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'Restaurant-grade food for collection is the new business model' - chef Gareth 'Gaz' Smith

Humble beginnings kicked off career in kitchen, the Michael's restaurateur tells Katy McGuinness

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Gareth Smith

Gareth Smith

Gareth Smith

Chef Gareth 'Gaz' Smith owns two restaurants in Dublin - Michael's and Little Mike's in Mount Merrion, which are currently operating successfully on a collection model.

Did you grow up in a family where food was important?

Yes, but it was mainly the wrong food. Both my parents worked, and we kids cooked for ourselves. We were into the latest fads - Findus Crispy Pancakes, French bread pizzas - which brought as much joy to me then as fancy food does now.

What's your most vivid food memory from childhood?

I remember surprising my mum by making a shepherd's pie when she was out at work. One of my aunts coached me through it over the phone. We had never had one before because everything we ate came out of either a tin or a packet. Truly it was the worst shepherd's pie ever, made with gravy granules.

Did you always know that you wanted to be a chef?

From the age of 12 or 13, I worked on a butcher's stall in the market as a general dogsbody and that gave me some exposure to ingredients. I left school early at around 15 or 16 and got a job as a kitchen porter in Alder's department store. I liked being part of a team. Within two months I'd been promoted to breakfast cook and got my chef's whites - I thought I was MasterChef Oxford. We moved back to Ireland the following year and I quickly realised that I wasn't.

Who has been the biggest influence on the way that you cook?

At 17, I was working in a hotel kitchen and a woman called Rose Brannock pulled me aside and said I was too good to be cooking burgers and wings. She saw that I had potential and arranged for me to go to The Charthouse in Dingle, where Gary Fitzgerald was so patient with me. He taught me how to cook seafood that wasn't Donegal Catch, and Jim McCarthy and Carmel Flynn taught me about hospitality.

What's your signature dish?

Crab and prawn gratin; it's very simple but I've no intention of changing it. I've been cooking crab for 20 years and still get a buzz from it.

Is there any ingredient that you hate?

Basil pesto used inappropriately has ruined many an otherwise great meal for me. In the late 1990s it was in everything and now I can't even enjoy it in a dish where it's meant to be.

Is there anything that you love to eat that you'd prefer your friends didn't know about?

I'm pretty open about my horrid food habits. Chicken balls with a gloopy sweet and sour sauce is my guilty pleasure, and I could eat four bags of strawberry jellies, no problem.

Is there anything that you won't/don't eat for ethical reasons?

Not really. There's lots of hypocrisy about. I'd prefer animals were raised well, but I'll still eat those chicken balls.

What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten? We got geoducks [large clams with a distinctive phallic shape] from Achill Island to serve in the restaurant. They weren't very tasty and the texture was all wrong. If a customer liked them, they got their money back.

What kitchen gadget could you not live without and what's the most overrated?

A good frying pan. In work we use very few gadgets - knives and chopping boards, that's about it. We got a Thermomix a few months back and haven't taken it out of the box. At home I play with the pressure cooker and I got an Ooni gas-fired pizza oven that's breaking my heart. I see myself as a Neapolitan pizzaiolo called Luca twirling dough around my head, but the reality is very messy. I'm struggling with the hydration.

What's your desert island cookbook?

Andy Noonan of Baste BBQ recommended Pok Pok by Andy Ricker about the street-food of Thailand and I stayed up until 3am reading it. It's the first book in years to hook me like that.

What three things do you always keep in your fridge?

Jam, butter and Ballymaloe Relish.

What's your go-to store-cupboard meal?

Dirty fried rice.

What was the last great meal that you ate?

A few months back I ate by myself in Barrafina on Dean Street in Soho in London. I had a couple of beers and ate my way through the menu, reading my book. The food was incredible but it cost me a fortune, about £180.

What's your favourite restaurant in the world?

The Smoking Goat in Shoreditch, also in London. All my chef pals say the same, it's where I make a beeline for as soon as my flight lands. It's dark and grungy and cheap, and the chilli fish sauce wings are the best £7.50 you can spend anywhere.

What chef do you admire the most?

Ross Lewis. I worked with him briefly at Chapter One years ago. He always has time to give advice. He's been through it all and there's no ego there.

What do you think the impact of Covid-19 is going to be on restaurants?

I like to think that out of the carnage a new street-food/casual dining scene will emerge as premises come free and key money and other obstacles disappear. I don't think restaurant dining will ever be the same again - restaurant-grade food for collection is the new business model.

Do you eat breakfast?

Just coffee as I'm running out the door.

What are you going to have for dinner tonight?

I'm surprising the staff with a takeaway from 3 Leaves in Blackrock.

And what will you drink with that?

A can of Coke.

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