'Behind every Irish award, there's a fat guy smoking a cigar getting rich'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Before Michelin recognised their work, there was little but word of mouth to spread the word about Bastion, Kinsale's only Michelin-starred restaurant.

Few ventured out of their safe havens in neighbouring Cork, lamenting the distance, albeit short, from the city. 

Not only that, but, according to chef Paul McDonald critics rarely stray from their habitual circles in Dublin. 

All too often, press about Michelin is negative - with some claiming that it is losing its touch, that its inspection process is fraught and even allegations of tourism board pay-offs and corruption in new regions.

'Dublin's got its own clique of reviewers and they tend not to make it outside of Dublin too much'

But the Scottish chef, who has worked in Ireland for a large chunk of his career, said: "It's done a massive amount for our business. It kept us in business. The power of it is unreal. Overnight, we got 300 emails looking for bookings." 

The Irish capital's reviewers, the chef explained, "have their own thing going on." 

"They tend not to make it outside of Dublin too much, and if they do, they want to either nail someone to the cross and tell them how bad it is or tell the world that they've found this hidden gem."  

"We've never been reviewed by a Dublin critic in 5 years."

That is, until they were singled out by the guide. 

"Four days after we got our star, a well-known Dublin critic came in, and thankfully that went well." 

"First, it's annoying, because it affects your business and stuff and you think - you're looking at it going: 'we're here, we're doing really f*****g good stuff, come and look!'"

Michelin, on the other hand, he said, were eating at Bastion nine weeks after it opened - proof that they don't follow the critics. 

For Paul, Irish awards are mostly flawed, because they are inextricable from the very fabric of Ireland.

"There's enough awards, loads of them there's an award for the opening of every envelope over here, but behind them all, there's a fat guy smoking a fat cigar, getting rich. A lot of politics involved." 

"Being a small country has its pros and its cons and that's one of its cons. Everybody knows everybody. So it's all - 'look after Timmy there, Timmy's done a good job this year, Timmy helped us out at the whatever opening of whatever envelope so we'll look after him for the awards ceremony'- theres a lot of that, and if you play that game you can make it work for you but we had no interest in that, we just put our head down and cook on - hoping word of mouth does its job." 

'Michelin is one of the ones that I always thought: 'there's not a fat guy sitting behind a desk smoking a fat cigar.'

For Paul, Michelin's saving grace comes from its thorough review process.  

"I still believe it's straight up," he said. 

"You're good enough or you're not." 

"Maybe naively, because I spoke to one independent non Michelin reviewer in London when I was over at the awards ceremony, I said: 'you know I think Michelin is one of the ones that I always thought there's not a fat guy sitting behind a desk smoking a fat cigar. It's real because they don't announce themselves, they come in, they eat, they leave. Who knows how many visits we've had." 

Despite the controversy around Michelin in some parts of the world, namely in Asia, he added: "who knows, because we're all human and there are human beings in New York that review and there are people in Indonesia that review restaurants and they're all from that neck of the woods, but, you know, it happens." 

And while the guide's lack of transparency goes against it sometimes, because of such incidents, the chef still believes that it is what makes its strength.

"We've eaten in restaurants and sometimes you go to Michelin-starred restaurants and think, 'why don't we have one, this is madness' and in other restaurants with one star and you're going, 'shit, now we know why we've not got any.'"

 The chef thinks back with bemusement to when he attended the awards ceremony, nervously expressing his doubts to chef Ashley Palmer-Watts. 

"I was sitting beside him and I asked him, 'what's the deal with - because we kept our Bib, we had a Bib since day 1 and we kept it so that's why I was there going 'they'd have to take the Bib off us to give us the star' and I was like, what the f**k, I couldn't wrap my head around it also they don’t email you telling you’ve earned a star, instead they email you in Inviting you to the awards ceremony and that is all. Maybe it’s to keep you on edge maybe not but it kept us on edge for sure." 

"That's why Lord of the doubt crept in I suppose, but I was chatting to him about it and he just smiled and he said: 'this is the third live event I've done, he said, the first one, no-one knew what was happening, people were here with three stars and people were here with two stars and people were here with no stars, and they didn't know if they were going to lose a star, or gain a star or anything and the tension was really really high - he said, to the point that fights were just about to break out because people were getting really really irate with each other, because everybody was on edge."

 "He said it got to the point that Michelin had to come over the PA system and say: 'just to let everyone know, anyone that is here is at minimum retaining what they already have,' and he said the whole room just went 'aaaah' and everyone started drinking again, he said it was absolutely nuts." "And I said: 'yeah that's what I feel like now' and he just kind of went: 'oh good' and then I was sat there for a few minutes and thought, he still didn't answer the f*****g question.""

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 7th January 2020

'Behind every Irish award, there's a fat guy smoking a cigar getting rich'