Neil Mulholland – Leader of the Pack at Peploe’s
Peploe’s Wine Bistro has become something of an institution on Stephen’s Green thanks to their longevity. Having opened their doors in November 2002, this is one restaurant that has survived every kind of economic climate and culinary trend over the last 13 years. Nestled in the basement of No. 16 on the North side of the Green, Peploe’s is located near some of Dublin’s most renowned restaurants.
Indeed there seems to be some kind of secret formula for success running from the Green to Merrion Row and Baggot Street. That small stretch alone contains two five star hotels, a four star hotel, two Michelin star restaurants and a two star establishment. Executive Head Chef in Peploe’s is Neil Mulholland and he says they are lucky to be in their position. “We get a lot of tourists, particularly if there’s any conferences on, we’re jammers. We’re always busy.”
Their convenient location certainly helped during the recession as many restaurants off the beaten track were forced to close their doors. Neil explains how Peploe’s suffered a massive shock as 2008 had been one of their busiest years before the crash hit. They had to go into survival mode to protect the business and their 50 staff members. Owner Barry Canny led from the top, resisting cuts to staffing and purchasing. “We kept it going more or less, tried to maintain the same standard. It was heart-breaking sometimes to be here on a night where you’re doing a fraction of what you normally used to do. It was survival, that’s the best way to describe it.”
The team was a top priority through the recession as Barry and Neil had invested heavily in them; most of the staff had come with them to Peploe’s from Browne’s on Kildare Street. Neil himself has been working with Barry since 1999 and he says Barry doesn’t interfere with the running of the restaurant. “It all comes down to Barry, the way he does things. He’s not the kind of person who is going to come in and meddle that much and tell us I want this, I want that. He could do it very easily but he bites his tongue and doesn’t say anything. I can see sometimes that he wants to go grr but he leaves us to our own devices.”
Neil’s rapport with his team is obvious as every member of staff comes over for a chat while I’m talking to him in the restaurant. One server endearingly asks if he can help her do her tie. “We try our best to cultivate an atmosphere where we are a team. It’s difficult sometimes, there’s no question about that but you don’t have a choice, if we’re doing big numbers we have to work as a team. We work with runners who run the pass as such because I cook, so I have a guy standing in front of me who is my connection to the waiting staff. We all get on well anyway.”
Having that great working environment means Neil holds on to his staff. Six of his kitchen team have been with him from the beginning which means Neil has a lot of trust and confidence in the chefs. “I suppose having that consistency in staff has allowed us to maintain the way we do the everyday things in the kitchen which are the building stones of what we do.” That consistency can cause its own issues though as Neil admits it can be hard to get the old school brigade to embrace change.
I’m not going to lie, it’s difficult to change things. Say I want to do something different, people that you’re working with quite often are very reluctant to change. I’m not the only one who’s here 13 years, there’s quite a few people and that’s very peculiar for a restaurant. I’ve lads there who are with me since the start. So it’s really getting those to want to do something different, that’s my problem. It’s like trying to get people to change.
Neil tries to lead from the front as he gets his motivation from trips abroad and seeing what other restaurants and cities are doing. A couple of times a year, Neil travels with a group of chefs and food producers including Kieran Glennon of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, Denis Vaughan from Vaughan’s Anchor Inn, Rocky and Ian Redmond and Glen Wheeler from Blacklion. Their last excursion took them to Spain where they got to sample the best of Madrid, Bilbao and San Sebastian. “What inspires me is going to new places, going to New York, going to San Sebastian. The last trip the guys did, they went to Germany to Tim Raue in Berlin. The next one is in New York. I try to get away as much as possible, it’s good, you’ll burn out very quickly if you don’t, that’s what I think.”
Proving that travelling is good for his work life balance, Neil is just back from New York where he got engaged to his partner Gosia. He’s noticing a trend now for tasting menus and plates that are moving away from meat. “In other places, I have noticed after being in New York, nearly every place does a three course, or a kind of a tasting menu. It’s all becoming very vegetable centric as well which is great to see, I suppose they lead the way in everything they do over there, it’s incredible.”
While he notices trends, it can still be hard for Neil to introduce them to the menus at Peploe’s, partly because of the hesitant staff but also because of reluctant customers who have come to expect a certain offering from the restaurant. “The difficulty is trying to change the style of the food and changing what our customers actually want. We have people that have been coming here for 13 years and they expect certain dishes. So in a way we have to kind of play to our crowd yet in order for us to move it on a little bit and change, we have to be adaptive and we have to kind of change with trends.”
The vegetable centric trend that Neil saw in New York is already something that Peploe’s embraces. Buying in from Italy twice a week, Neil has access to some authentic vegetables that aren’t found in other Dublin restaurants. His supplier Marco has a small importing business called 100% Italy and he provides Peploe’s with unique produce. “We get big Sicilian aubergines, the most beautiful fresh broad beans and different kinds of Italian vegetables that not many people use like monk’s beard, Barba di fratte and fiorelli. I mean Irish people would never eat this kind of stuff but we try to use as much of it as possible.”
Another trend that Neil is embracing is fermenting and pickling produce. Right now he is experimenting with kefir, cultivating it in a milk and cane sugar solution that the staff drink once the kefir is removed. The plan is to ferment spring carrots and other vegetables once they have enough kefir which will enhance the umami flavours in the produce. This project is Neil’s attempt to bring in new methods and flavours but maintain that signature Peploe’s style. Over the years that style has developed from a simpler bistro to something more refined. That’s not to say Peploe’s is stuffy, they might have white tablecloths but the warm atmosphere and friendly staff dispel any reservations about snobbery.
I think a lot of people that come in here think it’s posh but I don’t really see it is as that. The service staff are very approachable and easy going, you get a great welcome at the door. It’s trying to maintain that, is possibly harder than when we opened first when we were the new kids around town. I think that was a bit easier, it’s maintaining it that’s the problem, driving it along sometimes is difficult.
The driving force in the dining room is general manager Frederic Pelanne. Fred looks after the extensive wine list and engages Neil’s services to taste new additions. They will discuss the wine offering at length because Neil maintains it is very important that the servers are on point with their recommendations and wine pairings. Fred is another member of staff that has been in Peploe’s for a long time and he has a great bond with Neil. “I really think we’re like an old married couple sometimes, we snipe at each other. Barry’s always saying that to me as well, he’s always shocked that we can have a full blown argument, myself and Fred, and then two hours later we go playing golf together like no problem at all. That’s Peploe’s for you, that’s a mark of what Peploe’s is. It’s a crazy place, sometimes it’s mad in here, mad mad mad!”
At the forefront of the craziness are Fred, Neil and Barry, leading the pack with respect, support and encouragement. Providing a great working envirnment for the staff extends to the customers and the good feeling in Peploe’s is evident to anyone who pulls on the bespoke wine bottle that opens the door. This, and the great food, is what keeps people coming back year on year and has made Peploe’s the institution it is today.
Book your table at Peploe’s here.
Alison has been writing since she could hold a pen, which came in handy for her degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies. She has been working in media since graduating and is the latest features writer for TheTaste.
Writing for TheTaste allows her to combine her passion for the written word with her love of food and drink. Find her on Twitter @AliDalyo
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