Monday 18 March 2019

Interview: What Richard Corrigan did next

Brilliant and often bombastic Michelin-starred chef is about to expand his empire. He tells Donal Lynch what has brought him home

Richard Corrigan by Jon Berkeley
Richard Corrigan by Jon Berkeley
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

It's the evening before Richard Corrigan jets off to cook for the Obamas and he's in an expansive, almost giddy mood - quaffing wine, grabbing cigarettes off passing waiters, and generally holding forth.

He'll insist you have the oysters (this doesn't seem to be the moment to say you've always found them gross) and even gives a little etiquette lesson in how to eat them (slurp them out then turn them down). The food is unfussy perfection, of course - even AA Gill, or "Adrian" to Corrigan, couldn't find anything to bitch about - but it's the service that feels like another world. The company could have something to do with it of course. You have literally never seen a waiter hop to it like they do for Corrigan in Corrigan's.

The charity thing he's going to in America is being organised by restaurateur extraordinaire Danny Meyers - probably Corrigan's opposite number in New York - and the cream of Washington society will be there. However, the Irish chef seems as excited about coming home as he is about his US jaunt.

He has already put a couple of million into The Park Hotel in Virginia, Cavan, in the process of turning it into "a sort of Soho House/Groucho Club in the country - but open to everyone." He's already getting to-die-for vegetables sent from the gardens to Bentley's and Corrigan's (the twin towers of his London empire) and 70 new jobs have been announced, not including the designer who's flying in from the Hamptons to make sure it all looks right.

But beyond being his newest business venture, the place also has an emotional resonance for Corrigan: two decades ago, when it was run by the formidable Helen McDonnell, his wedding reception was held in Virginia.

"I knew it was the only place in Ireland that could serve the food I wanted on my wedding day. It was great back then and I want to make it something very special now. The time is right - and I want everything to be perfect. I feel like there's a whip waiting if I fuck up."

Of course it's not the first time Corrigan has tried to come home. In 2011 it was his accountant who dissuaded him from buying the rambling country pile that was Woodstown in Waterford - "It was going to need too much money pumped into it." And of course there was Bentley's Townhouse in Dublin, which closed a few years ago in what then looked like one of the very few missteps of his career.

He retreated to London. Not that it appears to have left him especially chastened. "Nobody likes when divorce papers are served but when I pulled out of Dublin it was still making €200,000 a year, so everyone in Dublin can put that in their pipe and smoke it," he sniffs before pointing out that he was "only a 30pc shareholder".

He spent a few years in London "sucking my bruises" but his advent in Cavan may be one of the surest signs of recovery yet. His restaurants are so sensitive to fluctuations in the health of the economy that he thinks he should have been an economist.

"When I hear of hedge fund guys not renewing their leases in Upper Grosvenor Street and notice them not drinking as much wine in the restaurants I know something bad is coming down the line", he says.

If that's the case then we may have cause for hope. After a few years of "a distinctly 1929-type feeling" in the restaurant business Corrigan says things are looking up. On the evening we meet, the terrace at Bentley's hums with expense account activity and business is booming.

Accounts for Richard Corrigan Restaurants (Holdings) Ltd show that his business increased revenues by 4pc to £9.3m (¤11.8m) as profits jumped by 27pc to £696,316 (€867,496) last year. He now employs 260 people just in London.

Besides the power of positive reviews - Fleet Street has run out of superlatives - you get the feeling that much of this is down to the fact that, unlike other celebrity chefs, he has not allowed himself to become a corporate brand.

He's done bits of television - The Great British Food Revival and Full On Food for the BBC - but he remains a hands on presence at his restaurants.

"Otherwise you become a zombie because you've become that big celebrity. I've seen cooks drive up to me in Porsches in London and I'd be like, 'how the fuck do they afford that' and I'd be driving a battered oul' Saab."

These days he drives a Audi A6 Quattro and a Range Rover - "a big tractor of a thing." The re-imagining of this expensive toy as farmyard machinery, the ferocious work ethic and the belief in Ireland as the best larder in the world we can trace back to his childhood in Meath.

His parents were farmers who struggled to make ends meet - the only rows he ever remembers were over money - and young Richard poached salmon, shot deer and by the sounds of it ate like a king, despite their limited means. He left school at 14 - unusually young, perhaps, for someone of this generation (he's 50), but there was no other option.

"They didn't designate me to go to Trinity," he says. "It was the guards or a trade."

He went to work in a local hotel for a friend of his father's and spent a few years mopping and peeling until his hands were raw. Unsurprisingly, he wanted out. A friend of his organised a job in Amsterdam at a five-star hotel and this was both where he met his wife, Maria, and where his career really began.

