Oliver Dunne, Cleaver East and Bon Appetit, Dublin

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 2nd June 2015
Oliver Dunne owns Cleaver East and Michelin-starred Bon Appetit in Dublin. He used to sell shoes before becoming a commis chef and moving to London age 21. He worked in City Rhodes, Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road, Putney Bridge and Pied de Terre to name a few, before returning to Ireland. After a year of opening Bon Apetit he was awarded a Michelin star, the fastest ever received by an Irish Chef. The Staff Canteen spoke to him about moving to London and how far ahead it was of Ireland, going viral on Twitter and letting his Michelin star go this year after ten years.Oliver Dunne2 How did you get into the industry? I fell into the industry and I became a chef by accident. I had tried a number of different things after I left school including working in clothes shops which I hated. I was selling shoes at the time and when I got that job I replaced Ronan Keating, he went to Boyzone and I took his place in the shoe shop! Then I was offered a job in a restaurant as a commis chef, I had no idea what it was but I took it because it sounded better than selling shoes. What appealed to you about being a chef? It was the discipline and I loved how hard it was. I’m a very black and white person and I found I fitted in very well to kitchen life at the high end, which is also very black and white. You moved to London when you were 21, what made you want to make that move? It’s a bit of a tragic story but one of my best friends died on my 21st birthday. At that stage I still felt like I was floating around, I was cooking but I wasn’t taking it seriously, when my friend died I decided I needed to make a go of it. bon apetitAnd where did you start in London? I started with Gary Rhodes at City Rhodes but I also did stages at Lindsay House and The River Café. I was there for three days, stayed in a hostel and did a day in each restaurant. I was offered a job in all three but I chose City Rhodes because I had heard so much about Gary over the years. So, was it everything you expected? Yes, but back then London was so far ahead of Ireland, it was like a different world. It was beyond belief! I didn’t realise fish didn’t swim in portions when I went over to London! The restaurants I had worked in, everything was mass produced. London was my first time exposed to good ingredients and proper techniques – it blew me away. You moved on to Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road but you only stayed six months, why was that? The kitchen didn’t suit me at all, I had no issues there and I got on well but the mentality of the kitchen at the time didn’t suit me. Out of all the Michelin-starred restaurants I’d worked in I learnt the least. You also had to spend a couple of years in each section and I wasn’t prepared to wait four/five years to work my way through the kitchen. I was very disappointed leaving but I decided to cut my losses before I got too far into it.Strawberry Cream Panna Cotta_03 You moved back to Dublin but came back to London after eight months and worked at Putney Bridge with Anthony Demetre, what was that like? It was great, Anthony is a great fella and he’s very creative. He had a great work ethic and I was with him for a good while before I moved to Pied de Terre with Shane Osborne. You worked in some top restaurants with a lot of well-known chefs, what did you learn that has stuck with you? What I took from London, what sticks with me is my time in Pied de Terre. I was there for just under two years and we won the second star when I was there. I learnt the most about cooking from Shane Osbourne – I really do admire him. Not just cooking but how he ran his kitchen. He led by example, he was first in and last out, did everything faster than everyone else and I just admired him. You moved back to Ireland in 2003, did you feel ready at that point to go home? I had a clear plan. I knew when I went to London when I was 21 that I wanted to be head chef by the time I was 26. So I took a head chef job back in Ireland in a restaurant called Mint. Smoked Baby Beets with Burnt Goats Curd, Pickled Plums and Sour Dough CroutonsWe won Ireland’s best restaurant within six months but my plan was always to work there for two years, make a name for myself in Ireland and then open my own restaurant. I wanted to achieve a Michelin star in the first year of opening my own place, which I did and I wanted to retire when I was 35 – I didn’t achieve that part! So a Michelin star was always a goal of yours? Yes it was. When I worked in my first Michelin-starred restaurant I saw what food could be, how intricate and beautiful it could be but also how difficult and challenging it could be. That’s what I loved, I loved the challenge of it. Once I saw that I couldn’t settle for just a run of the mill restaurant, I wouldn’t work in a restaurant if it didn’t have a star and I spent my weekends staging in two and three star restaurants. That was all I was consumed with for ten years of my life. And how did it feel when you finally achieved your own Michelin star at Bon Appetit? It was great. Apart from the usual things like having children, it was the happiest day of my life. It was such a relief that I hadn’t done all that work for nothing. It was a relief of pressure that I had carried with me for years and years.Carpaccio of Irish Dexter Beef Rocket Pesto and 36 Month Reggaino Parmesan_04 Once you achieved the star, how hard was it to maintain it? The answer might sound cocky but it’s not – I don’t find it hard to maintain it. At this stage now, we just go in and we do our jobs. We’ve learnt to cook at a certain standard, that’s