“The World Really is Our Oyster” – The Euro-toques Young Chef Finalists on Ireland as the World’s Next Gastronomic Destination

San Sebastian, Copenhagen, Tokyo, London, Paris, Dublin. What do all of these places have in common? They are hot-beds of culinary creativity, and should be on every food lover’s bucket list. But if you scratched your head at the inclusion of our own capital (or any Irish destination) on this illustrious list, as many will have, there is a troupe of chefs who would contest your skepticism.

Michael Rulman of Saveur asks how Ireland “as a culinarily impoverished nation” came to house the gastro-gem that is Dingle, but this in itself is far too narrow a view of the Irish food landscape. An investigation into redefining our nation’s cuisine unearthed the truth of the matter, that Irish food is far more than the stodgy and uninspiring so many international observers mistakenly see it as.

JP McMahon

While our well established chefs, JP McMahon, Ross Lewis and Wade Murphy to name but a few, have ensured that there is fertile soil for the progression of Irish Food and have made a conscious effort to cultivate a new environment for chefs, the youth ultimately have the power to keep the momentum going and the future is in their able hands.

This month, Ireland’s brightest six young chefs, fresh from speaking at JP McMahon’s symposium Food on the Edge and immersing themselves in the culture of artisan food producers from Dexter Beef to Ballymakenny Farm, will compete for the title of Euro-toques Young Chef of the Year. But the pursuit of this accolade has produced far more than a desire to claim the crown, instead it has nurtured half a dozen exceedingly passionate chefs with a deep understanding of the direction in which Irish food is headed, and the armory to drive this movement further.

When it comes to putting Ireland on the map as a gastronomic destination, the young chefs exude pride in what has been achieved to date and articulate precisely why there is much to be optimistic about going forward. With the theme of ‘Back to Basics’, the chefs have taken a journey to the grassroots of our food culture, and come out the other side with a deep understanding of the merits of it and how it feeds in to Ireland’s ability to be the next gastronomic destination.

From the mountains of Achill and the sea-sprayed hills of Ring of Kerry, grass-fed isn’t a term we bandy about here to appeal to the Paleo brigade, it is a given. And it is the very grass our livestock are grazing on which makes Irish beef and lamb some of the finest on a global level. In the same vein, rhe pristine waters of the bays and peninsulas and the Wild Atlantic seaweed bounty of 2000 varietals adds to our allure.

The veritable treasure trove of exceptional crops growing in our rich soil and the dedicated farmers and artisan producers who devote their lives to harvesting and supplying our produce make our little Island a unique and exemplary gastronomic region.

Arguably finest butter on this earth, cheese to rival the jewel in the crown of Franco-gastronomy, all owing to the dreary wet climate we spend most of our waking day complaining about – without taking a lengthy diversion into Leaving Cert Geography, our cool temperate climate makes our island a hotbed for diversity. This factor, the six young chefs agree, is the foundation which gives Ireland an edge in the global gastronomy stakes.

“You’ve got the sea on one side, the land on the other. Mix into that the terrain we have in this country for rearing animals and growing produce. The climate is a big factor. You may not be able to grow world class peaches in this country but you can certainly grow world class root vegetables,” says 21 year old Evan O’Ceallaigh.

Currently Chef de Partie at The Ardilaun Hotel in Galway under the tuition of Ultan Cooke, 21 year old O’Ceallaigh believes that “Irish food is a very broad circle. Producers, ingredients, landscape, history, culture. It’s a big canvas with lots of sides to it and it doesn’t just involve chefs.”

Echoing the above sentiments, Dan Guerin, chef de partie at Michelin starred Campagne under Garrett Byrne passionately believes that what makes Irish produce world class is “purely the love that goes into everything.” Acknowledging that “Ireland can’t produce every single product such as the first grouse or big large hand dived scallops for example”, Guerin is quick to point out the Irish ingredients which excel, “our dairy products, vegetables, seafood, beef, lamb – they are all world class and can match anything in the same category across the world.”

Conor Halpenny is a 23 year old chef de partie at Chapter One and counts Ross Lewis as his mentor. “The main factor is the determination and passion our producers have for their produce, they work extremely hard to perfect their product and their love for what they do certainly reflects on the finished product,” he says.

Irish food is about the commitment and determination of everyone in the industry, our passion for our produce and love for the food that we create from a small artisan producer to a head chef of a large restaurant. We as a community are Irish food

The key to establishing ourselves as a gastronomic destination, in the opinion of Jack Lenards, Chef de Partie at Patrick Guilbaud, is to shine a light on our unique produce, as well as the people behind it.”We need to promote our produce, the quality of which no other country has. We need to celebrate the products that make our country stand out and the people who produce them,” he affirms.

Acknowledging the duty he as a chef has to connect with these producers and champion their work, Jason Nolan, chef de partie at Aghadoe Heights Hotel in Killarney says “I believe we have some of the best products in the world, we are dealing with actual farmers, who care about their produce, execute the highest standards, as opposed to batch numbers from genetically modified products having more air miles in one trip than a whole kitchen brigade collectively.”

Envisaging Ireland being recognised as the gastronomic destination we already believe it to be, Bronagh Rogers, Chef de Partie at Viewmount House with mentor Gary O’Hanlon, puts it perfectly.

“It’s clear to see that our cherished reputation for having some of the best ingredients in the world has now been matched by the respect our chefs are getting from outside the island of Ireland.

“I, for one, can only see this reputation growing and Ireland’s stature as one of the world’s greatest food destinations becoming solidified,” she says proudly.

“The future is bright for us!” believes Halpenny, adding that “as well as producing some of the best ingredients in the world, we are finally beginning to showcase this on a global scale. For such a small country we have a large number of extremely talented chefs who are creating a modern Irish cuisine that we should all be proud of.”

Lenards feels that exposing Ireland as the destination it is to an international audience is key, noting that “events like Food on the Edge are great for promoting Ireland as a gastronomic destination as each person who leaves the event becomes an ambassador for Irish food and culture,” a testament to the work of McMahon in putting Irish food on the gastronomic map.

Recognising the role he as a young chef has to play in this community, Nolan opines that “if we as chefs strive for a greater food scene in Ireland I truly believe the world is our oyster, putting Ireland firmly on the map as a food destination.  The future of Irish food is very exciting and is in our own hands to promote, encourage, nurture and drive.”

These young chefs, armed and ready to carry the torch which will inevitably be passed to them, fully aware of their duty to invest in the broader food community, spell a bright future indeed. With an understanding of and commitment to respect the inimitable produce we are lucky to have, they themselves are vital ingredients in the establishment of an Irish gastronomic destination and we, in turn, are lucky to have them.

With these pearls of wisdom in their arsenal, the world is their oyster indeed.

REVIEW BY DARINA COFFEY

Darina CoffeyGrowing 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.

Darina Coffey Darina Coffey

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