There are few in the Irish restaurant industry who will fail to recognise the name Oliver Dunne and if the Glasnevin native is to be believed, not everyone would have something nice to say when his name crops up. “I look back on how I was before and think wow…I was an arsehole!” he laughs. The youngest Irish chef to be awarded a Michelin star at just 28, Dunne’s Bon Appetit in Malahide will ring bells in most people’s heads, as the restaurant that effectively handed back its star. Sitting in his new restaurant, Beef & Lobster on Parliament Street, Dunne in his white T-shirt and apron appears to be in his element.
Relaxed and content, we have a coffee and chat about his hopes for his newest venture, a foray into quick casual dining, a world away from the life he left behind 10 years ago when the Recession hit.
For me personally, the recession was a positive thing. The business suffered but if Ireland hadn’t has a recession I wouldn’t be where I am today. It was a real education for me.
“When your back is against the wall you have to diversify, you have to change,” Oliver says, describing himself more as a restaurateur than a chef now. On opening Beef & Lobster, his third restaurant which has replaced Fiorentina on Parliament Street, Oliver says he is “hungrier than ever” to expand even further. Following his desire to “cook food for the populus in a buzzy atmosphere where you can enjoy a bottle of wine and dinner with change from €100 euro,” Oliver calls opening Cleaver East in Dublin’s Clarence Hotel “my first foray into me being me.”
Seeing how wildly successful this more casual model could be “gave me confidence to go for what I believe in,” he says, which he credits for the courage it took to direct Bon Appetit’s evolution from a Michelin starred establishment to a more accessible restaurant which “still serves stunning, incredible food.” Keen to capitalise on this realisation, Beef & Lobster seeks to entice diners with its luxurious menu at incredibly affordable prices and keep them coming back for more by serving these high end ingredients in relaxed and informal surroundings.
I want somewhere cool, quick and with great service. I look at it like a posh Nando’s! It’s that walk in, casual, don’t worry about it, have a beer and one of the four dishes and you’re gone for under €30.
Inspired by Burger and Lobster, the UK based chain premised on serving just two items, Oliver originally considered bringing the franchise to Ireland but instead decided to tweak the model to better suit the Irish market. He saw ‘no value’ in offering a burger for €22, but accepted that “we are a beef nation,” meaning he could never overlook the importance of a steak on his menus. “I have stood in a kitchen for 20 years and every single night of the week beef dominates about 30% of all your sales, regardless of the type of restaurant,” he explains, driving him to make beef, in the form of rib-eye and fillet, the delicious partner to lobster for his short menu.
Serving 10 oz rib-eye, a whole lobster, fillet beef wellington and a lobster roll, each for €22 including two sides, Oliver wants his customers to feel spoiled without burning a hole in their pockets.”I decided to solely focus on those four things and doing them perfectly,”he says. There is also a special of an 8oz fillet steak and half a lobster for €35 – the ultimate surf and turf. Big, juicy, whole lobsters are arguably the star of the menu and Oliver laughs as recalls doing his research – that is quizzing people on whether they had ever eaten a whole lobster.
As a professional chef in 20 years I had never ordered a whole lobster. I asked myself why is that? The reason is, strip the bullshit out, it’s too expensive! It’s €60 odd, or price on asking and the fear of God!
As intriguing as it is to get an insight into how Oliver’s mind works, on the price point I can’t help but interject with the one thing everyone is wondering when they hear the premise of Beef & Lobster – how is it so affordable? Where is the catch??
Oliver notes that the Beef & Lobster model is “a gamble”, but one he feels safe making knowing he can always fall back on the kind of traditional restaurant he has had success with in Bon Appetit and Cleaver East. The secret to being a viable business with such accessible pricing? Oliver explains that the restaurant only works financially on the basis of turnover of tables. There is no starter, “you’re not on the table for a two hour period,” it is quick and simple. “People come in and eat and some are gone in less than 45 minutes – we have a fast turnover and large volume,” seven nights a week, he says. On any given night, a three hour period might a table for two turn out three bills of €30 a head.
The other way Oliver ensures the prices stay low on the most luxurious and opulent of ingredients? “Offering a short menu means your staffing levels are much lower. The Head Chef and Commis Chef run the kitchen themselves. That’s it”, he tells me, as I am wide eyed imaging two chefs handling 200 covers between them. “It is just cooking. We don’t have the complexities of starters on, the desserts are all refined, the whole design and ethos is just to be really good quality and manageable”, he assures me. The best part for the customer? Oliver confirms that “the savings we make back of house are passed on to the customer with pricing, that’s how we can do it for such a low cost.”
So far, so good for this risky business it would seem – “we’re only open two months but it has been fantastic, really positive and we’re doing huge numbers which is great and every night of the week there is a great crowd and atmosphere” Oliver says, noting that he is hoping to “win fans not accolades.” With generous portions of fantastic ingredients, Beef & Lobster shouldn’t be long developing a cult following.
I wonder aloud if an eatery exclusively offering luxury steak and lobster dishes indicates a return of the Boom mindset, which Oliver is quick to rebut. Reflecting again on the benefits the Recession had for him, Oliver feels “people want good quality food and they don’t want to feel like they’re being ripped off. That’s what the boom was.”
Beef & Lobster is a product of the Boom and so am I in a way. It was a great education.
With the wisdom that only comes from having gone through the wars to come out on top, Oliver reflects on his model for success and how he managed to come through dark economic times with wisdom that only comes from having gone through the wars – “It is not the strongest and fastest who survive, it is those with the ability to adapt.”
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! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, 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.