Tell us about your background, what you’ve been doing up to now…
I was born in Virginia in County Cavan on St Patrick’s Day in 1977. I went to university in Maynooth, and got a degree English and Sociology. For a summer break, I went to Germany busking in Fribourg. I wasn’t making any money out of it, so needing to find a real job, I got a job as a kitchen porter. I ended up staying there for a year and working for different sections of the restaurant. While the food was really good, it wasn’t the food aspect that I enjoyed; it was being a part of this big machine that took hours to bring together and produce something in a very ordered way. It was a good place to learn. Then I came back to Ireland and got my degree, with the idea of getting a real job, or going back and getting a Masters. I didn’t really know what I was going to do. Then I moved to Galway in 2000 after working in various different restaurants and working in London for a bit as well – just farting around.
Were you always working in restaurants?
Yeah, always and it was always seen as a thing just to tide me over while I was waiting for life to start. When I moved to Galway, I started working in Nimmos. Then I met Sinead, who later became my wife. We travelled a lot – to Australia, to Spain and went back to Germany again for a while. We lived in Cork for a little while as well, but we kept coming back to Galway. I suppose it was to do with the people I met here initially, which would be Harriet Leander, Seamus Sheridan, David Gumbleton, people like that who kept drawing me back to Galway. And the kind of laissez faire, easy-going attitude Galway had; it was very easy to make friends here. While it was a very transient town, there was always the same core people that were always hanging around. That appealed to my inner lazy nature when it comes to meeting people.
Working in Nimmos was great; there was a lot of like-minded people, people who were actually interested in food, and people that had a kind of training but were in Galway for exactly the same reasons as me – it was like, sure where else would you go? it’s easy! Harriet would give you complete freedom to do whatever you wanted, as long as it was making a certain amount of money. You worked within a pretty strict budget. That’s where I met this guy called David Gumbleton, and he was working in Sheridan’s at the time. David had come over from Sydney with another friend of mine, Aoife Fitzsimons. He had been working in Sydney in a place called Tetsuya’s, which was in the top three restaurants in the world. He had been working there since he was 16, when it was this little neighbourhood restaurant. Anyway, David had just arrived in Galway, ended up working in Sheridan’s, and we hit it off and became very good friends. I suppose that was the point when I started taking cooking a bit more seriously through talking to David, and having chats about how worldwide cuisine was moving, that there was more to it than just the actual mechanics of working in a kitchen. That was really the pushing point. Piss or get off the pot kind of thing.
You more or less fell into the restaurant world then?
Absolutely – there was never a conscious decision. It wasn’t a case that I was growing up making meals for my family or anything like that. But looking back, I had a great grounding in food. My parents had a shop and we had a piggery down the back – this was in a town. My dad used to go hunting quite a bit, we ate rabbit, we ate eel, we grew a lot of vegetables – lettuce, cucumber, cabbage, sprouts – that sort of thing. It was a great grounding, but the focus was always on – this is the produce we’re making to make money and no way is it for pleasure. Eating was fuel and that was the end of it.
So it was when you met David that your attitude began to change…
There was no one else in Galway at the time that was taking food seriously, looking at it as a craft. When I did that first year in Germany, it was very much about learning a craft, but when I came back to Ireland, there was nowhere to work. It was nice working in Nimmos, because you could do whatever you wanted, but then there was no guidance either. And we all felt that we were brilliant and in many ways, we were not. But meeting Dave was like driving home the importance of learning a craft and all the other things it encompasses, like sustainability issues and providence, the correct butchery, things that have been forgotten, but that are coming back now. Having conversations that seem like commonplace conversations now, but this was was back in 2002, before there was a big artisan scene. Everyone was getting wound up about sundried tomatoes and panini machines.
Where to then?
Sinead and I then moved to Cork, where I ended up working in the Ivory Towers for a year. I didn’t like Cork as much, although there was a great market there. It was a bit more cliquish, I found. From Cork, we moved to Sydney, and I worked in a place called Picasso, and I also worked in Tetsuya’s. We spent about eight months in Sydney, then three months bumming around Australia on a one year visa, then made the decision to move back to Galway again. Dave had been talking about opening a place, and we’d work there. Then suddenly, Dave got an aneurysm and died at 33. Iseult, his little girl, was only three at the time. That was a big shock to everyone in Galway. Dave had been working above Sheridan’s so Seamus offered me the job and I ended up working there for three years. There was a kitchen on the top floor, a production kitchen where we used to make terrines and pates and duck confits, things like that, and sell them to shops and restaurants.
