"Those hotels are better under his stewardship than they ever were under anyone else over the last 100 years. The passion that Paddy has brought to those places is world class. He makes the rest of us as proud as punch.”
“It is the same with the Mulryans and what they have done in London too. Sean Mulryan – what a f**king genius...”
The outspoken restaurateur Richard Corrigan, a farmer’s son from Ballivor, Co Meath, hasn’t done too badly in London either. He won his first Michelin star in 1995 as head chef of Stephen Bull’s Fulham restaurant
. Two years later, he won another at his own restaurant, Lindsay House, Soho.
He has cooked for Queen Elizabeth twice. “The last time, in 2002, I cooked risotto to start and a venison as the main course for her in a private room in Chelsea.” Corrigan has also donned the apron for
Prince William and his wife Kate.
“I’m no royalist,” he laughs. “The big dichotomy of Prince Charles is that he is colonel-in-chief of the Parachute Regiment. There’s no big fondness for that in Irish folklore. And the other side of Charles is a huge person behind the whole organic movement in Britain.
“He and Camilla have always been charming,” he says, adding that Camilla’s son Tom Parker Bowles is a good friend.
He has won the BBC’s
Great British Menu
cookery contest three times, owns three restaurants in London (and a hotel in Cavan) and will open a major restaurant next April in London.
“I am up to my eyes with designers, builders, for my new place in Hawley Wharf in Camden Basin,” he says. “That whole area of Camden was a bit of a tourist hole. Now it has become another London hub, like Shoreditch was in the 1990s.”
The as yet un-named restaurant will have two rooftop areas. “I just got designs back from our architects, who built Soho House in Berlin, and they are amazing. We have about 120 seats on the roof and about 50 outside on the terrace. We don’t want to be too up our own bottoms. It is all about great food – bakery, smokery, craft beers – and it is going to be something really very special.”
Despite Covid’s effect on the hospitality industry, Corrigan is, he says, “investing in the optimism that London has given me over the last 30 years”. It is all a long way from the lad who used to go poaching when he was 12 with his father, John.
“You have to remember that in the country poaching was food for the table,” he says now. “We poached to feed ourselves. The few eels and salmon that came our way, and the pheasants, hares and rabbits we shot – that was lunch and dinner. It has a completely different connotation than a group of people robbing 40 or 50 salmon out of a river for commercial gain, which I am 100pc against.”
Richard was 14 when his parents broke the news to him that the farm would go to his older brother. Instead, aged 15, he left the nearby National School in Athboy and started as an apprentice chef at a local hotel, before doing a professional cookery course at Dublin Institute of Technology. He then moved to the Netherlands for five years to learn his trade as a chef.
In Amsterdam, over the Easter of 1986, he went on a date with Maria Kelly, who had gone to the convent school in Athboy and was a friend of his sister Maura. At the time she was working in London as a nurse.
For the next 18 months, their relationship was a long distance one between Holland and England. Finally, Corrigan moved to London and lived in a bedsit in Camden Road. “It was Dickensian,” he says. “The picture of that meter for the electricity is still in my head.”
He worked as a chef in a hotel in Piccadilly. “The windows of my kitchen overlooked Vine Street. And every Friday night you’d see the cops beating the shit out of the punks,” he recalls.
“London was a hostile place then. It wouldn’t have been the friendliest of cities, certainly during the 1970s and 1980s [because of the IRA’s bombing campaign], and that cast a huge shadow over a lot of the Irish living in the UK. I felt the tail end of that when I came to London.”
Was he on the receiving end of anti-Irish comments? “If anyone dared open their mouth and call me ‘Paddy’, I’d kick them from one end of f**king Holloway Road to the other. I’d put up with no shit.”
In 1988, he and Maria bought a small house in Crouch End in north London, just before the property crash.
“We couldn’t have bought at a worse time. Maria was a student nurse. I was a young jobbing chef. By the time we paid our interest rate of 16pc – I think it went up to 17pc and 18pc for a time – you’d be lucky to put food on the table.”
But his career was beginning to take off. In 1989, he became head chef of the Stephen Bull Restaurant in Blandford Street, Marylebone. At Christmas 1990, Richard and Maria got engaged and the pair married a year later in Cavan.
In October 1991, the Australian rugby team came into the restaurant for a meal before heading to Dublin for their World Cup quarter final game against Ireland.
