Saturday 16 December 2017

Coming home

Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

'You owe me lunch," he says. It's Conrad Gallagher on his recent visit to Ireland, and he's right. I do owe him lunch. In fairness, it's in return for 10 days of wining and dining in South Africa. The last time I saw him, not only did I stuff myself for more than a week in Conrad-run restaurants, often as he proudly looked on and asked millions of questions about every mouthful, he actually cooked for me one evening. Given that he doesn't cook much for anyone any more, except his wife and kids, it was a little bit special. Funnily enough, if memory serves me right, it was an Italian meal.

Given that, and given that a recession had just been officially declared that morning, and given that it's Conrad, a Michelin star himself, I decide, damn the expense, we'll go to Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud.

I'm curious, of course. Conrad has been spotted around town with the wife and kids and there is talk that he is coming home again, to take Stephen's Green by storm and things. It is a measure of the intense interest there still is in this legendary and charismatic young chef that there have been gossip items in the papers every day since he came back, and that he has been stalked around town by the paddyrazzi. He was talking to no one, though.

Conrad has been slipping home quite a bit recently. Obviously, he has his family and friends here, and he has Lauren, his daughter with Domini Kemp. He remains very close to Lauren and she is a frequent visitor to Cape Town, and he to Ireland. Somehow, though, his most recent visit became a very public trip home -- despite the fact that Conrad didn't court publicity -- and speculation was rife as to what he was doing here. But Conrad seemed to be keeping his counsel. And then he rang wanting me to buy him lunch.

And it's amazing what a nice lunch and a few glasses of wine can get out of a guy and, while he refuses an interview, Conrad vaguely agrees to tell me what he's up to. He is adamant that he doesn't want publicity, having promised his mother and his family that he will no longer be a public figure, a celebrity chef. But he clearly has a need to explain himself. And clearly he wants to set straight the stuff that's been written in the papers, none of which is really true.

In short, Conrad Gallagher is coming home, but not to take the Stephen's Green restaurant scene by storm, as was reported. You have to realise that Conrad Gallagher is now a very different man to the man who left this country five years ago. Most strikingly, Conrad Gallagher is now primarily a family man with a whole new set of priorities. He has no interest in celebrity and seems to be allergic to being in the papers. He is visibly pissed off about being photographed pushing a buggy around in Dublin, with his wife, Candice, and his young kids, Conor and Chandler.

Conrad Gallagher is coming home because he wants to be at home. I suspect he wants his two kids with Candice to grow up here rather than in the increasingly fraught South Africa. On his recent visit, he was talking a lot about nature and nurture, being among your own, and about the rearing of children and what kind of environment they should grow up in. In short, I actually think that Conrad Gallagher is coming home in no small part because he wants his kids -- now one-and-a-half and three-and-a-half -- to be Irish, or, as he prefers to put it, because he wants them to "be in touch with and know about their Irish culture. Because that's a very important part of them." Because, when you think about it, unless he comes home to Ireland, this Donegal man is going to have African kids. As he says quite bluntly, his wife is African, his kids were born there, they are starting to grow up there. If they go to school there as well -- well, then they'll be African.

There are other reasons, too. Conrad would like to be living closer to his daughter, Lauren.

As he says himself: "My daughter comes out to South Africa once or twice a year and we come home once or twice a year -- and it's a question of, 'Where to now?'"

And I suspect he himself wants to be among his own too -- family, friends, people who understand him. Candice said to him on this visit back that she has never seen him laugh so much. We both agree that you can only really, truly, totally be yourself among your own. I think he ultimately would like to cook here again, too, in his own restaurant, blowing all the rest of them out of the water. But it's a little bit more complicated than that, as I will find out.

All of this is not to say that South Africa hasn't been good to Conrad Gallagher. A two-week holiday in Cape Town at his lowest point, and a chance meeting with a fan out there, turned into a five-year odyssey and a complete reinvention for Conrad.

"I went to South Africa for two weeks' holidays and then I kind of said to myself: 'You know, I think I could make a life here.' Was I broke? Yeah. But listen, like I'd done many times before in my life, I packed a bag, threw it up over my shoulder and off I went."

Was he bitter leaving Ireland?

"One needs to define the word bitter, it's a strong word. Listen, it sucks up too much energy being bitter. What happened, happened. I drew a line under it and I left. I licked my wounds, nobody lost more than I lost. The day I got on the plane it was a new start, a blank canvas. Where I went from there was entirely up to myself."