Then Sheridan’s opened up down the docks. It was an interesting process – just dealing with City Hall, dealing with builders and starting a whole project from scratch. It was a steep learning curve; employing people, setting up structures like that. But I like the idea of having complete control over something, so if there is a problem, the challenge is you fix it or accept it.
So Sheridan’s was a great place to work. Again, we could do whatever we wanted. Then we were forced to close for whatever reasons, but it got us a bit of notice. After that, I was at a loss as to what to do. I’d always been interested in what Noma were doing in Denmark, and I’d gone over there for a meal the previous September. I sent him an email saying, ‘Can I come over and hang out with you guys for a while?’. So I worked there for three months and then JP got in touch with me about opening Anair. So I came back and we opened Aniar and then got the Michelin star after 14 months.
I always said with Aniar that I was going to stay there for two years, i stayed there for just shy of two years and I left. We wanted to open our own place. My whole family is self-employed, so when you’re growing up watching people running their own business and it’s all you know from the get go, it just felt like the right thing to do. I liked the idea of having that sort of control over your own life, but I was aware from the year dot of all the challenges as well. It was an itch that needed to be scratched at the time and here we are now.
So what’s it like, having your own restaurant?
It’s not a huge leap from running a restaurant, because the last two places I was running restaurants for people and Sinead’s doing all the financial side of it. It’s completely new for her as well. We got great support from my family. I’m the youngest and my older brother, John would be a great person to ask questions. Brendan Allen from Castlemine Farm – he works as a business mentor and he gave us a hand doing up our business plan. Any questions that I need to ask about anything, I’d go to him. My dad has been in business by himself since he was about 12 doing various different things; he has core beliefs that are good to stand by. When you have your own business, there’s no-one left to blame; you create your own problems and you create your own solutions. It always used to drive me mad, when you’re working in a job for somebody and there’s always someone in the job going, ‘The owner didn’t do this and the owner didn’t do that and it’s their fault’. It’s not, it’s possibly their fault for choosing you to do the job. I enjoy the challenge of having to take responsibility for everything. If there’s a problem, you fix it. If it can be managed, manage it and if it can’t be managed, then you have to work around it in order to get to where you want to go. Because obviously, our main aim is consistency here but we’re not always dealing with a wholly consistent raw product because we deal with vegetable producers where there may be crop failures or there may be bandy carrots, so I enjoy the challenge of having a consistent product on the plate all the time with these kinds of inconsistency.
What’s the difference working in a Michelin starred restaurant?
What Michelin are looking for is a certain standard, if you’re up to a certain standard; they don’t have any guidelines. They always say, ‘Do you have any questions?’ and I always say ‘No’, because obviously if they like what we’re doing, then we’re just going to continue doing this.
Were you working towards getting a Michelin star when you opened Loam?
Never. When I won the star for Anair, it wasn’t something that I was working towards. I didn’t think we were at that level. I don’t eat out that much either – I rarely eat out. I don’t go to Michelin star restaurants. I don’t have the time, I don’t have money and more often than not, I don’t have the interest. I enjoy what I do because I set my own parameters of what we can do and what we can’t do and try to keep a standard at that level. I think if you keep eating out at other people’s restaurants, you get influenced by them..
What I believe Michelin are looking for is that you’re a certain level and you’re consistent under all circumstances. That’s what a business should be. That’s what we aim for anyway. They say that the one star is for the food on the plate, so the meal could be in a phone box, or a petrol station, but if it’s at a certain level and if it’s consistent, then you can win a star. You probably wouldn’t because you’d have other obstacles around you, like people buying lottery tickets.
How did you feel when you got it?
Delighted. I didn’t think we’d get it this quickly. After winning it in Aniar, I knew we could do it, but opening up a business, my focus was on different things. We wanted to cook to a certain level, we wanted to be consistent, but my focus was also on employees, employee happiness, keeping punters coming through the door, trying to make sure we had enough money to pay people, getting better deals off suppliers – that sort of thing. So to get it after 10 months was a real surprise to me. Conor has been working with me since Aniar – his primary focus was on the quality of the food and consistently as well. He’s my sous chef and Michael, who I’ve been working with in the kitchen from the start, so it’s down to the two of them really. There’s only three of us in the kitchen.
You said one of your main aims is to keep your employees happy – how do you do that?
