Thursday 8 December 2016

Cordon bleu: Meet world young chef of the year, Mark Moriarty

Having just won the world young chef of the year, Dublin's Mark Moriarty has a glittering culinary career stretching out ahead of him. However, the 23-year-old says that his ambitions lie beyond having a restaurant and loads of money - he's determined to be more than a flash in the pan

Aoife Carrigy

Published 12/07/2015 | 02:30

Young chef of the year winner Mark Moriarty.
Young chef of the year winner Mark Moriarty.
Mark Moriarty wins the San Pelegrino world young chef 2015

Anyone who has eaten in a few Irish restaurants in recent years or caught a homegrown food programme on the telly or visited a local food festival knows that something is happening in Irish food, something evangelists are calling an Irish food renaissance.

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Unfortunately, most of the people who know that are Irish.

We haven't yet produced any of the triple Michelin-star restaurants that put gourmet food destinations such as Spain's San Sebastian on the map, nor caught the attention of the prestigious S Pellegrino World's Best Restaurant 2015 list that helped revolutionise Nordic cuisine. From a world-stage perspective, we're still the home of humble root veg washed down with pints of stout.

So how does a Dublin lad with Kerry roots (and a blazing mop of red hair to prove it) beat off 2,999 international opponents to become crowned S Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 - aka best young chef in the world? And, most remarkably, how does he do so by the age of 23, given this competition's definition of 'young' as being under 30 years of age?

Firstly, start training as early as possible, à la athletes like the Williams sisters. And secondly, embrace your Irishness as inspiration for your winning dish: celeriac baked in barley and fermented hay, served with cured and smoked celeriac and toasted hay tea.

Mark Moriarty certainly started young. From the age of five he was "obsessed" (a word that features a lot in Mark's lexicon) with all things fishing - hanging out in his father Tom's west Kerry boat during long summers spent in the Kingdom, or lobster potting, or fishing seabass off the beach. By the age of 10 he was fascinated with cooking, bouncing out of bed every Saturday morning to see what Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was up to this week down at River Cottage. By 12, when his peers were chomping burgers, he was ordering sole on the bone. When they were "just floating about, going to Wes and stuff", he was hatching a plan to become the very best chef he could be.

At 15, his CV included kitchen stints alongside chefs Neven Maguire, Kevin Thornton and Derry Clarke (thanks to Transition Year work experience and to Home Ec teacher Brian Dooley who suggested he write to the top Irish chefs to ask for a placement). And before Mark was old enough to order a well-earned pint after work, he had three summers under his belt in one of Dingle's busiest and best kitchens, The Charthouse, where chef Noel Enright opened his eyes to the skill demanded for "simple food, done well". Throughout his four-year culinary arts degree in Cathal Brugha Street, Mark used internships to get a foothold in the hottest temples of gastronomy. Interjected with stages in both The Ledbury and Restaurant Tom Aikens in London, he put in a year as Commis Chef in Thornton's Restaurant, followed by two years in The Greenhouse where he learned all he could from one of Ireland's most groundbreaking chefs, Mickael Viljanen.

The hours were demanding ("I used to start at 5.30am on a Tuesday morning in The Greenhouse and work until 12pm, then I'd go to college and learn Spanish from 12pm until 3pm and business from 3pm until 6pm, and then I'd come back and do dinner service until finish at about midnight"). But the hard work paid off.

In 2013, Mark was named Euro-toques Ireland's Young Chef of the Year (having come second in 2012). And within months of graduating, Mark had set up his own business, The Culinary Counter, with his friend and mentor Ciaran Sweeney. The two pioneering chefs offer monthly pop-up dining experiences that place avant-garde cooking at the centre - quite literally - of a convivial dining setting in a bid to break down barriers between customer and kitchen.

Given all this over-achieving, when I met Mark fresh off the plane from Milan where the S Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 competition had been judged by seven of the world's top chefs, I was prepared for a tunnel-visioned fella full of big talk and bigger plans for building his restaurant empire.

Instead, I meet a young man on a mission to balance those things that most other young men take for granted - 21st birthday parties, J1 visas with the boys in Boston, Southeast Asian travels with their girlfriends - with the kind of ambition that decides: "If I'm going to do something, I'm gonna put 100pc into it".

If I had expected a bristling young Gordon Ramsay or Marco Pierre White, what I get is a new breed of world-class chef. Humble yet confident. Ambitious yet measured. Quietly spoken yet clear-sighted and articulate, full of wisdom about wanting to work smarter, not harder. A guy who knows how to conduct himself on a world stage - which, he says, is the biggest lesson he learnt from his assigned mentor for the S Pellegrino finals, Clare Smyth OBE, an Antrim lass who became the first female chef to have won three Michelin stars.

