'Ireland is a very sophisticated country when it comes to food'
Patrick Guilbaud grew up in a family so poor they watched TV through shop windows. Now his two-Michelin star restaurant is a byword for extravagant luxury, writes Donal Lynch
SMART Dublin foodies know that Patrick Guilbaud's is not the place to go when you're ravenously hungry.
The Michelin-starred morsels he serves up were always designed to tickle the palate rather than fill the stomach. Latterly, however, the Frenchman has converted even sceptics to his fiddly format of haute cuisine.
He was, one reviewer once wrote, a Gallic prophet ahead of his time, someone who realised there was more to food than stuffing yourself. It just took us muck savages a while to catch on. So perhaps I should feel honoured when he unveils yet another quantum leap forward in Irish hospitality – lots and lots of talking about food, imagining of food and smelling of food (the kitchen is busily readying itself for dinner), but zero actual food. Instead it leaves me wondering if I'm not the only one who secretly wishes they brought a sambo with them to Guilbaud's.
In fact, all of this is completely in character with the man. In the thickest French accent this side of Jean Paul Gaultier he tells me that, beyond the odd bit of promo, he has never really courted the press, fearing it would impinge a bit on his exclusivity – at the end of our conversation he absently asks me, "Oo is this for again?"
He spurns the telegenic histrionics of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Dylan McGrath – "Zey sink zey are ze stars! Ze customer is ze star!" He doesn't even care about celebrities coming through the door – or doesn't care about them any more or less than his other customers. His entire laser-like focus is trained exclusively on his wealthy and highly discerning customer base. He doesn't care who they are. He doesn't care what they wear (there's no stuffy insistence on ties at Guilbaud's).
Their only common denominator is money. Simply put, if you can pay, you may eat.
Guilbaud's mortal fear of people who only might be able to pay was perhaps underlined by the failure of the Venu restaurant, which he operated with his son Charles, in 2006.
The market for that venture was a little less high end and the timing was bad – the Irish middle class came crashing down, he tells me, "and we came down with them".
For the Frenchman who had sheriffs at the door 30 years ago, but since then has enjoyed almost unmitigated success, the closure came as a hammer blow – the most difficult failure of his entire career, he later tells me.
Since then his attentions have once again been devoted to the Merrion Hotel flagship and "ze top of ze mushroom ... where you 'ave less people, but zey are making more money".
Guilbaud's is still the only Irish restaurant with two Michelin stars and it's shooting for a third. It remains a byword for extravagant luxury – there are apocryphal stories of bankers getting pulled in for its name appearing on expense accounts – and the host carefully guards the ambience of exclusivity that permeates the place.
"If you want the best surgeon, you pay the top prices," he tells me. "Or would you prefer a bad surgeon and you pay no money?"
It's a telling comparison because Guilbaud himself wanted to be a surgeon and compares the focused hush of his kitchen to an operating theatre.
Growing up, his family was poor – they watched television through the windows of shops – and there was no hope of spending six years at medical school.
His father, a farmer from Cherac, had been taken away by the Germans during the Second World War and endured several years of forced labour in Poland. When he was released he was "like a stick" Guilbaud tells me.
"We were not Jewish but the Germans wanted slave workers and to remove men from the possibility of joining the resistance. That was why they took him. I think he was traumatised by it. He didn't really ever speak about it."
After the war the family moved around, eventually settling in Paris where his mother opened up a little bistro. Guilbaud and his three sisters rowed in and helped, but life was tough. "We lived hand to mouth."
When he was in his early teens his world was turned upside down by the breakdown of his parents' marriage. His mother ran off with a man called Jacques, whom she would later marry.
"France is very Catholic country and it was a very difficult time," he remembers. "It was a big taboo. In the school the other children said to me, 'We can't speak to you any more, your parents have split.' My older sister was married at 19. My younger sisters and me, we stayed with my dad, while my mum disappeared. We first saw her in 1969, two years after that."
The reunion took an unexpected turn.
"When we first discovered where my mum was it was decided that we would go to see her. On the train from Paris I said to my sisters: 'None of you must speak to this man.'
"This guy, Jacques, and my mother met us at the station and Jacques had a car. And the three of us were in the back of the car – we had never been in a car before – determined not to speak. And after a while of driving the car in silence he pulled over at a little service station and said: 'Do any of you want an ice cream?'
"And of course we all cried out, 'Yes, yes, please!' The rule was broken."
In years that followed, the unthinkable happened. His mother, who is now in her 90s, and his father, who has since passed away, became friends once again.
On a visit to France some years ago Guilbaud found her, his father and Jacques, deep in conversation, playing cards together. He has a good relationship with his half-sister, whom his mother had with Jacques.
