Turning the corner on to Dawson Street I inwardly curse my fellow pedestrians relaxed pace. Not unlike Alice in Wonderland’s white rabbit exclaiming “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date”, I hurriedly make my way to the Greenhouse to sit down with Mickael Viljanen. Of course I wasn’t late but merely anxious, I was being given a rare chance to pick the brain of the revered Finnish chef whose spare time is a scarce commodity indeed.
It is morning time in the Greenhouse and an empty dining room greets me, the calm before a busy day ahead for Dublin’s newest Michelin starred restaurant. I wait at a table where I previously enjoyed one of my most memorable meals to date, this time hoping to understand the man behind the magic. He appears, funnily enough, from a cloud of smoke and he seems a little unsettled, his natural habitat is the kitchen and his piercing blue eyes wander back to it regularly.
As he sips from a dainty espresso cup I notice a tattoo on his wrist of a knife and a fork and wonder how food came to be etched so deeply on his skin and story. His answer surprises me. “I don’t know what really made me get into cooking…it just kind of happened.” He recalls his teenage years working in kitchens in his native Finland, washing pots and pans at weekends and collecting glasses by night and muses that “it just ended up sliding that way.” The passion? “It’s all I’ve ever done since I was 14, working my way up.”
Upping and moving to our shores in 2000, Mickael set his focus on climbing the ladder and putting Clare’s Gregan’s Castle on the culinary map, taking the title of Best Chef in Ireland at the Restaurant Association Awards in 2011. Having achieved this, Mickael left the Burren in 2012 to put down roots in the Greenhouse, Eamonn O’Reilly’s then new venture. He quickly flourished in his new Dublin patch, regaining the title in 2015 and most notably, earning a Michelin star in the same year.
As time is of the essence, we get straight to the good stuff – the food. He softens upon mention of his homeland but feels that his Finnish heritage doesn’t necessarily influence the predominantly French cooking style he has developed over the years, apart from one nod to his roots present in his creations – the sourness of fruit cutting across savoury dishes and, he laughs, “maybe a little excessive use of dill sometimes!”
The mention of this element of his cooking immediately turns the conversation to his Foie Gras Royale, a stalwart GreenHouse offering of the richest foie parfait offset with green apple ice and powdered smoked eel – to my mind, molecular gastronomy at its finest.
It’s a funny thing, Foie Gras Royale was never meant to go on the menu here. The day before we had a soft opening I had something else on the menu and it just didn’t really pan out as I thought it was going to be and the day we opened I put that on and it’s actually been on the menu in one form or another ever since.
Even his fall back dishes are show stoppers. He admits that tables sometimes ask to replace tasting menu courses with an extra fix of foie, meaning it will always appear on the menu in one guise or another but feels strongly that it, or in fact any other dish, is not his signature offering or a single dish he is most proud of.
The thing is I am proud of dishes for about two weeks and then I get sick of them and change them. I have a very short attention span for things like that, I get bored very easy! Things change every day, the menu is never exactly the same for two days, something changes all the time.
This is what leads Mickael to be the most intriguing of culinary creatures – he never sits back and gets comfortable, always slightly on edge, he creates new dishes through masterful tweaks every day. Foie Gras Royale has been known to dance as seductively with sea buckthorn as apple on the Greenhouse tasting menu but this desire to tinker with dishes did not always pay off.
At the start I used to change a lot, like two or three dishes a day, but that’s just too much to keep it consistent and then sometimes you’d end up putting dishes on and they’re not fully finished and then you pull them off the next night and do it again, now something changes all the time but the changes are much more well thought out and considered than the changes would have been before.
Mickael has evolved since 2012, and has honed his short attention span to his advantage. He is not afraid to admit that he had room to improve then and he still has room to learn something new every day now.
On the day of last year’s Michelin guide announcement it was reported that Mickael could be seen pacing Dawson street, signature cigarette in tow, awaiting the news. It seems that if he did feel hard done by in the past, as many would have believed, he has reconciled himself with the Guide’s delay in awarding the Greenhouse its star. When asked about the widely held belief that he should have been given a star before now he humbly asks me ‘Should I?’
I don’t know, honestly, I think the simplest reason was that they didn’t find it consistent enough. I’ve had several chats with them and I think that was the problem, at the early days I came in so eager and open to constantly changing things.
Coming from Gregan’s Castle and perhaps eager to make waves in his new surroundings, the desire to impress drove Mickael to constantly edit dishes and act on whim, but having settled in, this need seems to have evaporated.
I think that as the years go by the need to prove anything to anybody is kind of fading away and you just do what you want to do. I think that’s where the biggest problem is, people often think that the more you do, you can do this and you can do that, that you’re f*cking great but it doesn’t work like that and what I’m learning very very slowly is that sometimes less is more.
On the Greenhouse’s star and the whispers that accompanied its absence in 2013 and 2014, Mickael is a realist.
you hear a lot of wiffle waffle, people saying ‘oh its the chairs or its the toilets’, its this or its that, its absolutely nothing to do with it though, its just they come in and have loads and loads of meals and some were better than others and that’s not how it works.