Mark believes that it was self-assurance and confidence that won him the global title. He only entered the competition on a whim, having sworn he'd never do another after the gruelling experience of the Euro-toques awards ("three months flat out of going to bed thinking about it, waking up thinking about it").

The intensity of those months and those 5.30am starts coupled with his fourth-year thesis study on stress levels in top Irish kitchens and his parents' background in mental health ("dad's a sports psychologist and mum worked in John of God's services") make Mark unusually mindful of the dangers of burnout, something of an occupational hazard for chefs. If you're not careful, Mark warns, "You get to 33 and your mind is fried… you may have a restaurant and you may have loads of money, but you don't have time to spend the money and you don't have any friends and your girlfriend certainly is long gone. And you look back and think, is it really worth it?"

Instead, Mark wants to play the long game and play it clever - to enjoy being young while he can, to learn about the business of food and to look at building a more sustainable career for himself, one with longevity factored in from the get-go.

But then calls came for online entries into the S Pellegrino competition. He knew he had a great dish up his sleeve - the elaborate take on salt-baked celeriac that had won him the Euro-toques competition back in 2013. The over-achiever in him couldn't resist.

When he got through to the London heats for the UK and Ireland region, a free three-day jolly in London with his girlfriend Gráinne Quinn sounded like fun.

But then he won the title of UK & Ireland Young Chef of the Year 2015 - celebrated Irish chef Oliver Dunne, who runs Dublin's Cleaver East, was one of the four judges - and things got serious. "Whatever about making a fool of yourself, that's fine," he says. But if you're representing Ireland and the UK - and crucially, representing Irish food on the world stage where it has yet to be taken seriously - you suddenly find yourself with something of a responsibility.

"I went to Milan and put the head down for two days and didn't worry about what the other 19 contestants were doing," he explains, figuring that, "I can't control what they're doing - all I can do is pull off my dish to the best of my ability. If it's good enough, it's good enough and if it's not, it's not."

It was. The judges loved Mark's treatment of that gnarliest of root vegetables, the humble celeriac, and his inventive riff on the flavours of Irish stout, achieved through the use of toasted barley and fermented hay. They loved the nod to Irish tea-drinking culture through the toasted hay tea served in his granny's best hand-painted china teacups. And they loved his novel use of modernist techniques in re-thinking how Irish food might be re-presented on a contemporary world stage.

So, now that he's got the world's attention, what's next for this Great Red-Headed Hope for Irish Food - aside from a string of sold-out Culinary Counter pop-ups?

First up, says Mark, enjoy and make the most of this opportunity to tell everyone who will listen about the renaissance happening in Irish food today. And travel: first to as many international events and collaborations as possible "before handing over the title in Milan next June", and then to New York with his girlfriend to see what lessons the Big Apple has in store for him. The plan is to return to Ireland within five years, by which time he believes other young Irish chefs will be attaining world-class standards.

"Why not?" he asks. "Why couldn't we have three-star restaurants or the number one in the world in the Top 50 list?"

It's a good question.

Culinary quickfire

Puff pastry: bought or homemade?

Bought. Why would you make your own at home?

Tea: Lyons or Barry's?

Barry's, of course.

Stock cubes: short-cut or sell-out?

Short-cut: I use the Knorr ones all the time and they're good - the Marco Pierre White ones. They're like a little pot of demiglaze which takes days to make in a kitchen.

Cheese and onion crisps: King or Tayto?

It has to be King.

Chipper chips: salt and vinegar or curry sauce?

I'm a salt and vinegar man.

Marmite: love it or hate it?

I hate it!

Celebrity chefs: Jamie or Marco?

Marco, for making food and the industry fashionable in the late 1980s.

Fine dining: art or science?

High-end restaurants are about art.

Mark's beef tartare with oyster sauce

Push your own culinary boundaries with Mark's adventurous but easy-to-make recipe for beef tartare.

You will need

100g beef fillet

Handful capers

Handful tarragon, chopped

Salt

3 breakfast radishes

Handful samphire

1 daikon radish, diced

Lemon juice, to taste

2 oysters

1 egg

400ml vegetable oil

Method

Dice up the beef fillet into small fingernail-sized pieces, to this add the capers and tarragon, season with salt.

Thinly slice the breakfast radishes using a sharp knife and place in a bowl with the samphire and diced daikon radish, add some salt and lemon juice, and toss.

Using a hand blender, blitz up the oyster meat and egg. While continuing to blend, add the vegetable oil very slowly until a mayonnaise is formed.

Place the tartare on a plate and top with the dressed radish and samphire, spoon the oyster mayonnaise on top and serve.

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