By Charlotte Okonji.
Garry Hughes, head chef at Dublin’s iconic Shelbourne Hotel sat down with MenuPages to discuss food fads, the importance of family time, and why simplicity is the key to success.
How you were first introduced to the world of gastronomy?
As a young child I spent a lot of time with my Granny. She made the most amazing soda bread. To this day I haven’t come across its equal. I didn’t get off to a great start though. One day I was trying to cook while my parents were in the front room, and I set the oven on fire! So, the cooking bug hit me early and now I can see it in my little girls. I don’t know if I want them to go into catering, but I don’t think you can take away the interest if it’s there.
How would you describe your personal style of cooking?
I’m classically French trained. I spent eight years at the K-Club as a junior, so I’m used to slow cooking everything. I’m very old school. The new wave of cooking, where everything’s vacuum packed…that’s not how I was trained. A lot of expertise is being lost from the art of cooking. I’m all for innovation, but when my team want to cook a lamb shank in a water bath for ten hours I say “That’s fantastic, but what’s the gas bill going to be?” I’m not into fuss, I’m not into this molecular gastronomy, liquid nitrogen thing at all. Just 3-4 things on a plate, if executed correctly, is all that’s required. Burying a dish under a mountain of dust or foam is not my style.
What would you consider to be your signature dish?
When I was training at the K-Club we used to do Ox cheeks and we’d go down to the abattoir to better understand the process of butchery to plate. I’d do a braised daube of beef, roast baby onions, lardons and mushrooms in a red wine sauce made from the braising liquor. I’ve been doing that dish for 20 years, so I always think “Yea, that’s a winner”. I like one-pot wonders. We still have a daube of beef on the menu but we change the garnish to suit the seasons. You could say that I grew up with that dish. It reminds me of my training days: the good old days of living in the kitchen!
Is there a particular ingredient that you love to work with?
Oysters are usually associated with Galway or Carlingford, but I came across Harty Oysters in Waterford recently. We served them at our oyster festival, opening nearly 6,000 during the week. I would recommend them to anyone having an oyster for the first time. They’re light and delicate, and not too salty because they haven’t got that experience of the sea. They’re very expensive but worth it.
Once you leave the hotel for the day, how do you like to fill your time?
I do a lot of exercise, a lot of running in the morning. When I go home I try to switch off and just spend time with my wife and girls. They don’t care what Daddy does for a living, they just want me to be there. They’re real daddy’s girls. I’ve four kids, so my wife’s job is much harder than mine! I’m very family orientated. Twelve years ago, I realised how important it is to strike a balance between home and work life. I came home one night after a 20-hour shift, to find that I had missed my daughter’s first steps. I decided then that I wasn’t going to miss out on her growing up. So I made a conscious decision to be in work when I need to be, but when I don’t need to be there, I spend that time with them. What makes it possible is having a fantastic team working alongside me. After eight years, 90% of my team are still with me, which is unheard of. I’ve such a low turnover of staff because I look after my guys and when I’m not here, I know the place is in safe hands. So when I walk out the door, I actually do switch off until the next day when I’m coming in again.
“My kids think the Chef life is glamorous, but it’s not, its hard work! “
On your nights off, where do you like to eat in Dublin?
Definitely 777, as I love Mexican food. There’s a restaurant in Naas that I go to quite often, Bouchon. It was set up by a good friend of mine a few years ago and it’s kind of old style, rustic cooking. At 777 I go for the tasting menu, and at Bouchon, something slow braised and seasonal. Then, of course, you have to end it off with chocolate. Everyone who knows me knows I have a very bad sweet tooth, hence all the exercise!
The Shelbourne Hotel regularly welcomes high profile guests. Has there ever been an occasion when a request was too outlandish to be catered too?
At this stage it would be easier to tell you who I haven’t cooked for, rather than who I have! I have cooked for Michelle Obama and her two daughters, Jacques Chirac, both of the Bush’s and I also did a private dinner party for Bill Clinton. One night I remember getting into my car at 4.00am to get coconut water for Bruno Mars after his concert. We called our suppliers, and I had to go and pick it up. No request surprises us and we would hate to ever go back and say no. You always try to avoid having to say to a guest “Sorry, we can’t do that”.
Michael Flatley is a regular guest. We are doing an afternoon tea here based on his paintings. He paints with his feet, and is an amazingly talented artist. I’m not just saying that: his work is actually hanging in the hotel. When I was looking at the paintings I was trying to think of ways I could incorporate the colours and flavours suggested by his art into the menu. There’s a story behind each painting, so we designed four pastries around each one. He was an absolute gentleman.
Have you any concerns about how BREXIT will affect the Irish hospitality industry?
Most of our guests are American. I’d estimate up to 70% are from the States in fact. Much of our business outside of that would come from the UK, but I don’t think anybody knows what will happen. I think anyone who is coming to Ireland is coming because of where we are and what we offer, rather than whether there is going to be a BREXIT or not.
Recently there has been a lot of discussion about restaurants being required to include calorie counts on menus. How do you feel about this?
We brought in a nutritionist about two years ago to do just this. It’s extremely costly and time consuming: a single recipe could take up to six hours to assess. I think it’s unfair to put this kind of expense on small businesses. Also, if you start putting calories on the menu it might take away from the dining experience. Afternoon Tea, for example, is supposed to be a treat. If you see that its loaded with calories, you might change your mind. It’ll be a bit of a nightmare. Each time you update your menu, you’ll have to change the calorie counts accordingly. To move slightly away from that question, we are seeing an increasing number of people with special dietary requirements these days. Fair enough, there’s a lot of nut allergy sufferers out there, but people seem to be making life style choices such as “I’m not going to have flour” etc. I’ve really noticed it in the last few years. We could hold an event where there might be ten coeliac’s present, compared with one a few years ago. People are a lot more conscious now of what they are eating. Overall it’s probably a good thing. We need to watch what we eat, as we are clearly getting bigger.
What would you consider to be the defining moment of your career?
There’s been a few. My kids think the Chef life is glamorous, but it’s not, its hard work! Three years ago, Marriott Renaissance recognised me as “Global chef of the year”. I was really taken back: out of nearly 4,000 properties worldwide, they recognised me- not just my cooking, but also my management skills. They flew me out to New York to meet Bill Marriott, who thanked me for my contribution to the hotel. That’s old news though! Now it’s all about concentrating on the day to day business at hand.
Finally, what can diners look forward to on the Saddle Room Autumn menu?
Autumn is my favourite season. We are doing roast loin of venison with celeriac, and a simple venison jus, slow-braised shortrib and pan seared scallops. We always work ahead of the seasons. The Christmas menu was prepared back in February and features the old reliables: turkey and ham, ribeye steaks…you can’t really reinvent the wheel when it comes to Christmas! Both menus are full of warming, slow dishes, just right for the winter months. That’s it really!