Wednesday 22 May 2019

'Learning to walk again was a f***ing nightmare' - Dylan McGrath on the hell he went through to get back on track

Legendary chef Dylan McGrath lets off steam to Barry Egan about the hell he went through, 'learning to walk again was a f***ing nightmare', to get his life back on track

Chef Dylan McGrath. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Chef Dylan McGrath. Photo: Fergal Phillips

His namesake from Hibbing, Minnesota, once sang that 'the darkest hour is right before dawn'. For a few years every day was darkness for West Belfast boy Dylan McGrath.

Sometimes he wonders how he came through it all, how he survived his perpetual dark night of the soul. Equal parts a fiery St John of the Cross and an extra gobby Liam Gallagher, the charismatic chef walks from his new restaurant Shelbourne Social on Shelbourne Road to a cafe down the road. There was a time when Dylan wouldn't even have been able to walk. "It was a f*****g nightmare," he says. "I couldn't walk for two years. I couldn't go from here to there without a stick for two years. A f*****g nightmare.

"I went in to have surgery," he says of the operation in the Mater Hospital to fix disintegrating discs in his back in 2015.

"My body didn't react very well to the surgery. And it shut down. It was a pretty scary time because my family were being told that they didn't know if I was going to walk again or if I was going to be OK. I had lost feeling in one side of my body completely. I couldn't walk. I was incredibly upset. As you would be. I was frustrated. I couldn't understand how this could happen, but it did. So there was an awful lot of stuff, and I had to learn how to cope with that."

How long did it take him to learn to cope?

"A long time. I blew up," Dylan says of the 19 stone he went up to at one point. "I was eating a lot. I couldn't exercise. I couldn't go to the gym. Going for a swim was an horrendous experience. And that went on for a long time. But I had great people around me who supported me and who were patient with me."

Was he patient with himself?

"No. Very frustrated."

How did that frustration manifest itself?

"When you are driven and ambitious and conscientious and always thinking about how to do this and how to do that," Dylan explains in that poetic way of his, "when that is taken away from you - and you are not those things any more, and you can't be - and you are just left with you, that is something that I probably didn't react very well to."

In hindsight, that was an opportunity for Dylan?

"It was fantastic. I'm not bullshitting you. Even though it is an incredibly hard thing to go through - and it was a real back step - you find out who you are authentically."

Because Dylan had no choice but to sit with himself?

"I think I probably would have been the type of person that did all the other things, so that I don't do that [sit with himself]. If you are on constant go-go-go and you put your body through that, you maybe expect that you would slow down to some degree. Maybe I didn't know how to slow down. I just didn't. And then the back happened. And I had to learn how to sit with myself."

In rehabilitation for his back, the one-time Mr Pent Up Anger of Irish Cooking started doing yoga. He still practises it along with meditation which helped him when he realised he "couldn't keep taking medication."

"You need to make a decision to get well. You need to get right in yourself. You're not able to walk but you are going to be OK and you are going to bring yourself back," Dylan says. "And that means changing your diet. That means your exercise. That means being patient with yourself. And being OK with yourself. Meditation helped me a lot with that."

Part of being OK with himself now means that Dylan McGrath understands what he is better at more than he ever could have before.

The pain, both emotionally and physically, of not being able to walk was a gift to him in the end.

"I'm more relaxed now. I'm more 'things will happen when they happen. Things will fall into place when they fall into place'. Before, I wouldn't have been like that. I would have pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed until it was the way I wanted. I learned how to be smarter about that today. Not be as headstrong. Empower other people around me. At the end of the day I am one person. To say that everything was as I wanted it when I came back - I'd be lying. But the people who were trying their best around me, I needed to be patient with them, and get everything back on track, as they were patient with me. It is a team effort. When you are in that mindset [in the past] you are not able to think straight."

Part of his evolution as a man has seen him create his latest venture, Shelbourne Social - "somewhere that is really fun to eat, somewhere that is embracing, in my opinion, the times. In the sense that there is raw in there. There is lots of vegan, vegetarian dishes. There is lots of large joints of meat that are being carved. The food is funky and fun. When you are cooking like I did in my twenties, the food is a lot more fussy and perfect. You are trying to create something beautiful," he says of his legendary Mint restaurant in 2008 that won him a Michelin star before the Ranelagh restaurant was taken down by the recession in 2009.

"There are some guys who are doing it now in the city that do it brilliantly and I have stepped away from that level of intense work in order to do different styles of restaurants. But I am a business owner," says Dylan who owns Rustic Stone, Fade Street Social, Bonsai, and Taste with his business partner Vincent Melinn.

"These are my businesses. I have to make sure that the businesses are busy and that the staff are paid. I still love being in development with the cooks. They are a team of 10 hard-working great cooks around me. I am learning to be better at that, people have strengths and weaknesses. I have things that I am absolutely crap at."

Like? "Rosters. I'm just not interested. I'm good at the bigger things. What I want to do is take something simple that works. Shelbourne Social is about being social. Being fun. It is about being the sort of place that I want to eat."

It was far from this that he was reared: primarily, he says, a "working-class relationship with food" of chips with sausages, chips with eggs, chips with beans. His late mother didn't cook. Dylan would make cakes and food for her. "My mother was great. Mum is gone. We will miss her a lot," he says of Mary who died in December six years ago of a brain tumour. "We were very close. I wish she was around today. She'd seen me do Mint and I was doing Rustic Stone."

