Tuesday 17 September 2019

Why the Irish food scene is leaps and bounds above London

'GastroGays' Russell Alford and Patrick Hanlon first bonded over a student goodie bag. Their love of the finer things in life soon called them to London - but Ireland's fab foodie culture lured them home, they tell Tanya Sweeney

The 'GastroGays' Russell James Alford (left) and Patrick Hanlon. Photo: Gerry Mooney
The 'GastroGays' Russell James Alford (left) and Patrick Hanlon. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Keen eating: Russell James Alford (left) and Patrick Hanlon at the 2018 Waterford Harvest Festival

Tanya Sweeney

Theirs is a mutual love of good food, travel, the Eurovision and the finer things in life, but the GastroGays' union began over a blagged bag of free tea bags, energy drinks and noodles.

Russell Alford and Patrick Hanlon's eyes met across DCU's crowded Students' Union in 2009 - Patrick, a second-year journalism student, went along to a freshers' event in the hopes of scoring a few free essentials, where Russell, studying contemporary culture and society, was kicking off his college career. "I got a goodie bag and a boyfriend!" Russell laughs gleefully.

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The couple have been together for nine years and have turned their food blog into a full-time career with a smart mix of media savvy, ambition and polished content.

In fact, their respective media backgrounds have helped them stand out in the foodie scene for many reasons. At the height of the recession, Patrick was overseeing the content on RTÉ's food website, while new graduate Russell was struggling to get a toehold in his dream field of radio. The two started the GastroGays blog simply as a creative outlet. London's siren song soon began to call, though they worried about abandoning their fledgling blogging project. Little did they realise that the GastroGays blog would gain even more traction over there. And, for a while, London was a good fit for the two enterprising, ambitious types.

Keen eating: Russell James Alford (left) and Patrick Hanlon at the 2018 Waterford Harvest Festival
Keen eating: Russell James Alford (left) and Patrick Hanlon at the 2018 Waterford Harvest Festival

"The day we got there, we realised that BBC Radio 1 were doing internships, and that was absolutely my dream job," recalls Russell. He scored an internship out of 1,300 applicants, working on Nick Grimshaw's breakfast show. As Patrick moved into PR, Russell then went from BBC to ITV, working on Good Morning Britain with Piers Morgan. "Listen, he was a gentleman to me," says Russell. "I take people as they treat me, and he was always very kind and respectful. Of course, he'd say some things sometimes and you'd be like, 'Why don't you tweet that?'"

Although the GastroGays blog was gaining a British audience, the foodie scene in London, meanwhile, disillusioned the two.

"Oh it's very, very hype-orientated," observes Russell. "It's quite a cliquey scene. We weren't in the mood to pay lip service to a load of people over there, because there you play a game, and you play the game because you have to fight to survive."

The couple were spending much of their time, meanwhile, making media appearances as GastroGays on Irish TV and radio. "We were using all of our annual leave to come home, so we decided to make a go of things back in Dublin in 2017," explains Russell.

"The major players - the writers, the chefs - are all trying to improve the scene in this country so the whole thing is growing as a result," notes Patrick. "It's leaps and bounds above what London is doing."

The foodie scene was exciting and booming, but their carefully orchestrated return home, which was a year in the planning, wasn't without a bumpy start. Housing rents had risen dramatically in the four years since they lived away, and so they moved in with Patrick's parents in Drogheda while they worked on turning the GastroGays blog into their full-time livelihood.

"We were told that it would take a year or so to get going," admits Patrick. "Countless times, we were worried about the good jobs we gave up in London, and we were in the red for so long that we actually considered heading over there again."

Before long, the GastroGays were soon making friends and influencing people in their homeland. Their Instagram following swelled (it's now at 17.5k followers), which helped a little on the coffers front. They cite their media nous as something that gives them an edge in an overcrowded food-blogger scene, but they also prefer to let the food, producers and other personalities do the talking.

The clean-eating influencer brigade, once an unavoidable phenomenon, sparks a little bit of ire: "It was so prominent during our time in London," says Patrick. "The 'clean eating' term has been sort of carefully taken away and hidden."