“I thought it was my patriotic duty to keep them in as long as I could. I was filling their glasses with lovely wine. And when I got the Jameson into them, I realised that they wouldn’t be running as fast as they would have been otherwise at Lansdowne Road,” he says.
“I had them absolutely sozzled, absolutely sozzled. [Australian winger] David Campese didn’t run far in Dublin on that Saturday. I thought as they left the restaurant: ‘Now kick your ball in Dublin!’”
Did he regret not throwing another bottle into them when he saw the result of the game was Australia 19 to Ireland 18?
“I tried everything but, in fairness,” he says, “they could hold themselves pretty well.”
In 1992, he left the Marylebone restaurant for Mulligan’s, an Irish bar and restaurant in a basement in London’s Cork Street in upmarket Mayfair. Eighteen months later, he went to work as head chef at Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill restaurant in Piccadilly. “The owner offered me a wonderful salary. Twice what I was on at Mulligan’s.” (A decade later he would buy it.)
By 1994 he had moved on to Stephen Bull’s new restaurant in Fulham Road. It was here where he won a Michelin star. “It was a wonderful high. It was the first casual smart restaurant in London in the Michelin star guide. Before that all the restaurants had a lot of people dressed in black with dickie bows. We went a little cooler. My food there was fresh, seasonal, farm-based. I was trying to make a stronger connection between farming and restaurants. That’s what I was trying to do in 1994 and 1995.”
In 1997, he opened Lindsay House in Soho and in their first year of business, won another Michelin star.
It was far from plain sailing, however. “Romilly Street was one of the few streets in Soho that was unlit in those days. So, it was where all the crack dealers were. In our first year, I used to have fistfights with the drug dealers until they gave up and moved off and went somewhere else and stopped hassling our customers.”
Lindsay House was a three-storey building. Corrigan would spray water from the top floor window onto the dealers at work below. “Those were tough times,” he says, “but we were tough.”
He was drinking late one night in the Coach & Horses pub in Soho when he got talking to someone who knew the local Conservative councillor. Using a good dollop of his Irish charm, Corrigan persuaded the man to give him the politician’s home phone number. “And I’d ring him at three in the morning and hassle him,” he laughs, “to such an extent that they put the lights on in the street. I was unorthodox to say the least.”
That unorthodoxy paid off because soon the A-listers were filing past the dealers to get into fashionable Lindsay House. Elton John was a regular customer from pretty early days. So were Stephen Fry, Madonna and Sting. “[Sting’s wife] Trudie Styler held her 50th birthday there. I didn’t realise how rich she was until I saw how much she spent on the flowers. More than the food and wine combined.”
In the early 2000s, he cooked “a f**king legendary dinner” for Michael Jackson at a private house in Knightsbridge, central London. “I cooked him seabass with chickpea truffle. He came into the kitchen afterwards to thank me. This was before any of the scandals about child abuse.”
But by 2006, he had decided against renewing the lease for Lindsay House. “I had to get out of Soho,” he says. “I would have killed myself if I continued on drinking every night like that. There was a hard-drinking, hard-living culture and I was a big part of that. I would have drank myself to death. My bar bills were bigger than my mortgage. There was an expression called ‘Corrigan-ed’ which was inspired by me.
“It was alcohol and late nights in the Groucho Club and everything else. I had to cop on before it was too late.”
Later that year, he went full circle and bought Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill. This high-end seafood bistro was an instant success. Samuel L Jackson, U2 manager Paul McGuinness, various O’Reillys and Smurfits were regulars. Half of Ireland ate there during the Celtic Tiger years, he recalls. American rapper Jay-Z was also fond of the food. “I once sent fish and chips from Bentley’s out to his private jet.”
In 2008, he opened the fancy Corrigan’s Mayfair “as the financial world was burning. For the first time in my life I lost my bottle. My confidence utterly disappeared”.
His nerve held though, and the confidence returned – and Corrigan’s Mayfair is still going strong. “We have just renewed our lease for another 12 years.”
In 2013, he bought Virginia Park Lodge in Cavan, an 18th century hunting lodge on 100 acres, for €1.2m. It now offers a cookery school, luxury suites and shepherds huts, and is a popular wedding venue.
In November 2019, he opened another London restaurant, Daffodil Mulligan, this time in hipster Shoreditch, with a modern Irish take on classic dishes.
The pandemic has been difficult for Corrigan, as it has been for every restaurateur. “The heart and soul were knocked out of the City of London,” he says of the start of the pandemic. “Our businesses were closed for 18 months. We opened last October for two weeks and then at Christmas for two weeks.”
