Table Talk with Paul Flynn from The Tannery
As we highlighted last month on TheTaste, food waste has become one of the most prominent issues facing the food industry right now. Several Irish companies have taken up the fight and now one of Ireland’s top chefs Paul Flynn, chef/patron of The Tannery in Dungarvan, has launched a new food distribution initiative with his supermarket partner Lidl.
The new scheme is an extension of their current work in Dublin and will see Lidl redistributing the surplus food from their stores in Cork to 56 charities through the Bia Food Initiative. The BFI estimate that over 10% of Ireland’s population is affected by food poverty yet every day Irish stores are throwing away tonnes of edible food because it fails to meet retail standards.
Paul sees a lot of food waste in restaurants now and says it drives costs through the roof from man hours to unused ingredients. It doesn’t make business sense to ignore it but people in the industry, chefs in particular, have to be made aware of the issue. “If you’re in the business part of your training is not just to learn how to cook, it’s how to manage the food and be respectful of food and be thinking about money, nothing is for free.”
Paul insists all the chefs who come to work with him learn how to combat the issue. One solution is to use ingredients smartly. “As a cook, and this is the bit that I actually enjoy, if you’ve got something left over, you’re going to be challenged to see what you can be making out of that too.”
Passing on skills such as these is very important to Paul and was the reason behind the establishment of The Tannery Cookery School. Since its inception eight years ago, Paul has been sharing his down to earth style of family cooking and winning several awards along the way for his accessible style. “I feel very strongly about teaching people how to cook. People just don’t cook as much as they used to and a lot of it is a very unhealthy lifestyle. But what I love is that I can cook fancy food, I still cook accomplished food but my heart is in family food. I suppose I park my fancy chef hat when I walk into the cookery school.”
Paul is really passionate about the benefits of healthy food and wants to show people how affordable and easy it is to create healthy meals. His ‘mission statement’ is to get the whole family sitting down around the table together. This is not surprising as he and wife Máire are known for get togethers in their home. Máire runs The Tannery alongside her husband and they want to recreate the same homely and welcoming atmosphere in their restaurant.
I want a current family restaurant that gives people pleasure, that’s the most important thing. It’s all about good food and a good atmosphere. You can tell by the noise. If you’ve got a good buzz and people are in good form, they’re happy to stay. They won’t just take off to the pub you know, they’ll stay and have a pint. I used to be the head chef in a two Michelin star restaurant in London and it was a very hushed dining room. There was no sense of joy and I just got sick of it.
It wasn’t all joy in the beginning though as Paul admits it took some time for The Tannery to become established. “Being in the country you don’t always have a busy restaurant, in the early days it took about three years for it to take off. We were cooking food that that was maybe new to an Irish country town and we did have an appreciative audience but it’s still a small town and we had to find our way.”
The original goal was to provide a really good local restaurant that the people of Dungarvan would embrace and support. Wider success came to The Tannery as food writers and publications started taking note of what Paul and Máire were doing. Being ‘out in the sticks’ forced patrons to stay over in local B&Bs so the Flynns decided they should build somewhere for their guests to stay. The Tannery Townhouse now has 14 rooms and provides convenient accommodation for people dining in the restaurant or taking part in one of their cookery courses.
With a thriving restaurant, cookery school and guesthouse to look after it is amazing Paul has any time left over to commit to his partnership with Lidl or his other endeavours. His busy schedule resulted in a shift in the kitchen as Paul took a step back and brought in a head chef. He says chefs have to hand over the reins as they get older.
Sometimes after all the years of chopping onions and watching them in a pot, I do still enjoy it but I also enjoy passing on what I know to younger people. Now I have a head chef, so the onus isn’t on me. I mean I’m always there, but I’m 50 this year and all of a sudden you bend down to an oven one day just to realise you can’t get up. It’s like a striker who scores goals all the time. Eventually he doesn’t score as many goals and the younger guys are running past him so he becomes a coach. It’s a natural progression. That’s the way food has to be, it can be a very attritional business, it’s very full on.
