Hushed tones, Chinese whispers, hows and what ifs, a heady mix of inquisitive responses whirred around the news of the closure of the iconic Thornton’s restaurant last year, but what followed for one of Ireland’s most revered chefs was a cross-continental journey of self-discovery and reevaluation.
We don’t need to talk about Kevin, or speculate. He has extended the ultimate invitation, opened his own front door and invited us in for a glimpse of his next chapter – Kevin Thornton KOOKS. Offering “adventures in cooking”, it was an exciting prospect to join one him on his new adventure as a master craftsman imparting his skills to those hungry to understand his gift.
Strolling down the redbrick-lined street just minutes from the main Ranelagh thoroughfare, I am greeted warmly at the door by the effervescent Muriel, Kevin’s wife and long-standing business partner. Muriel welcomes her guests like old friends, and we meet their son Conor, busy chopping and prepping, and wander past the Le Cornue stove on our way to the double height, theatre-like space where our tasting journey will take place.
Described as a food philosopher, I was keen to discover if this culinary Socrates could immerse us in his pool of knowledge and fulfill his goal “to reconnect with the natural world and to experience tastes beyond the walls of the restaurant.” Kevin’s freedom from the shackles of the restaurant kitchen, his new lease of life, means we are greeted by a chef with smiling eyes, without a hint of the grimace of over-exertion.
A qualified teacher, who was involved in setting up the Culinary Arts degree course at Cathal Brugha Street, Kevin is the kind of educator who has you hanging on every word, at first apprehensive about interrupting the flow of his wisdom, but then too intrigued to stay schtum.
As he begins to talk us through the meal which lies ahead, it is clear such casual fare will not be on the menu. If you thought this would be home cooking in Kevin’s home you’d be wrong, but there are half day courses for just that, covering everything from pasta and bread-making to dinner party favourites.
On this occasion, we are partaking in a demo and tasting evening, which will be held monthly. We are privileged to be the first group to experience this and Kevin explains that these evenings “are for his sanity.” Allowing him a platform to create the plated masterpieces he is known for, the stage is set for a journey into the mind of the master chef.
Far more than mere props surrounding the stage, which has played host to Kevin and Muriel’s entertaining in the years leading to KOOKs, are multi-litre jars of wonder – dehydrated dusts, rustic pickles and funky ferments, before we even get around to tasting a thing our eyes feast on a kitchen which is a veritable treasure trove of bespoke ingredients.
With his own hand-crafted bronze sculpture of a 110kg tuna fish he caught proudly on display behind me – “the amazing thing is, that will be here forever, whereas we’re just passing through,” he muses – he gets to work on our starter built around Irish tuna, a rare treat indeed. “Your fingers! God gave you fingers!” he advises, as I attempt to take a fork to taste the tartare from the bowl, pre-marinade, and I happily oblige.
Hand-foraged samphire and sea asparagus sit alongside the finished tartare with horseradish and capers, topped with an oozing quail egg and bursts of salinity from a dusting of roe. Talking us through the process of creating tuna four ways with the prized catch, Kevin tells us “the fishermen are the last of the hunters” and speaks of his enormous respect for those committed to providing us with the world class ingredients we are lucky to have on our shores and in our seas.
Deep insights would be peppered throughout the evening, and as often as Kevin seasons a dish he imparts a nugget of wisdom. “When you buy cheap food you have to consider the wider repercussions,” he notes, referring to supermarket fish, but tonight there will be no such thing as we feast on that which has been either foraged locally or expertly sourced by a chef who has an intimate understanding of our food culture.
Trimmings from the vibrant and moreish tartare are used to create a fermented seaweed-studded dashi broth and more of the silken belly is served simply as sashimi, needing little more than its own marbled fat for flavour and accompanied by a host of seafarer’s delights.
Seaweed, a strong candidate for the title of Ireland’s national vegetable, has a place in many of Kevin’s creations, but he is quick to note that it has done for quite some time – “They talk about it as if it’s new – it’s been there since the beginning of time!” he laughs, long before foraging and provenance became buzzwords.
