Finding the Dreamer in the Kitchen
Richard Corrigan has cooked for some of the world's most famous people during his time as one of London's top chefs, but he and his wife Maria get most enjoyment out of each other and a love of home. He tells Barry Egan of embarrassing moments, a return to Ireland and how he once tried to sabotage the Australian rugby team
It is 2am in the Groucho Club in London's Soho last Thursday. Irish maestro of the kitchen, Richard Corrigan, has just told me his most embarrassing moment. Telling Tony Benn how good his Irish stew was – only to find out a week later that he was vegetarian.
A fifty-something man in leather zipped trousers and a sideways hat straight out of a Charles Dickens novel, is singing a poem to Corrigan and his wife Maria. Richard looks more embarrassed than he did when he found out he had fed Mr Benn stew. The song is so depressingly out of tune that Maria and I are trying not to laugh. Richard doesn't know where to look. The man in the hat then suggests he has an idea for a club and Richard says to pop over for lunch sometime to discuss the idea. Five minutes later another man comes over to say he designs things and Richard suggests he should pop over sometime for lunch to discuss the idea.
Maria, preternaturally calm by disposition and almost ethereal with it, is watching it all. Thirty minutes later in the taxi, she and Richard are wrapped around each other on the way home. We have had a long and thoroughly memorable night in Piccadilly – the Christmas lights twinkling everywhere we go – and I doubt there is a couple more in love than my two companions tonight.
"She is my childhood sweetheart," he gushes (there is a bit of drink on board) at 2.15am as London flashes past us in the cab. Seven hours earlier we had gone for a long dinner at Richard's high-flying restaurant in Swallow Street – Bentleys. It was packed to the gills with people eating oysters and drinking champagne. Upstairs in a private room, he had a series of chefs and waiters serve him and his wife and the interloper from the Sunday Independent, a veritable feast of feasts – crab, seabass, filet mignon, duck, turbot – all washed down with vintage champagne and port. Maria never gives interviews. It took me a few weeks of coaxing her famous husband to get her to come out tonight in London for a few words. In the end, as is often the case, Maria, who is completely charming and beautiful, couldn't stop talking.
In fact, she and Richard talked from 7pm until 2.30am when they dropped me off at my hotel in Bloomsbury on their way home with the words: "Come back and see us soon in London." I fully intend to take them up on their kind invitation. They are a thoroughly entertaining couple – he never stops roaring with laughter and she never stops being lovely.
I was almost dreading interviewing the woman who never gives interviews. Then, once the Christmas lights and the champagne kicked in, she was the light and soul of the evening, and he, trailing in her wake, not so bad either.
They were engaged here in London exactly 23 years ago – Christmas, 1990. They were married a year later on December 29 in Cavan.
She and Richard, who is from Athboy, County Meath, have been together since their early 20s. The Irish chef, who has cooked for everyone from the Queen to Prince Charles to Elton John and Sting and Madonna at his establishments, has also cooked some famously romantic meals for his wife.
"The most romantic meal Richard ever made for me," she says as she eats her crab in Piccadilly, "was when he made a picnic for a trip to Paris at Easter this year on Eurostar. It was a lovely lobster salad, soda bread and pink champagne."
"I was 19, he was 21, when we started dating," she adds – "We were mere kids."
The initial spark, given her beau's future career path as Ireland's top chef in England, was no surprise.
"They say it's the way to a woman's heart," she laughs. "He made a mean eggs Benedict."
What is the secret of your love for each other?
"A mutual respect for each other," Maria answers, "allowing both of us to follow our own passions and ambitions."
While her husband's ambitions are towards the culinary domination of London and beyond, Maria's ambitions are very definitely not in that field.
"I am studying to qualify as a family psychotherapist. I am in my third year of a four-year course. When I qualify, I hope to work within a child and adolescent mental health unit – CAMHS – to work with young people and their families who experience difficulties in their lives. I work as a trainee in an inner city CAMHS in London at the moment. It's a very busy unit but very rewarding work."
"When I see the families and what they have gone through," she adds, "it makes me really grateful for what Richard and I have got."
