This Chef Says It's Time to Take Irish Food Seriously
Chef JP McMahon has the physical bearing of a pirate crossed with a college professor. As I scan the crowd at the Galway farmers market on a recent morning, he’s hard to miss: ample red beard, wire-rimmed glasses, and arms tattooed with portraits of David Bowie, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett.
“The market is having a revival,” he says after we’ve started our stroll among its stalls, laden with organic produce from the west of Ireland, artisanal cheeses from across the country, and pristine seafood plucked from Irish seas.
“Jesus, these are absolutely huge.” He pauses near a stack of monster oysters at his fishmonger’s bountiful bivalve display.
We continue past his poultry supplier, The Friendly Farmer, sharing a shingle with another farmer who stocks his three Galway restaurants with beef, lamb, and pork. “When we opened our first place 11 years ago, these guys just came to the door,” McMahon says. “They were among the first farmers to say, ‘Let’s sell our products direct,’ and we were among the first to buy from them. And then everything in the city just grew from that.”
McMahon stops to chat with a couple from Texas who had dined at his flagship restaurant, Aniar, the night before, making their way through its eight-course tasting menu with lamb neck cooked sous vide and roast beets served on twigs. The Michelin-starred restaurant has run at a loss since it opened in 2011, surviving on a mix of tourist traffic and the subsidizing support of his thriving tapas bar, Cava, and its sibling, Tartare, a natural wine bar and café up the street.
Locals have been slow to embrace Aniar’s ambitious modern Irish cooking, heavily influenced by New Nordic cuisine, with abstract compositions featuring foraged wild ingredients like meadowsweet, sea radish, and kelp.
“In Ireland, generally the best chefs all go abroad,” says McMahon. “We haven’t matured enough as a food culture to keep them here.” For more than a decade, he’s tackled the Sisyphean task of trying to change that.
In the spring of 2012 he launched the Galway Food Festival, which drew as many as 70,000 visitors in 2018. For the past five years, his Food on the Edge symposium has brought some of the top chefs in the world to western Ireland, introducing culinary heavy hitters like Albert Adrià, Sean Brock, and Massimo Bottura to the edible treasures of the Emerald Isle.
“I’d been invited to a few chef symposiums around the world,” he says. “I suppose I thought, why don’t we have something like this in Ireland? We have great produce, great hospitality. Why wouldn’t people come?”
McMahon, who also pens a weekly cooking column in the Irish Times newspaper, is an unlikely, and largely accidental, food crusader. He’s explored writing—poetry, plays—and academia—Irish literature, French philosophy, art history—always supporting his interests by working in restaurants.
“Given a different set of circumstances, I could have easily just finished a PhD in art history and written books and probably set up a symposium in art history,” he says. “But food kept calling me back.”
In his spare time, McMahon has been pursuing a PhD in drama and theater studies. “Irish Food. A Play,” an experimental show he wrote and produced in conjunction with his coursework, features live lobsters let loose among the actors, including one that’s answered like a telephone. “I wanted to play around with the question of putting food on stage,” he says.
That academic background served him well on his latest big project, The Irish Cookbook, his monumental tome on Irish cuisine out from Phaidon this month. He scoured archives and interviewed family members, collecting classic recipes along with esoteric ones: There are recipes using seaweed, his favorite unsung ingredient (see his Seafood-and-Seaweed Chowder). He scattered in his own “wild food” creations “to represent Irish food now.” And he unearthed historic dishes from both the aristocratic and peasant ends of the spectrum. From what he calls the “big house” tradition, he found pickled pigeons with “loads of spices.” He considered the influence of Spanish traders who plied Galway’s port in the 16th century on the Irish practice of salting ling, a cod-like fish.
“I love the complexity of history,” he says. “People would say Irish food is not spiced, but the Normans brought spices here. Irish food is a melting pot of so many different influences.”
Pre-order: The Irish Cookbook, $49