Monday 19 November 2018

'I spent €1,000 on a meal for myself and my wife' - Michelin star chef JP McMahon on how restaurants are his extravagance

Food for thought: Andy McFadden and JP McMahon launch Food on the Edge, which takes place this Monday and Tuesday.
Food for thought: Andy McFadden and JP McMahon launch Food on the Edge, which takes place this Monday and Tuesday.
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

Imagine the most expensive meal you’ve ever eaten. Was it a three-course treat for a special occasion? Or maybe a seven-course tasting menu in an upmarket restaurant?

Food is culture, and for some, part of that is fine dining.

Perhaps it’s no surprise when Michelin star chef JP McMahon says he once racked up a bill of €1,000 on a meal-for-two.

He and his wife Drigín Gaffey, who dine for research as well as pleasure, spent it on a 20-course meal at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, and a bottle of wine, and they gave the staff a tip of somewhere in the region of €90.

“It’s something I enjoy doing,” JP tells Independent.ie. Whatever people enjoy, they spend money on. Whether it’s an expensive car or a camera. We might do it once a year, it’s just a nice thing to do, dining at that level. You have a 20-course meal and there are 90 staff. You can see why [it costs to dine there]. You’re not paying for the food, you’re paying for the labour of that food. The food is more technically proficient.

“But I also enjoy some fried chicken and chips as well,” he jokes.

When Aniar was first awarded a Michelin star in the prestigious 2013 restaurant guide, it instantly put Galway on the international food map.

Ever since, McMahon has met customers from all over the world who’ve travelled to Galway specifically to eat at Aniar.

“That’s the power of the star,” he says. “60pc of our customers are American. They literally travel to Galway to eat in Aniar.”

His favourite kind of diner at Aniar is the researched diner.

“In the context of Aniar, it’s the diner that’s done a bit of homework. I love it when someone comes in and they know the type of food we serve. I do think the diners need to do a little bit of work. There’s no point going to a Japanese restaurant and then giving out that they don’t serve any mashed potato.”

“Some of the American diners coming in, they’ve planned their trip to Aniar so far in advance, they know what they want, and they’re a joy to serve. Most of the food we serve comes from Ireland, it’s seaweed and shellfish and sometimes over the course of a tasting menu you might not possibly love everything. So it’s about finding out what you like.”

McMahon runs three restaurants in Galway but he also runs a cookery school attached to Aniar, and he’s passionate about educating people about our natural resources like seaweed and seafood.

“For me it’s really important to know how to open an oyster and how you can cook it. How do you cook mussels and make them really nice?”

“When you go to a top restaurant, really what you’re asking is for the food to be perfect. But anyone can do that in their own home. To do that you need to source the ingredients.”

“Fish for example is much nicer fresh. I tell people to go to a fishmonger they can chat to. Find out about the fish. People always buy cod and salmon, but there’s so much more. Fish baked whole is amazing as well.”

McMahon admits that losing the Michelin star once you’ve received the award would be catastrophic.

“We have a very good team, we’ve had the same team for a couple of years. I always say you’re only ever as good as your team. The chefs and floor staff are very, very good.”

“It’s always a delicate balance. It’s important for me to be there and to ensure a standard of food and service. But you have to be able to let go as well – if the plate only works when I’m there then we’re doing something wrong.”

“We have chefs in their early 20s and 30s working with us, and it’s important to teach them how to do things and learn from them and step back again.”

“[The star] always brings pressure. Maintaining the star is probably the most difficult thing to do. To lose the star would be catastrophic.”

“I worry about that. If Aniar lost the star, it would probably be devastating.”

“It’s like being the doctor and then being debarred but you’ve been practicing for 25 years. You don’t get to ask the reason why. You win, you lose, that’s what happens.”

However, he added: “They invited me over [to the awards ceremony this year] and I’d hope they wouldn’t invite you to take it away from you. You never know until it comes out. It does get nerve wracking. When you look at restaurants that have lost the star, I can’t explain why.”

McMahon, who is director of Food on the Edge, a symposium on the future of food which takes place on Monday and Tuesday of this week, is all about spreading the love about wild Irish foods.

“I’m very interested in seaweed and shellfish as well. Something we have so much of in Ireland – a lot of people don’t eat shellfish like mussels and clams, langoustines and razor clams. For some reason a lot of us turned away from the sea and focused on the land and beef or lamb. I’m always very interested in pushing the wild food that comes from the sea.”

“We need to eat more fish and at the same time we need to mind the sea.”

“Shellfish farming is the way forward. The way it’s farmed in Killary Harbour for example, it’s really exciting.”

“At the moment there are so many different wild mushrooms everywhere. We have the potential to learn, you can do plenty of courses [to identify edible wild mushrooms]. It’s an untapped resource.”

“When you look at France, Italy or Spain, every autumn they go out and pick the chanterelles and ceps.”

“The blackberry,” he finishes, “nobody really picks blackberries anymore. They’re sitting there for everyone, anyone to pick them.”

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