I ask her to describe her husband's personality. "Richard is kind, generous, firm but fair. He believes in putting something back into society and helping those less fortunate. He is hard working and conscientious – a great dad, husband and friend. He can be stubborn at times," she says.
Do you miss Ireland?
"Yes," she says. "I miss Ireland. I miss my family and friends and the sense of community. It's brilliant to see communities coming together in times of need to help each other out. You don't get that in London."
"You have to leave Ireland to appreciate it," says Richard.
"We are the modern day Irish brigades of the 17th Century."
It wasn't always easy for these particular members of the Irish brigades, however. "The eighties and the nineties in this town were tough," he says.
"Christ almighty, it was tough. I opened my first restaurant, Mulligans, in Cork Street and then I came here to Bentleys in 1990. I was head chef. The chairman of the company, Chris Cassidy, hired me to turn this whole place around. I had a bit of a name in London in those days as a real doer – an optimistic doer, an achiever, set the goals and off you go. I was here a year-and-a-half and I was sad leaving it, but I knew I had to move on. I always kept a good eye on it privately. I said to the owner: 'If you ever want to sell it, let me know.' Eighteen years later, he was retiring into the sunset and I got a phonecall.
"The street wasn't pedestrianised then and Swallow Street was slightly dark. I knew it because I worked in The Meridian Hotel nearby and Shane MacGowan wrote about it in Old Man Drag – you know, about one evening down here getting kicked in the balls. It is just out there," Corrigan says pointing out the window.
"I used to work in the Meridian Hotel and see the punks being beaten by the police. Probably MacGowan was one of them. I worked at that window looking down at the police station and the punks being dragged in.
"I used to come across to Bentleys to borrow fish for the restaurant in The Oak Room. I used to always have a good look around and that was ever before I worked here."
Richard, who now owns Bentley's in Piccadilly, Corrigan's Mayfair, and Bentley's Sea Grill in Harrods, recently bought the extensive splendour of The Park Hotel in Virginia, Co Cavan, back home on the old sod. Corrigan says excitedly – nearly everything Richard says and does is with excitement: he has an eternal little boy twinkle that no doubt endeared him to the locals in England – that he is going to return the former 17th-Century hunting lodge to its one-time glory. "It is going to be an incredible, incredible place."
"It will be also be a great place to have a wonderful country wedding." After all, it was the venue for his and Maria's wedding back in the day. I wouldn't be too shocked if the happy couple moved back to Ireland to live here in a few years.
Indeed I remember asking her at 2am amid the hustle and bustle of The Groucho Club in Soho about missing Ireland, Maria saying: "I would love to live in Virginia some day in the future."
"Yes, we will definitely leave England and come back to Ireland to make a home in Virgina at the end of the decade," Richard says.
In six years?
"I didn't say which decade," he laughs.
The farmer's son from Meath has made more than a go of his career in England. He was named Outstanding London Chef at the Carlton London Restaurant Awards in 2000 and is regularly on BBC (and RTE of course) talking about his real passion: after Maria and their three kids, of course – food.
Despite the success in England, he hasn't lost his essential Irishness. His favourite book is Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy. He told The Guardian that his idea of perfect happiness was "sitting in O'Sullivans pub in Crookhaven, west Cork, overlooking the sea and having a pint of prawns and a bottle of wine."
This sense of Irishness is evident in the fact that their children (two boys and a girl whom they ask me not to name) have been educated in Ireland.
"I couldn't personally have them down at Twickenham waving Union Jacks supporting England," says Richard. "That would absolutely give me a f**king heart attack. There is no question about that. It was for selfish reasons to be honest with you. There's a generosity in Ireland that you rarely find elsewhere in the world and I have worked around the world.
"There is an indomitable spirit in the people of Ireland. I'd like my kids to have that spirit. You have to go to school in Ireland to find it."
For the record, Richard went to the National School in Athboy while his future wife went to the Convent school there. Maria was friends with one of Richard's six siblings – his sister Maura. At Easter, 1986, Maria, who was working in London as a nurse, and Maura went over for a break to Amsterdam to visit Richard who was cheffing there.
