It’s a sunny autumnal morning along the banks of the Grand Canal and the staff at the new Locks are already busily preparing the restaurant for the day: tables are set, wild flowers placed on top of them, products are delivered and prepared in the kitchen. Luckily, Keelan Higgs and Conor O’Dowd, the two head chefs of the recently reopened restaurant took time out to chat with Menupages to give us a closer insight of the new Locks at Windsor Terrace!
The restaurant has gone through many changes during the recent years, enjoying a really strong and consistent reputation in Dublin. Can you define what the new Locks stands for?
Conor: We’re just a lot more informal. Locks always had a reputation as being a very high-end place where people were spending a lot of money. For us, it’s primarily a neighbourhood restaurant and we’re trying to get the locals back into this dining room without charging a fortune for the experience.
Keelan: We really just want people to come and enjoy good food and wine with their families and friends and have a great time, but to not feel uncomfortable or intimidated.
Did you ever think about changing the name?
K: We did. It’s hard to reinvent a restaurant when you’re keeping the same name. We thought about calling it “1 Window Terrace” because that’s the address – but people wouldn’t have had an idea where that place is, whereas everyone knows right away where “Locks” is. The name “Locks” has a special place in the hearts and minds of people in Dublin. When they hear the name, they know that it’s the beautiful setting at the canal and that they’re going to get some amazing food. They somehow have a feeling of nostalgia for it.
C: I think that even if we changed the name, the locals would still have called it “Locks” anyway…
You make up a young but experienced team for the new Locks restaurant. Did you know each other previously?
K: Yes, the first time we worked together was in Chapter One around 8 years ago. And then over the next couple of years we worked together in different places and kept in contact. We always said that if we ever saw this place come up for sale, we’d do it and take it on.
How do you work together – is there a friendly rivalry between you?
C: I think we’ve known each other for so long now, that we know what we do. I don’t need to check what he is doing and he doesn’t need to check what I’m doing. We communicate well. It really splits the job in two, which makes it easier.
K: Sometimes we might have slightly different opinions on things, but generally we try to meet in the middle then and find a compromise. But most of the time we’re on the same wavelength anyway.
Has the way you work changed since you have become a head chef or is there any added pressure on you – also because Locks had a Michelin star already with Rory Carville?
C: I don’t think so. We always knew exactly what this restaurant should be. And we believe what we have created is how it should be. We’ve got something for everyone basically from the kids menu to cocktails. So there is less pressure, because we’re not in high-end brackets and not trying to come up with the weirdest dishes nobody else is using.
K: It’s still cooking at a high standard, but there is no pressure to meet someone else’s expectations. We just cook food that best for our abilities and that’s consistently good.
Is a Michelin star on your radar?
K: We both worked here before and we were a big part of the team that got the Michelin star here. Back then the food was trying to be more fancy and of a Michelin standard. But really, we were again just cooking the best we could for the customers in the room. For me, good cooking is good cooking. It doesn’t matter if it’s Michelin Star or if it’s for a family meal. If there is love gone in and if it’s high quality produce, then people should be able to see that.
Considering the Chef shortage in Ireland, it’s refreshing to see two promising young chefs settle in Dublin. What has to change and to be done by the government to change the situation?
K: I agree that internships and apprenticeship programmes that try to develop chefs in this country could be subsidised by the government by paying a part of their wages to get them into the restaurants. And I think it’s really important that young chefs stay in the country. The Irish food industry is starting to develop more now and it’s up to the young generation chefs and their responsibility to stay in the country and to raise the standard of food. It’s important that young people are being brought into the kitchen and be shown how to cook properly. It’s not an attractive opportunity to hear that you’re working 70 hours a week and have no life. We need a new generation of chefs coming in, doing things in new ways and get people excited about cooking.
C: It’s an industry that’s not regulated at all and that needs to change. Nobody is making sure that young chefs are not working over 60 or 70 hours per week. Young people don’t want to do that anymore because they don’t have to; there are easier ways to make a living.
There is a lot of art in your restaurant and you have a great selection of music. How do you create the atmosphere in your restaurant?
K: We’ve spoken about introducing things like wine tastings and show some artwork from local artists in the rooms, almost like an exhibition. There are a lot of artists in the area – writers, poets and painters – and we also have some of their pictures hanging here already.
Your main cuisine is Irish with the menu varying every day depending what your suppliers can offer freshly and locally….
K: We keep a similar structure to the menus, but you can’t always guarantee to get the products. We’re on the phone with the fish suppliers in the morning and with the butchers in the evening to make sure the best produce.
C: We know our producers personally, so we have a good relationship with them and they know exactly what we want.
What is your absolute favourite dish to cook?
K: This question is always a hard one. Here, I get a lot of satisfaction doing the dishes for two on a Sunday. That is the kind of thing where I really enjoy cooking; the massive, big board of food where everyone can just get stuck in. It takes a lot of work and love to get it from a good raw material to being something really pretty and tasty and well-cooked.
C: I like cooking seafood and as a country I don’t think we eat enough seafood. For me it’s definitely fresh crab and fresh fish.
What do you love most about your job?
K: Good ingredients I suppose, sometimes that is what gets you out of bed in the morning. To produce a good piece of food by the end of the day is a wonderful thing.
C: Just working with food that is on season and is of amazing quality. That gets me excited to cook.
After Eva Longoria Lily Cole dining here during last year’s Web Summit, which celebrity would you like to have in the newly launched Locks?
K: We had a press launch and Conor McGregor’s coach was here. I’m a big UFC fan , so it would be amazing to have Conor McGregor dine here.
C: I met Alan Rickman previously in a past job and I’m still a big fan of his, so it would be be nice to have him here.
K: As long as they spend the money, we don’t care who they are (laughing)!
Looking back on your career so far, is the new restaurant the biggest challenge?
C: I think it definitely is the biggest challenge because it carries the most responsibility and the most financial risk we’ve ever had. We can’t just walk away from this, it’s a huge responsibility to the locals, to the building and to our fifteen staff.
K: I’d agree that it is the biggest challenge and risk so far, but the rewards are also bigger and because of the challenge there’s a higher level of satisfaction with success.
Photos by Manon Gustave