How was he psychologically? “I don’t think I’d have the stamina or the energy to face the same thing again. You must understand when we were closed we didn’t know when we were going to open.”
He had time to reflect on the future of his industry. “City centres look like they are in short-term demise or decline,” he says. And what will London be like this Christmas? “It will be great, but I think it will be careful, steady-as-we-go, you know, keep the ship upright. And hopefully there won’t be any European-style lockdowns in London. But, we never know what’s going to happen.
“We have to move on one way or another. We can’t stop for people who don’t want to get an injection. Those who want to be the anti-vaxxers – f**k them.
“The government legislation to protect landlords kicking tenants out is still in force until next March,” Corrigan adds. “When that goes, we will see the true extent of the carnage that Covid has caused our business.”
Someone who fought off Soho drug-dealers is hardly going to be put out by a landlord, I say. “We were negotiating from month three. We tidied up our affairs from an early stage.”
Happily, all his restaurants have re-
opened without incident. “Bentley’s had a fantastic reopening in May. It is an institution. It has been there for 105 years. Corrigan’s in Mayfair reopened in August. It is doing well. Daffodil Mulligan is trading well. It will take more than a pandemic to see me out.”
He and Maria have three grown-up children and all have followed their father into the business. Daughter Jess is co-founder of restaurant PR company Crab Communications. Richie is the general manager of Daffodil Mulligan. Robbie is studying hospitality.
How was lockdown chez Corrigan? “Maria was the sanity around the house, the anchor, the rock that keeps it all together. I’m a very lucky man. She goes out to work at 7am in the morning and comes back at 7pm in the evening.”
While Maria was working as a physiotherapist with the NHS, Richard, on his own at home in Muswell Hill, made sure he had a slicing machine, a big Spanish ham and a few nice bottles of wine in the cooler.
“I prepared the house for Armageddon!” he jokes.
Virginia Park Lodge in Cavan is close to the border with the North, so a possible Armageddon courtesy of Brexit is something that concerns him.
“I get nervous when Frosty gets very frosty,” he says referring to Britain’s Brexit minister, David Frost. “I mean, what a f**ker. He would be on my terrible table, for a bowl of dish water. People like him talking about borders is all you need.”
Would he like to see a united Ireland? “The next stage in Ireland’s evolution will be a united federation. It doesn’t have to be everything pointing to Dublin. It will be Dublin and Belfast. Loyalists should be allowed to be loyalists. There is room for everyone. We are not talking force-feeding. This is not the foie gras of politics.”
It possibly wasn’t foie gras that Corrigan cooked for Gerry Adams, Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Kelly – along with Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn – at the first-ever annual Sinn Féin London Dinner in November 2009. “I have cooked for a lot of political parties,” he points out.
As for the rise of Sinn Féin in Ireland, he believes a younger demographic is looking for change. He feels it is part of a healthy democracy. “When governments stay in power far too long, like the Tories in the UK, everything becomes rotten in the end.”
Corrigan has never been afraid to speak his mind. Back in 2006, he said Irish chicken was “shit” and that Irish sausages were the “worst in Europe”. What does he think now?
“Was I wrong? I wasn’t wrong,” he says. “I was on the money with that one...There has been a big rethink going on about whether we should have intensive factories, and should food be as cheap as it is. Should a chicken be under €5? People should start asking questions. Why would you want to eat a battery chicken? Think about its life. I’m not a vegetarian. I eat meat. I love meat. But I really want it to come from a hard, ethical standard wherever possible.”
The restored kitchen garden at his Cavan venture supplies fruit and vegetables to his restaurants. “We are a plant and farm-based operation. We specialise in Mother Nature. My food and my cooking is earthy, natural and just pure.
“I really believe that the natural farm and organic movement has a place. It’s not a fad. It’s part of a wider societal view of nature. We need to clean our act up. We need to be careful what we spray, be careful of what we cut down, be careful of how we do things. Irish farmers are custodians of the countryside. Overall, they do a fantastic job.”
Just to be clear, I say, Irish farming has improved? Irish chicken is no longer shit and Irish sausages are no longer the worst in Europe?
“We have made vast improvements and there are still improvements to be made. That would be my more mature answer to your question.”
So, he eats Irish sausages for breakfast? “I do actually. I have a thing for Superquinn sausages. They’re not bad at all,” he says.