Did he feel he had to go away for a while?

"I had to. There was no option."

Would nobody have touched him with a barge pole in Dublin at that time?

"No. I mean, I still had opportunities; I had good opportunities. But I wasn't prepared to go back and work for some guy. I didn't have the make-up for that."

When I spent time with Conrad four years ago in Cape Town and then down in Sun City, he was being treated like a kind of god by Sun International, the five-star-plus resort chain whose overall food and beverage offering Conrad had been hired to overhaul. He reminded me a bit of Colonel Kurtz out there in Africa, this big, huge, gentle giant with a glint of madness in his eye, danced attendance on by his unquestioning acolytes. They spoke of Conrad in hushed, awed tones; even the management seemed in thrall to this visionary. And the food, by the way, was incredible. It was inspiring and exciting. Conrad seemed excited and inspired by it all too.

When I heard he was coming home, my first thought was that he had fallen out with Sun International or that it had all gone tits up in some way. On the contrary, he explains that he has developed his work with Sun International into a consultancy of his own, whereby he comes up with concepts for restaurants for all kinds of other clients, too.

"When they originally brought me in as a group executive chef, they wanted me to take care of the group of hotels with a view to making the food better," he says.

"I was able to take that concept, going from hotel to hotel, to make it better, and I was able to turn it into a proper consultancy agency where I would become an in-house consultant for the group and not an employee. And I went on a mission to, number one, improve the food, but also I was able to sell the rule that people don't want hotel dining rooms, they want restaurants. This allowed me then to start developing concepts, and I did that very intensely for about two years, and I went from hotel to hotel to hotel to hotel in that group. And, you know, I made a massive difference to the quality and standards, but, most of all, the focus, because I sold them the idea that anybody can run a hotel -- they just need to have money, they need to know how to build it, to get a good designer to build a decent room -- but what makes the great hotel companies of the world market leaders is what they do in food and beverage."

Conrad also saw his work with Sun International in broader sociological terms.

"There was a huge amount of unskilled employees in South Africa and tourism was taking off there, but there was no investment back into the workforce at all.

"For example, the kitchens were all dark -- they were forgotten about. Hotels could've gone through two or three revamps over the years, but the kitchens were never touched. So I said to them: 'Don't you worry about that. I'll take care of this part of it, but this is what I need: I want 100-watt bulbs in all the kitchens; I want every single young chef to have a cook book, a set of knives, proper uniforms and proper leather shoes. I want to start investing back into proper workforce programmes, I want colour TVs put in all the kitchens, I want the broken tiles replaced, I want to start improving working conditions, I don't want the staff to eat leftovers all day, I want proper canteen food, I want to create career paths for guys, I don't want to see one guy peeling onions for 18 years."

And he got it.

"I'm a pretty forceful guy," he says.

"When I put that white jacket on, there's a certain amount of madness that comes with it and I went on this mission that I would train and mould the workforce, at the same time leaving a legacy of recipes and standards and qualities behind me, and I pulled every feather out of my cap during that journey. I committed to two years of 18 hours a day. I was passionate about South Africa, I was passionate about South African people, so it actually became a very real journey for me.

"The more I dug deeper into it, the more I saw this natural passion in these people who had been suppressed for years and years and years, and this natural talent that nobody gave opportunities to. And a lot of my executive chefs were big, fat, hairy Germans who were there for 30 years, and there was never any room for these young local guys to keep moving up the ladder. But literally, within 12 months, as I was pushing for the quality and standards, as I was pushing from the bottom, a lot of the guys on the top kind of folded, and I made room for the other young coloured guys and young black guys coming up, and I made a few mission statements saying that our top hotels in Africa would be run by locals over the next two to three years, which is very much the case now."

So Conrad was on a social mission as well as a commercial one?

"Genuinely, I was enjoying doing something good, yes. But don't get me wrong, it was financially motivated. I was paid very, very well to do a job, but along the path of doing that there were opportunities to go and do what I did."

