After the painful and costly collapse of his own venture, Avenue in Temple Bar, the restaurant manager and artist’s love for the industry has been reinvigorated once again
Would you say you have a love/hate relationship with the restaurant industry, I ask Nick Munier. “I do, how did you know?” he replies, grinning.
Once all over our newspapers and TV screens, Munier has been leading a quieter life over the past couple of years. Besides being one of the best-known restaurant managers in Ireland and Britain, he’s also an artist of considerable repute, and it’s there his focus has been of late.
Munier has gone through well-documented celebrity highs and lows, from being Marco Pierre White’s maître d’ sidekick in ITV’s Hell’s Kitchen; a judge on RTÉ’s MasterChef Ireland; opening Dublin’s very successful Pichet and Le Perroquet restaurants, neither of which he’s involved with now; to the collapse in 2017 of his own ill-fated venture, Avenue in Temple Bar, into which he’d ploughed a hell of a lot of money.
Add into the mix a divorce and happily finding love again, and you can’t blame the man for wanting a quieter, less stressful life.
Or does he?
It seems he just can’t resist the lure of the stage that is the restaurant floor. Nick is returning to the industry that both takes his heart and breaks his heart, joining the team at Gaz Smith’s well-regarded Michael’s in Dublin’s Mount Merrion.
With an English mother and French father, both involved in the hospitality industry in London, Munier grew up in the business. “My father was the restaurant manager of the Charing Cross Hotel, and my parents also had a guest house in Kent, where I served breakfast before going to school and did room service on returning home.
“I used to sit on the stairs at night and listen to the dinner parties. I thought that was great, but they never told me the bad stories — except my dad did tell me never to go into catering.”
Needless to say, with all the brashness of youth, Nick ignored that advice.
“I started at the top,” he laughs. “I was in catering college, where they never really teach you the fundamentals of the real world; you go there for your qualifications, the wines, the food and all that kind of stuff. I wrote to Albert Roux looking for a commis chef position. I was 19. They took me on. However, looking out through the kitchen porthole into the restaurant, I used to see all the glamorous ladies coming in for lunch and thought, ‘I want to be on that side’. I don’t know if it was the right move!” He laughs. “Front of house is a harder place to be because everyone regards chefs as gods, but I was taught by the best — Jean Cottard.”
Cottard was the legendary restaurant manager of Le Gavroche who had joined the famous Roux brothers, Albert and Michel, on the restaurant’s opening in 1967. Munier later worked with other big names like Pierre Koffmann and Marco Pierre White. “I learned that you have to be a bit of a chameleon. You’re meeting so many different types of people and their expectations of you as a restaurant manager or front-of-house person are different. Even in dealing with chefs, you have to create a persona that is not necessarily you.
“I was quite nervous as a child, both introvert and extrovert. I’m a Leo but I have those two mixes within. Working for the Roux brothers, I soon realised, you’re on stage now so you have to create that persona that’s not you because you’re not going to get through the day if you’re being yourself.
“If you think of the language in a restaurant when they greet you, they’re always saying the same thing — ‘great to see you, how are you, it’s an honour to have you’. Whoever teaches you in life, you want to emulate, because they’re good at what they do, so you want to be as good as they are — that’s what I did, anyway.”
After a couple of years at Le Gavroche, Munier was called for his French military service.
“I was based in Dax in south-west France. It was where they taught English to helicopter pilots, so that was my first posting. I was such a bad teacher. I used to sit at the top of the class and instead of teaching them English through their headphones, I’d put on David Bowie tapes so they could learn English from them! No one was learning anything, so I was soon made head waiter for the colonel. I had a great time.”
As mentioned previously, Munier also has a passion for art. He first took up painting in the 1990s when he was working in London at Restaurant Marco Pierre White in the Hyde Park Hotel — he also worked in Marco’s legendary three-Michelin star Oak Room in Le Méridien Piccadilly.
“I started painting for release. I was working six days a week, and living in this beautiful loft apartment. First of all I said to Marco, ‘I want to be a pastry chef’, and he said, ‘OK, you can go from £600 a week to £150 a week.’
“I said, ‘I’ll stick to being a manager’, and took up painting, about which Marco always took the piss out of me.”
