A lot has been written about Dylan McGrath: On how he achieved a Michelin star at Mint; on the blow he suffered when the restaurant fell victim to the recession; how he rebuilt his career by opening some of Dublin’s most successful casual eateries; and there have been as many column inches about his temper in the kitchen and moody intensity, as his unyielding ambition and “creative genius”.
But meeting with the Belfast raised chef in one of his four Creative Quarter venues, Fade Street Social, he quickly makes it clear he doesn’t want to dwell on the past. 10 months into an agonizing recovery from crucial back surgery Dylan is back at work, and finally ready to start looking to the future again.
And that includes talking about his time as a judge on Masterchef, which returns to our screens this autumn. “I’m done with that. It was good fun though, but it’s not my job.” He does hint at an upcoming project with RTÉ, he says that is far from his priority right now.
“I want to get well first. I want to get the restaurants in order. As a person who is relentless I’ve had a huge alteration to my life that has just knocked me for six. It’s time to get back to life, to what I was. Hobbling around, not being able to think about anything but the pain which is right there in front of your face, is a different person than the guy who thinks whether or not there’s enough time in the aubergine soup.”
Top of his agenda is Taste at Rustic, his Japanese restaurant above the popular Rustic Stone on South Great Georges Street, which opened in June 2015, just five months before he was hospitalised. “I want to make Taste at Rustic accessible to more people, that was the original idea. Having a back operation and the healing of that in the middle of that was really difficult.”
With a new competitively priced menu, Dylan plans to give more people the chance to experience the concept that he did stages at Michelin star sushi restaurants and traveled to Japan to research meticulously.
“If I order sushi from a takeaway, I’ll get crap sushi and I’ll pay forty to fifty quid for it. If I come into Taste at Rustic I’ll have the best sushi in Dublin and pay twenty-five quid head for it. I think that would be a major achievement. You can come in and taste it so fresh that it’s jumping off the plate.”
“I want to give the customers the best possible produce we can give them. I am importing Toro, tuna belly, I keep it in a special freezer at minus 60, it’s freshness is captured at such a low temperature. Offering that to customers at the best possible price that we can do is really important to me.”
Cooking on the stone will continue to be at the heart of Taste at Rustic. “I really wanted to continue the theme of people cooking their own food, what’s healthy. The things that people were responding to downstairs at Rustic (Stone),” says Dylan. “People really enjoy it; cooking at the stone. It’s why people keep coming back, it’s why we do 190 people on a Monday night.”
When Rustic Stone opened in 2010, Dylan’s first move after the closure of Mint, the use of the stone and it’s forward-thinking nutritional focus raised a few eyebrows. “They said it wouldn’t work. Everybody said it sounded like a garden centre and it wouldn’t work,” he says, a smile cracking across his face.
“Some critics got it and some didn’t. Everybody got Taste at Rustic, it’s more refined, it’s easier to understand. But Rustic was rustic, and healthy. It was the opposite of Mint. I wanted it to be the opposite of Mint. I didn’t want anyone to say it was a deluded version of Mint. It was nearly a fuck you, here’s this other thing that you didn’t see coming.”
Not everything was at a standstill during his recovery. “Even when I wasn’t there all the time, the restaurants were going through a revolution, everything is changing; at Rustic, everything is changed; the dessert menus, everything is changed; Fade Street menu is about to change; the tapas bar menu is changing.”
“So I’ll come in for a couple of hours, and we’ll taste and we’ll talk. The guys will have done so much work and be ready for me. We put it together and when it’s good enough it will go on the menu.”
Though Dylan admits things have happened at a slower pace than he would have wanted. “I’m a terribly impatient person, and that was hardest part, being that guy that’s very impatient and wants to get things done and get things moving along.”
As frustrating as constantly being at the other end of the phone has been, this process has been a learning experience for the notoriously demanding chef. “It’s slower, but it has taught me patience,” he smiles.
Back where he belongs, Dylan is undoubtedly the boss. As we move from the upstairs bar to the outside terrace, his presence met with respect by his staff, and curiosity by customers. Far from just a chef, his involvement in every aspect of the business means that even as we chat he is multitasking: taking business calls, and sampling the deep-fried Toonsbridge Mozzarella balls that are due to hit the menu as soon as they meet his exacting standards.