There’s so much to taste, and we collectively gasp at the fourth incarnation of the tuna – “when I cook for someone I give them my soul” he affirms, as he takes out a paint brush and flecks gold powder on to the rest of the plump pink tuna belly, lightly seared on a pink Himalayan salt stone.
Palate knives glide on slate, like a painter with his canvass, aptly dressed in a Breton striped shirt. Watching the artist at work rather than just marveling at the end product feels like a treat in itself, before we even take fork to mouth. As he moves deftly around the kitchen, his lightning bolt earring catching the light, we are reminded of the inspiration for KOOKS – a mix of Kookiness and an ode to Bowie.
Stunning dishes are the result of a complex thought process and many lightning bolts of inspiration and the opportunity to glimpse into the mind of a gifted culinary genius as he talks you through the ideas behind his own creations gives you the kind of insight you will never get by simply tasting a dish.
The stark reality that a third of the food we produce globally is wasted, heavily influences Kevin’s approach to cooking throughout the course of the evening. “No waste” punctuates his speech in the same way “like” weasels its way into a country accent and Kevin’s Cashel twang hasn’t dulled, Muriel playfully notes as he refers to the ‘Mudder’ in his homemade ferments.
Witty, engaging and frenetic, “Kevin needs chaos to create” says Muriel, but what he creates is far from chaotic, as we learn observing him piece together our main course, Roast Duck with a Wild Mushroom Sauce, far more complex than such a humble title suggests.
He’s talking and chopping and crushing and drizzling all at once, naturally, even effortlessly and it is tiring and invigorating to watch all at the same time. Kevin’s energy is infectious and his enthusiasm for every ingredient – from the Moyne apples plucked from his own road to the two different types of duck breast he serves for contrast of flavour and texture – makes it way on to the plate and brings his stunning dishes to life.
It is a race to the finish line, “you can’t rush it – food takes time,” Kevin reminds us as we happily await the duck, and Kevin is exceedingly generous with his – so much so that the evening goes an hour over time, much to our collective delight as guests.
It doesn’t matter how long it takes, there is raw passion at play and each and every plate he serves embodies his perfectionism. As he painstakingly puts the final touches to the dish with a tweezers, it is like watching him on the pass, only he personally serves us one of the finest duck dishes I have ever had the pleasure of eating.
Muriel is in rubber gloves clearing down the decks in between chats – this isn’t a one man show by any means – and from the ingredients on each and every bespoke plate (many of which are crafted by Kevin’s own sister) everything is natural, including the witty rapport between our hosts.
“I love the honey dipper, because it evokes the same memory in all of us – Winnie the Pooh,” he smiles, serving up our dessert of Local Apples, Blackberries and Sabayon.
Mingled with pink peppercorns to produce explosive pops of sugar and spice and topped with chocolate mint leaves from the garden, we taste each ingredient separately and pass it around. Short of heading on a foraging expedition with Kevin (which is another of the experiences on offer at KOOKS) we couldn’t be more immersed in the tasting process.
Over dessert, Kevin takes the weight off his feet for the first time all night and regales us with the stories ranging from a lone disgruntled diner at Thornton’s who misunderstood the meaning of the word ‘tasteless’ (“20 years later and he still hasn’t let it go” laughs Muriel) to the difficulties of coming to terms with the loss of the star, speaking candidly and welcoming our questions.
If you love to cook, or simply love to eat, this is an interactive dining experience unlike anything else in Ireland – chef’s table dining taken up several notches. Kevin’s words are as thought-provoking as his dishes and you can’t help but leave with a smile on your face. You’ll never regret pulling up a stool at this philosopher’s stove and I, for one, will never forget it.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake Off and am passionate about discovering and creating delicious things – I can sometimes be caught in the act on TV3’s Six O’Clock Show. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting.