Sunday 25 September 2016

The man with the Midas touch... restaurateur John Farrell

Serial restaurateur John Farrell's latest offering - Luna - is so glamorous, you'd expect to find Don Draper in the corner.

Carolyne Dunne

Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30

Cooking up a storm: John Farrell at his new restaurant, Luna, in Dublin. Photo: Mark Condren
Cooking up a storm: John Farrell at his new restaurant, Luna, in Dublin. Photo: Mark Condren
Serial restaurateur John Farrell. Photo: Mark Condren

On Wednesday evening, restaurateur John Farrell launched his grown-up new restaurant, Luna, downstairs at Super Miss Sue on Dublin's Drury Street.

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"It is," he says, "definitely somewhere that you'd take someone out for dinner rather than a bite to eat."

He's right. Luna is a moody, glamorous space with leather horseshoe booths, and an old-school, Italian-American - with a twist - menu put together by chefs Karl Whelan (ex-Chapter One) and Hugh Higgins (ex-Forest Avenue) that's going to fill a gap in the vibrant Dublin restaurant scene. You won't find beef carpaccio with warm bone marrow and summer truffle, or turbot on the bone roasted over coals with burnt leeks and oyster tagliatelle on too many other menus in the city, nor a cake trolley that's wheeled around the room by serving staff clad in Louis Copeland tuxedos. It's the kind of place where you'd half expect to find Don Draper in the corner.

At street level, SMS's sophisticated café offers Italian-style, seafood-focused casual dining, while the Cervi chipper around the corner on Stephen Street Lower draws the crowds late into the night. Named after Giuseppe Cervi, who disembarked from an America-bound ship in Cobh in the early 1880s, walked to Dublin, and by 1900 had opened the city's first fish and chip shop on Great Brunswick Street, it's the best in town.

Farrell (41) is Dublin's own version of Russell Norman or Mark Hix in London - a serial restaurateur who gets antsy if he isn't planning a new venture.

It's just six years since he opened his first place, Dillinger's in Ranelagh. A year later, it was The Butcher Grill, also in Ranelagh, and the Mexican-themed 777 (call it 'triple seven' rather than 'seven, seven, seven') on South Great George's Street followed in 2012. SMS came along in early 2014, but Farrell's plans for the tricky site adjacent to the Drury Street car park have only been fully realised this week with the opening of Luna in the basement.

Problems with the electricity supply delayed the opening, and resulted in a brand new high-end induction kitchen that cost €100,000 being put into storage.

"We'll have to open another restaurant just to use the kitchen," says Farrell, and he doesn't appear to be joking. "I walk into the warehouse and look at it every once in a while. It's beautiful, and chefs love induction, but there physically isn't enough electricity to use it. So we had to put in a new gas kitchen and we'll be cooking on charcoal too. We still can't have a three-phase coffee machine and we have to manage the electricity really carefully."

Still, Farrell is relieved finally to have the doors open. "I love putting a room together," explains Farrell, who scours the world for fixtures and fittings for his restaurants and stores them away until he can figure out exactly where to use them. "It's all about when you walk in and that feeling that you get. I wanted that 1940s-style New York ambience, the sense of getting dressed up to go out for dinner. Luna is different to the other restaurants; it's a notch up in terms of service and formality, which I do enjoy."

Farrell collaborated with ODOS architects on the building, and was hands-on when it came to the interiors.

"I use a contact in the US to help me source the chandeliers, which came from an old building in New York. He sends me pictures from the salvage places and markets that he goes to. The ceiling lights are 80 years old, they came from a boat. I took the lights out and put in neon tubes, they give a beautiful glow at night."

And so they should, because they cost Farrell €1,000 each and there are seven of them. The carpet is a copy of the one from the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, and Farrell has had an outfit made from matching fabric for his almost two-year-old daughter, Luna, for whom the restaurant is named. (She is flying in from North Carolina, where she lives with her mother, for the opening.) Attention to detail is a Farrell trademark, and goes some way to explaining his continued and serial success in a business where so many others fail.

Originally from Ballymun, Farrell's first job in the restaurant business was in South Africa, where he lived as a teenager. He had hoped to train as a carpenter and furniture maker, but didn't have enough money to pay the college fees.

"I spent a few months selling insurance, but I hated it. Then I took a job in a restaurant, working my way up from washing dishes. I loved it, and I have never worked outside of the restaurant business since. It was like having a family; I liked the energy of it. When you work in restaurants, the people form such a big part of your life; you socialise with them as well as work with them."

Farrell returned to Dublin in the late 1990s, and worked at Il Primo alongside another well-known Dublin restaurateur, Ronan Ryan, for owner, Dieter Bergman.

"Ronan was the manager when I started, so we come from the same school of hosting. For its time, Il Primo was great - it had so much character and atmosphere. Ronan's helping me out at Luna as a consultant now, and he does a few weekend nights hosting. I have been travelling so much that it's great to have his support."

Farrell ended up with a one-quarter share in Il Primo, but sold out in 2006. "It was time," he says. "I wanted to be able to make a decision and implement it without having to consult with anyone else."

Once Dillinger's was open, Farrell's empire grew quickly. "It was a very exciting time, I really didn't have time to think about anything too much."

These days, Farrell is surrounded by a crack team of chefs and managers, which allows him to stand back a little.

"The way that I set them up there's a full-time accountant and manager in each restaurant, and they each have an assistant manager. And Leo Molloy is the self-appointed 'community manager' and he helps with everything. I spend more money on staffing than I probably should, so I make less money, but I have more time and the time is more valuable to me.

"Leo and I take a look at each place every few months and decide what we are going to focus on. It might be decor, or re-doing the cocktail list. It's important to be able to re-visit them and not just to let them sit still and stagnate. It keeps it exciting for me and for everyone."

So far, Farrell has resisted the temptation to open second branches of any of his restaurants, each of which has a distinct identity. Now, though, he is considering a second Butcher Grill in Dublin, and perhaps a London outpost of 777. Other plans in the offing include a new kitchen and a cookbook for 777, with a trip to Mexico to shoot the pictures. He is also consulting for Sean Mulryan's Ballymore Group on a small grocer's, charcuterie and wine bar in the developer's Embassy Gardens scheme in London.

"I really admire Ballymore's whole set-up, they have fantastic developments over there and beautiful apartments. They'd like to open an Irish bar too, so hopefully I'll get to help them with that."

And if that wasn't enough, Farrell is also contemplating a new restaurant in Dublin.

"I was in New Orleans last week, and in Austin, Texas, a few months ago, and I went to a few of those of those hole-in-the-wall barbecue joints that were really great. I know we have barbecue places here already and I've kind of turned my nose up at it, thinking that it's not really for me. But the last one I went to it just hit me, the same way I got hit when I first ate Mexican food. It was just like this old shack from the middle of the swamp and this guy with a big smoker. I loved the aesthetics and the feel of the inside of the place.

"Everything is visual for me as well as being about the food. So I am probably going to go over and work in the place for a couple of months and this guy is going to teach me a bit about it, and then obviously I'll be collecting knick-knacks and I have an idea in my head about what the place is going to look like. I haven't been excited about an interior for a while because Luna has taken so long, but now it's done and dusted, and I'm ready to get stuck into something else, although I'm going to take my time and nothing will open until the end of next year."

 Photographs by Mark Condren

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