These could hardly be called teething problems, with Mickael producing food which quickly saw him gaining the respect of chefs and food connouisseurs alike from opening day in 2012. His hindsight yields great insight and self-evaluation, the hallmark of someone who will continue to exceed their limits, if he made mistakes, he has learned valuable lessons from them.
The GreenHouse as a whole runs like clock-work, with the various cogs ticking away at every moment to ensure a flawless experience is had by all who come through the door. There appears to be a clock-ticking in the back of Mickael’s mind yet he is generous with his words which he delivers quickly, succinctly, Scandanavian-ly. He is not quick to take credit for the huge success the Greenhouse has turned out to be, keen to attribute much of this to his team,
and the most important thing is the people you have here with you. I have been extremely lucky with the people we have here. Its all well and good to think you an do this and you can do that, yeah you can do it for one person but when you have a full lunch and full dinner you can’t do it yourself
Many a young chef would give their left arm to learn from a chef the calibre of Viljanen, but Mickael has a very specific brief when taking on new talent in the Greenhouse. He laughs, ‘I’m not looking for superstars, I think that causes hassle and they often can be drama queens!’ He praises his current team for their hard work and dedication, assuring me that ‘if you don’t have good people, you won’t have a good product.’
Mentioning the current chef shortage in Dublin and beyond, Mickael stops to comment on just how lucky he feels the Greenhouse has been, having had such remarkable talent come through the doors
sometimes you get lucky, we got very lucky with the people we have had and the people we have at the moment and I can rely on them, they know what I want and they get it done every day and there’s no whinging, no complaining, which is a rare, rare thing and we’re blessed with that.
While some may think that makes him a tough task-master, it is clear his kitchen has been a nursery for some of Dublin’s most notable up and coming talents, Mark Moriarty springs to mind, as does Ciaran Mac Sweeney. Lamenting the fact that his working hours means he rarely gets to eat in other Dublin restaurants, he is quick to mention how excited he is to try Ciaran’s new venture, Forest and Marcy. He lights up, ‘I am delighted for him, he’s been a long time waiting to get his own gig and I am sure he’ll do great’.
Mickael loves the fact that no two days are the same and would struggle with the thought of being office-bound, but he admits that there is a downside to following his passion in this industry. Of striking a balance between work and personal life and finding time for himself, he says honestly
There’s very little of it outside the holiday time, I know myself the balance should be much better, the balance between work and no work, but sometimes it gets very blurred and very difficult….
As his time off is often spent immersed in food-centric activities, researching by travelling to London and beyond to try new things, he muses ‘I don’t think there is a clear line, its very blurred.’ He knows he isn’t the only one in this boat and believes at the end of the day ‘that’s just the way it goes.’ Of the others in this boat, Mickael speaks with high regard of the chefs whose restaurants have stood the test of time.
Guilbauld is open 30 years they’re still rammed every day – that is admirable to me. You see so many places opening and closing even in the four years I’ve been in Dublin, this concept and that concept and then they’re gone in a year or two. The biggest admiration I can have for somebody is somebody who can run for 30 years.
This steers the conversation towards the Greenhouse owner, Eamonn O’Reilly, who also owns the long-standing Dublin stalwart One Pico. ‘He is the single best person I have ever worked for because the thing with him is what you see is what you get’. Not unlike Mickael himself, he notes that there is ‘no beating around the bush with him.’As Mickael has no interest in being a flash in the pan, and the measure of a restaurant for him is how long the doors have been open and seats filled his partnership with O’Reilly would appear to be the perfect match.
Naturally, curiosity abounds as to the future of the Greenhouse in the years to come and whether a second star is on the agenda. But Mickael says they are neither consciously ‘guarding a star’ nor hunting a second one. ‘Its funny, a lot of days you don’t even think about it, its not even in your head, you just do what you do and just always try to provide the best thing for the punters you know?’ Mickael endearingly peppers his speech with little Irish touches, like a sprinkle of dillisk on a salt cured side of Finnish salmon.
Coming to the end of our chat, the topic turns again to food – specifically death row meals. There is no hesitation on Mickael’s part – smiling, he admits his last meal would be alot more simple than I might expect. ‘Big slab of old school foie gras terrine, followed by beef bourguinon, followed by rum baba, that would be me.’ On the side of his beef bourguinon? ‘Some mashed spuds’ he laughs, so quintessentially Irish in his turn of phrase that I feel we can claim him as our own.
In this Greenhouse, brilliance seems to grow in abundance. In this controlled, precise environment Viljanen has built, he monitors every last detail precisely and his harvest is undeniably the cream of the crop. Sowing the seeds of culinary greatness and reaping the rewards, he is the master of the Dublin patch.
Imagery provided by Aspect Photography
For more information or to book The Greenhouse visit http://thegreenhouserestaurant.ie/home.php
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that (and greed) as the ultimate motivators, I quickly realised that home-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, which fuelled my desire to set my focus on food in a serious way. Working with The Taste allows me to satiate this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me as I share my food adventures and hopefully inspire others to indulge their passion for cooking and food in the process!