After four years of this, Conrad went to Sun International and said that he felt he had done what he could, that it was time for someone else to take the reins now. They prevailed on him to stay, so eventually he agreed that he would continue to work for them as a consultant but he would also take on other clients. So nowadays, as well as continuing to do restaurants for Sun International, and as well as running his own place in Cape Town, Conrad Gallagher invents restaurants for other people. He'll look at the area, look at the market, and come up with ideas for you. If you want him to, he will get the place designed, built and fitted out. He will invent your menus and even come in and cook there during the start-up. It's probably the perfect job for a man who always loved setting up restaurants. After all, he had seven of them at one point in his 20s.

In the meantime, Conrad made a life for himself in South Africa. Within a year of being down there he met Candice, a coloured South African who worked as a marketing manager with a multinational company. It was, he says, a "whirlwind love affair".

Marriage wasn't something he was actively looking for at the time: "Obviously, I wasn't going to live like a hermit for ever, but I wasn't going to get married for the sake of it either. But I met Candice at a time where I had spent a year focused on work. I'd been filming a new TV show at the time, I'd been doing some international work and I was flying back to Ireland every month doing some consultancy for Donnybrook Fair and things were just starting to happen for me again, and then bang; we met, whirlwind love affair and we married within a year of meeting, and now we have two beautiful kids."

Candice runs a chain of coffee shops she and Conrad own called Sundance Coffee Company. They were always kind of amateur coffee roasters, he says, and what makes Sundance different is that they roast their own coffee. Conrad's consultancy business is thriving too, particularly in Dubai and the Middle East.

He has also opened his own restaurant in Cape Town, Geisha, which is a kind of noodle bar, though when I make the mistake of suggesting it's cheap and cheerful, he says flatly: "I don't do cheap and cheerful."

His life in South Africa sounds close to idyllic and is certainly a far cry from his tumultuous old life in Ireland. While he still works hard all week, his philosophy when it comes to his wife and kids, he says, is that time is love.

"If we spend time together, that's how we show the love, as they say, in my house. So we don't eat out a lot or go out a lot. We're inclined to do a lot of stuff at home. I don't work weekends any more and on a Friday evening I'll come home and I'll say to my wife that I'll take over the reins, the chores and duties for the weekend. So we don't go out a lot, we don't party a lot. There's not that many good restaurants there anyway and when you eat in them all two or three times you start getting tired of them. And my wife's a very good cook -- and I can cook OK myself, too."

Their social life, you get the impression, revolves hugely around Irish people. So, while life is good in Cape Town, the lure of home has never left him, though he is in ways ambivalent about Ireland.

"I'm sure there are a few enemies out there somewhere. But nobody has actually come up to me and said: 'It serves you right, you arsehole.' But I was 22 years old when I came home to Ireland first. Someone should have said: 'Just run one restaurant. Don't try to run several.' But, listen, I've told the stories before about being brought into the head office of AIB and being given champagne and cognac, and six years later I went into the same office and wasn't even offered a cup of tea."

He is slightly bemused too by the prices here now. He marvels that he used to offer a seven-course tasting menu in Peacock Alley for €36. It was considered scandalous at the time. The previous day, he notes, he paid more than fifty quid for a steak in his hotel. You get the feeling that Conrad feels he might have been before his time in this town.

"It's a very different country to the one I left," he says of Ireland now.

"I took my wife for a walk yesterday, down Grafton Street, up Pearse Street to Ocean Bar. I opened that Ocean Bar, 10 years ago. In hindsight, I was mad; everyone told me at the time I was mad. I mean, there was nothing down there when I opened there, I opened it on the anticipation that it would take a year or two to get it up and running. And I'm there yesterday and the furniture I bought, the floors I picked, everything, somebody else has it now, and that whole area seems to have finally taken off. I'm looking around saying: 'I bought into this because it was going to be this, like it is now.' But it was a very different city then. I must say, I like very much what I see now. I don't know . . . it's the energy, it's sophistication," he says.

You get the feeling he might like another crack at Dublin, and not just inventing concepts for people, but back working in the kitchen as that other mad beast that he almost refers to in the third person, the guy cooking in his own shop, the guy who he says would have had the restaurant manager in a headlock if the tablecloths in his place were as badly ironed as they were in Guilbauds.

"There's definitely a side to me that would like to come back here and cook professionally," he says. "But I would only ever do it if I was financially secure."

Is he not? Despite all the work of the past five years?

