Tuesday 21 November 2017

'When I was a boy, I used to go to bed with The Joy of Cooking under my pillow'

Johnnie Cooke (55) is a chef. He worked in restaurants all over the world before opening his legendary Cooke's Cafe. Now he is back, in Brown Thomas. He lives in Seapoint, Dublin, with his wife, Debbie, and their son, Charlie, (3). He also has a daughter Lois, (27)

Chef Johnnie Cooke is back in Brown Thomas. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Chef Johnnie Cooke is back in Brown Thomas. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Ciara Dwyer

I get up at 4.30am. I wake up a few minutes before the alarm is due to go off. I suppose it's conditioning at this stage. My wife, Debbie, is still asleep. Sometimes our son, Charlie, will crawl into the bed when I'm getting up. You hear the pitter-patter of his feet. It's kind of nice.

I have a shower, and then I turn on the radio. I like to listen to the BBC World Service. At that hour of the morning, it has the most obscure subjects for its programmes - things like bees in South Africa. I have that on while I catch up on stuff for work. I'm in the kitchen during the day, and then, in the afternoon, I find that I'm too tired to go into an office to check on other stuff. I prefer to do it in the morning, when I've got a clear head. I like early mornings. You've got a chance to do stuff before everyone else is up. I've recently opened The Restaurant by Johnnie Cooke on the third floor in Brown Thomas, and I'm also in charge of the cafe in the basement - Brown's Bar and Cafe.

I live out by the sea, in Seapoint. I'm from Howth originally, and when I lived in the States, in California, I lived right beside the sea too. I'm a Pisces by nature, and fish is my strength in the kitchen. I get the Dart into work - it takes me 27 minutes from door to door. I look out at the sea for the first part of the journey, but then I'm on the phone, checking orders. When I get into Brown Thomas, I check on Brown's cafe and also, The Restaurant, and see what needs to be done. Although The Restaurant took four months in the planning, it'll take another few months before we get it exactly the way we want to have it. I believe that the customer is the king, not the chef. We're open from breakfast right through.

We've developed a Mediterranean-style menu which, I suppose, has always been my thing. I travelled a lot in Spain and France, Italy, Morocco and Greece. All of my influences were from different places. We've brought a lot of signature dishes from Cooke's, my former restaurant; things like calamari, and we do sharing platters - a seafood platter and a Spanish platter. I wanted to get away from the traditional menu of starters, main course and desserts. Over the years, Cooke's was known for its good food, but informal style.

When I had Cooke's on South William Street, I was up early in the morning until very late. I had it for 17 years, which is a long time to have a restaurant in the city centre. There was a different vibe going around. At that time, people were coming to Dublin - rock stars and models and all the cinema guys. When Bob Dylan came in, his minder ordered his food. He didn't talk to anybody, and spent the entire time looking at the ceiling. Michael Caine came into the kitchen for a chat, but some people had strange requests. Naomi Campbell wanted Chinese gooseberries. It was a pleasure to have all these people come to your establishment, but most of the time I was too busy working in the kitchen to get involved.

Dublin was different back then. But the rents got too high, and you were working hard to stand still. Then the whole bottom fell out of the market. People didn't want to be seen dining out and having fun. Cooke's closed in 2009. I think it's slowly starting to change, and people are going out to restaurants again. We have great produce here, but Ireland never really had a great food culture. I think we are developing one now. Everybody seems to be a foodie.

Travelling got me passionate about food. I saw different food cultures and tried to bring them back. In the past, I suppose I was always a little bit ahead when it came to food. Take artisan breads. Back in 1998, we had Cooke's Bakery. Nobody was doing ciabatta, focaccia or tomato and fennel bread. But now everybody has caught up. I learnt my trade by working in restaurants. The last seven years were a very tough time to be in the restaurant business, but it's good to get back in. And, even from my own point of view, having done the 16-hour days before, this is a different kind of thing, a daytime thing.

During the day, I don't eat much. Even though I'm around food a lot, I often go for 12 hours without eating. It's not that I forget to eat, but I just don't bother. I suppose it's because I'm busy. I don't starve myself, but I'm just careful about what I eat and when I eat. Then, when I go home, I'll eat, and on Sundays, I'll catch up for the week.

Food is what I like, and I still cook all the time at home. It is my passion as well as my profession. I know some chefs who have no interest in cooking when they are not working. I try to go home early at least two days a week to spend time with Charlie. We go over to the beach, even if it's only for 10 minutes. He's been in creche all day, so it's good to have some fresh air. Debbie gets home at about 6.30pm, and I'll cook most evenings - something simple like grilled Dover sole.

Charlie can be a bit pernickety about food. I think he gets that from me. He will tell you what he does and doesn't like, but at least he'll try stuff. I also have a 27-year-old daughter, and she is a real foodie. She lives in California and she often sends me photos of food to keep me abreast of the food industry over there.

At the weekends, we might have friends over for a bite to eat, but often we don't get return invitations. Because I'm a chef, people would be too afraid to cook for me. But I appreciate when they do, and I often help them out when I get there. I go to bed around 10.30pm. When I was a boy, I used to go to bed with The Joy of Cooking under my pillow, and it's pretty much the same now. I'll still be reading about food, but now the only difference is that it's on the internet.

The Restaurant by Johnnie Cooke, and Brown's Bar and Cafe, Brown Thomas, 88-95 Grafton St, D2, see brownthomas.com

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