"The lesson of it all was that if you have children in the family always tell them the truth, don't lie, because they already know something is going on," he says.
"We had the family of my father coming to see us and my father was very upset but nobody was telling the truth. If someone had said, 'Your parents are going to be divorced,' it would have been a shock but we would have got over it. This way it dragged on and on."
The other big defining event of his early life was the general strike, which brought France to a complete standstill in 1968. Guilbaud found it exhilarating.
"What really amazed me at the time was that the young came to the old and said, 'No, this is not good enough,'" he says. "Money was not an issue to the young, we had an education and we were not afraid."
His infatuation with the left-wing idealism of the protesters did not last long however. "Six months later I swung to the right. I said, 'What we were saying during the strikes was completely rubbish. We have to earn money and pay taxes.' I wanted to be clever enough to make money. I was driven. I want- ed to be the best at what I was doing."
And what he was doing was learning his trade in the business. He spent years in the kitchens of Parisian restaurants before moving to Manchester when he was 22.
"That was a learning experience, very tough," he remembers. The palates of Northern England were even less refined than those in Ireland and Guilbaud hated living amongst other immigrants.
"I was staying in Moss Side in Manchester, at that time part of the Polish quarter. I am completely against the ghetto – you should always be part of the community when you come from overseas."
In Manchester he would meet his Welsh wife, Sally, however, and married her in 1976. Their son Charles was also born there. He also has a daughter, Emily.
The idea of moving to Dublin, he says, was suggested by one of his customers, a wealthy builder named Barton Kilcoyne. He arrived in Ireland in 1980 to what was pretty much a culinary dust bowl.
Nobody seemed to have heard of using herbs and garlic in food (Guilbaud claims he had to import his own) and people seemed to think that the only aim of eating was to get full. Quelle horreur!
Compounding the problem, Ireland was in the throes of recession and back then there was no substantial upper tier of unaffected wealthy to insulate him from the worst of it.
"I used to wake up in the middle of the night and say, 'Was table three OK? Was table four OK?'" My wife would push me back down and say, 'Go to sleep.'"
He had the sheriffs at the door twice in those years and feared he might lose it all. He approached Lochlann Quinn, the multi-millionaire brother of Ruairi Quinn, and "I explained to 'im my problems". Quinn and businessman Martin Naughton invested and saved him from almost certain closure.
"It was a good move on their part and a good move for me too," he says. "When the borrowing goes for me it was a big deal for us. I didn't take any money out of the business."
His fortunes rose steadily after that. He won his first Michelin star in 1988 and his second in 1996. He takes partial credit for helping to change the restaurant landscape here.
"Ireland is a sophisticated country when it comes to food – better than England for sure," he says. "In London of course you have good restaurants but outside London it's a different story. The difference in Ireland is that it's not just about Dublin – you can find good restaurants all over the country."
He says he's magnanimous about poor reviews but there's a mild flaring of Gallic nostrils when I mention John McKenna, who, for several years, omitted him from the Bridgestone Guide.
"Do I know why he did it? Of course: good PR. I lost my temper with him on radio when he did it but perhaps I shouldn't have."
At 62 he's been "semi-retired" now for several years, leaving much of the running of the place to his two partners Guillaume Lebrun and Stephane Robin but claims he could never fully step back. "I need to be doing something. I'm here every day."
A well-heeled American couple are hungrily scanning the menu and it's time for me to leave Guilbaud to the dinner rush – actually it's more of a gentle movement of expensive leather over lush carpet. I can't hear a single Irish voice as I move through the reception area for the restaurant (he says he can't find proper Irish waiting staff, so the waiters are all French).
Before I leave he tells me about a fabulous meal he recently ate at his own restaurant. I feel like one of the orphans in Oliver! – about to break into Food, Glorious Food at any minute – but instead I beat a hasty retreat and leave the maestro to his expense account fat cats, "ze superstars!".
'The best gift I got was grandchildren'
The last meal that I really enjoyed was ... "hmmm, I eat so many meals and they're all so good. It was my last meal, here in Guilbaud's. No, wait, it was a meal in Croatia – Dubrovnik – with some friends. I don't actually remember what it was we ate. The company is hugely important too – a meal is a marriage of everything."
The best gift I recently received was ... "the births of my two grandchildren."
The best travel experience was ... "also to Croatia. We journeyed up the coast to Split – stunning places."
My worst travel experience was ... "London. The Tube is just hell."
My favourite share is ... "I let my broker deal with all that stuff."
My favourite website is ... "YouTube. I love to look at old comedies. No French shows though. Mostly English, Irish and American stuff."
My best business decision was ... "to partner with Guillaume and Stephane."
Sunday Indo Business