'We never settle for 'grand'' - The inside story of Ireland's tastiest food experience
Last year, you voted it Ireland's Tastiest Food Experience. Here, Katy McGuinness gets a flavour of what makes this Co Waterford restaurant a Reader Travel Awards winner
On a bright, sunny day in early autumn, Dungarvan, Co Waterford, is looking its best, as are Paul and Máire Flynn, the couple behind The Tannery, the town's destination restaurant.
Last year they celebrated 20 years in business by being named 'Ireland's Tastiest Food Experience' in our Reader Travel Awards.
Things have changed a little since the couple came back to their home town from London (where Paul was head chef at Simply Nico, which held two Michelin Stars) via Dublin and took the brave step of opening up their own place. As well as the restaurant, there is now a wine bar, cookery school and the smart Tannery Townhouse in their little empire.
So, with voting now open for our 2019 Awards, who better to define what goes into being Ireland's tastiest food experience?
"Effort, commitment, drive, belief," is how Paul sums it up. "We may not always get things right, but it's not for the want of trying. We never settle for something that's 'grand' in that old Irish cliché, and we keep cooking food and delivering service that is individual, and that represents us. I suppose the food represents me, the service represents Máire, and the restaurant represents the two of us."
"People tell us that our staff are naturally friendly and seem to be happy in their jobs," says Máire. "We always say to the staff that everyone who comes in has to have the same experience. It doesn't matter who they are, or how much they are spending, whether they are coming for an early bird or staying for three nights and having the tasting menu, they get the same level of hospitality and generosity."
Finding staff isn't easy, but Máire starts from the position that you can't go far wrong with a "lovely open face, a big smile and some sense of confidence". Or, as Paul puts it, "Do they have the cut of work about them? Can they stand up straight without slouching?"
"Generally, people who aren't going to work out leave within a week or two of their own accord because our standard just doesn't suit them," says Máire. "I didn't have any formal training myself, but I had a standard in appearance, and I have a standard for the staff in their appearance, how they speak to people, and whether they have good old-fashioned manners. It's pretty basic stuff. Maybe it's my age."
That said, the level of formality of service has changed since The Tannery opened in 1997. "At the beginning we were criticised by some reviewers because we didn't have table cloths even though we were ahead of our time with our bare tables," says Máire. "And then when bare tables came in, we went the other way!"
If the service has become less formal over the years, the food has evolved too. "I look back at my old menus and I think I am more conservative now than I used to be," says Paul. "There were quite a lot of Middle Eastern things going on back then that I think I would like to get back to perhaps …"
"I remember," says Máire, "that at the beginning, if we went on holiday to Thailand, there would be Thai-influenced dishes on the menu, and if we went to Spain, there would be Spanish dishes. As time went on I think Paul's food became more rooted, and he became more definite in what he was doing."
"That the food is Irish is the most important thing for me," says Paul. "I love rustic food, with big flavours. Winter is my favourite season, and my philosophy is very much that when I can use French or Italian techniques, but with Irish ingredients, that's what I'll do - so I'm braising beef cheeks in Dungarvan stout, and making a bacon and cabbage risotto with our local Legacy cider. I use cider instead of wine in all our braising now; it reinforces the Irish-ness of the whole thing. It's about appreciating that we are Irish and that we don't have to look to anywhere else anymore."
You won't find any foams or gels in the kitchen at The Tannery, nor baby vegetables. "I don't see the point of them," says Paul. "Give me a nice big turnip any day."
And you won't find him out foraging either. "Personally, I'm allergic to it," he says.
"Food is a fashion and trends come and go," says Máire, diplomatically. "You can pay attention to them without being fully committed - we never fully embraced foraging, for instance, but that doesn't mean we didn't touch on it at times."
"First and foremost," says Paul, "I always wanted to do good cooking, irrespective of where anything came from. At the beginning, if fine French beans weren't available locally, and you had to go to the next county or the next country for the beans for a lovely French bean salad then that's what we did. Now, there are genuinely more producers and suppliers around locally, and we have a brilliant veg man, Conor Lannen, that all the local market gardeners bring their stuff to. If your granny grows lettuce out the back garden it goes to him, and he gives it to us. Years ago we didn't have that."
"I remember the local veg man back then not knowing what avocados or Jerusalem artichokes were," says Máire. "'Where would I get them?' he said. 'In a prayer book?' "
"At the beginning, even though we're right beside the sea, the hardest thing to get was fish," says Paul. "The local fish suppliers were only delivering farmed salmon and frozen cod into hotels. If you buy in a box of frozen cod then there's never any issue with waste or anything like that, I suppose. But I was really fussy - I'm still really fussy! - and I went through four local suppliers who didn't want me because I was too demanding. Getting good fish, good produce generally, is not a problem any more. When we opened it seemed so much grimmer. The times were grimmer, the town was grimmer, the products were hard to get."
"For sure there wasn't the emphasis on local," says Máire. "That was a movement that came after we opened. A really good movement. Being around here has opened up our eyes to what is available and there's been more and more produce available each year."
