A kid from Tallaght is now one of London's best chefs. Andy McFadden talks tantrums, tears and Michelin with Julia Molony.
It's hard to dislike someone who feeds you. As I tuck into the ceviche of scallops that Andy McFadden has just prepared in front of my eyes, I feel we are getting off to a very good start.
It's an impressive production, involving a cucumber granita with sushi vinegar, agar jelly, roasted lemon puree and something called pickling liquor. With each bite I'm warming to him a bit more.
He meets me in his dungeon kitchen, between services at L'Autre Pied, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Marylebone where he has been in charge for four years. He was just 25 when he took over as head chef, and for about three years was the youngest Michelin-starred chef in all of London. The son of a cleaner from Tallaght, he started out working in a pub kitchen in Dublin and has grafted his way through the ranks to get here.
He greets me with the vigour of a man who has already drunk 14 espressos today. His speech is emphatic, rapid- fire, matched by constant, staccato hand movements. He is sharp-featured, with limpid eyes and a fine tuft of brown hair, which sticks upright, Tin-Tin-like, as if stiffened by concentration and adrenaline.
Andy's mum trained as a chef but worked as a cleaner until recently. His dad, who died two years ago, worked in restaurants in Ireland and had been on the cusp of great things in London, but was eventually thwarted by his heavy drinking. "He could never keep a job for very long," he says. "London only lasted a few years, but then he got sick eventually so he wasn't actually working. He got back problems and he was living in a run-down flat in central Dublin for the last four or five years." Andy's uncle, Neil McFadden has worked at some of the best restaurants around Ireland and is now Executive Chef at Donnybrook Fair.
Andy was 14 when he started working in kitchens, at first with his uncle at Luttrellstown Castle during his school holidays, then in the pub in Tallaght during transition year. But that was a disappointment. "I was ringing up Neil going, 'this can't be the way you make sauce. And they're buying in all this stuff frozen.'"
So his uncle told him if he wanted to learn he'd need to find somewhere good, which is how he ended up spending every school holiday working down at Neven Maguire's MacNean House. "That's when I knew I wanted to be a chef," he says. "Neven is so passionate and enthusiastic." Even then, he was completely serious-minded about what he wanted to do.
Andy's parents split up when he was young, and he grew up with his mum and two younger sisters.
"I feel a sense of responsibility, especially because my dad wasn't there . . . I grew up with three girls. So maybe that affects me as well because I never had a fatherly figure there," he says. It might explain too why his mentors and influences are so important to him. He reels them off almost as soon as I meet him, his treasured list of the significant figures he looks to for guidance; Neven, his uncle, and David Moore, the owner of Pied a Terre and L'Autre Pied, who has developed him, sending him off for a year to earn his stripes under the three-Michelin-starred chef Sergio Herman at his restaurant Oud Sluis in Holland (now closed) before inviting him back to take the helm at L'Autre Pied. There have been some bad experiences too - he did a stint at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud while still a student at IT Tallaght, and hated it. "It completely broke me". There were tears. But a new job at L'Ecrivan helped to restore his faith.
When he first moved to London and into the kitchen of Pied A Terre, the cut-throat kitchen culture "scared the hell out of me. It was boisterous. It was hard core. I thought maybe it was too much," he says.
But ambition won out so he left his girlfriend in Dublin, and moved over. Maintaining a long-distance relationship was "four months of hell... I wasn't getting on well in the job because it was just so f**king hard. . . I was the youngest guy in the kitchen. I was doing it and it was fine, but I was just f**king miserable."
Eventually his girlfriend moved over and they got a flat together. But the up-tick in his fortunes was temporary. "We broke up, so then I was miserable again - or more miserable. It nearly killed me," he says. Eventually his auntie who lives in Streatham came to the rescue, offering him a room in her family home. "I had no money ... I hadn't even got enough money to ring home and cry to my mum," he says. But as soon as he was settled in his home life, things started to change. "It was good for me, being in a family. . . Then I started to progress. I was flying."
L'Autre Pied already had a star when he took over in 2007 so the challenge, for his first job as head chef, was to hang onto it. "Jesus Christ, I was stressed out," he remembers. "I came back in February. It was then announced that the guide for 2012 was going to come out in October, not January, so I had less time to prove myself. When a restaurant changes a chef, Michelin are all over them. So they were in something ridiculous like six times." But he came through - hung onto the star and is now steadily working on further developing his signature style, working towards winning his second one.
The tough times have shaped his approach, now that he's the boss. "When I see the young guys coming in here, I can see - he's going to f**king crumble. It is hard and I do push them. But if I can see them starting to crumble I do put my arm around them and I might take them out for lunch and try to look after them in that way.
"They know I'm hard and extremely firm, but I only get upset when things go wrong. Because I care so much - about them, and about my restaurant and about the food that we're serving. I want people to come here and I want them to talk about it, and say 'L'Autre Pied is f**king good.'"
Up until last year, he was in the kitchen seven days a week. But now, after what he admits was a bit of a breakdown from exhaustion last year, he sees the need to have a day off. He's stopped working Sundays completely. "When you are working seven days, you don't have time to meet anybody, so you're certainly not going to have a girlfriend. Since I have had my day off, I do have a new girlfriend. She's extremely understanding. But she's amazing for me in that she doesn't like seeing me stressed out. If I have my Sunday off, I try to forget about what's happened and have a nice day."
He is aware of the prevailing view that, "if you're a chef you're either an alcoholic or a drug addict." But says he's clean-living. "I probably drink less now than ever before, because I'm training for the marathon. I'm on a special diet and trying to be healthy. But I've never really been into going out and getting pissed." He was put off all of that at an early age. "When I was younger, if I ever did go out with my mates and come back half-pissed, my mum would freak out. And the one thing that would be quite stinging was she'd say, 'you're just like your father'. And I never wanted her to say that again."
He's been called a poet in the kitchen, and is constantly, tirelessly, looking for improvements and inspiration. "I'm a big music fan, football, fashion. I like my fashion. If i get a day off I like to maybe blow some money, go to some nice shops on Oxford Street. I went to a Matisse exhibition in the Tate last week. I like to do things like that, it clears my mind." He has the confidence of a man finding his stride, bringing chaos under control. "It's been a while since I've been crying in the kitchen," he says.
www.lautrepied.co.uk and www.pied-a-terre.co.uk