Out of frying pan, into the fire
The pressure cooker of high-end hospitality took its toll on John Healy's heart, he tells Lucinda O'Sullivan
The effervescent and dapper John Healy has been entertaining us with considerable humour and charm on RTE television's The Restaurant for the past nine years as the maitre d' cum presenter cum ringmaster. I say ringmaster, because it is a bit of a 'whip them all into place' job to keep the flow going between the kitchen team, their celebrity chef and the dining audience, not to mention the critics -- including moi on a couple of occasions!
John, however, is not just there for our delectation, nor is he just a performer, for he is a highly qualified and experienced hotelier at the top end of the hospitality market.
Originally from Naas, Co Kildare, John, 46, is the first to admit he has burned the candle at both ends when it comes to work and play. The constant action, and buzz of hard work, has taken a toll on his health and, following two heart attacks in four years, he is seriously ill and awaiting a heart transplant.
John got hooked on the hospitality industry when, at 16, he got a summer job as a lounge boy in a local pub. His mother later took him down to James Kehoe's Lord Bagenal, the well-known restaurant, bar and hotel at Leighlinbridge, to give him a real taste of the business. "I adored it. The die was cast," he says.
Next stop was Cathal Brugha Street catering college in Dublin, where he did a three-year course in hotel management and business studies. In 1985, he went to work for Myrtle Allen at La Ferme Irlandaise, the Parisian restaurant she ran there at that time. "I washed pots and pans and I learnt French," he says. "I also had a day job at a Relais & Chateaux hotel, Le Residence du Bois, which was my first experience of posh hotels. I loved the experience. You could almost smell the cosmopolitan lifestyle and sophistication. I came back at the end of the summer completely transformed, wearing a paisley shirt and pantaloons -- my mother didn't know what was going on!"
In 1988, John went to work in London as a commis waiter in the Rib Room at the five-star Carlton Tower Hotel. He had been a duty manager in a hotel in Ireland, but in London he found he had to start all over again.
"London was very intimidating," he says. "I knew I had the personality, but I didn't have the experience. For two months I wasn't allowed near a table. I ran food from the kitchen and polished silver. It was all about the French boys on the floor and they were very suave and polished. The management were very old school then and I really learnt from watching them. I learnt all about working and managing a room, and keeping tables for VIP guests."
After a year-and-a-half stint in New York -- at the Ambassador Grill in the United Nations Plaza Hotel -- John returned to the Rib Room as senior assistant manager in 1990. "I loved it there. It was my scene, my crowd. It fitted me like a glove," he says. "I knew everybody -- the jet set, the horsey crowd, the Sangsters, the Maktoum family who owned the hotel. You also got what I call the Deluxe A list -- the Sean Connerys, the Roger Moores -- who were not into the scene of celebrity status because they had done all of that in the Sixties."
Five years later, John went to work as restaurant manager at Sir Terence Conran's Mezzo, in Soho. "I didn't know what I was getting into, going from five-star 'very nice to meet you sir' to 'move your ass'," he says. "Late nights, 4am finishes. A massive, massive restaurant -- the noise level alone was gruelling. It all took its toll on me. I stayed there for four years and should have moved on after 18 months. I got burnt out. The harder I worked, the harder I played. I was on this treadmill. Eventually I ended up being very sick. I was drinking a huge amount."
John eventually came home. "I went from job to job like a pinball. I couldn't settle. There was very much a 'fly by the seat of your pants, it will be all right tomorrow' attitude here, which I wasn't used to as I really grew up in business in London. One evening I met friends at the opening of a new hotel and they told me to go down to the new Four Seasons Hotel in Ballsbridge, as that would be more my genre. I ended up staying there for seven years. But at the same time they were opening the Four Seasons my personal life was crumbling, and I ended up in rehab for five weeks."
John says there were five factors, apart from his years of heavy drinking, contributing to his bad health. "Genetically I probably had a weak heart. My diet was shocking. I smoked too much. I drank too much coffee.
"And I worked too hard under too much stress. I was consumed with, and addicted to, work. I was 64kg at one stage and exhausted."
In January 2007, he had a heart attack. "I remember waking up in hospital and thinking, 'Thanks be to God. I can stay in bed and do nothing for six weeks without feeling guilty.' I also thought, 'What am I doing to myself?'"
John, by this stage, had been off drink for a number of years, but after that first heart attack he started having a glass of wine again to relax, he says. "It became a bottle of wine every night. I got myself into an awful state. I was also suffering from post-traumatic stress from the heart attack, with anxiety and depression, and I was taking medication and drinking with it. I got terrible nightmares. It was very hard to cope with them because there had been a lot of traumatic stuff in my childhood that I had forgotten about, and suddenly I was remembering it. I couldn't live with myself and I hated it. I was becoming suicidal. I knew I was in serious trouble."
So, John rang the Rutland Centre, checked in and got professional help. "It was the best thing I ever did," he says. "It gave me the time and space to deal with it. You have got to give your body and mind time to recover, to heal."
After his treatment, he did everything he was told to do, like getting fit and losing weight. He also started doing The Restaurant, but in November 2009 he had another heart attack. He had been smoking again. The second heart attack blocked the stent he had previously been given, so the damage it did was "humongous" and he ended up having heart failure. Only one-third of his heart functions properly now and the other side doesn't work at all. He has to drain fluid off every day, and has to get a transplant.
"You have to give yourself a year to 18 months to recover from a heart attack and let the medication work," he says. "I went off to Portugal for a year and opened a guesthouse for recovering alcoholics with another guy who owns the house. It was my way of getting away and also giving back a little bit. I did the cooking and housekeeping. I loved it because it helped me a lot as well. Spiritually, it was great."
He came back last November and did a 'work-up' for a transplant at the Mater Hospital. "They did all the tests to assess whether I was eligible -- and put me on the list immediately. I am six months on it now. You have to go through all the emotional stuff of preparing yourself. It's almost like you're separating your heart and your soul and you have to visualise the operation and get used to the idea."
John has been working a lot with the Irish Heart Foundation and the Irish Kidney Association to raise awareness on organ donations, because donor numbers have dropped 36 per cent between last year and this year. There are 20 people on the heart-transplant list at the moment.
To raise funds for both the Irish Heart and Kidney foundations, plus contribute to a special fund set up to assist John through his medical journey, Ray Byrne, Jane English and the team at the stunning Wineport Lodge on the shores of Lough Ree at Glasson, Athlone, Co Westmeath (where The Restaurant is filmed), are throwing the bash of the year, on midsummer's night, Tuesday, June 21.
Diners will be able to participate in a live version of The Restaurant and join myself, Paolo Tullio, Tom Doorley, Louise Lennox and John himself (unless he has been called for a transplant), plus guest critics including Norah Casey and Derry Clarke. The event kicks off at 7.30pm with a champagne and canape reception followed by a seriously delicious gourmet three-course dinner, developed and prepared by two genuine celebrity chefs. You will then be able to vote on which celebrity chef gave the winning performance of the night.
Tickets are €100, limited to 100 people, and are available directly from the Wineport Lodge. Telephone: (090) 643-9010, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.