One of the shining stars of Dublin’s burgeoning fine dining scene Heron & Grey is to close its doors in the new year as one of the two-man team behind it has decided to step away from the world of Michelin star restaurants in order to spend more time with his family.
The long hours coupled with the psychological and emotional commitment needed to achieve at the high end of the restaurant business is something everyone in the industry is well aware of. Work-life balance is something that is usually reserved for those with nine to five jobs and weekends free. How many relationships have fallen by the wayside in the pursuit of culinary perfection?
Heron & Grey, a 22-seater restaurant located in Blackrock Market in a Dublin suburb surprised everyone when they broke onto the scene with their first Michelin star in 2017. A departure from the usual marquee, city centre location, Head Chef Damien Grey and restaurateur Andrew Heron took over the business from James Sheridan and Soizic Humbert who operated it as The Canteen @ The Market.
The Blackrock market is not a swanky location, there is no food hall or light streaming in through architect-designed glass roof, it is in effect an alleyway that has hosted the same collection of antique, curiosity and second-hand bookstores for years, so when Heron & Grey set up there in 2015 it was very much under the radar. It was the perfect place for the two-man team to incubate their dream of a restaurant that functioned as a test space for experimentation.
Serving a 10-course, no-choice tasting menu for the very reasonable price of €78, Heron & Grey quickly attained a cult following and the attention of the Michelin Guide. The restaurant maintained its Michelin star in 2018, but rather than build on their solid start, they have decided to call it a day as a team.
The demands of running, even a small Michelin star restaurant, seems to have taken its toll on Andrew Heron, who will ‘drop the mic’ and exit the kitchen. It’s an amicable split and Damien Grey will take over the business in February. They have not ruled out working together in the future. Grey will rebrand the restaurant as ‘Liath’, which means grey in Irish.
The move was prompted by the birth of Heron’s first child, Mabel in April. He told The Irish Times: “We finish up on January 26th and from that point forward, I will be searching for my next challenge, something that will allow me time to spend with my family. Everyone always told me that life changes when you have kids and I never really believed them, until I had one."
"Over time, I realised I was missing things and I started looking at what I want in a very different way.”
It certainly raises questions as to the demands placed on people within the industry. Increasingly, calls for more work-life balance in kitchens across the globe are becoming more audible. Burnout is a very real occupational hazard in the world for culinary excellence.
Working 70 or 80-hour weeks is all well and good when you’re in your early twenties, but what happens when your priorities change?
For many, working in the best kitchens in the world is a vocation and they are schooled in the craft of cooking that takes total dedication, but as kitchens look to more sustainability in the food they’re sourcing, they must also look to sustainability in their most valuable resource, the human one.
The demands of the chef profession can turn many off it as a career choice. Meaning there is a growing skills gap. It is getting harder and harder to staff kitchens; staff retention is also a challenge. The gap has been traditionally filled by migrant workers, people with a hunger for the work and a will to succeed at all costs, but this business model depends on a steady flow of immigration, today those streams are being curtailed right across the western world and there are risks that there won’t be the young workers to step into the void.
It is also true that in the ‘gig’ economy, the traditional 40-hour working week is disappearing from view. In almost any profession, you’re expected to respond to emails at the weekend or take a call late at night, but there is no requirement to be in the harsh environment of a kitchen, without natural light and standing on your feet for hours at a time.
Usually, relationships and families suffer the brunt of this maniacal work ethic, and that can’t be sustainable. There’s never been more demand for fine dining from a customer perspective, so to continue to fill that demand, restaurants need to look to new more humane, sustainable business practices.
Some have stated that tipping culture is to blame for wage disparity between the floor and the kitchen and some restaurants have spurned table tipping in favour of a higher cover charge that gets shared among all staff equally. But there are plenty of cultures where tipping is non-existent and the culture of turn and burn still exists in kitchens.
A healthier environment for chefs to work in can only be a win-win for all parties. If chefs continue to sacrifice themselves at the altar of culinary perfection, they risk killing the golden goose. The restaurant business is already precarious, restaurants close all the time, so it’s in everyone’s interests to ensure a sustainable business model that ensures the right talent is attracted to the kitchen as a rewarding career.
There’s no doubt that Liath will prove just as successful as its predecessor, however when you hear of another restaurant pulling down its shutters because of the demands of the job, you do have to wonder why it has to be like this.