On a rainy Thursday evening, Dublin’s most glamorous dining room is filled with beautiful people, dressed to the nines to enjoy a memorable night at Luna. Having enjoyed many an evening in the red hot leather booths myself, tonight the tables have turned and I’ve swapped my cocktail best for chefs whites, and am peering out from the pass.
My last brief stint in a professional kitchen was many moons ago, during my Masterchef Ireland campaign and I know full well a working restaurant pass will be incomparable to the TV3 studio kitchen I’ve become accustomed to. Trepidation aside, I immediately jumped at the chance to hop from the frying pan into the fire for a night as a chef at Luna.
Having agreed with Head Chef Hugh Higgins that my shift would kick off at 3pm, unaware what to expect, I rush in off Drury Street, descend the steps from Super Miss Sue into the (huge) basement kitchen and throw myself in the deep end. Nervously excited, I dive in to a rare behind the scenes taste of how a kitchen in one of the country’s finest restaurants operates.
Meeting the All Star Line Up…
Anxious to get to Hugh after fretting about being late, I scamper in, rushing, and run straight into Executive Pastry Chef Aoife Noonan. Delighted to have found a familiar face – like having a friend on the first day of school – my heart sinks when she reveals she’s not on for the night. “You’re very brave!” she jokes, when I tell her what I’ve let myself in for.
I don’t have time to fret, as I’m tapped on the shoulder by Keelan Higgs, ex-Chapter One, The Greenhouse and Lock’s. Keelan’s working with John Farrell on a new project in Stoneybatter, but is pitching in at Luna for now, I learn, before he whisks me on a whistle-stop tour of the kitchen.
Keelan hands me my pristine white chef’s jacket and I feel a little more confident having swept back my hair and gotten into character, before another surprise but familiar face appears – Rob Krawcyzk. Previously named Best Chef in Leinster and currently finalising plans for his own venture, I didn’t expect Rob in Luna, but you would have to feel confident with him in your corner.
One face everyone looks forward to seeing when stepping through the red velvet curtains of Luna, Maitre’D extraordinaire Declan Maxwell, or Maxi, as the boys would call him, swings open the kitchen door to welcome me. Assuring me that everything will be just fine, he adds that we’re expecting 75 covers tonight before stocking the kitchen with biscuits for the boys – sugary fuel for the busy night ahead.
The main man appears, and far from the intimidating Head Chef persona I was anticipating, Hugh playfully apologises for the sailor-like swearing I may be exposed to, with a thick Dublin drawl giving way to a cheeky grin.
Having been at Luna since the early pop-down days, Hugh knows the kitchen like the back of his hand and his Italian masterpiece dishes even better, so we get stuck into the menu and I get ready to get my hands dirty.
The Rhythm of the Kitchen…
Following Hugh’s every move, he advises me to stay close and I quickly see why – a signal of “Behind!” denotes that screaming hot cauldrons of oil and chefs with the agility of hummingbirds are whizzing past – being in the thick of things mean an amateur misstep could be costly.
It’s 3.30pm and guests arrive at 5pm, so although Hugh and crew have been in since 10am, we need to get cracking on finishing mis-en-place, but first – music. “I can’t stand silence in the kitchen” he says, before selecting a soundtrack. “I actually used to take jobs based on whether or not there was music allowed in the kitchen,” he laughs.
Blur’s Tender cooes in the background, apt, as we go through the process of marinading beef featherblade using the whey leftover from crafting ricotta in-house, to break down this tough but flavoursome cut.
Rolling Up My Sleeves…
Next we tackle capelletti – prettier ravioli- using deeply golden hued pasta dough crafted by Hugh the day before. I relax a little seeing an Imperia pasta machine, like my own at home, and throw myself into the art of pasta-making on a large scale.
Hugh is patient, luckily, as he explains how he insists on making Luna’s pasta himself, from macheroni to papardelle, not just because he is particular but because he finds it “relaxing and almost therapeutic,” as part of his daily ritual.
We chat about his impressive journey to this point, from L’Ecrivain to Mulberry Garden and Forest Avenue as John Wyer’s protogé before we move on to prepping Luna’s staple Porchetta and some pert gnocchi, with Rob and Keelan lending some of their dexterity and speed.
In the corner of this prep area, I spot Ireland’s prominent food critics staring back at me from a poster on the wall, Maxi’s unrivaled industry savoir fair clearly at play with a savvy ID chart, before Hugh talks me through some of the produce in the pantry and the dishes they create.