Munier’s first job in Ireland was in The K Club. “I met the then manager in the Westbury Hotel in London and he asked me two questions — who was my favourite actor and what was my favourite film? ‘Robert de Niro and The Deerhunter’, I replied, and I started work the following week!
“I remember on one occasion, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones turned up for dinner with a party, but the manager refused to serve them in the restaurant, even though it was empty, because they weren’t wearing jackets and ties.”
The painting continued, and Munier studied art weekly while working in U2’s Clarence Hotel. Here he met Guggi (Derek Rowen) who left the rock band Virgin Prunes to become an artist.
“Guggi said to me, ‘Just keep going, keep painting, and the day you sell your first painting is the day you’ve made it.’ I continued on and I did an exhibition in Dún Laoghaire and sold a painting, which gave me confidence. It was very hard to keep painting when I was in Pichet but I’d paint for two hours at night with a bottle of wine. I did this for the next five years.”
Having sold his shares in Pichet, Munier then opened Avenue in Temple Bar. Sadly, it was a disaster. “I overspent, my ego was too big, my ideas were too big for my wallet. I thought to myself, ‘Build this up, they will come’. The building was too big, my aspirations were too big. I did it too quickly. I should have retreated and bought myself a house.”
But the restaurant industry still holds an allure for him.
“I could go anywhere and work tomorrow, but I need to be excited,” says Munier, leading into another interesting story.
“I loved Tony Ryan. An amazing man, sitting in an old Concorde seat behind this enormous desk, opulence all around, asking me everything about the restaurant business.”
It was 2006 and Tony Ryan had ploughed €80m into developing the Village at Lyons Estate near Celbridge, Co Kildare, with two restaurants.
“He turned to me and said, ‘How much do you want?’ I was getting well paid in those days, and I said €70,000. ‘OK,’ he said, ‘I’ll give you €90,000 but if you walk out that door, I’ll never offer it to you again.’ I was on another job. I thought for a minute; I opened the door, but I never closed it and instead said, ‘I’ll take it’. He gave me €90,000 and the position of GM of the Village at Lyons.”
Now, the country and the industry are a far cry from those cash-splashing Celtic Tiger days.
“When I saw a recent post looking for a restaurant manager, I left it for three days before making contact, thinking I’d be rejected. I didn’t want to be rejected, weird feeling,” Munier says, wistfully.
“All it needs is a knock in life and your mind is distracted, you’re not as confident as you used to be. I’m 54 now, we’re all human at the end of the day.”
Gareth ‘Gaz’ Smith’s ebullient enthusiasm for his restaurants, Michael’s Mount Merrion and its nearby sibling, Little Mike’s, is infectious and has placed Gaz and his venues among the top places to visit in Dublin.
“There’s a respect for one another and here [at Michael’s] I’ve got carte blanche, I’m not being micro-managed. My love/hate with the industry, and the one thing that would have put me off going back, was that some places are run by those who haven’t earned their stripes, they’re telling you what to do. Gaz, however, has reinvigorated my love affair with the industry. That’s not everybody’s thing in life but it works for me to get up in the morning, shave, get the suit on — it still fits — and create a seamless operation between the kitchen and the floor.”
Had he seen a lot of bullying in kitchens?
“No, I’ve always worked with ‘madness’, but they were sane! What I saw was more mental than physical abuse. I got that — being oppressed — but I have a way of coping with it because I have a short memory, that’s how I cope.”
He’s told me he has a love/hate relationship with the industry, but how about with the media?
“I don’t think I do. I talk too much and maybe say too much. I wear my heart on my sleeve.
“I don’t talk about my private life any more. It’s pointless because no one gives a shit about your divorce, your separation. It’s boring, I’ve done it. Some only want to talk about that. My partner, Alanna [Feeney], saved me from disaster. I don’t have many friends because this industry doesn’t breed friends, it breeds colleagues.”
Munier now feels he has the best of both worlds, treading the boards on the restaurant stage and painting in his free time. During the lockdowns, he grew a beard, wore shorts, and painted very successfully for 10 hours a day,
also launching his website in the UK for the corporate market.
Now, the lockdown beard and shorts are gone, the suit is back on, and Nick is ‘all business’ again on all fronts.
See nickmunier.com; Instagram @munierart