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The best description of Graham Neville’s cuisine is contained in the section that John McKenna’s authoritative Irish guide book dedicates to him: “It’s serious, but it’s fun, fun to eat, fun to think, fun to share”. A definition that chef Neville hastens to confirm with a prestigious career that has taken him to the top ranks of Irish haute cuisine: after starting at a very young age and travelling around the world, on his return to Ireland he worked for seven years with Kevin Thornton, the only three-starred Michelin chef in Ireland.
Since 2008 Graham Neville has been running the Restaurant FortyOne in Dublin: we got the chance to interview him during the latest edition of the Chef’s Cup, and this is what he had to say.
Were you keen on becoming a chef from the start?
Not at first. In actual fact, as a kid I wanted to train guide dogs for the blind. Then, I thought I could make people happy by cooking for them and so, here I am.
Your training has been extremely varied, from WD50 in New York to Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray, from Le Caprice in London to Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and La Pyramide in Lyon. Which of these master chefs have most influenced your work?
I have learned something from all of them but, above all, they have helped me identify my own style of cuisine which has gradually emerged and taken form. Blumenthal for instance is a chef who is always perfectly frank, he taught me to be modest and he himself is an extraordinarily competent yet unpretentious person. Trotter taught me to be well organized, an indispensable quality for any restaurant owner-chef.
Describe your cuisine in five words.
Irish ingredients, classical French training. Much of the time I am not actually in the restaurant is spent seeking out interesting ingredients or new products, unexpected flavours and textures. I spent days looking for a partridge worthy of the name and searched around for months for my “Selection of Farmhouse Artisan cheeses. Since working in Chicago at the Tru and at Les Nomades, I grasped the importance of technique, based on my French training. I would never have managed to create the sort of simple and complex dishes I serve today without having grasped the basics.
You have realized one of your dreams, that of an organic vegetable garden on the hills overlooking the Irish sea.
Just after opening, I immediately imagined having a vegetable garden in which to grow my own produce. But Nature often puts you to the test. It rained constantly the first year and our efforts produced no fruits. Then, through sheer perseverance, we started to see some results and now we can boast as many as 30 different types of salad greens.
Do you purchase products from other countries? Do you make a frequent use of any Italian ingredient?
I try to avoid it, but I am happy to make some exceptions. There is a lady not far from the restaurant who supplies us with some excellent Italian products, such as Parmigiano Reggiano. Thanks to her, I have discovered a product I love so much I have put it on the menu: it is called “fregola”, a sort of semolina-based pasta from the Italian island of Sardinia. I love those ingredients. Few other countries manage to imitate such persistent flavours. What are you growing in your greenhouse at the moment? Salad greens, vegetables, but also lovage, lemon verbena, courgette flowers, white and blackcurrants; these will inspire new recipes or will complete and enhance dishes already on the menu. I am trying more and more to keep to the rule of three: never use more than three ingredients. For instance? Roast scallops, truffled garden onions and coral bisque or Comeragh Hill Lamb, aubergine and thyme jus.