From humble beginnings working in his parents’ shop, to masterminding a Michelin star for his new Galway restaurant, Virginia’s Enda McEvoy is the name on every Irish foodie’s lips.
Speaking to The Anglo-Celt’ SEAMUS ENRIGHT, Enda talks about his recent triumph, Cavan as a growing culinary hub, why he dislikes the term ‘foraging’, and how Irish chefs are redesigning the concept of national cuisine.
“Maybe it comes from being colonised, who knows? But we don’t have what you’d call a history of our own cuisine. I mean, we don’t have grand dishes or recipes to look back on. Maybe coddle, or Irish stew, but that’s hardly a repertoire,” Enda observes.
He’s not being critical. Instead, Enda finds the banal array of the table staples “liberating” as he and other top Irish chefs now strive in an age of enlightenment, using their flare and passion for quality home grown ingredients to create what are often be described as modern-day masterpieces on a plate.
“Thing I love most about Irish food is the quality of the raw ingredients. It far exceeds what you’d often find in other countries. But it’s only recently that these raw ingredients are being used in a way they should be, because initially we’re a nation of producers. But that’s changing. I find it liberating because we as chefs are not tied to tradition.”
Recalling the drive to promote modern Irish cuisine in the 1990s, he castigates how it did little else other than borrow from more established culinary heritages, and substitute one ingredient for another.
“It was French style cooking, but with Irish ingredients. That’s not Irish cuisine. But now, looking at the wealth of talent in young Irish chefs coming through, I see a very bright future for Irish food.
“Really, we have everything we need here. It’s how we showcase that, not just nationally, but internationally that will be important. There’s a feeling right now in Irish cooking that there are no rules, that we can do anything. We can create something new,” the 38-year-old chef says excitedly.
With an ethnic food philosophy of using only ingredients sourced from the west of Ireland, dishes like partridge, hay, celeriac and chanterelle, or elderflower, greengage and sheep’s milk give insight into the cutting-edge talent that springs from Enda’s creative mind.
It was however, only by necessity as a teenager on a working holiday in Germany that Enda even ended up working in a kitchen.
“When I finished school I went to study English and Sociology in NUI Maynooth. It was when I was in Germany on a working holiday. I needed a job, so I got one working in a kitchen.
“I started off first as a kitchen porter. I enjoyed it, and worked my way up. You have to. I got time working through every section in the kitchen and it was a great grounding.
“I still went back to university, and when I graduated I set out thinking I’d get a ‘real’ job. That never happened,” he laughs, “... I’ve been working in kitchens ever since.”
In a bid to learn his trade, Enda travelled far and wide, across Europe in the UK, France, Spain, Germany, Denmark and Amsterdam, as well as Australia.
It was in Scandanavia though that he worked at the world-renowned two Michelin star restaurant ‘Noma’ in Copenhagen, run by celebrated pioneering chef René Redzepi.
Ranked as the Best Restaurant in the World in four of the last five years, Enda describes ‘Noma’ simply “as a great place to work.”
“I went there because I was really interested in seeing what they do, and how they do it - what they did different that set them apart. I suppose what really interested me was their core philosophy, which is similar to my own, using only seasonally and regionally sourced sustainable high-quality ingredients.
“Their food is a complete expression of where they’re from. If you want to learn, it stands to reason to try and learn from the best. It’s fantastic too to be surrounded by like-minded people,” says Enda.
Having previously worked at Nimmo’s Restaurant and Sheridan’s on the Docks in Galway, Enda returned to Ireland to join the burgeoning restaurant scene ‘out west’ where he was invited to work as head chef by famed Irish restaurateurs JP McMahon and Drigín Gaffey at their new restaurant, Aniar.
It’s here that the Bridgestone’s ‘Chef of the Year’ in 2011 put his name on the home map, earning the restaurant and himself a first Michelin star in 2013.
Last year saw the opening of Enda’s first solo venture, Loam, a restaurant and wine bar located just off the city’s Eyre Square, and named after the rich soil that produces his delicious food. The fledgling restaurant hit the headlines last month when it too was awarded a star in the Michelin Guide Great Britain and Ireland 2016.
Just one of nine restaurants nationally to lay claim to the prestigious standards award, Enda says: “We’re a bit shocked we got it so quickly. I mean we’re only open a year last week, so it has been a good boost for us, and everyone working here at the restaurant.
“We’ve set ourselves parameters, using only ingredients sourced from the West of Ireland, so we’re confined somewhat. We don’t even allow ourselves use spices, so we have to go out and find flavours from other places. The same goes for the likes of lemons and olive oil. So it’s a challenge, and on top of that we want to build on what we’ve already achieved, not repeat ourselves. So it doesn’t stop here. We have to keep pushing, keep thing interesting. When you limit the amount of things you use, especially in a restaurant, In think it forces you to have to be more creative.”
One of six siblings, from a family who have operated a grocery and retail business in the south-east of the county for over 100 years, Enda remembers fondly growing up in Cavan.
“Growing up where I did there are plenty of lakes and forests, and my dad always had a big interest in nature, which he instilled in all of us. So I spent my childhood going out fishing and rummaging around in the fields, and I’ve always had an interest in nature, wild plants and things like that. When I started cooking, I saw a way in which the two could come together. I don’t really like the term foraging. Foraging sounds like effort, whereas I see it more as utilising what’s naturally available. Its always been natural for me, even growing up we had our own vegetables, to pick what was fresh, what was available and in season and use it.”
A member of an illustrious list of culinary creatives hailing from, or operating out of the Breffni county, Enda sees great scope within the expansive larder of local produce for Cavan to be come a major food-tourism destination.
Unable to take up an invitation to Taste of Cavan 2015 earlier this year, the married father-of-three is hoping to attend the next years event, saying: “There is great possibility for Cavan to become a key culinary destination. The likes of Neven has been fantastic, surviving as he has and even expanding despite recession, plus it goes to show what one restaurant can do for a whole area. He really has put Blacklion on the map, and that’s something that could be done in any town across Ireland.”