like to look after our people, it’s in our nature’ – 26 Years at The Merrion Hotel with Ed Cooney

A visit to The Merrion Hotel is always a delight. I am met with unparalleled hospitality as I head into to the elegant lobby, taking in the opulent surroundings and catching my breath after rushing through the busy streets of town. Iconic art pieces adorn the walls – an element that is represented in their Art Afternoon Tea. As I admire the art, Chef Ed Cooney comes out to great me. Without wasting any time, he brings me downstairs to the fabulous Cellar Bar. We find a quiet corner of the bar to sit in – they have yet to open to the public for the day – and Ed assures me that he can escape his endless tasks of the day for a while as we chat.

Ed Cooney is the executive chef at The Merrion Hotel. Having had his fair share of TV guest appearances and cooking at some of the finest hotels across England and Scotland, Ed returned to Ireland almost three decades ago, right as the artisan food culture here was gaining momentum. He joined The Merrion in 1997, and with over 26 years at the establishment, he has gone from strength to strength.

Ed Cooney THe Merrion Hotel

“One of the great experiences has been meeting and building relationships with a lot of artisanal producers, growers and butchers, and working with them through the years, to the point that most of the food we buy here is Irish… That’s the been the biggest revolution in my time here. The explosion in the culinary world in Ireland, the amazing restaurants we have all over the country, the confidence of the younger generation of chefs and producers, I love it… I try to support them in any way I possibly can.”

But 26 years into the role, we reflect over the time he has spent here, and Ed admits that he did not always think he would be at The Merrion for as long as he has now been.

“I gave myself three years. I said I’d love to do an opening, I’ve never opened a hotel… I had an open ended agreement with [The Four Seasons] that I can go back, and I wanted to do a bit more travelling, and I felt that they would be the perfect vehicle for that…. At that stage I had four kids, all young, and one of my kids who is now 25, we discovered he had autism, and then your priorities change. The thought of dragging my kids around the world with me was not an option – I needed to get him the services and to be able to help as much as possible. It made me more of an understanding human being – no matter how much planning you do, nothing is a straight road.”

Ed Cooney THe Merrion Hotel

Over two decades later, the change of plans worked out in his favour, as he notes how much he loves working at The Merrion. Ed always knew that working in hotels was going to be the path for him. “I have a low boredom threshold… my job here, I run five or six food outlets, and we’re constantly changing menus somewhere.” He notes the recent pop art afternoon tea that they did in conjunction with the Andy Warhol exhibition. “No two days are ever the same. You’re constantly thinking on your feet.”

He mentions how much creative control he has, which is naturally a role that he has taken on with the amount of time he has spent working at the hotel, allowing him to be as flexible and imaginative as possible. This is a big part of why Ed loves working at The Merrion Hotel, coupled with the fact that there are like-minded people working across the board. “We all have the same mindset – we want it to be the best.”

Due to the constantly changing nature of the menus at The Merrion, I asked him where he gets his inspiration. “You steal them!” He jokes, but he does mention that “inspiration comes from all sorts of areas,” and it ends up being a combination of a number of different experiences one encounters.

“I’m an avid food reader, I’m a seriously addicted cookbook purchaser… you flick through them and you might read a little bit, and you might see something and go ‘Ah, let’s see if I can use that’. Or I’ll go to somebody’s restaurant and see something I really like and use it. You’ve got a lot back knowledge, and it’s all based on things that are accumulated over years of knowledge. It’s very important to buy, to read and keep in touch… and keep your finger on the pulse.”

Ed Cooney THe Merrion Hotel

Ed tells me about the importance of feeding the imagination through exposure, because it feeds your creativity, knowledge and experiences. He particularly notes how things develop over time, citing the fact that Buffalo mozzarella is now being made in Ireland, something that, a decade ago, he never thought would happen here. Ed conveyed to me how the recently emerging Irish artisanal producers have been making some wonderful products, and that as chefs, it’s been their job to showcase these products in the best way they can. With that, he shouts out his favourite Irish producers:

“I love David Llewellyn, he makes apple balsamic vinegar. It’s our house balsamic. I came across him down in the market on a very cold winter’s morning 15 years ago. I was taking some guests to the market, and it was freezing… David was serving his apple juice, and you could get a shot of cognac with it. I looked down at the table and saw the balsamic vinegar… he told me the story of how he went off the continent to learn how to make it… and he said ‘All I’ve done is replace the grape in the fermentation process.’ So I brought it back and tested it out, and said ‘This is bloody good.'”

