Alan Higgins, the Head Chef of Nautilus in Malahide, sat down with MenuPages to discuss the restaurant’s long awaited re-opening, the key to a perfect dessert, and how to cook a tasty Christmas dinner with none of the stress.
Nautilus has been closed for around 6 months due to a fire, what does it mean to you to re-open the restaurant, it must be like an early Christmas present?
It absolutely is. It means the world to me. We’ve been waiting for 6 long months, this is my life and my passion. I’m absolutely thrilled to be back in action.
After 5 months and a lot of work, did you ever feel that it might not return?
No, we were always confident that it would re-open eventually, we were just disappointed in how long it took.
You’ve used ingredients like ham hock, curry, turmeric, as well as a dish of fish and scallop roe sausage, how would you describe the style of cuisine at Nautilus?
It’s about using as much local produce as possible, done with a bit of French technique and my own ideas. We serve a lot of seafood as well, it’s over 50% of the menu.
Where do you look for inspiration, to come up with new ideas?
I mainly look at the seasons, which would be my number one inspiration. You eat out at other places, like over in London, getting inspiration from what’s going on over there.
Were there any places in London that really impressed you?
Yeah, Pollen Street Social and The Library.
Are there any other places around the world that you would like to visit?
I’d love to go to Denmark, that’s been on my list now for a while. Also, there are a lot of new good places in Germany, and Holland I’d like to visit as well.
Who or what has been the biggest influence in your career?
That’s a tough one. I’m actually self taught, I’m just completely passionate about food and ingredients.
Your family work in the restaurant industry, did you get involved in their restaurant from a young age?
Yeah, I grew up as a dish washer in the family restaurant. I worked my way up from there pretty much, and I’ve been in the restaurant ever since.
The Restaurant Association of Ireland state that the shortage of chefs has reached crisis levels, how do you feel this has affected Nautilus, and Irish cuisine in general?
It’s a little bit harder to find good quality chefs these days. But we’re not too affected here as we are just a very small team and a very tight kind of unit. Staff tend to stay here for a long long time, so we don’t really have that many problems regarding finding chefs.
Why do you think there is such a shortage of Irish chefs?
I have no idea to be honest. I went to DIT at Cathal Brugha Street, the year started out with about 150 people, and by the end of it there was only 40 people left. I think it’s just mainly such a hard industry, job, and lifestyle that it turns a lot of people off. You have to be completely passionate and dedicated otherwise I don’t think it’s the job for you.
Ireland has amazing food resources, from beef to dairy, what does Irish cuisine mean to you?
Irish cuisine means to me about using the best the island has to offer, whether it be beef, seafood, or stunning game. We have some of the best fish and shellfish in Europe, which we are very proud to use a lot of in Nautilus. When in season, we use a lot of game from Wicklow, its stunning quality and we love to use it.
Is there a particular Irish ingredient that you love to cook with?
Irish beef, seafood, and game would be the three main ones. Irish cheeses too, there are some fantastic ones in the south of Ireland, in Cork especially. We use them a lot in our dishes.
What are your plans for the future? Would you like to work abroad, or try out a new food business idea?
No, for the moment my sole focus is on Nautilus, making it stronger and stronger. I want to keep the restaurant evolving. That’s pretty much it.
Your desserts always look amazing, what do you feel is the key to a perfect dessert?
I think the key to a perfect dessert is balance more than anything else. I don’t think it should be just complete sugar, it needs to be balanced correctly, a bit of creaminess, a bit of crunch, bit of sweetness, bit of acidity. I find that a well balanced dessert gives it a more complete flavour and taste. By far, the most successful dishes come from that philosophy.
Is there any other advice you would give to young pastry chefs who are starting out?
Master the classics, really take the time to learn the basics too. Once you have them learned off fully, you can easily branch out using those basics to create your own dishes, which is what I do a lot here.
Finally, are you going to be cooking the Christmas family dinner, and if so, what is going to be served?
I am indeed of course. Every year I get hit with the task. I’m going to be serving roast fillet beef, honey and clove glazed ham, all the trimmings, and every type of vegetable you can imagine.
Do you have any advice for all the Mom’s out there who are going to be stuck slaving away, trying to make everything perfect?
My best advice is to try and do as much as possible in advance so that you can actually enjoy the day itself. The ham you can easily serve cold, and that can be done a day in advance. All my vegetables get chopped the day before and cooked fresh that morning, so there’s not much stress when it comes down to the day.
For those wishing to visit Nautilus over Christmas
Photos by Manon Gustave