I taste everything from six month in house cured duck ham to the Rolls Royce of dishes, Filleto Rossini, and everything in between, with Hugh constantly passing me spoons to sample – the dream for a food lover and the calm before the storm.
At Your Service…
Moving from the cool back end of the kitchen, 5.30pm is upon us and we head to where the real magic happens – the open kitchen, or I would come to think of it, the furnace. Flanked by three heavily bearded chefs, I couldn’t get my head around how they could stand the heat, but flaming John Stone Tomahawk steaks for the centrepiece dish of Bistecca Fiorentina was a worthy cause.
With the perfect view from the chef’s pass, I see the first tables begin to fill up – couples on for a spectacular date night and plenty of suits packed into booths, it’s pre-theatre menu time, but the stage is set for a full house.
As the dockets start rolling in, if there was ever doubt over who was in charge of a kitchen of culinary heavyweights, Hugh comes into his own and begins delving out orders – two salads, three duck, three lobster fettuccini and two Rossini first.
I’m on starters alongside chef Shane Stanley, who has been prepping monkfish crudo and tuna carpaccio with speed, precision and plenty of laughs – “we’re all like family really”, Hugh says as they spar playfully, a dynamic which would see them through when the heat kicked in.
My assignment, Insalata di Pomodoro, is a composition of a heirloom tomatoes, burrata cream, black olive powder and pre-prepped tomato vinaigrette with spherical pearls of tomato juice concentrate. Simples, I think, until Hugh calls out “five salads Darina – two gluten free!” on top of the two I’m already half-way through.
One hurried bowl on my station, Keelan notes, “looks in bits” and he’s right. Not as easy at looks, especially when a dash to the Thermomix is needed as I run out of burrata cream, but I persevere and Hugh deems the dishes worthy of an order of “away”.
Things Heat Up…
Stone Roses’ iconic Fool’s Gold is blasted loudly as we head towards the height of service, having been silenced by Declan announcing to the kitchen that both a table of 10 and 14 had landed at the same time. The heat is on now and there will be no pressing my back against a wall and observing.
Shane is over-run with an order for six crudo and two carpaccio, the Louis Copeland-clad waiting staff are tapping their fingers on the pass and Hugh calls out “how long?” with the most urgency I have heard all night, before dashing over to help plate up with speed you’d scarcely see on the M50.
Keelan plays catch up on an overdue fettucine that slipped through the cracks on the docket, but by the end of the night, he will have plated 30 odd servings of this most popular Luna dish without a slicked back hair out of place.
Rob plates up mammoth platters of Tomahawk steak in the sauna-like grill section, and I note that not a single dish comes back with a scrap of food left until Declan appears with a bowl and my heart sinks.
Tomato salad. Untouched. “Not your fault, the lady misunderstood – she just wants a bowl of lettuce with dressing on the side…you can’t please everyone!” he confirms with a playful eye roll and I breathe once more.
Giving a new meaning to whistle while you work, the lads pitch in together humming Careless Whisper throughout the intense part of service, but there is nothing careless in the cool, calm execution of every dish turned out by this talented bunch. Happy kitchen, happy customers I think to myself.
Hugh plays the drums with utensils on the marble pass in between stressful bouts, and as the last of the mains orders rolls in and the dessert trolley rolls out, he moonwalks past me smiling, multi-coloured stripey socks and all, en route to the walk-in freezer to cool down for a well deserved moment.
I glance at the clock and all of a sudden it’s 10.45pm, I realise I’ve been on my feet for almost 8 hours straight and am visibly waning. All in a day’s work for these kitchen warriors, and they’ll do it all again tomorrow, after a couple of cheeky beers tonight to mark yet another flawless service in Luna, of course.
Hugh takes mercy on me and I evade clean up, the boys will be hard at it for another hour, but they don’t seem to mind. The talented chefs in Hugh Higgins’ Luna wolf pack are thick as thieves, howling laughing in the face of pressure and slaying every challenge put before them.
The kitchen is riotous, raucous and seriously fun, but never to the detriment of the food. I leave thinking I’d gladly work at Luna for free any night just for the laughs and sumptuous scraps.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that(and greed) as the ultimate motivator, I realised that baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, fuelling my desire to focus on food in a serious way. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting.