Tuesday 21 January 2020

Aimsir's two Michelin-starred owners reveal their delicious Christmas plans

Jordan Bailey and his Danish wife Majken landed not one, but two Michelin accolades within six months of opening their restaurant Aimsir in Kildare in October. Katy McGuinness visits the couple at home as they get ready to celebrate Christmas to find out the secret ingredient to their success

Chef's special: Majken and Jordan in their kitchen in Naas. Photo: Mark Condren
Chef's special: Majken and Jordan in their kitchen in Naas. Photo: Mark Condren
Majken makes new decorations every year. Photo: Mark Condren
Prized possession: Majken hangs decorations on a framed picture celebrating Aimsir's Michelin stars. Photo: Mark Condren
A tin of homemade brunkager. Photo: Mark Condren

Aside from two huge Styrofoam boxes with underfloor heating cable wrapped around them in a corner of the kitchen, there's nothing to indicate that the couple who live in this modern, neat-as-a-new-pin house in a smart development on the outskirts of Naas are the biggest superstars in Ireland's culinary firmament.

There's a wreath on the front door, a tree twinkling in the living room, pine garlands on the staircase and the smell of coffee in the air. Platters of brunkager and klejner - traditional Danish Christmas cookies made to a family recipe - on the kitchen table sit alongside a bottle of cherry wine. The scene is Scandi-picture perfect.

"Growing up, the kitchen was always my happy place," says Majken Bech-Bailey, who is from the island of Lolland in Denmark. "My parents were working, so my sister and I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. We'd come home from school and help by peeling potatoes or collecting strawberries in the summer. My grandmother has pictures of me with strawberries all over my face, my dress destroyed. I learned very young that good food takes time. I love spending hours in the kitchen cooking, it's part of my heritage and the only thing I miss at the moment, with all that has happened, is having time to do that."

Overhead, tiny glass baubles hang from perfect twigs.

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"I make the decorations fresh each year," says Majken. "It takes a bit of time, but I love doing it. A couple of weeks ago, two of my good friends came over from Oslo to visit and we sat together and did the decorations while Jordan played his Xbox. When we lived in Oslo, we would go around to each other's apartments and make stars and hearts for the tree together. At home in Denmark, we start celebrating earlier than in Ireland, the houses are decorated by the end of November. On the Sunday before Christmas Eve, we would always go around to the house where we would be celebrating and decorate the tree together. There is something very special about Christmas - I have always loved it."

"I can claim credit for precisely nothing, other than the boxes," says Jordan Bailey. "That's where I ferment the heritage garlic from Drummond House in Co Louth. It takes three months. The containers have been here since before we even had a restaurant. Majken would prefer I moved them."

In October, Jordan, originally from Cornwall, and Majken pulled off an extraordinary coup when their restaurant, Aimsir, at Cliff at Lyons in Kildare, which uses only Irish ingredients and opened in May, secured two Michelin stars. To collect one star within six months of opening would have been extraordinary, two is almost unheard of.

Lest anyone be inclined to attribute the couple's achievement to fluke or good luck, a clue as to the amount of dedication it takes to succeed at this level is to be found in an article from the Falmouth Packet newspaper in 2010: "A Camborne chef is set to compete against some of the best in his trade in January after gaining a place in the final of the Bocuse d'Or - the world's biggest culinary competition. Jordan Bailey, aged 21, will compete in Lyon in France after making it through the European competition in Switzerland last month."

Majken makes new decorations every year. Photo: Mark Condren
Majken makes new decorations every year. Photo: Mark Condren

"I was getting up at 4am to practise before going to work to prepare for the competition. I was absolutely shocked that we placed fourth. It is such an amazing achievement and a life-changing experience for me," Jordan tells me.

Before coming to Ireland when he was head-hunted by Cliff's owners, Barry and Gerri O Callaghan, Jordan spent 10 years honing his craft at high-end restaurants, finishing up as head chef in the three-star Maaemo in Oslo. Majken worked at the Michelin-starred Henne Kirkeby Kro in Denmark, where the pair met; they have been a couple for six years and married since 2018.

"When I got into this industry," says Jordan, "I said to myself that I am going to work my socks off now, so that later, when I have children, I can spend time with them. In every industry or profession, if you want to be at the top of your game, you need to put in the hours. Even if you're just repeating yourself, you're still getting better at doing it. Aimsir is only open four days a week, but I put in as many hours in those four days as a normal person might put in in five. Working twice as many hours in a week means that you're doing two years' work in the space of a year, so you're getting there twice as fast as anyone else."

It's a theory that's been proven.

At Aimsir, while Jordan is in charge of the kitchen, Majken looks after bookings and front of house; she works closely with sommelier Cathryn Steunenberg and has developed sophisticated juice pairings for drivers and other non-drinkers.

The couple travel to and from the restaurant together each day, usually arriving at 10am and not leaving until the last guest has gone home and they have locked up at 1.30am or 2am.

"If there are any issues, we try to sort things out in the car on the way home," says Majken. "There are a few people who work for us who live nearby and at the beginning we were giving them lifts, but we had to stop doing that because we need to be able to talk about everything, things that have gone wrong or right with service, or if we need to change something. The restaurant is so small we don't have an office there, so especially if we need to talk about something that involves other people, the car journey home is crucial for us. It's important that we get everything ironed out before we step inside the door."

After working for other people, Jordan and Majken were ready for the challenge of taking on their own restaurant, but the two years they have spent in Ireland have not been without their stresses.

"This time last year, it felt weird to go home to Cornwall on a Christmas holiday when the restaurant was still a building site," says Jordan. "We couldn't fully relax, and even when we were away, we were constantly thinking about it. We couldn't switch off, even though it was out of our control."

"The three months before opening were the most stressful part," says Majken. "We had plenty of time to worry about everything because the building was not ready."

"You always have stress in this industry," says Jordan, "whether that's the stress of service or of something being broken, but that's nothing compared to the stress of getting the restaurant open, worrying about whether people would come. That was the worst, the not knowing."

Majken says she and Jordan handle stress in different ways, but he is better at coping.

"If he is stressed, then I am out of the window."

"Majken wants to fix things there and then," says Jordan, "whereas I can put things into boxes, depending on whether they are relevant now or we can deal with them next week. If it needs to happen right now, I get stressed too."

Prized possession: Majken hangs decorations on a framed picture celebrating Aimsir's Michelin stars. Photo: Mark Condren
Prized possession: Majken hangs decorations on a framed picture celebrating Aimsir's Michelin stars. Photo: Mark Condren

The business side of restaurants can be a struggle for many chefs when they open their own restaurant, but Jordan and Majken were better equipped than most. Jordan studied business to A Level, and before she started working in restaurants, Majken had been accepted into one of the most prestigious business schools in Denmark.

"I've always been interested in the money side of things," says Jordan, "but it's something you don't think about when you are cooking for someone else. Obviously, for the last 10 years, I've been training to be the best chef I can possibly be and then when you get your own restaurant, being the best chef is only about 10pc of the job and you have to learn the other 90pc from nowhere - you have to be a team leader and get into management and budgets and accounts, and learn all these other skills on your own. It's not something anyone ever taught me, so now in this position, I have started to sit down with my team and go through it because I think it's very important. These guys are looking at what we have achieved now and obviously want that for themselves when they move on; they all want to go and open their own restaurant, and it seems very idyllic and easy and romantic, and it's the complete opposite.

"They were shocked when I told them how much the kitchen cost. They thought a Thermomix costs €300, but it's €1,500! Hopefully, knowing that, they will have more respect for the equipment and we will have fewer breakages, and if I say we don't have the money for another piece of kit right now, it's teaching life skills other than just how to cook a bit of duck, because once you get to be head chef, that's probably not the most important thing any more - you need a different set of skills."

Once the Michelin stars were announced, everyone wanted to eat at Aimsir and the booking system - Majken's responsibility - was deluged. But the restaurant can only accommodate around 80 customers each week, so many are disappointed.

"It's everybody's special-occasion restaurant - that's the market that we're in," says Jordan. "But we only have six tables."

"I've been a little bit shocked about how emotionally attached to the restaurant I've become," says Majken. "When it's your own, it's like a little baby. You can get very hurt if people are a bit nasty on social media when they don't get a booking."

If Majken's biggest challenge is dealing with the disappointed masses, Jordan's has been distribution logistics.

"People are a bit too relaxed about things," he says diplomatically. "But the energy is good; it makes the stress worthwhile. There is a different vibe here to Norway - it's more casual and fun; in Norway, the people in the restaurant were so stiff in comparison."

"People have been so supportive," says Majken, "we have never had a guest come in and say they don't like it. A local man Jimmy comes with flowers from his garden for the restaurant, customers dropped in bottles of champagne, cards and flowers when we won the stars. I have never worked in a restaurant where I got a thank-you card before. It makes you feel very welcome. Ireland is very special, Irish people are special, we suit each other, we are definitely going to stay - our parents know we are not moving back home."

"After two years, Ireland feels like home," says Jordan. "It is definitely somewhere we can achieve the next ambitions, otherwise we wouldn't be here."

After Aimsir's last service of the year, the couple will be taking a three-week break, spending Christmas in Denmark with Majken's mother and sister in Lolland "in the middle of nowhere", where Majken grew up. The main celebration will be on December 24, which happens also to be Jordan's birthday.

"In the morning, we'll do birthday brunch for Jordan and then in the afternoon, at around 4pm, we'll go to church; the whole town goes to sing hymns. Back home, we'll start preparing dinner - roast duck, brown potatoes [caramelised in sugar and butter, "like butterscotch sauce for potatoes, very strange!" says Jordan], red cabbage and gravy.

"Jordan and I will cook."

Dessert will be risalamande, a cold rice-pudding dessert with cream and split almonds, served with hot cherry sauce. One person's bowl will contain a whole almond and they get a present. There's a game played with cheap wrapped gifts and dice at the table - "It's very aggressive, you get people ganging up on each other" - and then there's coffee, homemade chocolates and marzipan, and dancing around the tree singing hymns.

"It might be midnight by the time you sit down and open presents," says Majken. "That's hard when you are a kid. I think gifts in the morning are better. When we have children, we will do that.

"All my school friends, the people I grew up with, will be home in Lolland for Christmas, and we will go into town and have a glass of wine with them on Christmas Day. And we've rented a house with my sister and a bunch of friends for New Year's Eve."

"I like that we are from two different countries that celebrate in very different ways, even on two different days," says Jordan. "We've already decided that when we have children, we will spend one Christmas at home, one with my family and one with Majken's. The whole point of Christmas is making time for family.

"When I was younger, we'd be up from six in the morning waiting for my Nan to arrive, which was probably around nine, but felt like the middle of the afternoon, so that we could open presents.

"These days, I do the cooking and Mum helps. It's very traditional, with 10 different vegetables, pigs in blankets, stuffing, cranberry sauce, bread sauce - the plates are piled so high it takes 30 minutes to reach the bottom. My brothers are big boys, they go to the gym three times a day and they can eat - they shovel it down. After lunch, we do presents, watch the queen's speech and fall asleep on the sofa.

"On Boxing Day, mum cooks a ham and my dad, brothers and I go to watch the rugby. I grew up in Camborne and there's a massive rivalry with the neighbouring town of Redruth; each year they play a derby match - they are in different leagues and would never normally play each other. There's lots of drinking and having a good time, everyone gets really into it. Last year, Camborne beat Redruth in their ground, which was amazing!"

 

Photography by Mark Condren

Irish Independent

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