Sunday 23 July 2017

Top chef sharpens his wit in a foodie crime thriller

Chef Gerry Galvin has the measure of restaurant critics in his first book, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan

GERRY Galvin is a true foodie's foodie, a man who made his name from the celebration of fine food in a time before celebrity chefs and 'organic food' bloggers who can't boil an egg.

Galvin knew more about organic before organic was ever invented -- just as our mothers and grandmothers did. He is one of the most skilled chefs we have ever seen in this country, a poet, and a sensitive and humorous writer. He has just written a sardonic crime thriller, Killer a la Carte (Doire Press €13.99), about a restaurant critic, 'James Livingstone Gall', who is also a serial killer.

Gerry Galvin was born in Dromcollogher, west Limerick, where the family had a drapery emporium. "It wasn't, as you can imagine, a gourmet paradise but my father was always keen on good food. He was a 'spoiled priest', spending a year in the Irish College in Paris and that rubbed off from a food point of view."

In his final year in boarding school at Newbridge College, he "got talking to a man called Niall McEvilly who was getting letters home from his brother, the late Dermot McEvilly, who was working as a student from Shannon College of Hotel Management, at the Dorchester Hotel in London, recounting the wonderful food he was being fed there."

Dermot McEvilly and his wife Kay, went on to establish one of the most distinguished country house hotels in Ireland, Cashel House Hotel, in Connemara. "That was my first inclination of something like this. I got into Shannon, however I had to get some experience, so in 1960 I went into the kitchens of the Gresham Hotel in Dublin. I was a kind of gadabout runabout, the posh name was a trainee manager, but it was a classically run kitchen. When the head chef wanted you, he threw something at you."

This was the time when legendary hotel manager, Toddy O'Sullivan, was in command. The Gresham exuded glamour and was the destination of the rich and famous such as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. "The centrepiece at a big dinner for Burton and Taylor was a big phalanx of lobsters in the form of a Roman chariot which was really spectacular."

Prince Rainier and Princess Grace also stayed there and Toddy O'Sullivan became Monaco's Honorary Consul. "I learned how to squeeze buckets and buckets of oranges for fresh orange juice, we had this hand squeezer, that was several hours a day! I also learned about plating up for dinner dances hours in advance and stacked up -- the dress dance turkey."

Brendan Behan was another customer in the Grill Room and it was all very exciting for a 17-year-old boy. "The food would have been classical French before nouvelle cuisine, lots of sauces, sole Bonne Femme. Grapes had to be peeled and pipped, which was another of my jobs."

After that, Galvin went to Shannon and was "sent straight out by the director of Shannon, a classically trained Swiss hotelier, Jurgen Blum, who had a view on hotels and catering which was entirely new to us in Ireland with a sophistication unseen before."

On graduating from Shannon in 1965, Galvin went to work in England for a few years before going to Africa. "I ended up in Capetown, South Africa, as the food and beverage manager of the Hotel Elizabeth in Seapoint, Capetown."

Gerry needed to send money home as the family drapery business had run into problems and Gerry's parents emigrated to London when his father was 56.

"My father was a super salesman but they rented a flat in Earl's Court which was very tough. He had several jobs but then became a senior salesman in the shoe department in Harrods. It suited him because he liked the prestige. There was a certain amount of theatricality about it, he was shoeing the toffs of the time, including Bishop Casey," says Gerry.

"After a year in Capetown I moved on to Western Province Sports Club, Kelvin Grove, the Cape's most prestigious destination. I had met my future wife, Marie, a sister of journalistVincent Browne, in 1969 in Dublin after a rugby match, and after three days we had more or less thrown our lot in together so she came out and joined me, much to the amazement of her parents."

After two years they came home to get married and Gerry got a job as the manager of the Trident Hotel in Kinsale. They then returned to London for a year where Gerry worked in a restaurant, coming back to Ireland and opening a restaurant, The Vintage, in Kinsale. "Had I not had the hotel knowledge, background and discipline, I would never have been able to run a restaurant. So many chefs are wonderful cooks but make terrible business men."

"There were a lot of good people in Kinsale then. Brian Cronin had arrived the same time as I as manager of Acton's Hotel. Peter Barry had introduced the Wine Geese Weekends and we managed to get people to work together, although in competition, but that was new also for Ireland. I remember there was a report that said we now had a festival that was primarily food rather than selling drink."

Kinsale Gourmet Festival has just had its 35th outing.

Gerry then had an ambition to open a country house for his now growing family, two girls and a boy, and after 12 years in Kinsale they moved to Drimcong House in Galway, establishing a top notch restaurant, and where they stayed for a further 18 years. In 2001, they sold Drimcong and bought a camper van and toured France, Spain, Portugal for a year: "The year's break in the camper van was the best thing we ever did."

Gerry has emphysema so if possible he and Marie like to get away in the winter to the sun. Last year, for their 40th wedding anniversary, they took off to Uruguay for a month which they loved.

"I was always writing and dabbling in it but as a working chef I hadn't much time. I kept my hand in writing a monthly column for Organic Matters. After we left Drimcong I also started sorting my poetry, No Recipe, and that was published last year. Killer a la Carte was in my head for three years," Gerry says.

"I love all restaurant critics but, like every chef and restaurateur, I remember every review. I remember the late Clare Boylan, a lovely woman, who wrote for Image magazine. She said the chocolate ice cream in Drimcong tasted like manufactured choc ice from the supermarket. I never forgot it, I had worked on this with my own little hands. The first review, however, I remember was by a Belgian critic who came to Kinsale. We were a 'Restaurant Francais' and I had the brashness at that time in 1974 of having the menu all in French. The critic said 'the menu in the window was so tantalising that he couldn't wait to eat but unfortunately the menu in the window was far superior to what he got on his plate'. That was a real watershed for me but, when I got over the angst, he did me a favour. I said, 'to hell with the French', and we set about doing local produce," he says.

"Part of my motivation with Killer a la Carte is that I like to think people can see the book is a bit of a send-up of the nonsense and bullshit that goes on now around food."

Killer a la Carte is a dish to be savoured with relish.

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