JP McMahon, chef patron, Aniar, Galway

The  Staff Canteen
JP McMahon is a self-taught chef from Dublin. He owns three restaurants in Galway, Eat @Massimo, Bodega Cava and Aniar which has a Michelin star. JP has a degree in Art History and English but he chose to pursue a career as a chef when the opportunity to open Cava came up in 2008. Last year he launched the first Food On The Edge, a symposium for chefs, foodies and those in the hospitality industry to come together and listen to some of the world’s most renowned and interesting chefs talk about a dedicated topic. He had over 40 chefs speaking at last year’s event, including Elena Arzak, Davide Scabin and Clare Smyth and this year is set to be even bigger with Massimo Bottura and Michael O’Hare already confirmed. We spoke to JP about the Irish food scene, why nurturing young chefs is so important and why he set himself the challenge of bringing together over 40 chefs for Food On The Edge. Aniar_Restaurant_interior_2016_photo_Julia_Dunin (123 of 147) low resYou went to university and got a degree in Art History and English so how did you end up being a chef? I started cooking when I was 15 but then in my late teens I went back to college as a mature student. I continued to cook because I enjoyed it and I liked food, then the opportunity to open a restaurant came up in 2008 and I decided to go for it. You’re self-taught, has that been difficult? I’ve learned a lot from working in different places and I’m quite bookish so I taught myself a lot through various books. Even though I teach people now as well I always feel that I have more to learn. Over the years since we opened the restaurant I’ve gone to more and more prestigious kitchens to do stages. I spent time with Albert Adria at Tickets, I was recently with Clare Smyth at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay – I suppose I like to put myself in positions that are difficult because I find it rewarding. Is it difficult to adjust to a three star kitchen? I don’t find the cooking changes in terms of the basics, it’s just the complexity of the offering. Clare has 18 chefs in the kitchen we have five in Aniar, they have 50 staff in the restaurant and we have 40 something in all three of ours. It gives me a good insight, not so much into the food side of things but definitely into how to run a restaurant. That’s something I’m always trying to develop, that’s what I’m most interested in, the restaurant as a whole rather than just from the perspective of the kitchen. I suppose that has evolved from being a restaurant owner. You’re not the only one in your family who is in the industry are you? I’m the only chef but my three brothers all do front of house, it’s bizarre I don’t know how we all ended up in the catering industry! Two of my brothers were restaurant managers at our restaurants, they helped a lot in terms of logistics in front of house. The service side of things I’ve always thought was under looked from a chef’s perspective so I’ve always tried to keep that in mind.
Top five restaurant meals 1. St. John's, London 2. Amass, Copenhagen 3. Chapter One, Dublin 4. Tickets, Spain 5. Ox, Belfast Five most influential chefs in career 1. Albert Adria 2. Rene Redzepi 3. Ben Shewry 4. David Kinch 5. Ross Lewis Top 5 comfort foods 1. Pasta 2. Leg of Lamb 3. Risotto 4. Ice-cream 5. Brown soda bread and butter
And what is it like working with family? It’s a bit difficult! My sister is also our graphic designer and she’s my PA now as well, so I suppose you spend half your life trying to get away from your family and then the other half you are back with them! You have three restaurants, you opened Cava first, did you have a plan of what you wanted to achieve with it? I wanted to do a tapas restaurant, I thought tapas was underrepresented in Ireland so we spent some time in Spain, London, New York and we ate in a lot of tapas restaurants top put together an idea of what I would like a tapas restaurant to be. I’ve always had a strong focus on Irish products so I wanted to put them at the forefront, it’s always a mix of a sense of Irishness, staying true to locality but then tapping into style. I wanted something informal where people would share, it’s still our busiest restaurant and it keeps Aniar going sometimes. As a Michelin-starred restaurant the market for that is so much more difficult in the west of Ireland. There are just two starred restaurants in Galway, is it hard to bring in the diners? It is difficult. We have a very good tourist season but in the winter it’s fairly harsh – I mean we have one person booked in tonight. We can only do 36 covers as we have a tasting menu that can go up to 12 courses if people want it so, most people have the table for the night. We don’t set out to turn tables, it’s just a very different model to Cava We never expected to get a star, I think when we set out we hoped we would get a bib gourmand and we wanted to focus on the produce of the west of Ireland, tap into a lot of wild food and work with local producers. The star was like an avalanche hitting the restaurant, it came out of the blue. For the year after that the restaurant was full every night of the week, it was the first star in the west of Ireland in ten years, so there was a lot of interest and it was hard to cope with that! The difficulty was and still is, maintaining it. It never seems to go away the nervousness, you do what you do and you think you do it right but every year you start all over again. JP QuoteDo you find you focus more on Aniar because of that? It’s like the final day every day at Aniar, in Cava it’s much more relaxed and you don’t have to worry so much. The food is still the centre, and all three restaurants use the same produce, I wanted to show people that good food doesn’t just come from fine dining restaurants. People will say you can only use those products when customers are expecting to pay premium price, but we take a hit on our own GP and what we make because we think it’s worthwhile. The more places