'If we'd gone to Dragon's Den, they would have laughed at us' - Inside Ireland's tastiest food experience
You voted The Tannery in Dungarvan Ireland's tastiest food experience. Katy McGuinness meets the couple behind a national foodie treasure...
When Paul and Máire Flynn opened the Tannery in Dungarvan in 1997, they freely admit that they didn’t know what they were doing.
Until a few years before, Paul had been head chef at the two Michelin star Chez Nico restaurant in London. (Shortly after he left, the restaurant was awarded a third star — for which he could, if he were a less modest chap, justifiably claim credit.)
“But after a few years in London, even though I was making decent money and had a decent life,” he says, “I was pining for Ireland. I put the feelers out and I was head-hunted to run Louis Murray’s La Stampa in 1993.”
Within the space of three months, Paul and Máire had married, changed jobs and moved back to Ireland.
“La Stampa was completely different to what I was used to,” says Paul. “At Chez Nico we had 14 or 15 chefs for 85 covers a night. At La Stampa we were feeding 250 people with just seven chefs. It was a big learning curve, and the food had to change from what I was used to. I had to ultra-simplify…”
La Stampa was named best restaurant in Ireland in 1994, a vindication of the young chef’s talent. Meanwhile, Máire was working for Sherry Fitzgerald, and the couple had bought a house in Dublin. But after three-and-a-half years, Paul wanted to open his own place.
“I did a bit of research but I didn’t have a big game plan. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy, that it would be very demanding. We had the money saved, and we’d been looking all over the country and found nothing, and then we were home for a friend’s wedding and realised that we hadn’t even thought about our home town.
“It was a derelict leather factory, and in those days, Dungarvan was four hours from Dublin. If we had gone to Dragon’s Den they would have laughed at us.”
From the outset, Paul and Máire were ambitious for the Tannery. They hired Dungarvan native Dennis Looby as their architect.
“Dennis did a great job,” says Paul. “You felt: ‘Wow — this is modern Ireland.’ I wanted to put Dungarvan on the map, and deliver a world-class experience. I did not want the Tannery to be defined as a rural restaurant. Steak and chips would have been easier — more profitable and less stressful — but I didn’t go to London and work at Chez Nico to deliver steak and chips. We have always tried to deliver elegant food that’s still generous, but even the other day a woman said to me that her portion of duck was mean…”
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“I had never worked in a restaurant before our own,” says Máire. “It was a great disadvantage, I had no experience and that made it really difficult.
“Our friend Declan Maxwell, who worked front of house at Chez Nico [and subsequently at Chapter One and now Luna] came down for two days to help set up the systems. But it was a baptism of fire. It took me 10 years to get trained properly in my own restaurant.”
“We had no business experience,” says Paul. “A big mistake was that we did not take into account the demographics and economics of the town and its population.
“It made it difficult, that there was no large cohort of people to support us. Dungarvan has a population of 10,000 and it is not a tourist town. Yes, it’s busy in summer, but in autumn and winter you might only have a dozen people in for dinner. The quietest restaurant I ever worked in was my own …”
The couple remember one particularly upsetting episode. “Somebody had a birthday party in the restaurant and one of the guests brought a fruit cake and left some of it behind…” says Máire.
“And in our stupidity, we threw it out, without realising that it had cost someone a lot of money to make…” continues Paul. “I’ll never forget the roasting that we got.”
“We didn’t see that family again for years,” says Máire. “We should have dropped it to them…”
“It would have been better if we had eaten it,” says Paul.
“Paul was 31, and I was 27, we were so young to be in charge of a business and employees,” says Máire. “Now we have dealt with hundreds and thousands of people and we’re good at it. But at the beginning we just took criticism so personally. We’ve learned that sometimes you just have to let that wash over you.”
The Tannery’s first big break came when Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote in the Telegraph that its food was on a par with anything that you would find in London or New York.
“From the outset, we wanted to deliver an all-round experience, not just food on a plate,” says Paul. “If someone was celebrating a birthday or anniversary we wanted to give them a whole night out. Fundamentally it is a local restaurant and everything else is gravy — but that gravy is difficult to get.
“We became aware of the need to have a profile, so we worked on developing that as a tool for marketing rather than for its own sake. Media was important, having a recipe column, appearing on television and in the papers. The first job is to get them here, and the second to make them happy.”
“It was three years before we had a sense that we could make money,” says Máire. “There were positive reviews and we started to become a destination. We opened the first townhouse in 2005 with seven bedrooms. It was going so well — those were the golden years. We bought another townhouse in 2007 and opened it the following year with a cookery school and some more bedrooms.”
And then the sky fell in.
“Overnight,” says Máire, “it was as if the lights were switched off.”
Understandably, the tough years that followed are not something that Paul and Máire want to dwell on. But they came through it, and have “huge empathy” for those who didn’t. It was 2014 before they started to feel the recovery.
“By 2015 things were better, although not quite as good as before the recession,” says Máire.
And then 2017 saw the opening of the Waterford Greenway, bringing with it a quarter of a million visitors. The impact was immediate.
“It is a fabulous thing for the county,” says Paul, “an amazing thing for every business — not just those in hospitality. It has made Waterford people so proud. We’re quiet people generally so we don’t shout about it, but there’s a very good feeling about the place. The latent entrepreneurial spirit has exploded, with crêpe and coffee stalls popping up… Everywhere you look there are people wearing cycling clothes, lots of MAMILs… they are mostly Irish, and at the end of the day they reward themselves with nice food and wine. My ambition is for Dungarvan to be like Kinsale.”
“There is a sense of relief,” says Máire. “It has definitely made things easier, taken a weight off our shoulders. Paul enjoys teaching, and the wine bar we opened in 2016 has been a huge success. The elements of the business are a package and they feed into one another.
“We do private parties, and people might cycle and take a class and eat in the restaurant one night and the wine bar another. We want to be full and to run it as well as possible. We never say: ‘Let’s be average today.’”
“The restaurant is an extension of our personalities, down to the music and the décor,” says Paul. “It’s not a corporate invention, it’s very much our baby, and it’s very important for us to be up there with highly regarded restaurants. We are never happy with ourselves... We are always asking ourselves: ‘Are we good enough? Are we relevant?’ We are never complacent.”
How do they feel about our readers voting the Tannery Ireland’s tastiest food experience?
“Winning means so much to us,” Paul says. “We’ve tried so hard to continue to be relevant, and to achieve this at this stage in our careers is a great accolade and a vindication of all the hard work. We are so grateful to all those who have supported us over the years, and indebted to our young and enthusiastic staff who stand with us in keeping the show on the road.”
With his experience of working in a high-end restaurant, does Paul mind that the Tannery does not have a Michelin star?
“I saw the hold that Michelin had on Nico’s [Ladenis] life, and the love of that kind of food went out of me,” he says. “I came of age as a chef when food became freer, and chefs such as Simon Hopkinson, Alistair Little and Rowley Leigh were my heroes. I have never had the motivation to get a star here, nor have I ever taken my eye off the ball. I have seen how a star can transform a business, and no matter what people say, it’s what chefs aspire to, but we have a really good team here … Sam Burfield is the head chef and I am the conductor now.
“We have the utmost respect for Michelin — there is lots of Michelin-dissing going on these days — but it doesn’t bother us not to have a star; what we want is a busy restaurant, one that’s lively and full of people roaring with laughter.
“I admire Rick Stein, I’ve always loved watching him on television, on the beach with Chalkie, making beautiful food and having a life, and we have that balance — and the beach — here in Dungarvan.”
For more, see tannery.ie