Ed Cooney THe Merrion Hotel

“I love Birgitta down in the Burren Smokehouse, and Claire. Her story [is] of a woman of amazing strength, who’s created this amazing business from nothing, and we are so proud to have her smoked salmon on our menus. Toonsbridge Dairy, and I mentioned the Macroom boys who are making the amazing mozzarellas. There’s so many, and I’m happy to support them in any way I possibly can.”

He also shouts out the vegetable growers. “I just want to hug them… The style of cooking I like is, I want to buy the best products and do as little as possible to them… let it shine. Respect the product.”

The inevitable question of a favourite dish that he’s cooked comes up, and I am met with a quick, jokey “I hate that question.” He laughs, and continues, “Honestly, I can’t answer that. There are dishes that I’m cooking today that I love, but it’ll be different tomorrow, or next week.”

As for what he likes to cook at home, he goes for the simple stuff. I question whether it’s because cooking is his job, so is it likely that chefs are not getting experimental at home because it feels like work. Chef Cooney disagrees: “I love cooking. There’s a reason why I’m a chef, it’s because I love food. There is nothing I enjoy more than being at home, cooking lunch for some friends or family… It’s why I am the chef I am.” With the time he has at home, it gives him room to get creative, but if he’s under time pressure, his reliables are a roast chicken with veg and potatoes, all done in one tray, with some gravy. He mentions that it’s always worth spending a little more money on a free range chicken, because you can really feel the difference in the flavour.

Ed Cooney THe Merrion Hotel

Every successful chef always has a few that they look up to, and for Ed, he looks to international five star hotel chefs:

“I love Éric Fréchon from The Bristol in Paris, I think he’s a genius… He’s got a Michelin star and he’s just incredible. Thomas Keller, who’s not a hotel chef, he’s a restaurant chef. Incredible man. What he has done with his career is just unbelievable… There is also a lot of Irish chefs that I have huge respect for. I love Paul Flynn in Dungarvan, not only is he a nice guy but he’s a great cook. I love his style of cooking… All the guys cooking in Chapter One, Kieran Glennon at Restaurant Patrick Gilbaud. Amazing guys who fly under the radar most of the time, they’re cooking at two star Michelin level and have been for a very long time… they cook phenomenally well. Glover’s Alley as well, great stuff as well.”

It’s difficult to speak about the success of a restaurant or hotel without discussing the inevitable challenges that come with it, especially with the recent unfortunate closures across the country. Ed states that the conditions in the kitchens have improved dramatically in comparison to years ago:

“You can get off a plane and would get a job in 10 minutes in pretty much any city, because you’re a chef, and you’ve got a skill set that’s in short supply all over the world. I think a lot of people like to talk down our industry… but there’s plusses… We have young, well-educated chefs who have great respect for themselves and their colleagues, who won’t allow themselves to be taken for granted, which is good.”

Ed Cooney THe Merrion Hotel

He also talks about how he is now recruiting chefs from all over the world, especially after COVID. He disclosed that The Merrion would not have gone back to normal as quickly as they had without the support of the owners and the management team, for allowing him to take “brave, courageous decisions, which aren’t cheap.” Despite this, he notes the challenges of inflation with prices of food and beverage, and with wage inflation, but that they would not be able to adjust if the team wasn’t so flexible.

Ed also articulates that despite the closures we’ve seen in the industry, those who work in hospitality are almost predisposed to positivity, because “we like to look after our people, it’s in our nature.” He expresses the importance of having representation with the decision makers that ultimately impact the hospitality industry.

Working in this industry, though no two days are the same, some achievements will always stick out to you throughout your career. For Ed, there are a couple. He recounts firstly, a Champagne Academy dinner that he has been doing for the last few years, which he tells me is a hugely prestigious event. “That gives me butterflies in my tummy… those are the things I love doing… you get the creative juices flowing… creating new dishes to pair with wines and champagnes.”

He bring us back to the Art Tea that they are so famous for: “We created our afternoon tea for The Merrion about 12-14 years ago, motivated by The Berkley Hotel in London who created Prêt-à-Portea, which is phenomenal… It was one of the things that I fell in love with when working in London – afternoon tea in the very grand hotels. The drawing rooms upstairs were perfect, and nobody was doing the full experience. It was a huge success instantly.”

This was the start of their regular afternoon tea offering, but after a while, Ed had another look at The Berkley, and he was even more impressed to see the intricate themes and details of their offerings – fashion afternoon tea, with Dior handbags… the works. He was inspired.

“We’ve got a wonderful art collection in the hotel, so we could do an art tea. But what does that mean? We ended up in a long process interpreting art into our art tea pastries. Art is subjective… and that [was] one of the wonderful things about that whole process, we got a very deep appreciation of the art in our building, so I’m very proud of that.”