Paul hasn’t stopped though as he is in the restaurant every day; working on dishes, teaching the staff and maintaining quality control. It can be hard reconciling different priorities but as he says, it’s his name over the door and his reputation on the line. “I’m all over it like a bad rash. It’s actually more difficult for him to not only please himself but also to please me, and you know I’m very hard to please because when you’ve done something for so long, you build up a reputation and that reputation goes out with everything, on every plate that we send out.” The Tannery’s reputation is very important to Paul, especially now in the face of judgement on TripAdvisor and social media. He gets a thrill out of that pressure and says the intensity of cooking good food and making sure it’s right for 100 people every night is really addictive.
On a personal level, he is constantly trying to be innovative and keep up with the food scene in Ireland and abroad. Some of the chefs he admires at the moment are leaders of the food industry in Ireland. He mentions Kieran Glennon of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud; Jess Murphy of Kai in Galway; Mickael Viljanen, who worked under Paul in the Tannery and Garrett Byrne of Campagne, who Paul says is one of the best cooks around. “What I mean by cook, I mean that as an utter compliment because it is somebody who actually has an innate gift and he’s got that because it is just an absolute joy every time.”
The most important thing in achieving the kind of success that these chefs enjoy is consistency. Paul maintains that it is better to be consistently good than brilliant one day and rubbish the next. Of course Paul and his peers are reaching levels far above average with awards and Michelin stars being awarded on a yearly basis. “Take Ross Lewis, not only is he an utter gentleman, but he has managed to reach it, to be consistent and be inventive. His food has just gotten better over the years and I think it’s great.”
When it comes to awards, Paul has always been very appreciative of recognition for The Tannery. He says it is great to have your commitment acknowledged and rewarded. “The year before last we won best restaurant in Ireland and it meant so much. It was nice to be recognised for our commitment, the fact that we are always there, the fact that we are always trying and that we are relevant. And that meant a lot to me because there’s not one day that I go in to work and I say, never in my life have I said, this will do, that will be fine.”
Paul’s drive and commitment doesn’t just apply to his own restaurant but to the town of Dungarvan too. He is part of several groups who work to promote the food scene in Dungarvan and Waterford through festivals and media campaigns. Despite their efforts the county was not included in the Wild Atlantic Way tourism initiative which frustrated some advocates for the county, including Paul.
We have to fight for everything we have because we’re not in the West, we’re not high up in the level of tourist recognition. I always feel we just have to fight for it, every single day. But if we don’t do anything, if we don’t push… I mean we don’t get help from Failte Ireland, we just don’t. A big bug bear of mine is why did Waterford get let off the Wild Atlantic Way? It’s on the Atlantic. This is something I am very passionate about. It makes me a bit angry that people can sit in an office and just presume, ah, they’ll be grand. It’s not the case. I’ve been fighting now for 19 years. And it can get very frustrating at times, but it is the way it is.
The recession certainly gave Paul and Máire something else to fight. After many businesses in the town were forced to close, Paul was worried for the future of trade in Dungarvan. What has transpired though is a renewed focus on quality to keep business coming in. “You can’t expect people to spend their honeymoon here unless you’re good and that’s ok.”
For the first time in years, new premises are opening in Dungarvan and Paul is grateful there is new business around because it brings people to the area. It has to be of a good enough standard though to maintain Dungarvan’s reputation. “I want people to come in to my town and then they’ll go wherever they want to. I want them to go to the pub on the corner and then they come to me. But I have to work for my position, to be worthy of them to come to me. People won’t travel unless you make it worthwhile for them. The more the merrier I say, but they all have to be good.”
Paul Flynn is practicing what he preaches by setting the standard in Dungarvan. His business is thriving and his career in the public eye is going from strength to strength. After all these years of fighting and pushing boundaries, it must be hard to stay motivated. Paul says it is determination and bull-headedness that keeps him going.
Small is beautiful, I mean I’m not an empire builder, you know I really want people to come to us so you have to be on the ball every single day. We have a lovely dream to be successful and ambition and all that so I won’t give up fighting. You can never rest on your laurels, if people are travelling to you, you have to deliver the expectation. We want to produce some cracking food and we want people to keep talking about the Tannery like they always do.
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