Paul Flynn

25th August 2016

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Emile Dinneen

25th August 2016

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Emile Dinneen

If anyone knows his way around a kitchen, it’s Paul Flynn. He was 18 when he started cooking professionally at the local pub in Dungarvan, on Ireland’s south coast. Just five years later, he was head chef at a two-Michelin-star restaurant in London, under the legendary (and fearsome) chef-patron Nico Ladenis. After another five years he moved to Dublin, swapping fine dining for jazzy brasserie food at La Stampa. Then in 1997 he returned to Dungarvan and opened the Tannery, which is still, after nearly 20 years, one of the best restaurants in Ireland.

When it came to designing his kitchen at home, however, Paul found that all his professional experience didn’t quite translate. “Oh we made loads of mistakes,” he says cheerfully, showing us around the modern house on a hill overlooking Dungarvan where he lives with his wife Máire and two daughters. “Behind here is a cold room which we only use twice a year, so it has no business being there. And then I put in one of these commercial fridges, but it would drive you nuts with the noise. I never even thought of that.”

Once we’re settled in with a glass of wine, Paul gets started on lunch: a simple chowder of bacon and butter beans with some plaice added in at the end. The simplicity is the point here: at his cookery school next to the restaurant, Paul extols the virtues of unfussy food. He has little time these days for the hushed gastronomic temples where he learned his trade, and even less for current culinary fads (“the only foraging I do,” he says, “is for beer”). With us, he gets excited about a humble onion, which he spends a good 40 minutes sweating in a casserole pot, and has no qualms whatsoever about using beans straight from the tin.

The resulting chowder, which we share with Máire and their 10-year-old daughter Ruth, is delicious and immensely comforting, even on a warm afternoon in May. Who cares if a kitchen isn’t perfect when the food it produces is this good?

Continued below...

Did you grow up in house where food was important?

Paul: No. I grew up in the mid-70s when it was all convenience food, so I lived on smash and biscuits. Our favourite dinner was a thing called chicken mush. My mother used to shove everything into a pot and boil it for hours. We’d come home from school and just see the legs of the chicken sticking out. All the meat would have fallen off the chicken and all the vegetables would be stuck to the bottom of the pot. But actually it tasted quite nice.

What got you into food? Did you have some kind of epiphany?

Paul: I think so. After school, I didn’t really know what to do. My Leaving Cert results were woeful – I was more concerned about beer and girls – so I ended up getting a job in a pub called Merry’s in Dungarvan. By chance, there was a really good chef there, an Irish guy who had trained under Paul Bocuse. I’d go in and there’d be a beautiful rack of lamb in the kitchen, bowls of mussels up on the bar, fantastic eclairs, beautiful desserts… I thought: What’s going on here?

p1150497

p1150425

p1150428

Was there a particular dish that got you?

Paul: My first job was making dauphinoise potatoes and I used to eat nearly as much as I made. We never went away on holidays to France or anywhere like that, so I’d never come across anything like it before.

Were you hooked on cooking straight away?

Paul: Truth of it is, my father wanted me to take over the chemist and he was very disappointed when I didn’t want to. I hated the confines of the shop. But the kitchen was completely different. There’s something about it that I loved. But if I was going to do it, I had to do it properly, so a year after my 18th birthday I went over to London. I had a brother there and I worked in crappy hotels for a year, but in the meantime I was writing to all the top chefs. I got a job with the Roux brothers initially.

The kitchen was full of hard French guys who had no respect for Irish people. “You’re Irish and you think you can cook? You must be joking.”

What was that like?

Paul: Really tough. The kitchen was full of hard French guys who had no respect for Irish people. “You’re Irish and you think you can cook? You must be joking.” They were just ruthless. Soon after that, I got a job with [legendary Greek-Tanzanian chef] Nico Ladenis. I started as a commis and four years later I was his head chef [at Nico at Ninety on Park Lane]. It was a two-Michelin star restaurant, one of only four in the country at the time, and I was 23. I did that for five years, but then I wanted a change.

p1150312

Why?

Paul: My heart wasn’t in it. It was too formal. You’d go into those high-end places and nobody would be laughing. No fun, just silence. They were like temples where people would come to pay homage to the chef.

So where did you go?

Paul: I got headhunted to run a big brasserie in Dublin called La Stampa. That was much more rock ‘n’ roll. In Nico’s I had 17 or 18 chefs underneath me doing 90 to 95 covers, whereas at La Stampa we were doing 300 covers with seven chefs. I had to reassess everything and find out whether I could actually cook for myself or only do what I was told, which is what it was like under Nico.

How long did you stay at La Stampa?

Paul: Nearly four years. Then I had this mad, crazy idea of coming down here. I used to watched Rick Stein’s TV programmes where he’d be strolling along the beach in Cornwall with the dog and I’d think: I’d like a bit of that. But I didn’t factor in everything else.

p1150331

p1150401

p1150391

By “everything else”, you mean…?

Paul: Work. And there was a lot of it – particularly in the first three years. We had a really good core of people who were with us from the start, but others came and went. Then we had a bit of luck: I was asked to be the food writer for the Irish Times. I’d never written before, but I just wrote honestly about running a restaurant down the country. That column brought a whole new audience down to the restaurant.

The turbot was just amazing. I was there with a few friends and we didn’t want to leave.
Paul on his favourite food places in the south of Ireland – see Address Book

Are you still cooking these days, or just keeping an eye on things?

