A Life in Food

I always had an interest in food and started cheffing at the age of fifteen or sixteen. When I left school,  I held off going to college, and did a bit of cooking instead. I was a mature student of 23 when I did my English and Art History degree at University College Cork. During that time,  I cooked at the Crawford Art Gallery Café, when Isaac Allen was running it. Back then I thought food and art history were separate subjects for me, but today I see more and more parallels between the two. I wouldn’t have started teaching people how to cook unless I had done some teaching in Art History already.  I still teach adult classes in Cork and a lot of my students love food,  so the conversation nearly always gets round to that. We started the cookery school at Cava when it was in its original location, firstly on the request of customers,  who wanted to know more about Spanish food and culture. It became popular so I thought perhaps maybe it could be more of a regular thing. People who came to the classes started seeing the kitchen in action and learning what happens during a service, plus all about Spanish food from a culture prospective. I really like the idea of using good Irish local produce to make an authentic cuisine of another country. That’s what we’ve always done at Cava  and I see that concept really taking off on the food scene here in the future.   When we opened Aniar, the cookery school idea was as much financially driven as anything. At first, it was hard to break the mould in Galway of what Aniar was really all about. It’s a ‘terroir’ based restaurant, so we had to think of something to help get people in, get the message across and make it more understandable. We were closed Sundays and Mondays,  so we started a Sunday class and a Monday evening six week course. That’s extremely popular, just a small group of six,  so its really intimate. We try to communicate what we do at Aniar and give a real understanding of where everything comes from that we use in the kitchen. We use all Irish and local fresh produce. There are some ingredients we have to get from abroad, obviously. We don’t use pepper because we think we can live without it, but we do use lemons because of all the fish. This I try to get across in the classes, as well as breaking down the elitism surrounding Aniar. For example, people think they have to book weeks in advance and dress up in black tie to come. But we love having people walk in off the street. Often it’s possible to get a table on a Saturday evening if you phone in the morning – on a normal weekend. Aniar isn’t an elitist restaurant, even though we are Michelin starred. We really like people to just come in and enjoy it and we don’t really care what they wear, I can’t choose someone’s clothing!  My wife designed the dining room to be simple, so the food really shines. We use a lot of old preserving methods, curing meats, smoking, pickling and the like. These methods have been used for centuries and there’s a lot of connection between Ireland and other countries there. I think it challenges people’s perception of what Irish food really is. We use lots of offal. Our chicken is free range, we buy whole birds from our producer and use the meat intelligently,  so nothing is wasted. It’s good housekeeping and great for the staff to learn that you can afford to use really good quality ingredients when you use them properly.  If I wasn’t working in food, I think I’d like to be a writer. That’s why I studied English.  I often think I should have done my Masters in English instead of Art History. Who knows, I might get round to writing eventually.