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JP McMahon started cooking when he was around 15-year-old - he’s worked in restaurants across Ireland and upon leaving school knew he wanted to become a chef. “I think the first time I ever tasted salt on a tomato and realised that the salt made the tomato taste nicer, I knew food was about more than just eating.”
The self appointed ‘obsessive educationalist’ very nearly walked away from the kitchen when he returned to University as a mature student, “I went back to college to do English and Art History and I thought I wasn’t going to be a chef anymore” but the draw of the kitchen kept him coming back for more, he continued to work and perfect his technique even while studying and when, in 2008, the opportunity to open his very own restaurant came up, he jumped at the chance and opened Cava - a place once described as serving ‘the best Tapas in Ireland’.
It’s in 2011 that his role as an ambassador for Irish food really kicked in as the chef opened his second restaurant, Aniar - a 28-seat fine dining establishment with a focus on serving local Irish ingredients. The restaurant received a Michelin star a year later and JP has since taken on a number of different roles within the Irish food scene. He’s a founding chairperson for the Galway Food Festival, sits on the Food Council of EuroToques and is an official Food Ambassador for Failte Ireland - he was also the first ever Irish chef to take part in a Cook it Raw event.
We caught up with him to discuss his views on cuisine, find out more about an exciting new event he’s planing and hear why he thinks it's important we all know that a carrot isn't always orange.
What Inspired you to open Aniar?
We were quite interested in investigating what was happening in the Scandinavian countries at the time - pairing things back and just looking at the ingredients that come from a certain place and seeing what we could make from that. I’m torn between Spanish and Nordic food - the warm earthy ingredients in Spain and the austerity you get in the north is wonderful to work with.
What’s been the most exciting part opening Aniar?
The possibilities of limitation was very interesting - we don’t use lemon, we don’t use chocolate - we’re very very restricted to the seasons. We preserve a lot, we do a little of pickling, fermentation and wild foods…The venue is always shaping with the seasons, the days, the weather - the menu changes every day.
Often you take these things for granted, like chocolate for example - it’s something that doesn’t grow here and it’s just that we wanted to see what food would be like if it was only made with food grown near by. When we stopped using lemons for fish - everyone takes that for granted, every single chef uses a lemon when cooking fish - so we said ‘how are we going to get acidify into the dish in other ways’. so we looked at vinegars - like making a fruit vinegar from blackberries or pears, even more interesting, vinegars with hay and a lot of my interest in acidity has come out of not using lemon. I mean a lemon is like butter - it’s a particular type of acidity that you can’t copy, when you take that out of a dish like a scallop dish and say how to we put it back in, there’s loads of apples in ireland so we use them for vinegar and an apple syrup for a sweeter version.
What’s your policy on sourcing ingredients and how would you define your cuisine?
I suppose that even though we focus on Irish cuisine it’s more a food from a particular place. We cook anything Ireland but predominantly 80-90% of the stuff comes from the West of Ireland. Small, local, primary producers - small vegetable growers, or a farmer who is also a butcher. Local fish mongers and trying to work with smaller boats.
Are we going to pickle it, dry it, turn it into a powder, give it texture. That’s for me the most interesting thing - taking an ingredient and trying to present it in a few different ways that not only show the ingredient at it’s best but also show a richness of tradition, whether it’s pickling or fermentation - then showing this to the client and explaining it. Any of our suppliers will just come and drop produce in - we know them all personally. One of them is interested in Heirloom varieties and many of them haven’t been grown for years, some of the cucumbers she grows, I’ve never seen cucumbers like it and the taste is so good.
Why is Irish gastronomy not promoted on the world circuit?
In the last 10 years we have had a bit of a boom of Irish chefs using Irish produce but one of the reason is that we are a food producing country and we are known for our products. 90% of the butter and the beef produced in Ireland is exported so the whole world uses Irish beef and butter. I think we never had the confidence - maybe a colonial thing, I don’t know - to kind of appreciate that this is our stuff and we’ll use it.
I suppose we have always looked to the French - most of the fine doing restaurant are Dublin are still French influenced and we’re always going to have to go back to that, it’s hard to escape that. It’s definitely changing, the perception of Ireland and good food and people do often say ‘what is Irish food?’ - but I suppose the Spanish had that in the early 80s until you had elBulli and no Can Roca - I can see Irish food travelling in that way as well.
Is this going to change?
It is being done - the hardest thing in Ireland is trying to keep chefs in Ireland - I work with some of the lecturers in chef colleges and a lot of the best guys emigrated to Australia and Canada last year because of I suppose employment opportunities. Hopefully they’ll come back - look at the revolution of wine making in Spain and France when you had a lot of young wine makers go and learn from the Australians and then come home - we need some of our chefs to go off and work in the best places.
What else need to be done to promote cooking in Ireland?
We have a little cooking school at Aniar and it’s really important that we tell people that carrots aren’t always orange - you just take it for granted as a chef that people know that, then you show them a purple carrot and they say ‘what’s that?’ People want security in their food and they want to say that’s a carrot and I recognise it.
What’s exciting you about Irish gastronomy right now?
Chefs focusing on Irish produce and using it in a way that always the produce to shine - rather than masking it with sauce or spices, or anything else. We have amazing butter and amazing sea salt and that’s part of the way we can distinguish Irish food from other cuisines - this idea of pairing back is what I find most interesting. I judged a competition of young chefs recently and I found that there ws a great split between chefs that were classical and very french and then this shift towards limited themselves to let the two or three ingredients shine on the plate.
How does your background in Art History reflect on your cuisine?
I’m very interested in history and literature and art, and all of that feeds into how I experience food. When I’m creating dishes a lot of it comes from two sources: from looking at food in actuality but also the photography of food and the literature of it. We have a vast array of books and I’m very interested in reading about food. For me it gives different depths to the food, even though sometimes you can’t see it, it’s up to the chef or the waiter to communicate that because that’s what adds to the culinary experience - eating is a very cerebral thing, 60 or 70 % of everything that happens is done with your brain and eyes before food even touches your mouth or nose.
What is Food on the Edge?
It’s about tying to bring more folks to Ireland and Irish food and I think the best way to do that is bring a bunch of international chefs who are respected and the best in their craft, bring them almost as a load of of educators, and get people to interact with them, not only chefs but also the wider community to say this is the benchmark, this is the standard that we need to achieve.
I suppose from working with Cook it Raw and going to different conferences and looking at MAD - there’s no reason why we can’t do something like this in Ireland, we’ve got great primary produce, great chefs and great restaurants.
I just stated invited people, mainly on twitter, Albert Adria would you like to come to Ireland and he said yes. Nathan Outlaw, Daniel Patterson, David Kinch, Dan Barber - we’re up to about 25 and want to get to about 46.
What would you tell people to order for a true taste of Ireland?
Scallops are something we have in the Wests of Ireland I think they’re very unique and have an amazing profile, so I think you have to try Irish Scallops. For a main I think lamb, our lamb is fantastic - the grass fed lamb from some of the smaller farmers. For dessert - for me, at the moment, I love vegetable based desserts like a parsnip parfait - everyone thinks it’s crazy until you remind them of carrot cake but I do think for me desserts that leave out things like chocolate or try to look add a sense of place - Irish apples are also great - so maybe an apple for desert.