From dish washer to Best chef in Dublin
At 19, Barry Sun Jian came here from china to learn English. From a part-time job as a kitchen porter he rose through the ranks to be crowned the capital's top chef, as Katy McGuinness Discovers
Restaurant awards sometimes have a touch of Groundhog Day crossed with The Late Late Show about them, with a sense that, when it comes to framed certificates, there's one for everyone in the audience; the most coveted amongst them circulating between the same chefs and restaurants year after year.
So it was a nice surprise at the Restaurants Association of Ireland dinner at the Clayton Burlington Hotel in May when the award for best chef in Dublin went to Barry Sun Jian of Etto, which also happened to be named the best restaurant in Ireland. While Etto is well known, Barry's name would not have been as familiar as others nominated, and when he went up on stage to collect his award, he pulled his friend and mentor, Paul McNamara, up on stage with him. For those paying attention, it was a 'something in my eye' moment, the bond between the two clear to see.
"When we opened Etto," explains Liz Matthews, who owns the restaurant with her partner, Simon Barrett, "the plan was always for Barry FitzGerald [the original chef] to spend a year there and then move on to open his own place. [FitzGerald now owns Bastible.] Barry is a brilliant chef and he gave Etto such a great start. It was scary for us to face into this big change, at a time when Etto was still a baby and we were only beginning to find our feet. Paul McNamara and Simon had worked together over the years and he was Simon's first choice to take over the kitchen. Around six months after opening, we approached Paul and began planning the transition. Paul told us that he had a great sous chef, Barry Sun Jian, who he wanted to bring with him."
"I first came to Ireland 16 years ago," says Barry Sun Jian. "I was 19 and I'd just finished high school in China. It was very popular at that time to send your children to Europe when they finished school. To be honest, I didn't pick Ireland. My parents picked Ireland. They said that I had to go to another country to study. I asked, 'Where?' and they said, 'Ireland.' I didn't know where it was - I had to Google it."
Barry arrived in Ireland on his own, not knowing a soul. He lived in a hostel and after six months he had to come up with another €2,000 to pay his language school so that he continue his studies. He needed to get a job. At first he worked as a cleaner, and then took a job as a kitchen porter at Mint in Ranelagh when the chef was Oliver Dunne, who subsequently gained a Michelin star at Bon Appetit in Malahide.
"As a kitchen porter, you see everything, taste everything that's going on in the kitchen," says Barry. "You see how the chefs work and how they cook. When I was young, I always liked food, but never got a chance to cook at home…"
"Poor Barry can't cook Chinese food," interjects Paul. "He's only ever cooked in Ireland!"
"Ollie asked me if I wanted to be a chef and I said, 'Yes,' so I started training with him," continues Barry. "At the beginning of my career, he helped me a lot, taught me a lot of basic skills, such as how to chop things." Over the next few years, Barry put in stints at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, Chapter One, Bon Appetit, Cleaver East and l'Ecrivain.
When Paul McNamara was asked to recruit and head up a brigade of 16 chefs at The Dawson (formerly La Stampa) six years ago, Barry's was one of the names recommended to him by another chef friend, Eric Mooney. "We got on really well together there," says Paul. "When it's hard, it brings you together. Barry was reliable and supportive, and he was my first choice when Simon and Liz asked me to come to Etto."
"You never told me that!" smiles Barry.
After a trip back to China to get married, Barry joined the staff at Etto - which along with head chef Paul now included chef de partie Kamil Dubanik - as sous chef. The team worked together for the following three years.
During that time, Simon, Paul and Liz started planning to open another restaurant. "The three of us spent two weeks travelling around Spain together in spring 2016 and we began to form an idea of what we wanted to do," explains Liz. "Simon and I were keen for Etto not to be affected by the opening of a new place so, again, we had to look at how best to make the transition between head chefs. In summer 2017, when it felt like we were getting closer to finding a site, Paul moved on from Etto [as he had taken an ownership stake in Locks]. Barry Sun Jian was the perfect person to take over as head chef, having been sous chef here for three years at that stage.
"Kamil moved into the position of sous chef. Both were more than ready for the challenge, having developed great skill and confidence under Paul's quiet, calm and supportive guidance. Barry has led the kitchen for over a year now and has developed into a brilliant and conscientious head chef who cares greatly for everyone who works alongside him. As we finally approach an opening date for Uno Mas (hopefully September!), it is great to see Etto in the hands of such a strong team."
"I left because I wanted to get away from Barry!" laughs Paul. "No, seriously, I always knew Barry could step up and advance, and have more of a future and a reward for all his hard work. I was flexible and could step away whenever Barry and Kamil were ready to move into their new roles. And while they were building the team, I was in and out for a long time, helping. It takes time to get things right. Simon and Liz know what Etto should be, what the dishes should be, what works and what doesn't. It wasn't just Barry [FitzGerald] or me. A lot of people contribute to the style, including Barry Sun Jian. Now there's a very strong team with five very good chefs who work from 7.30 in the morning until midnight; they each bring different ideas and they all love Etto."