Your focus is totally different as an employer. You have to keep people happy because if you don’t have employees, your business will find it very hard to survive. The happier the people who are working here, the happier the environment. I’m going to be here 16 hours a day or 14 hours a day and so are the people alongside me, so obviously you want to have a happy environment. And there’s only three of us in the kitchen, so it’s probably for my own benefit and my own peace of mind that people are happy enough. Also, it takes so long to train people to your way of thinking, because we do things a little bit differently here; it’s not a typical brigade system where this the chef de partie, this is the sous chef. It’s not set up like that because we don’t have the budget for a huge amount of staff. The chefs serve the tables as well, so that’s a new thing for people. When they work here, they have to interact with customers as well; they have to take a bit more pride over the work that they do because they’re going to be giving it to the customer. There’s not that barrier anymore that you’re in this little white room and someone comes in and takes away the thing that you’ve made and gives it to someone else, which I see as being completely pointless. It’s an open kitchen as well so if you have any grievances, or if things get really heated during service, you can’t start shouting at someone because the customer is right there. So you have to moderate yourself, which is great, because it’s the same as counting to ten – that’s what people tell you to do, isn’t it? And you end up one being more prepared when you’re going into service – you work cleaner, and when you’re in service, you concentrate more on what you’re doing because you don’t want to get yourself in the shits. Also, its all electric, so there’s no gas, there’s no heat, so you don’t have all this ambient heat going around. It’s a nice working environment, plus it’s more energy efficient. We’re only open for five days a week, so it’s the same team and everyone gets two days off in a row, so I think that would add to a happier environment.
What’s a typical day then?
Say tomorrow, I get up and say goodbye to the kids – the kids would be leaving about half 8. So I catch the end of their breakfast, then I’d potter around. I get in here around half ten and I’ll start off with bread. We make a sourdough but there’s no commercial yeast in it – it is its own yeast. It’s a really complex tasting bread, all it is is flour and water but it takes hours and hours to do so I need to get in really early to start that off, start proving it, knock it back. Conor will be in about 11, 11.30. Then Michael comes in after him then we get all the fish butchery done, meat butchery – get that all out of the way, then start focusing on what vegetables are coming in that week. So we get in touch with Fergal, who’s out on the farm and he tells us what’s going out of season, what’s coming into season, what we’re supposed to be working on for the week. We make endless lists and get all the veg prep done, see what we’re running low on, see what we have to work on during the week, because there’s always new dishes starting. We’re getting 80 per cent of vegetables from this small farm and all our meat comes from another farm, so when we run out of something, that’s it, we have to move onto something else. So we have to know what’s happening down the line.
We’re always working on trying to perfect new dishes and we’re always doing it on the fly because again, there’s only four of us in the kitchen and that’s just focusing on that night’s service. So it’s very hard to get everything done. At about half three, everyone sits down to a staff meal, which is nice. Ideally, we’d all sit down and talk about ‘How’s your life?’ How’s your family?’ but you end up looking at your phone. But that’s fine. During the week, we try to have healthy staff meals but every Saturday, Conor will take over staff meals and everyone has something that they’d really like. Everyone works a five day week and everyone’s off Sundays and Mondays unless there’s something special on, but it’s a long day and it can be quite exhausting, especially if it’s quiet.
At 4pm, people start coming into the wine bar, so we have to turn off the music in the kitchen and by 4pm, we’re all just getting set up for service. The kitchen porter comes in a 6pm, the whole place gets scrubbed down, everything is completely set up and the first guests arrive. The wine bar is open from 4pm until midnight, so you can come in and have a glass of wine and a charcuterie board or cheeses or whatever. So the first guests will come in and have a pre-dinner drink here, then go down to the table. As soon as they’re sat at the table, they get a selection of say, three snacks. The snack section is served from the kitchen, so one of the chefs goes out and greets the customer as soon as they come. I think it’s nice if you come in somewhere and someone hands you something to eat straight away and says hello to you. Sometimes I think people are unsure. It’s got a Michelin tag over it as well, so they’re not sure whether it’s going to be overly stuffy, with people hanging over you all the time. They’re given the menu and the wine list and they make a decision whether they want to go for a tasting menu or an a la carte, then the warm bread and country butter is brought out.The meal can start then, because people feel nice and relaxed – they’ve had a drink and they’ve been looked after – the attention is being paid to them but not overly so. That will continue with every guest then until 9.30 or 10pm. We’re doing more and more tasting menus now, so it’s a six course menu and you get the snacks and petit fours so it’s eight place per guest. If you do 40 guests, 300 plates go out of the kitchen in the space of three hours, so obviously you have to be very organised. Then you start cleaning down, which takes 45 minutes to an hour, so we’re out of there by about 11.30pm. So I’m in from 10.30am to 11.30pm.
