Saturday 18 November 2017

Music is the food of love

Combining their twin 'obsessions' to create a new business, Newstalk's Tom Dunne and his chef wife Audrey McDonald have opened a cafe. Here, they give their recipe for success in both their professional and personal lives

Long-harboured dream: Tom Dunne and Audrey McDonald at the Cookbook cafe
Long-harboured dream: Tom Dunne and Audrey McDonald at the Cookbook cafe
Tom Dunne at the Cookbook cafe
Audrey McDonald at the Cookbook cafe

Aoife Carrigy

'Our first date was on a nuclear aircraft carrier," says the still-boyish Tom Dunne, Newstalk presenter and one-time frontman to Something Happens. "The band were asked to play on it and we were all allowed to bring one guest, so I thought of Audrey."

The year was 1996 and the vessel in question was the JFK, which was docked just off the coast from the seaside village of Glasthule where Tom and his now-wife, Audrey McDonald, recently realised her long-harboured dream by opening the Cookbook Cafe.

The pair had met a year prior to that auspicious first date, through a mutual friend who was a chef like Audrey. They had hit it off immediately, but Tom was married and going through a separation at the time, so it took him a year to ask her out.

As first dates go, it doesn't sound like the most romantic setting, but Audrey thought it all a hoot. "I didn't know what to expect," she admits, "but the band, Something Happens - well, one of them is funnier than the next. I used to be just crying laughing."

"It was a fun day," Tom continues. "As we're approaching the ship in this tiny little boat, our bassist, Alan, who is a very funny man, looks up at this big aircraft carrier and says: 'Jaysus, I'm starting to get nervous now.'"

"It was so mad," Audrey laughs. "It was very Spinal Tap. They were playing to an empty aircraft hangar!"

Tom elaborates: "Inside an aircraft carrier is huge, it's like three football pitches back-to-back. They had the VIP bar down the far end and the stage up the other end. And there were only about 100 people invited. You'd nearly need binoculars to see the guests at the bar."

The band took it very much in their stride, Tom remembers. "You get used to it pretty quick when you play in a band. You could play anywhere. Humiliation is your middle name." (Indeed "if you're in a band, you have to laugh" is a mantra he repeats several times during our interview.) And Audrey did the decent thing, staying close to the stage and "giving us support in our hour of need".

Supporting each other and having a great laugh while they're at it have continued as themes in their relationship of nearly 20 years.

When I meet the pair in their restaurant on their day off, Audrey cheerfully tells me that they've been bickering just before my arrival - and isn't slow to slag off Tom's coffee-making skills. ("There's a lot to it!" he argues in his defence.) But what is most striking is how much they make each other laugh as they egg each other on, taking turns to unfold the story of their various adventures together.

She used to leave a margarita on her doorstep for Tom's post-midnight arrival, having just knocked off work at 98FM; he in turn brought her "to some the worst gigs in town", as he has it. ("Neil Young in the O2, that was torture for me," she agrees. "But David Bowie was fantastic, in the Olympia and the O2.")

Today they regularly finish each other's sentences and often talk over one another, but they listen to one another, too.

Indeed, when I ask each what first attracted them to their now-spouse, both hone in on the other's voice. Which is interesting, given that the latest chapter in their adventures brings together both of their chosen forms of self-expression: music in Tom's case and food in Audrey's.

All the music played at the Cookbook Cafe has been carefully curated by Tom, drawing from decades of DJing experience. "I've never really had very extreme tastes in music so there's not an awful lot of death metal in there," he quips.

What there is, instead, are lots of great songs with sweet harmonies and killer choruses. "I like to mix some classic Frank Sinatra or Beatles back-to-back with something a bit more contemporary like Future Islands or War on Drugs," Tom says. "When you walk into a restaurant and you hear something like Future Islands coming on, you get the impression that somebody knows a little bit about music. And I think that informs everything - that that level of attention has been put into everything."

Pop into the Cookbook Cafe of a Sunday afternoon and you may well find Tom set up with his decks and vinyls over by the fireplace, in amongst the many cookbooks that Audrey has sourced for sale.

The idea is a neat one: come and have brunch to the sounds of Tom spinning some of his tracks, while you eat from a menu inspired by many of Audrey's favourite food writers and chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi of Nopi or Bobby Flay of the US's Mesa Grill.

And then, if you like what you tasted, you can browse the bookshelves and pick up a cookbook to try your hand at those flavours back at home.

Audrey is hardly the only chef currently referencing the influences of Ottolenghi, whose bestselling cookbooks such as Plenty have helped to make Middle Eastern food one of the hottest trends today. But those Middle Eastern flavours have long been part of Audrey's cooking repertoire ("the grilled aubergine, the sumac yoghurts"), thanks to formative years spent cooking as a private chef for the exceedingly wealthy al-Suwaidi family in their Holland Park home, directly after her six months training in London's Cordon Bleu cooking school. "They used to entertain at an incredible level," Audrey recalls. "I learnt so much there."

Luay al-Suwaidi's had many high-level connections throughout the Middle East (his grandfather, Tawfiq, was a former prime minister of Iraq) while his Texan wife, Spin, brought her own American connections into the mix. Guests at their extravagant banquets regularly included British and Middle Eastern royalty.

"She was very visual in her food. She loved everything looking incredible and served on beautiful plates. He was blue blood Middle Eastern so he would have been brought up with all the tastes that we're only discovering in the West now."

The couple weren't shy of having direct input into what Audrey was serving their guests. "He'd taste it and say 'that needs a little bit of lemon juice' or 'that needs a bit of black pepper' and he would always be right.

"You're not born with a palate, that develops. I learnt how to season food while working with them."

Audrey also got to holiday with the al-Suwaidi family in the likes of Sardinia's fabulous yachting hub of Porto Cervo, where they would rent a fully-staffed villa.

"I remember seeing it was €28,000 for the month of August for the deposit so I have no idea how much it actually cost," she adds.

On returning to Ireland, Audrey tried her hand in restaurant kitchens, with a stint in La Stampa followed by about six months in the newly opened and insanely busy Cookes Cafe, a hotspot for local and international celebrities.

Audrey found the kitchen a tough place but her time there opened some useful doors, leading her to cooking privately for diners such as Ronnie Woods. "Jo Woods came into Cookes and she asked if anyone would come down and cook in her place. That's how I started with catering."

Early clients included German business magnate Renata Colman at her lavish Co. Wicklow home, Humewood Castle, and U2, amongst others. Audrey went on to become the official caterer for the ultimate party house, No 10 Ormond Quay, with her business partner John Carty. It was there that they cooked for Gordon Ramsay, who loved the tasting plate of Irish food that they served him.

But Audrey knew that what she could do with private catering was always going to be hampered by a need to please the masses.

"If you're having your 30th birthday party, you're very slow to go with something a bit different because you've got 100 people coming and you want to please ­everyone."

Restricted to cooking safer food for clients, Audrey had to save the kind of food she really loves to cook for home - until now that is. "The food that's on the menu here at Cookbook Cafe is what I would have been cooking at home," she says.

That menu changes daily, inspired as much by the seasons as by the key cookbooks being drawn from: seminal influences like The River Cafe Cookbook, Skye Gyngell's A Year in my Kitchen, Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill Cookbook, Ottolenghi's The Cookbook and Thomasina Miers' Mexican Food at Home alongside recent release favourites such as Skye Gyngell's Spring and Katie Quinn Davies' What Katie Ate at the Weekend. There are practical challenges to a daily changing menu, not least the cost of printing - something Tom is particularly aware of given his behind-the-scenes role of dealing with the restaurant's accounts.

But he is all for encouraging the active creativity that comes with Audrey's fluid approach, seeing it as akin to how musicians might keep themselves engaged during a long live tour.

"Playing the same set wears you out," he explains. "If you add in a new song, it changes everything around it - what goes before and after that song - and that excites you and makes you creative again."

He sees parallels with what U2 are doing in their US tour at the minute.

"It's very brave for a band of their stature to introduce eight new songs into a set. It's really creative and inspiring, asking 'what can we do' as opposed to just 'what do we have to do'. And Audrey's always been like that."

It's not the only parallel Tom sees between their respective passions - or obsessions as he calls them.

"She's as obsessed about food as I am about music. There were times when I was trying to write something, and somebody might say, you know you've listened to that track 20 times in a row? I really wouldn't have been aware!

"But you're listening to the minute detail and trying to work out what's wrong with it, why it isn't sitting correctly. Audrey is like that about food - just at it and at it and constantly reading about it and thinking about it. I can relate to that."

It's not easy to juggle two serious obsessions, one new restaurant, a night-time radio gig and two small people - their daughters Eva (9) and Skye (7) - whose own dreams and interests also have to be nurtured and encouraged. So how do they do it?

"Life is mayhem!" Audrey admits. "But in a year's time it will be settled. I firmly believe that and that's what's keeping me going." That and a whole lot of mutual support and laughter.

Audrey's top ten playlist:

1. When Love Breaks Down - Prefab Sprout

2. I've Got a Crush on You - Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra

3. Somewhere Only We Know - Keane

4. Something - The Beatles

5. Moon River - Andy Williams

6. Beach - Something Happens

7. Sunday Girl - Blondie

8. We've Only Just Begun - Carpenters

9. Half a Minute - Matt Bianco

10. Starman - David Bowie

Tom's chilli

You will need

1 onion coarsely chopped

Slug of olive oil

3 garlic cloves, crushed

2 bird's eye chillies, deseeded and chopped

2 tbsp hot chilli powder

1 tbsp mild chilli powder

1 tsp smoked paprika

1½ tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp oregano

1 tsp cayenne

Crumbles of chilli flakes

500g mince meat

1 tin tomatoes

Squeeze of tomato purée

Half cup stock

Chilli beans

Salt and pepper


Cook the onion in olive oil until soft, about 10 mins. Allow to slightly brown. Add the garlic, chillies and all spices. Cook until dark but not burnt (about 5 minutes).

Add the mince and increase the heat to colour and coat the meat. Add the tomatoes, purée and stock. Cook covered over low heat for 1.5 hours. Add the beans and cook uncovered for a further half hour. Season if necessary.

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