Monday 22 April 2019

Malahide chef is giving up a michelin star

Having won a prized Michelin star at the age of 28, acclaimed Malahide chef, Oliver Dunne, explains to John Manning why he is turning his back on the award and pursuing a new model for his restaurant that guarantees great food and a great time, that is free of the fuss that often surrounds fine dining

Oliver Dunne (left) with fellow chefs Derry Clarke, Catherine Fulvio, Clodagh McKenna and Ross Lewis
Oliver Dunne (left) with fellow chefs Derry Clarke, Catherine Fulvio, Clodagh McKenna and Ross Lewis

Chefs can spend their whole careers chasing the prize of a Michelin star but having gained that accolade at the age of just 28, a Malahide chef is turning his back on the award to bring a new dining experience to Malahide.

Oliver Dunne was the youngest chef in Ireland ever to receive a Michelin star for his Bon Appetit restaurant in Malahide and still regards the award as a great personal achievement, but in the nine years he's had the star, he has become frustrated at how the public perceive the fine dining experience.

The Malahide chef said: 'We won the Michelin star the first year we opened here and that was great, It was a fantastic personal achievement and something I always wanted to achieve, but after a few months the glory wears off and it's just work again.

'We started to notice a trend that people were coming in and using us as a special occasion restaurant and the press would always talk about the Michelin star restaurant and never talk about the Brasserie we had downstairs or our tapas bar and I understood that.

'Everyone who knew us and the locals would use the brasserie as their weekly restaurant. The brasserie was serving amazing food at really affordable prices. We had the prices of a standard eaterie but the standard of food was much, much higher.'

But food tourists and the 'foodie' set wanted the fine dining experience of the Michelin star restaurant that was housed on the upper floor of the building on St James' Terrace in Malahide and the expectations that came with that, became a noose around the young chef's neck.

Oliver explained: 'The public don't know what Michelin stars are about really, in my opinion. We all talk about them now but I lived my whole life before I started cooking without knowing what a Michelin star was. 'We got our star and the Celtic Tiger kicked in and everyone pretended to be a bit foodie and talked about Michelin stars but nobody really understood them.

'There's a big fear factor around the Michelin star. People think they are going to have to re-mortgage the house to eat at Michelin star restaurant. They equate it with high prices and this is based on nine years of listening to customers, it's not just my opinion, it's a fact.

'They think of high prices, they think its stuffy, they think its formal, they think of pretentious food and intimidation is a word I've heard customers use.

'But it doesn't have to be like that, the Michelin star is just about three consistent courses - that's the wording. It's not about amuse bouches and dickie-bows and cloches and all of that. None of that is relevant but people think about all that and expect that and we've had comments over the years about the linen we used on the tables and the plates and staff's hairstyles and it just became a joke, to be honest.

'It became frustrating trying to live up to people's expectations and their inaccurate expectations of what a Michelin restaurant should be.'

The stuffiness associated with delivering customer's perceptions of what the Michelin experience should be, did not match the young chef's personality who wanted to see his customers relax and have a good time in his restaurant, free of the etiquette and fuss that came with fine dining.

Oliver said: 'I did want to win a Michelin star as a young chef but then you grow and mature and realise what you really want your restaurant to be and what I really want fundamentally, is a place where people can come and have a good time, enjoy themselves and have great food.

'The Michelin star restaurant was a place to come to worship food and that was me trying to keep up with my chef peers but it wasn't really me.'

So late last year, Oliver took the difficult decision to abandon the Michelin star restaurant upstairs, turning that into a function room and instead, renovated the brasserie in the basement, combing all that was best of the both restaurants. The great food is still there, but now is combined with a much more relaxed atmosphere.

As a business decision, it's clearly working, custom is 30% up on the same period last year and the feedback about the change from customers has been hugely positive.

The change has also allowed Oliver to open up the Tapas Bar for reservations, turning it into an experience all on its own, and no longer just the place to have pre-dinner drinks.

Oliver admits that while he is now 'fully comfortable' with the idea of losing his Michelin star when the next guide comes out, the departure does mark the 'end of an era' for him professionally and personally and losing the star he worked so hard to gain will be 'sad'.

He explained: 'I wanted to get the word out that we are changing everything so when the guide comes out in October we will be losing our Michelin star and it's a very conscious decision and in the last three months it has been so positive.'

The Malahide chef added: 'It's all very new and very recent. I'm happier because the feedback from customers has been so positive but personally, I admit I'm a little sad and it's an end of an era for me personally.

'I'm a bit apprehensive about it but only time will tell whether it was a wise decision for me on personal level.

'People work their whole lives to get a Michelin star and I'm giving up on it. But at the end of the day, I did it for a business reason and so far, it's been really positive.

'The feedback from customers has been fantastic and so positive. We did 30% more customers this November over the previous November and that's with one less restaurant.'

Oliver said that Michelin guide is the best food guide in the world and his decision is in no way 'bashing the Michelin guide'. He said the problem is with the public perception of what that star means and the expectations that go with it.

The Malahide chef is setting new goals now and turning his back on awards in favour of seeing happy customers leave his restaurant having had a great time and watching them come back again and again to the local restaurant. While he accepts he may lose the odd 'food tourist', Oliver is confident that the people of Fingal will continue to support the restaurant and he will certainly continue serving up the finest food in the region.

Take five

Who inspires you? I suppose, as a chef, it would be Gordon Ramsay and personally, my father.

What is your greatest achievement? If I pull off this hospital food thing that will be the greatest achievement of my life, that is how passionate I am about it. I would love to have that as my legacy and know that I made a difference.

What is your happiest memory? The birth of my first child.

What is your favourite place in Fingal? Malahide - it's got everything in it. I couldn't see myself living in any other part of Fingal.

What is your reason to get out of bed in the morning? To go to work.

Hospital food can be so much better

Oliver Dunne has a passion outside his own restaurant and wants to transform the food we are served in hospitals across the country.

Oliver's wife has been very ill for the last three years and the couple have spent a lot of time in hospitals where the chef has witnessed the demoralising effect on patients of being served poor food.

He believes a few simple changes can transform hospital menus and not only can this be achieved on the same budget, but he believes he can actually save the HSE some cash.

Oliver told the Fingal Independent: 'My wife has been very ill for the last three years and I've just been shocked and frustrated by the state of the food in hospital. At times she wouldn't be able to eat and then when she was allowed, the food would come up and it would be just beyond belief. It was prepared carelessly, it was tasteless and unappetising and you could visibly see her heart sink and the patients around the ward.

'It just infuriated me because I didn't see the reason for it. I saw it as carelessness and laziness and it just infuriated me. So I began to think about it and wonder where the chain was broken. Was it that there wasn't enough staff or because people don't care what they are doing but regardless of the reason, I 100% know it can be improved and quite easily.'

Just before Christmas, Oliver met with the Minster for Health, Leo Varadkar and asked if he could gain control of the kitchen in just one hospital to see if he could change things and possibly role out those changes across the health service.

The Malahide chef explained: 'I've offered my services. I met face to face with the Minister for Health in December and with one of the head nutritionists in the HSE. We had a good meeting about it and I said what I wanted to do and what I wanted to achieve.'

The Malahide chef needs an invite from a hospital to come into their kitchen and so far, that has not been forthcoming and progress is painfully slow, so far.

He said: 'I'm getting a little frustrated at the moment. We met in December and it was all positive and everyone seemed to be proactive but since then, there's been silence.' Oliver said there is huge public support behind his campaign to improve hospital food and he hopes to be allowed to get inside the system and change it for the better.

Fingal Independent