What drives you?
When we were being brought up, we always had to work because we had a shop at home and we had the veg business and the pigs. My brothers were always working all the time and when it came to me, there was less to do I suppose. They were always moaning because they had to muck out the pigs, and I always felt like I didn’t do enough work. So maybe this is me trying to make up for it and just working all the time.
Are your family really proud?
Yeah, well my mum and dad are – they’re very happy. They’ve been a great support to us as well. My mum keeps collecting all the newspapers I’ve been in.
Where do you plan on going with Loam or are you thinking that far ahead yet?
We’re only a year in and it’s great to have one full year done and to have achieved so much, but I suppose we have to take it year by year. The whole idea with Loam is that we want to limit where we’re getting everything from and we want to limit buying in stuff as much as possible. We also want to keep up a certain standard and to not repeat dishes. There’s a certain criteria on dishes that we need to have on plates as well – there has to be a good texture, a good acidity, but it has to be good balance. All the time using less and less of the ingredients that we have to buy in, but we buy in fuck all anyway. If we could get 100 per cent of our vegetables from the farm or from two different farms, and get all of our ingredients from the West of Ireland and come up with progressive dishes all the time and constantly keep changing, that’s progression in itself. There’s always constant tinkering as well like with the interior. The whole place is a work in progress.
How would you describe yourself?
Bloody minded and socially awkward.
With regard to instinct, are you a thinker, or do you go with your gut?
Both, I suppose. The whole point of this is that customers have a good time, so you have to second guess everything – you have to think about every point at which customers make a decision to come to the restaurant, to when they ring and make a booking, to when they’re leaving and you want to make it as comfortable for them as possible. In that sense, you’d have to be a bit of a thinker, but when it comes to the whole progress of the dishes, it’s more instinctual, because there are certain things you can’t control so you have to go with it. So I’d say both.
Who have been your main influencers and mentors?
When I came to Galway first, there seemed to be a lot of people who were like-minded. There’s a different focus here – there’s a focus on a standard of living. It was more rural living in Galway and there’s more of a community here. So while I wouldn’t call them mentors, people like Harriet and Seamus have been very good friends who I could rely on if I needed support and they all have certain skills and they’re very giving. Dave Gumbleton obviously, my parents, with their background in business and their support.
It sounds like being here has had a big influence on you…
The whole core idea of this is possible to do here. I’ve always liked the West, and the coast. Growing up in the midlands, we were always so far away from the coast. I love the wilderness of it too – it’s quite sparse. In Galway there were always a lot of people here doing things, there were a lot of people doing things that never saw the light of day as well. Producers were doing things with food, but there was no one to showcase what they were doing. So now it’s nice to have a place where we can showcase their more focused passions. For instance, there’s Ballyhoura Mushrooms – they just focus on growing shiitake mushrooms and a few other mushrooms in a forest up a mountain in Ballyhoura. So we’ve made a few different dishes out of just their mushrooms, and we do that with different vegetables throughout the year.
In Galway, it’s so small that you have such a connection to rural areas, so you can meet producers and have a dialogue with them. You can talk about their products, you can find out what’s the best thing to do with their product. I always found the people in Galway were just much more open, as well. Also, just being able to drive out to Connemara with the kids and being in this vast wilderness – that really appeals to me.
How you would like to see Galway progressing, particularly with food in mind?
There needs to be a civic market here. The structure of the city needs to be reexamined too. There’s all this talk about ring roads, but if there was more encouragement for people to actually live in the city, people that have families, people that were working in the city, could live in the city. If there were more green areas or if there were apartment blocks that were suitable for families, like anywhere in Europe, there might be less congestion on the roads because there’d be less people going in and out of the city. Then we could focus on what’s happening in the hinterland. At the moment, the hinterland is just being used for endless housing projects. People need to live somewhere obviously but it needs to be done in a more clever way. Then the hinterland could be used to feed people that are in the city, as an amenity. It’s looking at the whole idea of community-supported agriculture as well. Let’s say there were specialist farms set up by young people that want to go back to the land, like Fergal O’Mahony. People could get involved in the farm as well, they could come and get involved and help out, which is great for kids as well to see where their food is coming from. But there’s an input as well, it’s less passive. The whole passivity of the way the food market is really irritates me, the fact that you can get your food delivered to you door when you’re not at home makes me sick. There has to be some sort of give as well – you have to earn it, there has to be some sort of earning structure. Food involves everybody. It’s all going to become very apparent soon, what our idea of sustainability is, where everything comes from. And it all comes back to food.