Ultimately, he tells me what his biggest success is: “I have loads of friends around the country who’ve worked with me here who are very good chefs, and if I have their respect, that’s it for me.”

The role comes with a lot of responsibility, and with The Merrion being such a respected luxury hotel in the heart of the city centre, there’s bound to be some impressive people from all walks of life staying there. I asked Ed about the most exciting person that has stayed at the hotel, and if there was a particularly memorable experience. “Barack Obama, by a country mile.”

Other than a former US President, Chef Cooney had a wonderful anecdote about Liam Neeson that he shared with me:

“He was staying for a while, and he was filming, so he was with us for 4-6 weeks. So I thought right, what am I going to do for his room amenity? I do one every day. So being the clever guy I am right, I had seen him on the Graham Norton show recently, and someone in the audience had got him to phone their [relative], and he did the speech he does in Taken… I broke down that speech in short sentences, so the first day, I wrote on the plate, ‘I don’t know who you are’, and the second day we continued and so on.. On the third day, [Liam must have] looked down on the plate and said, ‘I know what he’s doing,’ which is great fun. So then, cut to the end, a few days before he was leaving… I got a call to my office from a room number, so I put on my professional voice and answered the phone. What I got in return was a husky, Ballymena voice going, ‘I don’t know who you are…” and he gave me the whole spiel!”

We come back to chatting about the food, and I ask him what his favourite food is, when he doesn’t feel like cooking. “Toasted cheese and ham sandwich, with Emmental cheese. It’s ridiculous.” I tell him it’s not – almost every chef’s answer has been some form of cheese and bread combination. It’s a classic for a reason.

Despite Ireland’s plethora of great producers and wonderful restaurants, travelling is not only a great way to see the world and meet new people, but to taste dishes you’ve never tried before and, for chefs, to get some inspiration to bring back to their kitchens.

“I was in [Bilbao] five years ago… I didn’t book it for for food reasons, I booked it because the Guggenheim Museum was there. I was blown away by the food… I booked a few restaurants, there’s an amazing food market there, and I was like, wow… A city that’s reinvented itself… we all love Spain, Spain is wonderful, but culinary-wise, I was really impressed… we were absolutely smitten.”

Ed Cooney THe Merrion Hotel

Chef Cooney is from Cork originally, and though he says he doesn’t always eat out as much there, he mentions The Glass Curtain, noting that Cork is very much a “foodie city, with a genuine proper food culture.” Ed also talks about the English Market, and that if he’s ever roaming around over there, he will have to book a meal at the Farmgate Café. Though West Cork is always rightfully spoken about, Ed is from East Cork, and he encourages people to visit it more often: “There’s so many nice restaurants in that part of Cork. I’m proud to say I’m from Cork.”

But of course, for Ed, Dublin is now home, and a restaurant he will never get sick of visiting is Pichet. “I’ve been gong to Pichet since Stephen (Gibson) was involved from the first day, love it. I’m constantly recommending it to people.” Other honourable mentions include Hugo’s, of course; Peploe’s, Etto and Delahunt.

To finish off, I ask him what advice he would give to those working in the industry:

“There was a very famous chef in London who has now passed away. He was the exec chef in the Dorchester Hotel in London, he was Swiss. The advice he gave to every head chef was, the first thing you have to do is make money. Now that might sound very crass, but we have to remember, we’re running a business… Never lose sight of the bottom line.”

Ed Cooney THe Merrion Hotel

His specific advice for young chefs starting out in the industry was to find stability:

“I’m never impressed with a CV that’s chopping and changing. That doesn’t mean to not try different things… but if you’re going to be a head chef at some stage, you need to be able to show stability… you need to be able to show people that you’re the kind of person that sticks at something. Think about the people you work with… you want to have good role models, you want to learn good habits from people who are succeeding and are working at a high level. Look around and see who’s operating at the top of their game, and try to get into their kitchens. Learn these habits, these good disciplines… they will become your own personal standards. Pick and choose where you want very carefully… There are so many avenues you can go down in this industry so find out what gets you excited, what gets you motivated.”

Interview by Sara Abdulmagid

I’m a Palestinian who grew up in Cyprus and moved to Dublin in 2013, so I’ve had a mishmash of different cultures and cuisines surrounding me my whole life. I’m an avid foodie, and after realising that life as a lawyer was not for me, I studied media and became a radio host for Dublin City FM. I’m now writing for TheTaste full time, but I also have my own food blog where you can find a mixture of restaurant reviews and the occasional recipe. I talk a lot about being Palestinian; to be honest, I talk a lot in general. That’s why I did radio!

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