By Charlotte Okonji
Andy Byrne, head chef at Clontarf’s acclaimed Vikings Steakhouse and The Bram Stoker Bar, sat down with MenuPages to discuss changes in the restaurant industry, the challenge of running two successful restaurants, and how to cook the perfect steak.
It was a family member actually. A cousin of mine who I really looked up to became a chef. I started working with him, did a chef course in college and it was just brilliant. I loved it and just kept doing it. That was 17 years ago now, and the rest, as they say, is history!
How would you describe your style of cooking?
I’m pretty comfortable with cooking right across the board. I’ve worked in a lot of different places, including internationally, so I can’t say that there’s area that I really dislike. Starters, main courses, desserts, European cuisine, Asian, American, it doesn’t matter.
Do you find it challenging having to divide your attention between two such successful restaurants?
No, not really. We have a small crew here, but they know what they’re doing. I can be upstairs (in Vikings) working away and be pretty confident that everything will be done properly downstairs in The Bram Stoker. I concentrate more on Vikings myself, but I regularly touch base with the team downstairs, just to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
“We have our “Hunters Corner” at Vikings Steakhouse, where we put on Kangaroo, Zebra, Antelope, Ostrich, and all sorts. It’s great to be able to offer something different.”
When you dine out, what do you like to see on the menu?
I love steak, everyone loves steak! I’m a big fan of fish as well. Lucky for me we do both, steak and fish at Vikings Steakhouse. I like seeing more unusual things on the menu. Being involved with food for as long as I have means I’ve eaten almost everything, but if I see something new, I’ll absolutely try it. We have our “Hunters Corner” at Vikings Steakhouse, where we put on Kangaroo, Zebra, Antelope, Ostrich, and all sorts. It’s great to be able to offer something different.
How do you like to unwind during your free time?
I like going down to the Wicklow mountains, walking around in the fresh air. Obviously, I do a lot of cooking at home. I cook dinner every day for my girlfriend and for my mum too, when I go home to her. During the Summer, I spend a lot of time out and about on my motorbike.
Are you a fan of any TV food programmes/celebrity chefs, or do you like to leave it all behind you once you leave the kitchen for the day?
I wouldn’t say I go hunting for those kind of shows, but if there on, I wouldn’t necessarily turn them off. I like watching Jamie Oliver. He’s a great chef with a great attitude. Heston Blumenthal’s show is just mental! You would never be able to do any of the stuff he does in your own kitchen, but it’s incredible to watch.
You are famous for your chicken wings (available in The Bram Stoker Bar). Would you consider this to be your signature dish?
I started making them in the Elephant & Castle, who are renowned for their wings. They’ve been doing wings for 25 years now, and were actually the first to do them in Dublin. I honed my skills there. What we serve here is my own take on a classic recipe. They are incredibly popular. People seem to love them. I do too! I wouldn’t consider them to be my signature dish, however. I’d say that at Vikings, the signature dish is the steak on the stone. We were the first to introduce this concept, and I think it’s amazing. We have a wonderful supplier in Galway, Heaney Meats. It’s a fantastic experience in itself- take a really good fillet steak, that’s so tender a butter knife would slide through it, put it on the stone and leave it to sizzle away. The best part is that every mouthful is hot. Then you have all the amazing sauces and sides…. I would definitely say that this is our signature dish.
Downstairs in the Gastrobar we have some really amazing dishes, including the French burger and the Mexican burger. The Mexican has guacamole, fried egg, tomato, cheddar cheese…it’s a really nice burger. The other one, the French burger, has Brie cheese, bacon, and red onion slowly cooked in port. These two are undoubtedly among the most popular dishes at the Bram Stoker. Myself and General Manager Daniel Severin are constantly thinking of new dishes to introduce to our large and loyal customer base.
Over the years, what would you consider to be the most significant changes in the Irish restaurant industry?
We have a bit of a problem in the restaurant industry at the moment, in so far as we have a lot of journey men working in restaurants, rather than chefs. People who might, for example, have a bit of kitchen experience, but they wouldn’t have been to college. It’s become a bit of a trend. Obviously, they work cheaper, but I think it’s something to avoid. I’d hate to see the industry head in that direction. You need a certain number of qualified chefs in the building at a given time, otherwise you won’t get the same standard.
What, in your opinion, is the secret to cooking the perfect steak?
Don’t overcook it. If a well-done steak is ordered, I would always recommend that they try it medium-well instead. Steaks shrink and dry out as you cook them. They lose their flavour, texture and nutrients the more you cook them. Proper seasoning before cooking is another big thing. A lot of people seem nervous about putting the right amount of seasoning onto a steak. It’s important to remember that you aren’t just salting the outside of the steak. It goes all the way through. When you rub salt into the top layer of a raw steak, the salt will seep through the meat as it cooks, seasoning it throughout. A knob of good Irish butter on top of the steak, just before putting it in the oven, is another great way of enhancing the flavour and maintaining a nice texture.
If you hadn’t become a chef, what career would you have chosen?
I’ve never thought about doing anything other than what I do. This is the career I always wanted. When I was just five years old I’d stand on a chair in front of the stove, cooking a full Irish for the family every Sunday, while they slept! By the time I was ten, I was making really complicated cakes. My whole life, that was just what I wanted to do.
How does running a restaurant in a hotel compare to a standalone restaurant?
I prefer the hotel kitchen, where I can take my time and give my full attention to each dish that goes out. Whilst we have a great loyal customer base, we are also known as a bit of a hidden gem, it’s time for this to change!
Finally, where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
I’d love to have my own place 10 years from now. It wouldn’t have to necessarily be in Ireland. If that doesn’t happen, I’d be perfectly happy remaining as head chef!