And although he cannot agonise over every last morsel on each and every plate as he did in his Mint days, his new approach to recipe development is no less of a science. His laboratory is a development kitchen housed in the top floor of the same Victorian Gothic red brick that houses Rustic Stone, Bar Rustic and Taste at Rustic. “My business partner thought I was going mad building a kitchen with no customers, but it has effected the food throughout the group.”
As well as facilitating a constant flow of menu changes, Dylan says the true value of the development kitchen is “removing creativity from production”, whereby he creates the recipes that are the building blocks of every new dish.
“I recently did an audit and there must have been over 15,000 pages of a recipe repertoire,” Dylan explains. “It has taken me 20 years to build that, and to get to that stage where I can say “celeriac puree” and they know what I’m talking about. It’s the only way to be consistent.”
The team of chefs that follow his direction to the letter are mostly from South America, says Dylan. “My kitchens have always been run by grafters, like boxers, this breed of people who want to work hard, are not scared of the hours and the discipline, have passion, have flair.”
And he believes that easing visa restrictions is necessary to counter Ireland’s chef shortage crisis: “If I was to rely on Irish chefs with the degrees to run restaurants I would be in trouble. There are none!”.
“My experience of them (Irish chefs) is that one in a blue moon will come along and they’re good, they go the hard route, they know that the only way to develop really is in a kitchen, not in a degree course. Not saying that a degree course is a bad thing, but I didn’t do it that way, and champions are born in gymnasiums, the will is stronger than the skill, and passion and repetition is what makes a person better at something.”
Stamina and grit are prerequisites for any chef that is going to survive Dylan McGrath’s temper and infamously intense kitchens – as evidenced in The Pressure Cooker; the fly on the documentary that followed Dylan as he fought to achieve his Michelin Star at Mint.
“At Mint I was pushing the boundaries of trying to achieve something that took a lot more hands. I needed twenty chefs for what I was doing, but I wouldn’t relent. I’d come from London where I had 22 cooks under me, I was in Ranelagh where I had 4, it was do or die. I knew the business needed a Michelin star to equate to those prices and that was the way I achieved it.”
He says that even in his casual eateries there will always be pressure, be it from him, or another chef down the chain of command. “Cooking needs pressure,” Dylan says. “The problem with Mint was that it was too small, when I used to lose it it would be heard all over the restaurant.” “It was an acoustic problem!” he laughs
As much as he loves fine dining, Dylan says his move to casual dining “makes way better business sense”: “There’s also a huge market for what’s unique, and each of the concepts does something different, people love coming to a busy atmosphere.”
But he makes no mistake in asserting that these “commercially smart” ventures are what will allow him to get back to “cooking from the heart”: “All the different concepts that we are doing right now are all interesting to me, they are all important to me and special to me, and we’re making money, and without money I can’t build that restaurant that I want. That’s the only way to have freedom.”
“My expression, me, my work, it’s not finished yet, I’m not finished yet. I’m a long way from finished. I have this other restaurant to do, it’s last restaurant, and I know what I want to do with it and what it is.”
He reveals the restaurant which he hopes to open in two years’ time “specifically wouldn’t make any money”, and might be on the roof of Fade Street Social. When questioned on his vision for this “gastronomic fine dining restaurant” Dylan comes to life, his eyes sparkle and his despite his injury he sits upright with energy and enthusiasm.
“It’s slowly building, that’s the way with me, everything slowly builds. It ticks away in here,” he says. “It will be like nothing else. It can’t be like anything else, like anything else on a plate, or like any other restaurant.”
He believes that modern Irish food has yet to be defined, and that we are someway behind cuisines like French or Italian in the evolution from peasant food to culinary elegance : “If there is going to be a gastronomic restaurant that is going to be an expression of Ireland it can’t be French, Spanish, it can’t be tapas, it can’t be anything like that – and that hasn’t been achieved yet.”
Just as much as his recent challenges have taught him patience, it has been a lesson in humility too. “I’m the last one to pat myself on the back, I have a brilliant partner with me, Vincent Melinn. Vincent and I do great work together.”
“I have so much to learn. We can sit here and say we know this and that, but we know nothing! Food is this size”, he says stretching his arms out wide, “and we know this much.” “There are 2500 citrus fruits, and I know a lemon, an orange and a lime!”
At 39, Dylan McGrath has already achieved more than most chefs accomplish in their entire careers, but this fiery chef is just getting warmed up. “I got knocked on my ass, it was a real low blow. I have a lot to re-evaluate, a lot to learn, but I’m not finished yet.”
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.