Four years ago, Paul took the decision to take a step back in terms of being a constant presence in the kitchen and brought in a young head chef, Sam Burfield. He says that his quality of life has improved immeasurably. "I'm 53 and I've been cooking since I was 17 years old, that's 35 years and it's absolutely a young man's game," says Paul. "There was a period of my life where I was over in the cookery school all day and then I'd come over and do the sauce section on Saturday night. Your body just can't do what it used to do and you end up not loving it anymore.
"By not having to do all those hours you definitely fall in love with it all again, you can see the bigger picture. To have somebody like Sam, who loves it as much as I do and sees that you need to put effort in to get results, and has a sense of pride is wonderful. I'm happier, I can spend time with my kids, and time thinking about food and talking about food.
"Sam and I discuss dishes all the time; he produces them and we sit down and critique them together - will this work? Won't it work? It has definitely given me a new lease of life in terms of loving what I do. I still do the cookery school, and I've turned into my old boss [Nico Ladenis], I'm on the pass most nights, and all the food comes out past me. But I don't actually have to be there because I know it's going to be all right, and I wouldn't dream of not being there if I didn't think it was. There's a great security in that.
"It does free me up to do other things which is very gratifying. I do work with Lidl and I'm free to do other jobs anywhere, and that makes me more rounded and happy. If I wanted to write another book, I'd have the freedom to do it. I actually do cook breakfast - I'm a very expensive breakfast chef!
"But despite the other work, The Tannery is everything. Twenty-one years is a long time to have a restaurant, but your reputation is still only as good as not only your last meal but your last plate of food. Sometimes that's really hard to impress on younger lads who don't see you cooking in the kitchen all that much. They tend to forget that you can cook and think that you're just bossing them around because you can. But I do know what I'm talking about and if I see a dish that's not right I will always say it."
Sam Burfield is from a small country town on the Isle of Wight and says that he feels right at home in Dungarvan. "I got on really well with Paul and Máire from the start," he says. "For the first year-and-a-half, Paul and I worked alongside one another in the kitchen and got to learn a bit about each other… His kind of food, my kind of food. Thankfully it ended up being very similar. I prefer to stick to very classical food with my own little twist. I don't think you can beat classical techniques, that you implement on the plate with simplicity - a beautiful piece of pan-fried meat with a lovely garnish."
In terms of ingredients and produce, Sam says that he loves the ingredients that he gets to work with in the kitchen at The Tannery. "The Comeragh Mountain lamb is stunning, we get in the whole animal and do something with the belly, the liver, the kidneys… and the oysters we get from Joe Harty [who describes them as having a citrussy, cucumber after-taste, with a touch of hazelnut in the winter when they are firmer] are fantastic. It's game season now, my favourite time of the year, and I love all the venison, partridge and pigeon, the grouse and rabbit. Our menu changes seasonally, but we are tweaking dishes constantly, always trying to get a balanced menu where everything on it sells equally well."
From the original menu, the only dish that remains is Paul Flynn's signature - the dish that he says will be on his tombstone - crab crème brûlée. What does Sam think of it? "It's an iconic dish, creamy, simple, garlicky, gingery, with toast and pickled cucumber - all the things that anyone wants. It's not as heavy as people think it is and anyway I can't take it off the menu because it's Paul's trademark!"
Sam's own trademark is a slow-cooked beef rib, rich and unctuous. "It took a long time to get that right and now we tweak the garnish with the seasons but not the beef rib itself. It's always on the menu. I use the lamb whenever it's available, cooking it simply - I don't want anything to overpower the beautiful meat. And there's a new dish - duck terrine and smoked eel from Lough Neagh - that I'm very pleased with."
"Sam has more finesse than I have," says Paul generously, "which is great, but we share the same love of the same type of food."
On the basis of a recent dinner when Paul was not even on the pass, but having a few pints with friends in town, Paul's segue from hands-on to step-back appears to have been seamless. "Our effort goes into making sure that we deliver good food and give people pleasure and they leave happy," says Paul. "That's the whole thing. There was a huge sense of ambition on our part when we opened, in that we wanted to make our mark around here. We wanted to put Dungarvan on the map, and put ourselves on the map and that happened, with effort and luck as well. We are first and foremost a country restaurant. Way before we got a name, it was really important that we give people around here what they wanted and then gradually more people came to us. That was the plan from the beginning and nothing has changed."
"You have to adapt to all the different people coming in," says Máire. "We are in the country and we're from the country so we know what is going to interest the man out the road who is just come in from milking - we know how to feed him. And then the 30-year-old girls coming down from Dublin, we know how to talk to them and feed them too. Over the years you just get an instinct of how to read people.
"A restaurant in the country is unique in that your customers can be your friends, your neighbours, your farmers, your suppliers, your cousins, so it's all intertwined. Sometimes there's no escape because you are so deeply rooted in so many different aspects of the community, it gives a personal connection to everyone. Sunday evening is family time no matter what. Our girls say, 'Please could we have one hour - just one hour?' when they don't have to listen to us talking about the restaurant. It usually lasts for about five minutes."
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