Monday 19 February 2018

Obamas’ Dalkey chef Paul remembered as man of 'rare warmth'

Chef renowned for his hearty food who cooked for A-listers and could mingle with royalty, writes Dave Kenny

Paul Finnegan
Paul Finnegan

Dave Kenny

Bono has led the tributes to Paul Finnegan, the charismatic chef-to-the-stars who died suddenly last week.

Paul, 48, made world headlines last June when he fed Michelle Obama at his family's pub in Dalkey, Co Dublin.

It was a surreal day of hovering choppers and secret service men searching for bombs in the village's hanging baskets. Foreign journalists jostled for the best vantage points.

I covered the event live for CBS Los Angeles' Breakfast Show from a neighbour's garden. Paul stood blinking in the sunlight, seemingly unfazed by the media frenzy. What did the first lady eat? He practically shrugged. "Fish and chips."

Paul's lovingly cooked lunches had been attracting the famous and the modest to Dan Finnegan's Sorrento Lounge for 25 years.

It was only natural that pub regular Bono would invite Michelle to chow down there while she was in Ireland.

The singer was still in shock at the chef's death when he spoke to the Sunday Independent last week.

"Paul had a rare warmth that made a living room out of the whole of Dalkey, not just Finnegan's. His death is a chilling loss ... far too fast an exit to take in."

Neil Jordan, another Finnegan's regular, echoed Bono's sentiments.

"It's a tragedy for a great family. Paul's untimely passing is a great shock to me."

Brian Keenan, a close family friend, told the Sunday Independent: "The Finnegans are an institution. I always thought Paul was the 'likeliest lad'. I remember him sticking his head around the kitchen door to chat and engage with people. He was big-hearted, outgoing and cheeky. He will be missed by everybody."

Last week, locals flooded social media with tributes to the fun-loving dad who was an integral, and hugely popular, member of his community.

Paul Finnegan was born on March 25, 1966, and educated at Pres, Glasthule. He began his career in the Killiney Court Hotel, before moving to the Guinea Pig, the Westbury Hotel and Ashford Castle where he served as chef de partie. He then went to Adare Manor before returning to Dalkey in 1989 to open his own kitchen.

Although he could cook with the best of them, Paul kept the menu unpretentious: corned beef, cottage pie, steak, fish, duck. His lunches became legendary and he began to attract a star clientele: Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Brad Pitt, U2, Woody Harrelson, Pamela Anderson, Salman Rushdie and a host of other A-listers.

Maeve Binchy was such a devotee of his fish and chips that she had her own table. Bond star Timothy Dalton was a fan of his coddle.

The actor lived across the road while shooting Penny Dreadful and was given a typical Finnegan's welcome on his arrival in the village.

Shortly after moving in, Dalton moaned about the lack of plain crisps in the pub. At Paul's instigation, an industrial-sized bag was bought and Dalton was informed that they were his "housewarming present". He was also told he couldn't have any other crisps until the entire packet was eaten. He took it in good humour.

Paul was 'salt-of-the-earth' – but more Maldon salt, than the table variety.

He could mix with anybody, which he did with aplomb at Brian O'Driscoll's testimonial dinner in London.

Paul was on his best behaviour until he saw Prince William walking across the room at Grosvenor House. He leaned back in his chair and, with trademark insouciance, thrust out his hand to the heir to the British throne.

"Howya," he said.

"Oh, hello," replied Prince William. "How nice to see you again." Finno (slave to courtesy as he was) introduced the prince to everyone at the table.

"See you later," Paul politely dismissed the prince as the other guests removed their chins from their soup bowls.

"Did you see that?" he asked the stunned table. "I never stood up for him." Paul had remained seated throughout the entire encounter with the prince. A proud Irishman. Later, he was asked how he knew William. He shrugged: "I never met him before tonight."

Paul's mischievousness was tempered by his extraordinary kindness – although he wouldn't thank you for highlighting that.

He cultivated a bluff, nonchalant air, but was an enormous softie. He was loving, funny, hard-working, occasionally foul-mouthed, but always thoughtful and considerate. He never took any of his achievements seriously. He was the chef de partie who was the life and soul of the party.

Paul passed away at St Vincent's on Wednesday after collapsing at his home. He is survived by his wife Ana, children Sean and Isobel, his parents Dan and Colleen, and his siblings Donal, Neil, Peter, Alan, Michelle and Cathy-Anne.

Finnegan's pub was closed for the past three days. As his friend Terry McDonagh put it: "It's just as well. They'd never have managed to clear it after Finnegan's wake."

He will be missed and celebrated in equal measure by all those who were fortunate to have known and loved him.

Sunday Independent

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