"He was so charming and funny. He brought us to places that I knew he couldn't afford," she says
"Irish generosity," he chortles.
Asked when did she realise he was the one for her she replies: "I guess we sort of had a relationship for two years, in terms of Richard coming over to London more than I was going to Holland. There was a lot of talking on the phone also."
Those talks on the phone resulted in them deciding the relationship needed to be moved to the next stage. A decision had to be made and it was that Richard moved to London.
"It could have gone either way," she says, "I suppose if Richard hadn't come my life would have taken a different path. At the time it was trendy to go to Abu Dhabi or Australia."
Not long after Richard arrived in London in 1988, they bought a flat in Crouch End at the height of the boom. "Interest rates of 15pc were crippling us and everyone else. We bought it for £77,000 and eight years later we sold it for £77,000."
They now live very comfortably in a beautiful home in Muswell Hill. But it wasn't always like this. They can both remember the hard times in the early days of life in Crouch End when they took the night bus home to their freezing flat and hadn't enough money for a mug of tea. "With both our incomes in 1989, we just had enough to keep the roof over our heads," Maria says.
Maria adds that despite all this it didn't cross her mind to move back to the old sod because "when I left Ireland for London in 1986, Ireland was pretty grim. I actually couldn't wait to get out of Ireland. Obviously I missed my family."
She admits that before Richard bought Bentley's in Piccadilly in 2004 they were thinking of moving back to Ireland but not because things weren't going well.
"Then he bought this place and it really took off and became the huge success it is now."
"We've worked very hard together," Richard adds. "Maria has been incredibly patient with everything I have done. And maybe that's why it has been a success. If there is trouble at home, and anger and all that, it won't work."
I say that success can sometimes destroy a happy marriage.
"You're dead right. There's always that danger. I think we redouble our efforts to do things together and stay in touch and have a drink and a talk together," he says, "because if you stay away from one another and just do your own thing, you can become like strangers in the same house."
"I think kids keep you grounded as well," Maria says, "and our kids span from a 14-year-old to a 24-year-old. So that is a good span."
Richard, who is 50 in February, adds that he has worked hard for so many years that he has earned the right to enjoy life with his wife and family. "I love hanging out with them. I am privileged to hang out with them." He stresses that he has no intention of turning into one of those "saddo" chefs who in their dotage, or even earlier, "sits drinking a bottle of Sherry at the back of their restaurants at night. You know – Behanesque," he roars with laughter at the thought. "I am not going to turn into that character. There is so much work to do and big projects like The Park to complete."
Not that he hasn't had his Behanesque nights, of course. Bentley's over the years became his house of fun. He recalls the night he had the Australian rugby team in in 1991. "It was the Thursday before they played Ireland on Saturday in Dublin. I kept them up the whole f**king night. Pouring wine into them – knowing they were going to Dublin. They were the greatest team in the world."
You felt it was your patriotic duty as an Irishman to get the Aussies pissed as newts, I say.
"Yes. So, at 4am, they said to me: 'We have to go.' I said : 'Don't, I'll cook you some mussels, More drink.' Half of them walked out of here at five or six in the morning completely f**king wrecked." he roars – and I mean roars – with belly-laughter.
"I watched the game on Saturday and I was thinking: 'I should have given them more drink'. They only won by a point."
The waiter comes in to refill the glasses with something vintage.
"I always knew Richard had great, great vision as a business man. But it wasn't what attracted me to him.
"It was, I suppose, his outlook on life and his amazing sense of humour. So, whatever organically happened after that, just happened."
Richard talks about getting up at dawn with a hangover after a heavy night, around about the time he bought The Park. He went for a long clear-the-head walk around the area in Virginia. There was a thousand swifts in the air and the sky was beautiful. "I remember thinking that there was more than a bit of spirituality to the place," he recalls. "And I think you should have a bit of spirituality to your decisions in life, to your dreams."
Is that why you have stayed so in love with Richard for all these years, Maria – because he is, at heart, a dreamer?
"Absolutely," she smiles. "He is a big dreamer with a huge heart."
Richard the lionheart.