"Listen, to be honest, I live a fairly humble lifestyle. You know, what's financially sound in South Africa is a far throw from what's financially sound here. I mean, it costs €4.80 for a small bottle of water in my hotel. I can buy three cases of water for that in South Africa. So what's sound in Africa is not necessarily sound here. I think I'd still be a very poor man if I came here. I went shopping in Dundrum yesterday. I think Dundrum is just amazing, but I couldn't believe the price of coffees and things. You don't get much change out of a €20 note these days, do you? Living in Cape Town, I can have the best meal with wine for two people for €50, and all of a sudden you come here and it's €55 for a sirloin steak and you're ordering extra sides to go with that."

But despite all this protesting, Conrad is coming back. He blusters around it and everything, but Conrad Gallagher is coming home. Candice and the kids are already spending a bit of time back here and will be coming to live here full-time very shortly -- they will be renting, in case you're wondering. Candice is open to the idea of trying Ireland and Conrad would like their kids to start going to school here, so he thinks now that Chandler is three-and-a-half and nearly ready for school it's time to make the move. Conrad reckons he can commute between Dublin, Africa and the Middle East. He currently has around 50 restaurant concepts on the go with various hotel chains, but a lot of the concept work can be done from a centralised office anywhere in the world, so Conrad doesn't see why that office shouldn't be in Dublin. At the very least, he will split the business between Cape Town and Dublin.

A lot of opportunities have arisen in Dublin over the past few years, but Conrad seems to still like to do things on his terms, and those opportunities weren't always on his terms; the moment wasn't right either.

But it seems it is now. He has the itch that he says emigrants get every five years or so. And this time he's in a position to scratch the itch.

"Even if I don't do any business here in the next 12 months, I'll be spending a week or two of the month here," he says.

"And I'm going to see how my family acclimatises. My wife and kids are happy to go on this little adventure and my kids are back to get their Irish passports and we'll see what happens."

But reading between the lines, the plan is that he will do business. Part of the reason he was back recently was to explore some options. One of those options is opening up a branch of his noodle bar, Geisha, here, and if Conrad is operating his consultancy partly from here, he will presumably be inventing some restaurants for hotels here. You have to think that there will be queues of people wanting to own their very own Conrad Gallagher restaurant.

As it is, a quarter of the business that Geisha does in Cape Town is Irish people wanting to have the Conrad Gallagher experience. Conrad says Geisha has the best Dim Sum you've ever eaten, as well as amazing noodle and wok dishes. And Conrad doesn't see why Ireland shouldn't have a great Asian restaurant like they have in London or New York.

While he's clearly trying to do things in a more low-key manner this time, and while he is older and wiser now, Conrad Gallagher finds it very hard to keep his big ideas to himself. He finds it hard not to get excited about it all.

I'll tell you what makes Conrad Gallagher's tentative return to Ireland the best news Irish foodies have had in years: he asked me if there were any inspiring restaurants he should be eating in while he's here. I suspect he has been asking everyone the same question. And I didn't have an answer for him. I could tell him some great places where you'd get a great tasty bite, and I had brought him for lunch in what is, according to the experts at Michelin, the best restaurant in the country. But inspiring? Not really. I'd say the main thing that was inspiring about Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud from Conrad's point of view was to see that in Ireland now you can charge €300 for lunch for two without desserts and with just two glasses of wine each. And one of those two patrons -- Conrad -- had to go to the Shelbourne for a sandwich afterwards.

And when Conrad gets his teeth stuck into Ireland again, there will be inspiring restaurants here. Because I have never eaten a meal in a Conrad joint that wasn't exciting and inspiring. Even the breakfasts in his hotel restaurants in South Africa were adventurous and exciting. They were full of big, audacious ideas. He truly is one of those guys who says: "Why not?" He is a national treasure and Irish people have been denied the Conrad Gallagher experience for too long.

And you know what? Though he's being cagey about it, I just know that Conrad Gallagher wants to cook again in Ireland. He is clearly passionate about inventing restaurants for other people, but it is, he admits, kind of babysitting at the end of the day. And while he doesn't want to say as much, I know that Conrad Gallagher was looking about Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud and looking around Dublin and thinking: "I could take this town again, and I could blow them all out of the water."

And the reason he's really coming home? I think it's something to do with things like this: after we had lunch, he rang his dad in Donegal and asked him to come and meet him for a pint. The dad got in the car and Conrad texted me a few hours later, sitting in the pub in Dublin with his dad having a pint of Guinness.

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