By Charlotte Okonji.
Michael Sabik, owner and head chef of Girl and The Goose in Ballsbridge, sat down with MenuPages to discuss Autumnal flavours, child friendly dining and the hazards of fast food.
Growing up in Slovakia, who or what first stirred your passion for food?
I didn’t grow up in a foodie home. My interest in food was born more out of necessity than anything else. I was studying law, living alone, so I began to cook for myself. The impulse to cook professionally came later, when I moved to Dublin with my then girlfriend, now wife. I was unemployed for a long time, and then found a job in a kitchen. And the rest is history!
How would you describe your style of cooking?
I’m a traditional kind of guy, so I’m all about traditional ways of cooking. I love old French classics, everything slow cooked. Forget about modern, molecular gastronomy! The taste, the flavour, that the most important thing.
Girl & The Goose menu is filled with wonderfully traditional dishes, such as Beef and Guinness Pie and Free Range Chicken Casserole Pie. Does this represent your own personal taste, or is it more about understanding the Irish palate?
They’re Irish dishes but with a twist. Before I got into the restaurant game, it seemed that every restaurant I went to had the exact same menu: beef stew, bacon and cabbage. I knew we had to have some kind of stew on the menu, so I came up with Beef and Guinness pie for example. It’s a familiar dish, but with a twist…a little bit different from the standard fare you would expect.
“Even restaurants are serving poor quality food. I’m not going to mention any names, but a restauranteur I know personally even buys frozen soup to serve to his customers. And people are willing to pay 5 euro for that!”
During the years you have spent in Ireland, what do you believe are the most significant developments to come about in the restaurant industry?
Over the 10 years that I have lived in Ireland, what I have noticed the most is the decrease of quality in the food being served in restaurants. Sure, fast food chains are spreading, but I’m not just talking about them. Even restaurants are serving poor quality food. I’m not going to mention any names, but a restauranteur I know personally even buys frozen soup to serve to his customers. And people are willing to pay 5 euro for that! There should be government regulation. Pre-packed food is full of chemicals, preservatives and e-numbers. Common sense says that unrefrigerated tomatoes should be mush after a few days, but 10 days later, if it still looks the same, well there’s something wrong there! This is of particular concern to me as my wife is a fitness instructor, so I’m very aware of health issues. It’s not important if a dish has 2000 calories of healthy fat. You can go to McDonald’s and have 600 calories in a burger, but it’s not healthy fat. That’s the difference.
How important do you believe social media is to the restaurant industry?
It has amazing potential, if it’s done the right way, which very few people can manage. With our first restaurant, we did it ourselves, but it really didn’t work out too well. This time we hired a professional who handles our Facebook profile, Twitter etc. and I can really see the difference. It definitely translates into more diners, and it’s a great way of communicating with the younger generation who are on their smartphones 24/7. There is a lot more competition then there used to be and diners seem to be spending less. When we first opened our restaurant, we were full every night. We didn’t have to advertise. Nowadays, if you don’t advertise or run promotions of some sort, you may as well just give up.
Girl and The Goose is a family-friendly restaurant, having its own dedicated kids’ corner. Restaurants in Ireland generally aren’t known for being child friendly. Was this something that surprised you when you first came to Ireland?
When I came to Ireland there were a lot of things that surprised me to be honest! Child friendliness wasn’t something I really thought about until my first baby arrived 2 years ago. To be frank, when I was younger, I would get irritated by parents bringing small kids out to restaurants, but now I feel their pain! In the beginning, we couldn’t go anywhere with our daughter. She was a screamer! We went out to dinner with her one night and I couldn’t eat with the embarrassment. We left after the starter. So, that’s how I came up with the idea for the family corner. It’s not quite ready yet, but already we have had dozens of customers enquiring after it. It should be up and running by the 1st of October. So, overall, the response has been positive. Hopefully other restaurants will follow suit. Ireland has a young population, which means lots of kids, and they need to eat too!
Being both owner and head chef, do you ever feel that your creative side is hampered by having to make business orientated decisions?
Yes, on one hand there are certain things I would love to be able to do in the kitchen, but at the same time, one has to take care of the business side of things, and keep a budget in mind. As a head chef, it’s simple enough. If I was to go and work for someone else, it would definitely be easier and I could let my creative side take over completely. Most of my time now is taken up with administrative issues: meeting with my designer, my social media team and so on. For example, they want the details of the Christmas menu now. I haven’t even started thinking about Christmas to be honest, as Autumn has just arrived. But they’re right, it has to be done.
Considering that a large proportion of the visitors to Ireland, both as tourists and on business, are from the UK, are you concerned about the effect that BREXIT will have on Ireland’s restaurant industry?
It’s hard to say really. I don’t think it will have much effect on Irish restaurants if we are talking about UK visitors, but it will have more of an affect the way our suppliers will go, in terms of costs. Slovakia as you know, used to be part of Czechoslovakia, but even though both states are now part of the EU, we have still managed to negotiate advantageous deals, in terms of tax etc. Hopefully that will be the case with Ireland and Britain.
When creating a new dish, where do you find inspiration?
Over the years I have amassed over 200 cookbooks. Recently we did a pork special. Basically, I opened a book, saw pork belly and thought it would be a wonderful addition to the menu. Its Autumn, it’s getting colder, so pork belly would be perfect. But then the warm weather came back! The seasons are very influential on my menu ideas, so Autumn to me means pumpkin, wild mushrooms, pork belly, scallops. That’s how it works. Travel inspires me a lot too. Recently we went to Hawaii, where there are strong Japanese and Polynesian influences on the cuisine. But when you are creating something in the kitchen you have to take into account a number of factors, such as the tools you have. You may want to whip up some kind of molecular gastronomy creation, but if you don’t have liquid nitrogen handy, you won’t be doing that!
When you go out to eat, what do you like to see on the menu?
I’m not a picky person, but a lot of the menus are the same. However, my favourites, if they’re on the menu, are scallops, oyster starters, pork, and I love game, venison and boar.
Do you like to cook for friends and family at home, or once you leave the restaurant, do you like to hang up your apron for the day?
To be honest, I don’t cook much at home. It’s not that I don’t want to, but I don’t really have the time. My wife is chief cook at home, but if she wants something special, I’ll give her the night off!
Are you a fan of any TV food programmes, or celebrity chefs?
Not really, but I follow a restaurant in New York, Eleven Madison. I have 2 books from them that aren’t available in Europe. I emailed the head chef and he sent them to me. I’m not interested in T.V shows like Masterchef, which are all about shouting and putting people under pressure. That’s not cooking. Its “entertainment”.
This year most of my time was taken up with running two restaurants. When I have time, I enjoy building scale models of ships and aeroplanes. You need a steady hand and it relaxes me, even if I do end up smelling like a glue factory! Since I came to Ireland I had to give up a lot of my outdoor hobbies because of the weather, such as basketball and cycling. I’m not a fan of cycling in the rain!
Finally, what will Girl & The Goose Autumn menu have in-store for us?
I want to introduce some goose dishes, so right now I’m looking for a supplier. In my country in October there is a goose festival. I wanted to go myself, but didn’t have time, so I’ll try to incorporate goose into my menu here. I have a few ideas, maybe parfait, goose croquettes…. It’s really hard to get goose here, but I have contacts in France, so maybe I’ll get it from there. I’ll tweak a few of the existing dishes because I don’t like to drastically change the menu. I’ll keep the most popular dishes, the beef and Guinness pie, the chicken pie, and the beef burger. Next week’s mission is an overhaul of the starters on offer: that will definitely keep me busy!