Paul: Honestly, I’m keeping an eye on things. On the pass all the time is where I am. I’ve turned into my old boss. Scary but it happens. Anyway we’re here nearly 20 years now. Máire and I have two distinct roles but she definitely works harder than I do.

What’s your role, Máire?

Máire: I do a bit of everything, but generally I take care of all the day-to-day admin. I also do the front of house at the weekends. If I can get out of Sunday lunch, I will, to be at home with the kids, but if it’s really busy I’ll go in. And in the summer I’m in a bit more because that’s a really busy time.

p1150382

Running a restaurant in the countryside isn’t always easy.

Paul: No, it isn’t. And the recession in Ireland made it even more difficult. Being on the other side of that is a really good thing. When people lose their jobs, they don’t want to come to a posh restaurant.

Did you have to adapt?

Paul: Absolutely. You have to offer value for money; people regard that as being paramount. Now, in the downstairs area, we have a little wine bar where we do burgers, chips and pasta. If you had said that to me 10 years ago, I would have said you’re crazy. But it brings in a completely new crowd as well as giving us much-needed extra revenue. The vibe in the place is completely changed: young people are coming in. As soon as you walk in the door now, it’s busy.

p1150464

p1150418

What sort of food do you like to cook at home?

Paul: I love winter cooking. A lovely pork stew with cider and mustard and apples: that’s the kind of food I love. Really simple stuff.
Máire: We’re winter people in this house. We love the long nights, we love being cosy – and we love all the winter food.
Paul: The weather will tell you what to eat. If you go for a walk on the beach when it’s lashing rain and freezing cold, you’re not going to come in and have a tomato salad.

I love winter cooking. A lovely pork stew with cider and mustard and apples: that’s the kind of food I love. Really simple stuff

Do you cook much at home, Máire?

Máire: I do the everyday cooking for the kids. But if I can get out of it, I will.

It’s not a passion for you?

Máire: No not really. Although I’ve gotten better at it over the years by osmosis. So I think I’m quite a good cook.

Would you agree Ruth?

Ruth: Yeah.
Máire: But on my day off, or a Sunday night at home, why would I want to be slaving away in the kitchen?

p1150483

Paul starts preparing the onions for the chowder.

Paul: At the cookery school, I end up talking about onions more than anything else… If you leave these onions in this pot for five minutes, it’d be fine, you’ll have an okay result. But if you leave them to cook really slowly in butter and bay leaves for 20 minutes, you’ll have a dream. It’s all about patience. I appreciate Asian food, where things are done really fast, but I suppose my whole approach to cooking is about doing things slowly.

What other advice do you give in your classes?

Paul: What I really try to teach people is that it’s not about being fancy. Simplicity is the key. Make it taste nice. And then, for the more competent people, I show them how they can add extra elements. This is a very simple chowder and it’s great on its own, but you could also add some plaice or mussels.

On The Menu

Lunch with Paul and Máire Flynn
Dungarvan, Co Waterford, May 2016

To eat:

Bacon and butter bean chowder with fresh plaice »

To drink:

Chateau de la Mirande, Picpoul de Pinet
Water

So people should learn the basics first and embellish later.

Paul: Yes. It’s really important to instil a sense of confidence in people. A lot of people are just terribly frightened of cooking, of getting something wrong. The worst thing you can do is burn it, but otherwise you can fix a lot of things. You can fix them by just tasting. If it’s a little bit too sour, put some sugar in it; if it’s a little bit too sweet, add lemon juice or vinegar. Tasting is very important.

p1150478

p1150492

I see you’re using a tin of butterbeans there. Is that not a punishable offence?

Paul: If you want to soak butterbeans and make it a two-day process, away you go, but that’s not what I would do at home. At the restaurant we cook differently of course, but any worthiness [in home cooking] makes me run the other way. Just like the people who are obsessed with talking about wild flowers and foraging. If someone starts talking to me about all that, I switch off. The only foraging I do is for beer.

Do you use cookbooks a lot?

Paul: I love them but I get frustrated. The curmudgeon in me is going to come out now. All the cookbooks these days are obsessed with health. It’s all about using your Nutribullet to best effect and juicing up grass – I’m a bit cynical about that now. I think it’s a real fad. When you see them all on the table in a bookshop, it feels like we’re being attacked. I’m going to bring out a book called Just Add More Butter
Seriously though, the best way you can keep your family healthy is to cook good food at home, it will set them up for life. Okay I’m going to feed you now. This is my one function around here: feeding people.

The Tannery is at 10 Quay St, Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, Ireland; www.tannery.ie

Follow the Tannery: Facebook | Twitter

p1150447

Posted 25th August 2016

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Emile Dinneen

More Interviews

Zoe Adjonyoh – The chef & food writer cooks Moroccan chicken for lunch, recounts a journey to her Ghanaian roots and explains how a pot of peanut butter stew launched a flourishing food career

Roger Phillips – The horticulturalist and food writer takes us around his secret London garden, discusses his deep-rooted love of mushrooms and explains why he sleeps in his kitchen

Erwin Gegenbauer – The master vinegar brewer takes us on a tour of his Vienna factory, explains why local produce is “boring” and makes us breakfast featuring his own honey, oil, coffee, beer and cider

Ryan Chetiyawardana – The cocktail pioneer devises an elaborate pairing menu, explains the deceptively simple idea behind his bars, confesses a major food aversion and recalls his favourite ever meal