“Last night was my 21st pop-up,” says Mark Moriarty, when I meet him in the canteen at RTÉ. “It took a bit of work to turn this building into a restaurant. You should have seen it last night, it was all white; white floor, white drapes from the roof down.” That night Mark, the current title holder of S.Pellegrino Young Chef, was to recreate his temporary restaurant yet again for an intimate crowd of 40, serving dishes in his signature modern Irish style, including potatoes baked in seaweed and salt, with mussels cooked in whey, and hay smoked salmon.
He would finish the meal with a riff on a Ferrero Rocher; a baked hazelnut chocolate fondant with a Jerusalem artichoke ice cream. “Last night we had 45 fondants, so we only had five to lose. They are just six minutes in the oven, so they are really on the edge, if you over handle them at all they burst. I think we lost four – it was quite close. When I was doing it last night I was like ‘who’s idea was this?’” he laughs. “A lot of stress, but when you see it on the plate it’s all worth it.”
After curating 21 pop-ups, 24-year-old Mark is skilled in the art of temporary restaurants; coping with the pressure of preparing a banquet, most often in unfamiliar surroundings, designing bespoke menus based on his repertoire of recipes, with seasonal and cultural variations dependent on where is in the world; all the while being acutely aware of ticket prices, logistics, and ordering exact quantities of ingredients.
S.Pellegrino were aware of Mark’s culinary talents, but what they might not have expected was for Mark to have the business acumen, ambition and charm to match his cooking ability; making him the perfect ambassador for the brand. Grasping the opportunity with two hands, it was Mark himself that pitched the idea of world tour of sorts, hooking up with his former competitors across the globe, hosting pop-up restaurants and championing Irish food in each destination. S.Pellegrino were sold on the idea of supporting the next generation of top chefs, and so, one year ago, Mark’s global odyssey began.
Though, Mark’s culinary journey first began some 20 years ago on a small fishing boat off the coast of West Kerry. Raised in Blackrock, Mark’s parents hail from Ventry, where he spent every summer holiday fishing, growing vegetables, and then cooking his yields. Instilled with an appreciation of quality produce, Mark went on to study Culinary Arts in DIT, but says it his teenage summer job at the Charthouse in Dingle, under chef Noel Enright, where he “learnt the most, the fastest.”
Far from the menial jobs, like picking herbs, that a young chef might be entrusted with in a Michelin star kitchen, at the Charthouse Mark was “thrown into the deep end”, running the starter section, with 11 different starters, for 80 people a night, 6 days a week. Although he winces at the memory of crying in the fridge under the pressure, the job gave Mark the confidence to work, initially for free to get his foot in the door, at Thornton’s, and then at The Greenhouse, under chef Mickael Viljanen, while still in college.
“On Tuesdays, I would start at 5.30am, preparing the stocks, bases for sauces and purées, before the other chefs would arrive. I’d work until midday, then go to Spanish from 12 – 3pm, Accounting at 3.30pm, and go back in for service at 6pm.”
He still found time to enter Euro-toques Ireland Young Chef of the Year in 2012, and despite being hospitalised for exhaustion afterwards he applied again in 2013, this time scooping first prize. “If I didn’t get it in 2013, I would have kept going until I won it,” Mark admits.
“The Culinary Counter was a crash course on how to run a business,” says Mark of his next move, the pop-up restaurant he launched with chef Ciaran Sweeney, now of Forest & Marcy, and while his previous competition experiences left him initially reluctant to enter San Pellegrino Young Chef, Mark was eventually swayed. “I couldn’t help but think that the tickets (for a pop up) would sell a lot faster if I had that world title,” he grins.
With a dish devoted to the humble celeriac, Mark went on to represent the UK and Ireland, a first for an Irish chef in itself, and then, to beat 19 other chefs from around the globe to become the ultimate victor.
His signature dish, celeriac baked in barley and fermented hay with cured and smoked celeriac, was three years in the making Mark explains.
“I have kept a photo log of the dish from the first time I ever submitted it. It was terrible at the start! It was a very different dish that I presented at S.Pellegrino. It was actually the simplest form of it that was the best.”
With the support of his mentor, celebrated Northern Irish chef Clare Smyth, Mark won over a Michelin star speckled jury of chefs, and 300 other diners at the banquet, not just with the precise cooking of his innovative dish, but with the story he weaved around it; of a new wave of modern Irish food, with a nod to his heritage, serving hay-smoked tea in his grandmother’s teacups. “The best thing was when they announced me as the winner I turned around and Mark Moriarty was on the big screen with the Irish flag – it was so cool to represent your country in something like that.”
He has continued to represent his country ever since, promoting the “Irish food revolution” in London, Sydney, South Carolina, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Düsseldorf, Naples, and Paris, among others. “I’ve got ginger hair and I’m pasty white – it’s perfect!” he laughs.
“I am just representing all the great chefs in Ireland that are doing amazing things, and developing a new Irish style of food. We are very good at talking about this amongst ourselves, but no one is talking about it internationally.”
Just as people all over the world have learnt from Mark that there is more to Irish food than Guinness and potatoes, he has learnt a lot too, cooking for, and with, some of the best chefs in the world. “It was like doing a stage everywhere I went. I have learnt so much, in a way that I never could have if I hadn’t won the competition,” Mark says.
“Where ever I go I’m on the same bill as all these amazing chefs – which is funny in a way as I have so much left to learn.”
He counts meeting chef Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago, top Swedish chef Magnus Ek, and three Michelin star French chef Yannick Alléno as some of the most awe-inspiring moments of his year. “I seem to say ‘once in a lifetime’ a lot!” he says of his experiences.
Until the Young Chef 2016 final in October, Mark’s world tour continues. He flew in from Paris a week before the RTÉ event, and jetted off to Switzerland the following Monday. Pop-ups are planned for Cape Town in July, and Hong Kong in August, and with Mickael in The Greenhouse in September. “It’s nice that it’s coming full circle, back where it started,” he adds. His last engagement will be the night the winner is announced. “I will be doing the banquet for the 300 people, because then everyone else can focus on their dishes for the judges, and my helper for the night will actually be Massimo Bottura,” Mark beams.
Of all the places he has travelled, it was the food culture in Melbourne that captured his imagination the most, and he plans to spend a year working there from next January. “I was very taken when I was down there by the amount of quality restaurants and the amount of really innovative business models. I could go work in Attica, but I don’t just want to go and cook really great food, I want to do that and find a model of business that’s achievable in Ireland.”
Sourcing inspiration from his Australian adventure Mark plans to open a restaurant in the next five years, but isn’t naive about the stresses that come with running a business.
“I’ve been lucky enough that I have always been conscious. My dad is a clinical psychologist, and my mom was a CEO in mental health. You have to have an awareness of up here as well. I don’t want to get to thirty and be burnt out.”
“I actually did my thesis on stress management in kitchens, and a comparison of Michelin star restaurants. That was very interesting!” he adds.
“The industry is starting the change, there are no chefs and there is a reason for that. I myself love the culture I have no problem with working 90 hours. But it’s not really sustainable. In five years when I want to open my restaurant, I’m not going to be able to keep staff,” says Mark, citing Forrest Avenue as a progressive model whereby they work Wednesday to Saturday. “I’d love to have a four day operation where I would work 6am to midnight, knowing I had three days off to live my life.”
“Cooking is the easy part,” Mark says. “I don’t know what it will be, what style it will be, or in what form, but I know it will be there.”
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.