Adds Russell: "I went through a phase - and I was probably a bit more impressionable back then - that the whole clean-eating thing was impacting the way I ate. I had smoothies every morning and I was buying gluten-free bread because I thought gluten was the devil. It really ruined my relationship with food for a few months. Now our motto is 'embrace the fryer'. We go to the gym and do exercise - we just don't feel the need to share it all the time."

Above all else, it's clearly Patrick and Russell's yin-and-yang dynamic that has helped them grow an army of fans.

"I'm more of the organiser and Russell does the social media," ventures Patrick. "Russell is the more charismatic, outgoing, funnier one, and I'm the more quiet, strict and serious one. But opposites definitely attract."

There's probably a reason that Patrick describes himself as the quieter one. At three, he discovered that he had a stammer, and it was something he struggled with for years. Partly at Russell's behest, he enrolled in the McGuire Programme, designed to help people with speech delay manage the condition.

"I couldn't have imagined that we would end up on TV and radio at all, because for years the thought terrified me," admits Patrick. "Everything I did until I was about 21, I struggled with. I just got progressively more quiet and closed off. That programme changed the quality of my life, and it offered me the techniques to control it, instead of it controlling me."

Russell is proud of his partner: "I was in Newstalk the other week and Patrick went into the studio [to do the interview] and I was outside listening, and bawling my eyes out. We have an agreement that if he is struggling [with a public event], I will take over."

Patrick adds: "It's great to have a partner in life and in work who just understands it. He's been there through it all with me."

Their new life of TV appearances, radio slots, podcasting (the hugely popular Chew the Fat podcast) and cookery demos proves an occasional challenge for Patrick, but the pair love rising to the occasion. "Do I worry about it getting the better of me? All the time. But you just have to take every day in your stride," Patrick shrugs.

They are regulars at Waterford Harvest Festival, and their first appearance there three years ago caused some controversy. While living in London, Patrick decided to turn his hand to the Waterford blaa, a bread roll all but enshrined in Waterford food culture.

Noting that the blaa has four ingredients, flour, water, yeast and salt ("and a fifth, Waterford pride," interjects Russell), Patrick made one on GastroGays' blog in the spirit of "how hard can it be?".

This laissez-faire approach did not go down well with the denizens of the Gentle County. "[The feedback] bordered on abusive," laughs Patrick. "Until Walsh's Bakehouse, which has been a purveyor of the blaa for generations, was like, 'Sure look, aren't they doing the Lord's work?'"

Spotting an opportunity, the two decamped to Waterford Harvest Festival and hosted a blaa brunch event in partnership with Walsh's. This year, they are creating a sustainable-food evening feast. It is, they note, an extension of their love of entertaining and hosting dinner parties for friends.

The two don't have any formal foodie or chef training - Patrick worked in Subway and Patrick in Marks & Spencer's food hall during college - but the slings and arrows of the recession forced them into the kitchen to cook together. They began to experiment and foster a mutual passion for food.

"It's immense, it's all-encompassing and it's our everyday conversation," says Russell.

"In the kitchen, we cook very differently," says Patrick. "In a way, I'm a thrifty, experimental cook, and you, Russell" - Russell cocks his head, mock-expectantly - "are more structured, and a slave to your cravings."

"I'm the kind of guy who will be having breakfast and be like, 'What are we doing for dinner?'" Russell agrees. "I'm notorious for always planning the next meal, even during the meal I'm about to sit down to."

The future looks every bit as exciting: the pair plan to organise supper clubs or dinner parties in their hometown of Drogheda in the coming months, and they hope to keep booking guests for Chew the Fat, which has already had Nigella Lawson and Donal Skehan being interviewed about their foodie lives.

"We literally just had the balls to ask her if she wanted to get involved," shrugs Patrick. "She was the easiest booking we ever made."

"With the Chew the Fat podcast, we are literally in the field with food producers and into factories, kitchens and homes," notes Russell. "It isn't us at the forefront. The food or the travel is the star. We had a meeting two years ago talking about the influencer scene and one [personality] was mentioned, and I was like, 'Wow, I don't envy them.' I just love what we do - cooking and entertaining and feeding people. Nothing brings me more joy."

GastroGays will appear at Waterford Harvest Festival, which is on from September 6-8. For more information, see waterfordharvestfestival.ie. GastroGays can be found at gastrogays.com and instagram.com/gastrogays

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