"Paul has taught me so much, especially about attention to detail," says Barry. "He's taught me how to run the kitchen, and to keep it simple; that is his mantra. Keep it simple. He might say something to me in the kitchen and I'll go home and think about it that evening. If I have an idea for a new dish, then I usually ask Paul's advice and get his opinion."
"Barry's running the kitchen 100pc," adds Paul. "He won the award, not me; it wasn't for no reason. We have similar taste in food: we concentrate on flavour. At Etto, there's a certain flavour profile with a Mediterranean and Italian influence. Barry has a very good palate; he's able to identify things from taste and develop a dish. He knows what tastes good, what flavours work.
"He's also very hard-working, always first in and last to leave. He's committed, responsible, maybe a little like myself… I used to try and get in before him but rarely did."
Now that they no longer work directly with one another, Paul and Barry don't have the same daily contact that they once did, but they stay in touch with regular phone calls. "Chefs talk about what's going wrong, what suppliers have at the moment, ask where to get things," says Paul. "When I left, it was almost every day or every night... the gaps have widened a bit now."
They meet up for meals too, at places such as Chapter One and Forest & Marcy.
But their relationship goes further.
"I got married a year before him," explains Paul. "I've done everything a year ahead of Barry. My wife is Japanese, his is Chinese. When you are a chef, it is difficult for them too; hard to have a balance between work and family time. We both have two children - mine are a year older than his - we both have a boy and a girl; we talk about that experience. We both rent apartments, so we talk about where to rent, where to put the kids in school, how to handle our wives, how to handle our kids…"
"He's an inspiration," says Barry. "He's not just a mentor in my career, he has taught me how to be a good husband and a cool father as well. He's a friend."
A taste of Etto
Steamed Mussels with Nduja, Datterini Tomato, Parsley and Sourdough
1.5kg mussels, de-bearded and cleaned
½ cup olive oil
100g nduja sausage, crumbled
200g Datterini tomatoes, cut in half
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup fresh cream
2 tsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
Juice of ½ lemon
4 slices sourdough bread
Wash the mussels very well, de-beard and drain.
Heat the olive oil in a large pot, add the nduja and cook gently for a couple of minutes, then add the tomatoes and cook for another minute. Add the mussels, white wine and cream and cover with a lid.
Cook over a medium to high heat until the mussels have just opened, then add the parsley and lemon juice and serve with toasted sourdough.
Slow-cooked Lamb Shoulder, Smashed Vegetables, Roast Broccoli and Anchovy
1 x 2kg lamb shoulder, bone in
50g fresh rosemary, chopped
50g fresh thyme, picked and chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
600g potato, peeled and cut into large dice
3 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
2 spring onions, peeled, washed and finely sliced
50g soy sauce
30g rice wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
2 bunches purple sprouting broccoli
6 fillets anchovy (Ortiz), diced
100g rapeseed oil
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
½ tsp ground cumin seed
½ tsp ground fennel seed
Marinate the lamb shoulder overnight with the rosemary, thyme and garlic.
Preheat oven to 150˚C. Lightly colour the lamb in a heavy tray or pan over medium heat. Cover with tin foil and cook slowly for 4-5 hours until the meat falls off the bone.
Steam the potato and aubergine together until soft, then crush them with a fork. Add the coriander, spring onion, soy sauce, vinegar, salt and pepper, and combine. Steam the broccoli for 2 minutes and then lightly roast in a hot pan or char on a barbecue.
For the anchovy dressing, mix the anchovy, rapeseed oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, cumin and fennel. Season with salt and pepper.
To serve, reduce the juices from the lamb to a sauce, dress the broccoli with the anchovy dressing and serve with the smashed vegetables and lamb.
Lemon Posset, Almond, Lime & Gin Granita
450ml double cream
100g caster sugar
120g lemon juice (roughly 2 lemons)
Zest of 1 lemon
65ml lime juice
50g caster sugar
Zest of ½ lime
100g flaked almonds, toasted
Heat the double cream and caster sugar, and simmer for 5-6 minutes without boiling hard. Remove from the heat, add the lemon juice and zest and infuse for 45 minutes. Pass through a fine sieve, divide between 4 glasses (they should be half-full) and refrigerate until the posset sets.
For the lime and gin granita, bring the lime juice, sugar and water to a boil, remove from the heat, and add the zest and gin to taste. When cool, freeze in a flat tray until frozen, then scrape with a fork to break up the ice.
To serve, remove the possets from the fridge 30 minutes before serving, fill the glass with granita and garnish with the toasted almonds.