Meet five food and drink talents taking pride in their heritage, customs and a unique hospitality skill set while selling a fresh Irish story in the industry abroad
From Aoife Noonan’s ‘tea and toast’ croissants in Sydney and Max Rocha’s Guinness bread ice cream in London to Andrew Walsh’s Michelin-starred ‘crisp sandwich’ in Singapore and Claire O’Halloran’s ox tongue with homemade wholegrain mustard in Stockholm, Irish food is getting an increasingly confident, creative and playful makeover overseas . It’s matched by a recognition that the innate hospitality that makes our pubs the best in the world can be infused into everything from fast-paced City of London coffee shops to Scandi gastrobars to pioneering cocktail experiences.
There was a time when many of our best talent took a one-way ticket abroad and put their heads down to make their way in the world of food, drink and hospitality. Those who stayed in Ireland typically looked to trends across the waters to dream up new directions for their offer here.
Today’s Irish chefs, baristas and bartenders are coming and going in a two-way flow, and turning to their own native heritage and contemporary culture for their inspiration. They’re holding their heads up with a new-found pride in things we once took for granted here in Ireland, from the excellence of our homegrown produce to the skilful service of our old-school bartenders.
Dublin-born, Noma-trained Trevor Moran, whose tiny 36-seater Nashville restaurant Locust was named Restaurant of the Year last September by the USA’s Food & Wine magazine, recently brought his kitchen team here to experience the contemporary food scene in Ireland first-hand. “They were so blown away by it — and by the way we were treated, even by strangers. Everyone came back fully charged up and fully ready to go.” The trip has since triggered a “very big directional change” at Locust, where Moran has shifted focus from the exquisitely executed dumplings and noodles honed at home during pandemic lockdowns. This year’s seafood-heavy menus are revisiting classic techniques learned in his formative cheffing years at Dún Laoghaire’s Brasserie na Mara and Glasthule’s Tribe (where he worked with his good friend and fellow chef Karl Whelan) before he headed to Copenhagen for what turned into a four-and-a-half-year stint at Noma when it was riding high as the world’s top restaurant.
Earlier this month, Dublin-based chef Cúán Greene (another Noma alumnus) brought his take on Irish food to a sold-out pop-up dinner in Brooklyn’s Fulgurances Laundromat: a super-hip restaurant that specialises in chefs’ residencies from top young international talent. His menu focused on “ingredients and dishes that are rooted in our country’s culture and landscape”, including a playful riff on a Brunch ice-cream featuring milk ice cream, dried berries, shortcake, horseradish and walnut oil, served — crucially — on a birch spoon to mimic the flavour of an ice-cream stick, also made from birch. “I feel it’s a great time to be Irish,” says Greene, “and there is a lot to celebrate. Getting the opportunity to share the food, stories and customs of our land like this on an international stage is a massive privilege.”
That evolving story is popping up on the social media timelines of Irish chefs working abroad. Noonan made her name as pastry chef in Dublin’s Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud and is now head of pastry at Sydney’s Stix Café. She marries seasonal organic produce from Stix’s own farm with a distinctively Irish personality in creations, like her nostalgia-inspired ‘tea and toast’ croissant.
“The idea behind it was the pure comforting combination of a big mug of tea and a slice of buttery toast,” she says. “It’s what you get when you are sick, what you are served if you end up in hospital, and what I ate in the mornings going to school growing up.” Noonan fills a buttery, flaky croissant with a crème pâtissière (pastry cream) infused with Earl Grey tea and marmalade made from Stix’s farm produce. “When a customer asks, ‘What is the ‘tea and toast’ croissant?’, the idea is to tell a story… It becomes interactive and it becomes personal.”
That Irish knack for storytelling is key to the menu at Stockholm’s newest gastrobar, Iníoní, which opens later this month. Its head chef, O’Halloran, was a classmate of Greene, Harry Colley of Harry’s Nut Butter and Shane Palmer and Charlotte Leonard Kane of Scéal Bakery, who all studied culinary arts at TUD’s former Cathal Brugha Street College. O’Halloran has worked in Stockholm for eight years, where she was the face and talent behind the 10-seater chef’s table at trailblazing chef Mathias Dahlgren’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant in the Grand Hotel before joining her current employees a few years ago.
Among the dishes that this Gaeilgeoir chef looks forward to telling customers about at Iníoní is her Granny Mulvany’s famous Friday-night chips. “My mother came from a family of 12, in a house where the chip pan would be standing on the stove all the time. It was a big production to get the spuds peeled and fried for that many hungry mouths.” She’ll be adding brown sugar to rice vinegar to recreate that distinctive malt vinegar flavour. There will be Irish oysters, too (“from Clare, Galway and Carlingford, and hopefully Donegal”), served at an oyster bar inside the kitchen, where chefs will pour paired serves of Guinness or champagne. There will be seasonal renditions of cockles on the menu: grilled in spring/summer and served “in a buttermilk and seaweed sauce with samphire, smoked almond and a little potato as the star of the show”; later cooked in a richer, Guinness-based sauce with crème fraîche and herbs for the autumn/winter menu.