what we do and we don’t accept anything less. We don’t cook badly, if we make a mistake we bin it and we follow basic rules which are cook something really well, learn from your mistakes and if you make a mistake you ditch it. There’s no pressure for me to keep the star, but there’s a huge pressure in Ireland to fight the perception of what a Michelin star is. There are only eight Michelin star restaurants in the whole country. So the vast majority of the population don’t know what a Michelin star means. There’s a lot of negativity towards it and that’s what I fight against, not keeping the star. How do you change or get round people’s ideas of what a Michelin star restaurant is? I had felt for about seven years that I should have changed Bon Appetit, it had a lot of negative perception around it and it became special occasion. I was conscious that I spent my whole life learning to cook at a certain level, then I got there and I was only catering for a small percentage of the population. I just felt, ‘what’s the point of that? Why did I bother? Did I do it just to win a Michelin star, make no money and have a rubbish business?’ The answer was no I didn’t and that was always in the back of my mind. As chefs you dedicate your life to the kitchen but there has to be something at the end of it. The food is great and we are all passionate but surely there has to be a pay off? For me it was a better quality of life so I opened Cleaver East. Everything was better in Bon Appetit but customers left Cleaver East happier. It was amazing to see. We created a relaxed environment and people didn’t come with perceptions of how they should behave. Seeing that really gave me the instinct to go with my gut and change Bon Appetit. What did you change about Bon Appetit? I renovated last year and I combined the restaurant with the brasserie and tapas bar. It’s over three floors and its three different dining concepts. I got the confidence from Cleaver East to combine the best of the Michelin-starred restaurant and the brasserie which had a bib gourmand. I de-formalised it and made it much more casual, I changed the prices instead of pricing ourselves out of the market. Business-wise it’s been a really positive move, the negative side is come October our Michelin star will be gone. But we knew that, we thought about it, and at the end of the day what’s the point of holding on to a Michelin star just so people can come for birthdays and anniversaries?St Tola Goats Cheese Parfait Heirloom Beets Walnut Praline_08 I worked incredibly hard to get there, I had it for nearly ten years and I don’t need it anymore. I’m confident enough in what I’m doing now. In saying that, it was an amazing thing to achieve and I’m very grateful to have been awarded it in the first place. And what about the menus, where does your inspiration for dishes come from? Inspiration for me comes from anywhere and everywhere. It’s easy to get pigeonholed because people ask you what’s your style? But for me I never had a style, all my restaurants are French based but we just cook what we like. And since the renovation we can really do this as we don’t have that level of perception anymore. I really do get ideas from everywhere, from home, another restaurant or a book – then we try things and we watch trends and we give people what they want. You’re led a lot by your customers if you are willing to listen to them. TwiiterSocial media is a big part of the industry now and you know yourself how easy it is for something to go viral. People may not know about your run in with a food critic which saw a picture you posted on twitter of you holding her head instead of a pigs head get a lot of attention. Did you expect the reaction you got? It was blown out of proportion – Lucinda O’Sullivan is a food critic in Ireland and she’s notorious for being nasty and negative. She’d been negative when I opened Bon Appetit, then she came in when Cleaver East opened. We knew she was in, I said hello and she got perfect service and stunning food but her card declined and she threw a tantrum. Her review came out and it was negative again and I had enough of her bullying people. I was well enough known and I said I’m not taking it so I wrote a blog called Declined about her and what happened. It got picked up by people and went viral, from this a journalist came in to the restaurant with a mocked up image of me holding her head instead of a pigs head. I thought it was funny, took a picture and tweeted it. That went viral, it went all over the world and I never even thought about it when I did it. It was the best thing that happened – we were rammed! We were fully booked at Cleaver East for five months. It was great, it worked out perfectly.original When it comes to young chefs has Ireland changed? And do you enjoy inspiring the next generation? Yes absolutely! It’s one of those things, there are few and far between in Dublin who have that real passion. Most young chefs, like me, when we are really into it we go abroad and we travel. It’s a great shame but to be honest years ago it was a necessity and I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t of travelled. But when you get someone who’s really keen and has a passion for it, it’s brilliant. It’s just nice to talk to someone who wants to learn, listens and takes things on board. Ireland has come on leaps and bounds in the past ten years. To find out more about Bon Appetit click here or for information on Cleaver East click here *We've got lots of head chef positions over on our jobs board here if you like the sound of running your own kitchen.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 2nd June 2015

Oliver Dunne, Cleaver East and Bon Appetit, Dublin