that do it, the better our food culture will be. You said Aniar is difficult in the winter, do you ever get to the point where you’ve had enough? Sometimes! We lost about 80k last year, I find with restaurants there’s a lack of transparency within the industry so because we are full every night there’s the assumption we are ripping people off with a tasting menu of a 100 euros. But I’ve got to say every year it gets better, if we make a loss of 40k this year I’ll be delighted! You have to make a choice between food and money unfortunately, if you pick good food and it’s free range and organic you can pay three or four times the price. You can’t charge four times the price, so it’s a difficult model but  I think it’s worthwhile. Lamb, pea, celeraic low resAt Aniar, what dishes can people expect from the tasting menu? We do a lot of fermentation, we have a fermented barley dish, the garnish changes a lot but we ferment the barley and cook it so it has a sour taste, then we put it with clams and wild garlic if that’s in season. Aniar is very ingredient led, we always start with an ingredient – we have a new dish on with mackerel, rhubarb and yoghurt and it’s just a simple dish. We look at what’s in season and we try and focus on three or four elements, and try and get the maximum flavour out of them, we are not looking for theatrics. You do a lot of different things, you have the three restaurants, Food On The Edge, teaching – is it still about cooking for you? Of course, I’m still at the stove five days a week, I just have to make compromises. I enjoy public speaking and I think the industry needs more people speaking honestly and transparently about its difficulties. But I still enjoy cooking and I particularly enjoy teaching people how to cook. Aniar has a boutique cookery school that takes six students, we do a course on a Monday night when the restaurant is closed and I still enjoy that. It started as a way to let people into the restaurant who may have thought it was beyond them or they didn’t understand what we do, so just showing them something so simple like a pan fried piece of fish, leaving it a little underdone because it’s the best way to serve it, changing peoples perceptions like that, I enjoy that. I taught an Italian guy how to make focaccia, which I think is scandalous, but he was a computer scientist! It’s funny the people you meet who are involved in food but completely divorced from cooking. Why is it so important for you to inspire the next generation of chefs?Salted Caramel, Malt, Artichoke-Edel McMahon low res For me it wasn’t such a straight and even path to go somewhere and learn something. We have young chefs coming to Aniar to stage and that’s something I always wanted to do when I was learning but it wasn’t as easy as sending off an email. It’s just nice to show them the ingredients we use and how we use them. There are only four or five chefs in the kitchen at Aniar so if there is someone in doing a stage they get a lot of attention to detail. You’re also one of the judges for S.Pellegrino Young Chef this year, how did you get involved in that? Last year at Food On The Edge, we had Mark Moriarty who won the competition last year, speaking and he’s a very bright and eloquent young chef. S.Pellegrino are one of the sponsors of Food On The Edge and when they found out I like teaching, they asked me to be one of the Irish judges. It’s a good opportunity not just for myself but to showcase the west of Ireland and the chefs there.  Hopefully we will get a few more Irish chefs apply. Mark winning was fantastic, when I saw it I thought it was a fantasy, ‘how did Mark win that with a celeriac dish?’ We are always the underdog but he really did take on the world so a credit to him. You like to forage and you’ve said good produce is important to you, do you have an ingredient you like to work with? I like a lot of the sea veg and sea herbs, they are available all year round - a lot of the foraged stuff is hyper seasonal so you get it for a week and then it’s gone. I love seaweed, I think it should be our national vegetable! We have seaweed in about four different dishes and done four different ways! It’s boundless, some dishes we use it raw because it’s so full of an umami taste or we’ll make a dashi with dried seaweed, we pickle it for the vegetarian dishes. There’s a little one called pepper dulse, the truffle of the sea, they are really strong and sometimes we use that as a garnish. And we have a seaweed ice cream on at the moment too, I’m always trying to push our pastry chef with weird tastes! Buckthorn, treacle, seaweed_Edel McMahon low resFood On The Edge is your latest project, you launched it last year, why did you set yourself the challenge of this event? I just started inviting people, there are a lot of talented chefs in the world and we got about 40 of them. It was a bit of a dream, we did everything in reverse, I started sending emails with no money and then I had to go and look for funding. It was good to show people that things like that can be done in places that don’t have twenty years of tradition in food. Galway is a very young food scene, but the produce we have in the west of Ireland is rooted in hundreds of years. When we took the guys who came over here and showed them around I think they really appreciated it. We took them to a wild oyster bed and now both Nathan Outlaw and Albert Adria are now using these oysters. It was things like that I wanted to show them.

>>> Read more on Food On The Edge here 

I also wanted to create a bench mark for Irish chefs as well, I wanted to inspire them and show them what’s happening in the world and that we can do it as well. It doesn’t have to happen in a place with thousands of years of food culture or loads of money. I would love to see it as an annual event and for it to grow but keep the audience to 400 at a time. I want it to stay small and boutique.
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 28th April 2016

JP McMahon, chef patron, Aniar, Galway