It’s not just chefs who are retelling the Irish story: some of the world’s top baristas and bartenders are consciously drawing on our heritage of hospitality in fresh new ways. Every March, for the last nine years, London’s independent eating-out guide Hot Dinners has published ‘The Murphia’: a who’s-who of Irish talent on the city’s food and drink scene. The list spans from establishment stalwarts like chef-restaurateurs Richard Corrigan, Clare Smyth MBE and Robin Gill to newbies like chef Max Rocha of Café Cecilia and barista James Hennebry of Rosslyn Coffee, both of whom turned up on last year’s list.
“One continuous theme among the Irish here is that they’re such innovators,” says Irish-born editor Catherine Hanly, who founded and runs Hot Dinners with her brother, Gavin. “Whether they’re involved in opening restaurants or doing things with the coffee trade or cocktail bars, they’re not following everyone else’s trails. They seem to be forging their own paths.”
For Hennebry, who set up Rosslyn Coffee in 2018 with his Melbourne-born partner, Mat Russell, that individual path pairs “all the high standards and attention to detail of the great Australian cafe with all the warmth and hospitality of the great Irish pub”. Named Europe’s Best Independent Coffee Shop 2022, Rosslyn Coffee was described by the Financial Times as “the not-so-best-kept-secret of the City of London”, where it has several high-volume outposts.
Kilkenny-born Hennebry grew up working in his father’s pubs in Ireland, where he says he learned hospitality skills from some of the best in the business. “It’s a standard that we take for granted in Ireland, and we don’t give ourselves credit for how good they are.” He is planning a field trip with his management team to Dublin, to see the likes of Kehoes, The Stag’s Head and the Swan in full flow, where smartly dressed bartenders can happily take and deliver four or five orders simultaneously.
If bar staff at Slattery’s near Dublin’s Aviva Stadium know to start pulling pints “as soon as the referee blows his whistle”, he argues, why wouldn’t Rosslyn’s baristas start prepping their milk as the early morning queue builds? It helps that this “heads-up hospitality” service fostered at Rosslyn means staff know many of their regulars’ orders by sight.
“[The idea] derives from listening to rugby podcasts talking about heads-up rugby,” Hennebry elaborates, “so rather than putting your head down, you’re looking around you and reacting to what’s going on, or even better, pre-empting it.”
The trickle-down effect is a palpable sense of community within its coffee shops that is rare in this part of London. “We often have guests say that they’ve worked in the City for 30 years, and we’re the first place that will remember their name and their order.” Regulars have gotten to know one another; some even set up their own Rosslyn channel on Slack (“which is like a corporate version of WhatsApp”) to coordinate coffee breaks, given that they work in different offices.
“Our guests feel an ownership of our shop,” Hennebry observes, akin to how regulars might feel about their local pub. “My father has ‘his pub’ in Kilkenny, as in the pub that he drinks in, and there’s untold regulations around everything that happens there. You’re welcome to come in but you’re as much a guest of the regulars as you are of the owners.”
Another passionate advocate of heads-up service and of telling a fresh Irish story is Jack McGarry, co-founder of The Dead Rabbit in New York.
That heads-up approach has both a micro and a macro application at The Dead Rabbit, where it guides both the process-focused service style to reduce wait time on your fancy cocktail, and also informs the new direction that this brand is taking.
Named after an early 19th-century Irish gang which McGarry says was “formed to protect and advance the Irish story”, the Manhattan bar topped the World’s 50 Best Bars list three years after opening in 2013. This year, it celebrates its 10th birthday with two new locations, opening in Austin in spring and New Orleans in winter, and a busy programme of events and residencies that celebrate the diversity of contemporary Irish culture.
McGarry wants to move away from an Irish pub that takes it cue from an Ireland — or indeed an Irish-America — of the past. “I want to tell the story of the makers and the movers and shakers in Ireland right now,” he says. “There’s a lot of these bars, you walk into them and you see Yeats on the wall and Jonathan Swift, but they’re all dead, they don’t need our help. It’s this next generation: we need to bring them up and we need to nourish them and give them that platform.”
McGarry gets home to his native Belfast every couple of months. He works closely with key partners on the ground, including his Belfast-based creative agency, Crown Creative, his Galway-based director of Irish whiskey, Mark McLaughlin, and his Derry-based director of music, Liam Craig, who curates regular residencies and appearances from artists like Soak and Ailbhe Reddy. He recently brought his Stateside management team on an Irish road trip to meet key collaborators and partners like Oughterard’s Calendar Coffee artisan roasters, which produces a bespoke blend for its signature Irish coffee. They made sure to take time out to drink in some of his favourite pubs in Belfast, including Kelly’s Cellars and the Duke of York.
“I view our role essentially as ambassadors for Ireland,” he says. “We’re a bar, yes, but ultimately what we’re doing is selling Ireland.”
Perceptions are changing abroad about today’s Ireland and about what its food, drink and hospitality might be. As Hanly puts it, “There’s an awareness that the Irish scene is on fire at the moment.” It’s a fire that is spreading fast, as one bright spark after another takes it and runs with it, and finds new ways to have some serious fun with it.