Think back to the best dining experience you’ve ever had. You probably generously tipped your server for the seamless service and sent your compliments to the chef, but there’s one key player who may have been overlooked, which often is a sign that they are doing their job right.
Flying under the radar, the restaurant manager is the one who curated it all, subtle in the craft of creating a magical meal. Adept in this art, Denise McBrien is part of an elite group of restaurant managers in Ireland upholding an old school standard of exceptional service.
Denise is now general manager at one of Dublin’s buzziest new openings, Old Street in Malahide, but perhaps best known for her time at Pichet, which she ran with her then husband Nick Munier and chef Stephen Gibson.
One of the most sought after people in the industry, having earned her stripes with Marco Pierre White, now Denise sees hospitality as a way of life, her calling, but that wasn’t always the way.
She says remembers it like it was yesterday the parting words of chef Johnny Cook when aged just twenty she left her first waitressing job at Cooks Café in Dublin city: “I look forward to visiting your restaurant one day.”
“I always remember thinking but this isn’t my industry, I’m just doing this until I find what I love.”
Since then her life and career have become intimately entangled with the restaurant industry. “And try as I might to get out of it I have always found myself coming back to it,” she laughs.
There are now few in the industry who understand now the inner workings of a restaurant better than Denise McBrien.
She found her niche as a reservations manager before that role was the essential cog in the industry it is now, working at Marco Pierre White’s three Michelin star the Oakroom Restaurant while Marco himself was still in the kitchen and followed him to his next venture, The Criterion Restaurant.
Returning to Dublin, friends Ross and Jessica Lewis sought her skills when Jessica took maternity leave. “It was when Chapter One really starting to evolve, the fact that they have reception staff, employed full time, purely to take reservations showed they were taking it seriously because you didn’t really have that in Ireland at the time.”
Denise says Chapter One and L’Ecrivain, where she went onto spend five years, were among the first to invest in reservations staff, “and they always have done to this day. Even now Ross would refer to Sharon, his reservations manager, as his CEO because she drives that business and keeps it ticking along.”
While Johnny Cook’s premonition seemed bizarre to her at the time, over the years apprehension turned to acceptance and a dream was born, one she realised in 2009 when she opened Pichet.
While she says always felt ownership in her previous role, she first felt the difference when they got a call in the early hours of the morning to say the windows of Pichet had been smashed. Sweeping up glass Denise says she felt a twang of hurt that someone could target what for her was an extension of her home.
“There’s a personal side to restaurants, you get to know people. I’ve had guests over the years who I would consider close friends now. I went on holidays with two of them a couple of years ago!”
“There’s something about hospitality, if you’re good at it and you enjoy it, it just radiates from you.”
Pichet made an immediate splash on the Dublin dining scene. “We had every food critic in within six days, two of them actually dined together because they knew they were coming in anyway.”
And, of course, they all mentioned the restaurants statement blue seats, Denise adds laughing. “I remember looking at them first these blue chairs with white piping thinking they looked like they were from Eddie Rockets, but it just all jelled.”
Among the many highlights of her time at Pichet was being awarded a Bib Gourmand within six months of opening, which meant a lot to Denise with her glittering Michelin starred background.
“We had a brilliant opening team at Pichet, we gave a great service and food and I’m still really proud of that.”
In April 2015, just as she was battling with the tough decision to say goodbye to her “baby” the opportunity arose to work with the “visionary” owner of Bewley’s Paddy Campell redeveloping the flagship Grafton Street store.
As assistant general manager, over 18 months she imparted her expertise and honed the operational side of service as far as she could, but with an opening date still undecided “itchy feet” kicked.
Brought on as a consultant at first she says she fell in love with Old Street even when it was still a building site. She shared the vision of owners Mark and Adrina Fitzpatrick, and although reluctant to admit the scale of her contribution Denise’s experience was crucial in the process of transforming a cottage into an expansive two story restaurant, bar and wine cellar that has
Just as impressive as cooking of chefs Fergus Caffrey and Chris Fullam is the service. Denise says she had the full support of Mark and Adrina to create a front of house team that met her standards, going as far to conduct second round interviews for waiters – something she says she would never skimp on.
Now open 4 months, Denise has already formed a committed family of which she admits she is a proud mother.
“I do think hospitality is a very human industry. We can all have good days and bad days. If you’re just hungover you’ll get a wrap on the knuckles and get sent home, but if it’s something serious I’m going to help you through it.”
“Even though hospitality might not be your end goal, it is mine and that’s what you are doing at the moment so I need you to be the best waiter, bartender or food runner that you can be whilst you are here.”
“I don’t just want you here to collect a pay check, and I don’t nurture and keep on those kinds of people.”
On the other hand, she says sometimes it’s the people on the inside who don’t respect the career and it pains her to see front of house staff in other restaurants that blatantly disregard the ‘old school’ approach to hospitality she works hard to uphold.
“What really gets me is this too cool for school vibe you get at some restaurants, they don’t wear uniforms, they don’t make eye contact with you when you go in or they are on their phones.”
“There is a sense that anybody can do it, and this absolutely is not the case. You have to have a passion for food and wine and you can’t just do it for the sake of doing it.”
“You have to enjoy looking after people too. We are not servants but we are in the service industry and it is hospitality. Everybody that comes into the restaurant we are hosting as if it was in our own homes.”
Of course, a restaurant, or reservations, manager in particular must also have an acute set of skills to navigate the sensitivities of social standings, with a keen awareness of who’s who and a constant eye on newspapers and magazine social columns.
Denise says working at L’Ecrivain during the peak Celtic Tiger years was a minefield, particularly when she was tasked with arranging a table plan for a busy lunch to accommodate representatives from various banks.
“You couldn’t put someone from Bank of Ireland sitting beside from Anglo let’s say, as they wouldn’t be able to a proper conversation and their lunchtime would be wasted.”
She puts on a pedestal her peers who carry off this balancing act, and a lot more, with panache: Declan Maxwell at Luna, Andrea Hussey at the Pig’s Ear, Adriaan Bartels of the Cliff House Ardmore, and Robert Scanlon at Osteria Lucio and names Domini and Peaches Kemp as her ‘business mentors’.
Mark and Adriana have given her a ‘carte blanche’, the freedom to run the restaurant to the best of her ability, and although she is committed for “the foreseeable future,” she admits the idea of opening her own restaurant again is always at the back of her mind.
Though, for now, she is happy in Malahide, particularly now that the intensity of the first few months after opening has eased.
She finds herself being able to commit to meeting her friends once a week, taking a rare Sunday off to spend an entire day with her kids, or simply heading home early to enjoy a book and a glass of wine – simple pleasures a restaurant owner can’t always afford.
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.