No-nonsense Irish chef JP McMahon, who pivoted online to survive lockdown, chats chasing a second Michelin star and how — despite the tattoos — he’s a big teddy bear at heart. By Deirdre Reynolds
Now a ‘Dr’ too, after completing a PhD in drama during lockdown, the 43-year-old consequently took his Boutique Cookery School online to keep his businesses afloat.
And the supposed enfant terrible of Irish cuisine gained an unlikely following, after offering virtual cooking and baking lessons to children aged nine to 16.
“I know, I don’t know why that is — I mean, I’m so nice,” he laughs, of his ‘bad boy’ image. “It’s just once they see all the tattoos, people are always like, ‘Jesus, you must be very bad’. And I’m going, ‘I’m feeding the kids all the time’.
“We had 100 kids each day doing this Zoom class on Saturdays and Sundays,” adds JP, dad to Heather (13) and Martha (10). “It definitely helped keep things moving during Covid, because the days were long when you had nothing to do.
“I’m very interested in kids’ education and I think we need to do a lot more in terms of cooking in schools. I’d love to see some type of cooking subject in primary school, even at the most basic level of giving kids some type of food education; because at the moment, if the parents can’t cook or don’t have time to cook, unfortunately the child learns nothing.”
“I understand as a father of two, and I’m working all the time, it’s really hard to get home and cook. It’s not something you have to do every night, but I think it’s good to try and do it a couple of nights a week where everyone sits down [together for dinner].”
To that end, the chef is backing Centra’s ‘Choices Define Us’ campaign, which found that one in two Irish people feel their daily choices can impact positively on society.
After a touch-and-go two years, JP reports his flagship restaurant is happily now out of the woods, as he prepares to open a fourth Japanese-style diner in Galway.
But the ambitious chef says he’s undecided about chasing a second Michelin star for Aniar, after it maintained the prestigious accolade in the latest edition of the guide.
“Like, I’m somewhere in between,” muses JP, who is amicably separated from wife and business partner Drigin Gaffey since 2020.“While our food offering at the moment is on a par with other two stars in the world, I think we’d need to double our staff or half our customers.
“It’s still a very big deal. If we lost it in Aniar, honestly, I think I’d close Aniar.
“It’s a little bit like being disbarred. It’s not as if anything would change but the perception of places that lose their star is that something has gone wrong, and it’s a very difficult proposition. When Thornton’s [in Dublin] lost theirs they closed six months later. It’s great to get one, but at the same time it’s not very good to lose it.”
Meanwhile, he hit back at ‘Rip-off Republic’ accusations being levied at restaurants and hotels still trying to get back on their feet here.
It comes after Kilkenny restaurateur Pat Crowley told RTÉ radio how, applying the normal margin, he would have to charge €67 for a 9oz steak amid spiralling costs.
“People have no problem spending €700 on an iPhone, yet when you ask someone would they pay €60 for a steak, they say, ‘Absolutely not — that should be €25’,” defends JP.
“I think we have this dislocation when it comes to food. The margins for a restaurant are about five per cent; most other industries make more money from consumers, but the perception is that restaurants are ripping them off.
“That’s why I’m very transparent about why we charge what we charge, and I think restaurants should be more transparent.”
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