Michelin Influenced Mexican in Dublin City Centre – Essa Fakhry Interview
South George’s Street in Dublin is a bustling road full of restaurants, shops and Dublin hotspot The George Bar. While it’s a busy street, no matter the time of day, it can be a tough nut to crack for restaurants, and we’ve seen many open and close in the blink of an eye over the years.
A relatively new addition in the last 5 years or so is 777, a contemporary Mexican that at first glance you might overlook. The exterior is painted black, with blurred windows adding to its intrigue. I’ve been a fan of 777 for a long time now. Their 777 Sunday menu (where all the dishes are €7.77, as well as a few cocktails too), and the infamous Margarita Monday’s were a weekly visit for me.
Today I’m meeting the new head chef of 777, Essa Fakhry. An exotic sounding name I was more than surprised to meet 24-year-old Dubliner Essa. His father is part Iraqi, and not only gave Essa the name but also influenced his cooking. “I grew up in a house where there was a lot of cooking all the time. My dad is half Iraqi so he was always cooking a lot of Middle Eastern food. There was a lot of flavours going on in our house which the neighbours didn’t have.”
From a young age, food played a big role in Essa’s world, “it was always an interesting part of my life that I enjoyed, so when I was finishing school I thought I’d take a year off and see what I wanted to do. I went into Il Segretto on Merrion Row, which is not there anymore, and I worked for free for a while to see if I liked it.”
It was scary at the start but I really enjoyed it and I stuck there for two years and that’s how I got into cooking. Essa is now head chef at 777, a venture from restaurateur John Farrell. Farrell is the man behind Dublin favourites such as Dillinger’s and The Butcher Grill.
“John gives you the freedom to do what you want, he trusts you, it’s always what you want in a boss.” Recently John arranged two work experience trips so the young chef could get valuable experience in some of the world’s top restaurants.
Essa headed to New York to work in Empellon and Cosme. An experience which he describes as “amazing, it’s just another level. Cosme, in particular, is such an amazing environment, they’re all working so hard all the time but they’re still loving every minute of it and they’re pushing out this absolutely beautiful food they all believe in it. It was really cool to just be part of that and see how it runs, it’s very inspiring.”
“The head chef in Cosme, Daniela Soto-Innes is incredible. She inspires the chefs to work long days and they’re all still smiling and producing incredible food.”
Essa has taken that drive and passion back to Dublin with him and tells me it has inspired changes in the menu at 777, and even the simple things have sparked ideas in the young chef. “Just seeing the way they work with Mexican ingredients is incredible. In that regard, I got I lot of inspiration from how they work, their style and ethos. They work hard but they really enjoy it.”
Diners can expect new and exciting twists to the menu, “since I’ve gotten back we’ve changed the menu quite a bit, and next week we’re changing it again. Looking forward Essa says they plan to change the menu “four or five times a year at least, more if necessary.”
The kitchen is constantly experimenting with techniques and dishes, “we like to play around with a lot of ingredients. If we find something we really like, that might trigger us to change the menu.” Essa says it’s very much a team effort in the kitchen when it comes to devising the menu, “we all work together. No one person has all the answers, it also means people feel more involved.”
Essa’s passion is evident as I talk to him, his smile when he talks about dishes and produce is infectious. “We get all these amazing ingredients you don’t really see anywhere, but we’re contemporary Mexcian, so we throw in Italian, Spanish and French styles. We’ve just got the whole world to play with and that’s a lot of fun.”
“A lot of the Irish suppliers import from Mexico, and we get as much as we can directly from there, just to get those authentic flavours. Some things we have to import, like dried chilli’s and avocados because we go through so much.”
I ask the chef what his current favourite dish on the menu is, and this stumps him. “That’s a hard one! There are two dishes that are staying on the menu that I really like. The first is Padron peppers. We serve them with lime creme fraiche and pasilla chillies, and the simple salted cod taco.” The food at 777 is most certainly full of flavour but they are simple dishes in theory, “we’re kind of going for that sharing style, it’s hands-on food.”
When he’s not behind the stove in the kitchen, where does Essa go to eat? “It depends, sometimes I’ll do Sunday lunch in Bastible or Forest & Marcy. If it’s something quick and I’m off work early I love Pi Pizza next door. It’s just a great spot to get something simple done really well, and everyone loves it.”
When it comes to his favourite part of the job, he says its “playing around with all of the ingredients we have. Coming to 777 there was a lot of stuff I’d never seen before, like all the Mexican spices. And then using French or Italian techniques with those ingredients.” His least favourite of the job, like most of the chefs I’ve talked to, is the hours, but Essa says “it’s part of the job”, and the love for the craft outweighs the negatives.
Although Essa is young, he has accomplished a lot in his 24 years and I wonder what advice he would give to new chefs starting out in the industry? “Read a lot of cookbooks, it’s like anything you’re studying, a teacher can only show you so much, but if you start reading too you’ll learn so much more.”
Essa is an avid cookbook reader and tells me he’s a fan of the Geometry of Pasta. “Cooking at home I like to make something simple, like pasta, so I love that. I recently got the NOMA Guide to Fermentation. I’m mad into fermentation so I’m loving it. I’m trying to do as many recipes as I can out of that, I’d love to get fermentation onto the menu in 777. Again Essa’s clear enjoyment of food is evident when he talks about his interest in fermentation, “it’s fun to put something in a jar and leave it there for three weeks and come back and it’s something different.”
Our conversation turns to the world of chefs in Ireland, and the shortage of cooks that restaurants across the country are feeling. “You can see it everywhere, everyone is crying out for chefs, but I think the problem is going to fix itself.” Gone are the days of the kitchen being a place for screaming and foul language in an almost Gordan Ramsay/Hell’s Kitchen fashion. “Chefs aren’t settling for the attitudes that were there before, where you could abuse someone. If a chef goes into a kitchen like that, they don’t like it and they’ll go somewhere else.”
“Here in the kitchen, there’s none of that, there’s no shouting and we treat each other with respect. That’s going to invite more people to be chefs. Over the last ten years dining out has just blown up, yet the number of chefs has gone down.”
I ask Essa what does the future of Irish food and the culinary scene look like to him. He thinks “more immigration is great because we have all of these different cultures of food coming in, you have Pickle doing great Indian, and then you have places like Forest Avenue doing this contemporary Irish cooking and I think there’s space for all of it.”
“I think people are more willing to be daring and try new foods. I remember when I was younger one year at Christmas we got celeriac and it was a big deal and now it’s a commonplace food, and that’s just one side. It’s going to diversify massively which is exciting.”
Reminiscing on the past year Essa says New York was the highlight, “the city is a marvel in itself and it just encourages creativity and growth and you feel that. But currently, I’m looking forward to where we’re going with the menu and the style of cooking we’re doing.”
Looking to the future Essa is excited. He thinks 777 has “a lot of room to grow, and for myself personally and the restaurant. Obviously one day, every chef wants their own restaurant but here now is exciting, I’m definitely sticking around here and someday I’d love to open a place heavily influenced by fermentation perhaps.”
Sinéad is a Culinary Arts graduate from DIT. She is a passionate cook with a love of fine dining and modern Irish cuisine. A gin lover, Sinéad loves seeking out cosy new pubs and sampling a variety of craft beers.
If she’s not dining out, Sinéad loves travelling the world exploring new cultures and cuisines. Working with TheTaste allows Sinéad to fully immerse herself in the Irish food industry.