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The man who put discretion on the menu

IT'S the new age of austerity, complete with its own band of puritans who frown on conspicuous consumption. No better time then maybe for a discreet venue, where if you had the means, you might still indulge a desire for fine food and wine without worrying who might see you do it.

Back in the recession-ridden Dublin of the Eighties, John Howard's Le Coq Hardi was just such a place. Tucked on the corner of Pembroke and Wellington Roads in the heart of the capital's embassy belt, the restaurant catered to the country's great and good, and sometimes even the notorious. And while palettes may have been blander then, there is no doubt that John Howard had at least one patron who appreciated the rare talent he had cultivated in his years of training with the best in London and Switzerland before his triumphant return to Ireland.

Charles Haughey, had "great standards and great style" and was "very meticulous" in his choice of food and wine, Howard says of the late Taoiseach, who, it would later be revealed at the Moriarty tribunal, had quite literally dined for Ireland and, it should be said, at Ireland's expense at Le Coq Hardi. At the height of its powers, the restaurant existed as an oasis in an otherwise barren culinary landscape.

Recalling Haughey's visits, John Howard says: "As a customer, I would always talk to him on a one-to-one basis. When he came in, I'd always come early and we would have a chat about different things, the horses. He loved to talk about wine and France. As far as I'm concerned, Charlie Haughey was a very good businessman. He was very good for the country despite what people say. OK, he took a little, but he gave back a lot. That's life. What we've seen since [with our politicians] hasn't enamoured me a whole lot."

"Palettes were blander then but he had great standards and great style. I remember when we had the presidency of the EU and he was president. He was very meticulous. He wanted the best for the people who were coming, Francois Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl and Maggie Thatcher," he says.

Howard, much to his credit (and to my disappointment) still holds dear the discretion he has practised for the 50 years he has been involved in the hospitality business, and stops short of revealing what delights our European partners were treated to courtesy of the Irish taxpayer.

Few would be surprised to learn though, if Mrs Thatcher, Monsieur Mitterrand and Herr Kohl had quaffed a rare vintage or two at Dublin Castle during their visit.

Asked about his famous wine cellar, Howard drops the names of Petrus, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Mouton Rothchild amongst others.

Of the latter, he is especially proud, saying: "I remember the time I had a very good

collection of Chateau Mouton Rothchild. One bottle of each dating back to 1945. That became very much a collectors' item, which I still have.

"The reason that was important, was in 1945, they commissioned an artist to do the label, and then they commissioned a different artist every year after that. There was Picasso in 1973, Chagall, John Huston in 1978. They were famous artists."

Howard says that 90 per cent of the restaurant's business was driven by the 'long lunches' where businessmen buoyed up by generous expense accounts (which at the time were fully tax-deductible)

frequently arrived before noon and stayed until dinner.

Those long lunches saw Le Coq Hardi thrive, notwithstanding the 23 per cent interest Howard had to pay on the money he borrowed to kick-start the business.

Indeed, in 1976, Howard says turnover hit £6,000 a week, which is none too shabby when one considers that the weekly rent on Le Coq Hardi's premises was £75.

On this, he says: "You talk about me as a chef. Yes, I'm a chef first, but I'm also a businessman. The great chefs sometimes are not great businessmen. They get carried away with the ego, and the celebrity and the Michelin star thing. Turn a blind eye to what's important, to running a business and you're in trouble."

John Howard's attention to the numbers, he says, probably prevented him from winning the coveted Michelin star.

"People said to me, 'John, I can't understand how you never got a Michelin star'. I'd say it's the one regret I would have in life myself. I think maybe one of the reasons was that my number one thing was being a businessman. A lot of these people, to their detriment, their whole aspect in life was in getting a Michelin star. It is a great achievement, but it's an ego trip for a chef basically," he says.

Unlike many of those who frequented his restaurant, Howard appears to have kept his ego carefully in check as the Celtic Tiger roared, prudently deciding to sell Le Coq Hardi in 1999, and then his house in Monkstown long before, he says, things "went mad altogether".

Had he followed the lead of certain of his customers, who included Bernard McNamara, Paddy Kelly and 'Baron of Ballsbridge' Sean Dunne, things could well have turned out very differently.

"Most of those builders were no different to myself. They came from a humble enough background and they built up the business. I saw them and I knew them all. I knew the Sean Dunnes, the Bernard McNamaras and the Paddy Kellys. They were all customers of mine. They were all very nice people. Now I'm not condoning what they did. I think it was despicable. But they couldn't have spent the money if they didn't get it. Somebody gave them the money. I saw it in my own business, the banks taking in people and entertaining them, and offering them money."

Howard feels especially sorry for Bernard McNamara, having known him and his late father, Michael, for many years.

"I knew his father very well. I remember when I was going to school in Lisdoonvarna, I did sign writing as a hobby and I did the shopfront right beside his father's workshops in Lisdoonvarna. The McNamaras always had money, and that's why I feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for his wife and his children. I know them all very well."

Howard also worked for the Clare-born developer as a project manager for the relaunch of the Shelbourne Hotel in the lead-in to the Ryder Cup in 2006.

Remembering his time with McNamara, he says: "I found him a very hard man to work for. He drives all the time. Now that's not a criticism. But driving me at my age is not too clever, you know. I would react against it. If there's anybody going to do the driving, I'll do it. But I found him an absolute gentleman. But again, like an awful lot of people, he lost the run of it. He thought there was no end."

Sunday Independent