Stepping off the street on a bright Spring day, down into the intimate Georgian basement dining room of Dax has a bewildering effect. With it’s open fire, dark stained ceilings, rough rendered walls, and stacks of wooden wine crates, you are effortlessly transported from city centre Dublin to the wine cellar of country manor house in rural France.
Dax gives the illusion that it has been settled in its Pembroke street home for decades, but owner Olivier Meisonnave tells me the space didn’t always quite have the same rustic appeal. “It was a fish restaurant, Pier 32, so it was green, and they had plastic nets, sea gulls and crabs everywhere,” he says.
“There was a massive anchor outside the door, which I gave to the National Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire, they needed a crane to take it away!” “I wanted to create something timeless. Sometimes you go to a restaurant and it’s very modern and funky, and if you go back after 2 or 3 years it’s out of date. Here is comfortable and warm, which works well with our basement location.”
Olivier has been in Ireland for 20 years, lured here by love, and charmed by the restaurant world while working with chef Kevin Thornton. Though Dax is inspired by hometown of the same name in the South West of France.
“My dad was a chiropractor in the countryside. My mother went to the supermarket maybe once a week, just to get detergent and things, as we got food for free. Most of my dad’s patients were old farmers, who didn’t have the cash to pay, so instead they would give him two kilos of cherry tomatoes, two pheasants, whatever they had.”
With a love of quality ingredients already instilled in him, it only took a visit to a restaurant of a family friend to spark Olivier’s interest in the restaurant industry. After a few years in culinary school, Olivier found his feet on the floor of the restaurant, rather than in the kitchen. He hit the ground running, getting a job fresh out of school at 3 Michelin star Alain Chapel near Lyon. “When you work in a 3 Michelin star restaurant for 3 years it opens a lot of doors.”
He kept up the pace working at Michelin starred restaurants in Saint Tropez and Monte Carlo, and even when he joined the army, compulsory in France at the time, he managed to not let this stall his progression. “I finished in the army restaurant at 1pm, so I worked in the Ritz Hotel at night time from 7pm until 1am. I was young, and I needed a few bobs!”
Though in between the long shifts at his next post, 2 Michelin star Le Carre des Feuillants in Paris, Olivier did take time to relax; one of his favourite spots being an Irish pub behind the restaurant, where he met “a lovely Irish girl from Cavan”. When she decided to go home to Ireland, Olivier followed her to Kingscourt, County Cavan. “Unfortunately we broke up three months after I arrived, and ended up on my own in a flat in Rathmines, with no English,” Oliver says.
“I went for an interview in Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, they didn’t have a job for me at the time but they introduced me to Kevin Thornton.” “I met him in March 1995, and I opened with him Portobello that April,” says Olivier of what happened next. “I had no English, absolutely none, and I did the interview with Kevin in a pub with his wife. I have no idea how I got the job.”
“A year later we got one Michelin star, so I said I would stay a little bit longer. Four years later we got a second Michelin, so I said I would stay a bit longer, and I ended up staying with Kevin for 9 years.”
Olivier regards the Michelin experience with Kevin as one of the highlights of his career, opening his own restaurant was another. “I wanted to open a wine bar initially. At the time in 1994, apart from Ely, there were no wine bars in Dublin. Fortunately, my customers from Thornton’s followed me.” Dax now is much more than a wine bar. “Thank god,” exclaims Oliver, “as my over spend was low as wine bar, but after few changes my spend went up by 30% as a fine dining restaurant.”
“Dax is a fine dining restaurant with tasty, rustic food, seasonal ingredients, and a very good wine list. Professional service, but relaxed, not stuffy,” says Olivier. A blend of characteristics that earned Dax the title of RAI Best Restaurant Dublin in 2014.
While Dax has since evolved Olivier says wine still runs through the veins of the restaurant. “We’ve one of the best wine lists in town, with bottles right up to €600. We sell about 6 or 7 of those per year. If you don’t have it on the list you won’t sell it, and you never know who is coming through the door.” But wine for him comes third to the food and service. “I think service is as important as the food,” says Olivier.
“Sometimes chefs have a bit of ego, but if you go to a restaurant and you eat very well but the service is bad the whole night is ruined completely. If you go to a restaurant and the food is mediocre, but the service is great you might come back.”
“I went to Alain Ducasse’s restaurants in Paris; a 1 Michelin star in Les Halles, and a 3 Michelin star Plaza Athenee. They are busy because the name at the door, the food was fabulous but the service was ignorant and condescending, I will never go back again,” Olivier adds.
As such Olivier takes his role as front of house very seriously, though he says a career in service is not always given the same respect by staff. “I used to have a café bar upstairs, which I closed 3 years ago. Afterwards we were looking at the payroll, and over the 11 years of the restaurant we had 48 people, which was pretty good. But upstairs over three years? 82.” “Working on the floor, a lot of people are doing it to make money but don’t see it as a profession. They are not going to stay as a waiter for the rest of their lives.” “Staff loyalty, it’s not so bad in the kitchen, but on the floor can be really difficult,” he says.
Over 12 years, three head chefs have made there mark at Dax, all of whom have gone on to establish their own restaurants; Paul O’Hendricks, Bloom Brasserie, Conor Dempsey, Amuse, and Conor O’Dowd, Locks restaurant. Olivier says that while most young chefs are eager to break out on their own, often with Michelin star aspirations, this is not an easy feat.
“From experience, to achieving two Michelin stars with Kevin Thornton was massive. It was a huge achievement as you have to balance the business, your family life, the staff, the standard. It’s a huge amount of work.”
Loyalty is not an issue with current head chef Tomas Morowski. Similarly to how Kevin Thornton saw something in Olivier despite a lack of English, so too did Olivier of Tomas; “Tomas started with me as a commis chef. He arrived in Ireland in 2001 from Poland. I interviewed him in the Gresham with his wife and his sister has he had no English, and he has been with me since.”
He can count on the loyalty of his customers too, “my customers would be 65% regulars, 35% of them I have known over 20 years.” “I am not great with names, but very good with faces. Sometimes I will remember their drink orders if they come back six months later.”
Besides issues with staffing, Olivier names the lack of chefs in Ireland, and the high cost of rent among the biggest challenges in running a restaurant. “I went to Kinsale a couple of weeks ago, I don’t think they are paying €80,000 in rent and the dishes were just a euro or two cheaper. You have to wonder sometimes who is making the most money; Dublin, or the countryside?” With pressures like these, Olivier counts himself fortunate for surviving the recession. “I didn’t think that we would survive, because from 2008 to 2013 it was very tough, and my customers disappeared like that,” he says clicking this fingers.
With this perspective he was struck by a programme on RTÉ at Christmas time talking about the homeless situation in Dublin, and to mark 10 years in business in 2014 Olivier donated 2 euros to the Dublin Simon Community from every table at Dax. He handed over a cheque for over €12,000 to the Simon Community that year, and through annual Barbecues he continues to fund raise for the charity.
Despite the challenges of running a restaurant, Olivier hasn’t let the competition, hectic lifestyle, or high costs to quench his passion, “there is a market for everybody. I hope next year to open another restaurant. Another Dax? Why not? or maybe open a place with some great Irish chef with the same view than mine. Here I am!”
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.