When the chef moved to Rotterdam, Corrigan came too.

"We were in one of the best places in Holland but it was struggling to make it from one month to the next. On the outside it looked like things were going great, but suppliers could wait months to get paid. I realised you can have a dream - but you need to watch the bottom line too."

His wife persuaded him to try London and he arrived in his mid-20s wondering where it all went wrong.

"Coming back to London I felt I'd taken a step back into the 18th Century," he says. "It was Dickensian. I remember being in Camden Road, the little heater with the meter . . .

"Someone once began to utter the word, 'Paddy' to me and I said, 'Before it falls out of your mouth, bite your tongue.'

"And he looked at me and said, 'why did you come here?' and I said, 'to get you off your ass mate.' That was my attitude. But I knew that within a week I could outshine anyone in any kitchen."

And as Mohammed Ali once said, it ain't braggin' if it's true. Slowly Corrigan began the climb toward owning his own place , (chef de partie in the Sheraton Park Hotel, then sous chef at the Meridian), but his big break came when he met Stephen Bull for whom he worked twice. The second of these gigs, in Bull's Fulham Road restaurant, proved fateful. Eight months after they opened the place, it got its first Michelin star - the fastest in history.

"Given it all again I'd rather have had a little bit more time. Anything that's built so quickly is bound to not last because you're all burned out."

He dealt with stress in different ways. More recently the fluctuations in the fortunes of his London operation have given him bouts of alopecia - he shows me where patches of his beard are still missing - but when he was in the thick of the career climb he says drink was the easiest valve.

"There is always a danger with alcohol in our business. There was that much energy and I was a member of all those clubs. The spirit of alcoholism always worries me because I'm Irish and we are so good with it. It's a great friend that can turn into a great enemy if you don't watch it."

He briefly took over a now-defunct restaurant at an East London dog track and also ran Searcy's at the Barbican. All the while he was asking himself: how to transcend being a cook and move on to own the business.

"That was the question. It's difficult to make that leap, because being a great chef and making a go of a business are very different things. I look at the men who employed a nutcase like me and I realise how brave they were."

Finally, he linked up with a business partner who believed in him and opened his own place. He remained the culinary virtuoso, however, and insists that he is "not really a businessman".

"My problem is that when I meet bankers I tend to give them a lecture, which is not helpful when you're also asking them for money," he says. "So I leave all that to the accountants."

He can talk for Ireland and says if he wasn't a chef he might be a politician - he's on the Labour Party's Business Board; is an evangelist for the slow food movement and a loud critic of Bord Bia, which he insists should be abolished in its current form.

"They are telling Irish people to buy Irish, which is hardly what their job should be. They need to be telling Brits and Germans to buy Irish, but that's against EU rules."

Perhaps his most interesting socio-political intervention came around the time of the bank guarantee in Ireland, however. "I walked over to a bunch of those predatory hedge fund guys in here and said to them, 'Stay out of Ireland'," he says. "And they looked at me and said, 'Don't worry Richard, we're going after Greece.' And then a short while later it did look like Greece was fucked."

So he'll credit himself with international crises interventions - but can he wean us off meat? It's been said that his Dublin restaurant will feature a vegetarian menu.

"We're entering a period where eating large chunks of protein - meat and fish - is going to go out and we will look to the East for inspiration", he says. "And we will eat meat, but in much smaller quantities - like we did ourselves a generation ago. When you got a chicken on the farm it lasted a week - it wasn't an everyday thing.

"Our working lifestyles have changed. We're sitting over a screen - we don't need all that meat. But vegetables only in the restaurant? Don't count your horses."

I discreetly polish off my very delicious chunk of Dover sole as he says this and Corrigan gets ready for a bout of shopping before his trip to hang with Michelle.

"The theme of the whole thing is London's Calling," he explains. "Which is fitting, given that The Clash are one of my favourite bands. But I'll tell you one thing: it's Ireland that I really hope is calling."

 

'I HAVE ABUSED MYSELF . . . ALL CHEFS HAVE'

Advice I'd give my younger self... "Jump in, and fight your way out. If you dither about, you'll never get it done."

Most important part of my success was... "There were lots of things, but luck is a big one. More than that, you need to be ready when you get the luck."

My death row meal would be... "Half a dozen native oysters and suckling pig. Some cabbages from the garden and flowery potatoes and lashings of butter."

My ultimate vice is... "Besides coffee? Probably drink. I have abused myself - all chefs drink hard at some point in their life. I drank as hard as anyone."

My hardest won lesson in business was... "When it all goes wrong, look after the core."

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