She got to see you on the telly, I say referring to Pressure Cooker and MasterChef.

"She did," he says, almost sadly. "She used to give out to me for cursing."

If not from his beloved ma, Dylan's desire to cook came from his late grandfather Billy who he was very close to. Young Dylan used to bring him his glass of whiskey when the McGraths lived in Bennekerry, Busherstown. "Whenever I smell whiskey now I think of him," he says.

"He was a chef, and he was a chef in the army. He actually did all his training in Clancy Barracks where they shot MasterChef," Dylan says referring to the RTE show he starred in with Nick Munier in 2012.

"He used to go up every Monday morning and stay up until Friday. He used to take his watch that my nana had bought for him when he was training to be a chef and he would hand it in at the pawn shop. They would give him so much money for it and he would drink the money for the week. He died about the time I moved to Belfast. So in my head it was cool to be a chef."

When Dylan was 11 he built a barbecue in his back garden in Belfast. He loved food. When he was 17 he moved to Portrush to learn to be a chef. He was very driven, very serious, very ambitious. He also had a "desperate desire to get out of West Belfast. I wanted to make a life for myself and I am the type of obsessive nature that when I'm into something I'm all into it. Belfast was nuts. It was crazy. It was fucking crazy. People I knew were shot. People I knew had been given punishment beatings. All sorts of stuff. My thing was: 'I don't want to stay here'. Then I go back. We have all moved out of the estate that we were raised in by mum and dad in West Belfast.

"My sister Mary Elaine now has a little family. My brother Francis has a little family. We were growing up in the middle of a war. Bombs going off. People getting shot. People you know. And beatings. And heavy beatings for crazy things like stealing cars and drug dealing. It was just nuts. And it was violent. There was violence everywhere, and everybody was a tough guy."

Dylan ended up "in a Michelin starred restaurant in Belfast then in a high-end restaurant in London".

The bombs and the beatings of West Belfast proved a tough enough background but London in a sense was, he says, "tougher" for Dylan. He was "f***ing incredibly intimidated. As far as I was concerned, the English hated me and hated that I was Irish. I thought English people were a certain way. Within a couple of months over there that slowly dissolved and I realised that English people don't have a clue what's going on in Belfast, nor do they care.

"They didn't have anything against me. I had a chip on my shoulder. I felt that the English felt this way about me and I was ready to defend myself if anyone said anything about me and I did".

He was working as a commis chef. "My mum was worried about me. She had worked as a waitress in Dublin and she had seen how the commis had been treated. 'I don't want you to go into that line of business because I have seen how they treat these young chefs', she told me. Dylan didn't listen.

I remember being with Dylan, who I like a lot, one especially mad evening in Mint in 2008. (In truth, Dylan - who made Marco Pierre White look like Delia Smith - was something of a shouty superstar who didn't suffer fools gladly or at all. On one occasion, he told me, he threw some guy out of Mint "for being a pr**k". "I have f***ed a number of people out. Some guy was rude to the staff. I could tell he was just being a pr**k.")

Dylan back then was like a heart attack waiting to happen. How does he look back on that very wound-up, very driven young man all those years ago now, who was living on his nerves, living on his wits, sleeping on a couch above the restaurant some nights, working himself literally half to death?

"With compassion," the 41-year-old enfant terrible laughs. "You have to look compassionately at yourself and understand that that guy was very necessary to build, to get to here, but I don't think I'd want him around today," Dylan roars with laughter now.

Why not? "Because you have got to manage situations, you've got to take people who have strengths and weaknesses and look at where you can place them in the organisation. That wasn't my priority. My priority was what was on the plate. My priority was every detail in the food. I didn't switch off."

When did he realise he had to switch off?

"My back did it for me. Every year for about a month, I'd end up on a walking stick. I'd have to use a stick for that month. It was different months, randomly, of the year for a couple of years in a row."

Was it his body telling him to slow down?

"I don't think I was able to slow down. I would go to a doctor and say, 'I have this problem'. They'd tell me to stop carrying a bag."

Was it not more that Dylan was an extreme obsessional workaholic?

"Completely. Completely. But I had surgery. I had two or three discs that dissolved into my nervous system that they had to go in and get. When I went to the gym for the first time the guy in the gym told me that I had the worst posture he'd ever seen."

From being bent over a cooker?

"Yeah. I had been doing that for years. I was a slave to the restaurant. And I thought that I was quite prepared to do that to get to where I wanted to go."

Even if it killed him or put him in a wheelchair?

"Yeah."

And now?

"I'm more relaxed and calm."

He lives with his younger brother Billy in Dublin city centre, overlooking the canal; he used to live with another young brother, Colin, in Spencer Dock.

"There is a desire in me to be creative and keep evolving and to be active and focused. I don't know if it will last forever but I have often asked other people who are entrepreneurial as well where it comes from - that desire," he says, his eyes burning with an intensity on a par with heyday Roy Keane.

I ask him is there a desire to get married and have a family.

"Yeah, of course. I wonder what has taken her so long!"

And what has taken her so long?

"Of course I could see myself getting married. I think I am moving at a different pace today, genuinely. I'm not in a relationship at the minute, no. I've spent the last two years just getting right, just getting well again."

Does he go on dates?

"Every now and again."

You know exactly the kind of restaurant you want, I say, what kind of woman do you want?

"I would like a woman like Robin Wright. I loved House of Cards."

Long may The House Of Dylan stand.

Shelbourne Social, Shelbourne Road, Dublin 4

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