Unlocking New Horizons – Conor O’Dowd & Paul McNamara, the Next Generation of Chefs at Locks One Windsor Terrace
“It used to be my favourite restaurant, before I ever got involved,” says Paul McNamara, chef and co-owner of Locks One Windsor Terrace with fellow chef Conor O’Dowd, “and that’s what we always hear when people call up to make a booking, ‘it’s my favourite restaurant and I’m really looking forward to visiting again’”
Hidden away along a quiet canal side street in Dublin’s pretty as a picture Portobello, only a short hop from bustling Camden Street, Locks undoubtedly houses one the most beautiful dining rooms in the city and holds a special place in many people’s hearts, acting as the backdrop for countless memorable meals, special occasions and weddings.
Supporting the stunning setting is the pair’s modern Irish, produce-led cooking, though long before Connor and Paul acquired the keys in September 2015 Locks has been a dining destination and it’s hard to truly tell the restaurant’s story without addressing the canal-floating swan in the room, the number of transformations it has gone though over the years.
Originally owned by Claire and Richard Douglas in the 1980s, then known as Locks Brasserie, in 2010 the restaurateurs behind Pearl Brasserie, Sébastien Masi and Kirsten Batt, took over.
With chef Rory Carville at the helm they landed and then lost a Michelin star, all within a year. Carrying on on for another year, with a couple of new head chefs, this version of the restaurant eventually closed in July 2015.
It was when Locks was in its prime thatDubliner Connor first worked in the kitchen, after a number of years working at Ross Lewis’s Chapter One. He went on to work at Dax and then The Greenhouse before he was approached to take over the business.
It was at Chapter One that he met Paul, whose own culinary path began as a kitchen porter in a local hotel in Lahinch aged fifteen and landed his first head chef role, running a kitchen serving 300 covers, all before his eighteenth birthday, followed by posts at five Star hotels Killarney Park Hotel and the Lanesborough Hotel on London’s Hyde Park Corner, London followed.
He gained further notable experience in Australia, where he met his now wife, Yuko, originally from Japan making it a hard decision to return to Ireland to work sous chef in the five star Sheen Falls Lodge in Kerry.
“She said she would only move to Ireland if she within thirty minutes of an airport – in case things went wrong!” he says, only half joking. “So, I had no choice but to start looking for jobs in Dublin!”
After securing a job at Chapter One, he moved onto BANG restaurant before a job arose in Etto, the miniature yet marvellous restaurant just up the road from his pervious post on Merrion Row.
Head chef at Etto for three years, during his time there the opportunity to take on Locks came along and Paul, along with chef Keelan Higgs, helped Connor to reopen the restaurant.
Still working Etto, Paul says his decision to stay largely behind the scenes at that stage was due to plans to open another restaurant with owners Simon Barrett and Liz Matthews – a project that is still in the pipeline, Paul revealing that they hope to open at the end of this year.
In the meantime, the delays gave him the push to devote more time to Locks, relieving the pressure from Connor, who had worked six days a week for two years.
With Connor’s wife Andressa working as General Manager, they are now both in the kitchen full time and given their equally easy-going natures I believe them when they tell me that they work together seamlessly, and now that Paul is here around the clock too they are finally getting a chance to do the things they “didn’t have time to do at the beginning.”
They explain that at first they were entirely focused on getting things up and running as soon as possible, getting the lease on a Tuesday and opening the following Thursday, and that it’s only now, two years on, they are catching their breaths.
“We want to be more marketing savvy, take things to the next level, to get ourselves out there more and be a little more distinctive in what we are.”
So what exactly is the identity of the ‘new’ Locks? Doing very little to the original building since taking it over, a former grocer built over one hundred years ago, Connor says their original vision was to keep things simple.
“It had gone from being very formal, to really relaxed and then back to being formal again. We wanted to get things back to that relaxed, informal atmosphere again, making it accessible to neighbours.”
Just as those words leave Connor’s mouth, as if planned to verify the success of that strategy, they both give a friendly wave out the large canal facing window to a familiar local face passing by, a common occurrence throughout our chat.
Inheriting, and since strengthening, the good name of the restaurant, on social media they are present and active but not overbearing and brash, a reflection of their both own laid-back personalities and the relaxed vibe of the restaurant.
“Even on first night we didn’t market or promote that we were reopening but the room was full – I still don’t know how people know that we were open!”
“We’re not doing anything fancy,” Paul continues, “you won’t find any foams or gels here, but we are just cooking as well as we both possibly can, and I think that’s what people want, just great cooking served in a comfortable environment.”
Though they admit that given the recent proliferation of restaurants in the Portobello area they need to work a little harder than their predecessors to get people in the door, they no longer are the only restaurant in the village.
“We can’t rely on the location and the name, you have to have really great food, wine and service to be competitive. You must be on the top of your game. We need to be as good, or better, as everyone else.”
As Paul’s new project develops in the coming months he won’t be at the restaurant daily as he is now, but currently both are entirely dedicated to the Locks cause.
“We’ve a great relationship with the community here, so it’s all about solidifying that and making sure we are here for the next fifteen or twenty years. It’s about taking what we have now and continuing to improve it,” says Connor.
“There have been a lot of different owners over the years and we feel quite lucky to have it now. We see ourselves as the guardians of the building and it’s up to us to move it forward and make it the best it can be.”
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 completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters 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.