Irish cooking is world class. Read that again — pick yourself off the floor if you have to.
It’s about time the world knew what every Irish person who has ever left home does. Our incredible breads, our farm fresh vegetables, the fish that’s fried the day it’s caught, the floury spuds. They’re world class. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
But if your idea of Irish cooking is the bland, under seasoned and over-boiled efforts of our near neighbors to the east, celebrity chef and author Kevin Dundon will make you to think again.
The Irish seasonal repertoire, which comes fresh from farm to table, or direct from the sea to the frying pan, is easily as good and often better than anything you’ll find in the top restaurants of the world, Dundon claims.
And he should know because for years he has been the head chef in some of the world’s most important restaurants, cooking for heads of state like President George W. Bush and even Queen Elizabeth.
A prodigy from the start, at 22 Dublin-born Dundon’s skill saw him appointed the youngest ever executive head chef at the Fairmont Hotels and Resorts in Canada in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Next month Dundon’s popular television series Modern Irish Food will debut on PBS, taking viewers on a historic tour of Irish cooking over nine 30-minute episodes. The focus is on how easily traditional Irish dishes can be given a gourmet twist to turn them into something truly sensational.
“It’s showcasing Ireland as a country, so it’s a travel show as well as a cooking show,” Dundon, 47, tells the Irish Voice.
“Irish food in America has been altered through the years and my show brings it back to the true Irish form of what Irish food is about. It’s all about the ingredients, which should be as pure and natural as possible. You don’t need to add 150 different spices to make something flavorful or to pop on a plate.”
But how do you get started as a chef, especially in a country whose national dishes still aren’t as well-known as they should be?
“My mum and my grandmother are really into good food and my mum’s a great cook,” Dundon explains. “I learned from her around the kitchen table. There was a huge passion for good food in the house and from that I became interested in cooking.”
The point of Modern Irish Food is to introduce Americans to the food of Ireland, but it’s also to get them sitting down together at the table rather than eating dinner at their desk or on their laps in front of the TV.
“For me family is everything,” says Dundon. “I have a wife and three children and we sit down every night around the kitchen table. It’s half an hour every day when we all sit there and talk as a family. What was done today and what will be done tomorrow? Food brings you to the table.”
Returning to Ireland in 1994, Dundon became the executive chef at Dublin’s famous Shelbourne Hotel. Three years later he bought and opened the deluxe Dunbrody Country House Hotel in Co. Wexford, an atmospheric 1830s mansion converted into a four star venue with an onsite cookery school attached.
Bono is a frequent visitor to the premises, as is comic/talk show host Graham Norton and pop singer Pink, who had such a good time staying there that she actually stopped her concert in Dublin last year to sing its praises from the stage.
“I’ve cooked for Roger Moore,” Dundon reveals. “In fact he said I served him the best martini he’d ever had. Pink stayed with us last year and she stopped her concert to call Dunbrody the best hotel in the world. People were suddenly texting us to say, how did you get her to do that?”
For years Darina and Rachel Allen have been the twin pillars of Irish cooking, so it’s interesting to see a man take on the same tasks they have and give it his own spin.
All three favor unpretentious, easy to reproduce recipes, but Dundon’s well-known passion for architecture can be found in just how strikingly presentational his dishes look. Clearly he wants to ensure his dishes are as pleasing to the eye as they are to the taste buds.
“I want to help people get away from processed foods and remember how simple it is to cook really good food. You know what you’re eating because you’ve prepared it yourself,” he says.
Our lives got too busy and our mothers stopped passing on their knowledge to their kids, Dundon believes.
“Therefore there’s a whole generation that can’t cook. Now we’re trying to coax people back into the kitchen. There’s a huge interest in food again. Cooking schools are really big and popular.”
His own is doing well. Dunbrody House Hotel and Cookery School opened in May of 1997 and was an instant hit.
“In Dunbrody we examine the kind of foods they cooked as far back as the early 1800s. We raise our own animals, we fish, and everything we produce is locally sourced. All the ingredients that are in the Modern Irish Food are in your local stores. You can make this, in other words.”
More than anything, Dundon wants to tempt you away from the highly processed supermarket food that has created an obesity epidemic worldwide.
“We used to always eat in season in Ireland,” he explains. “When you think about it that means you’re eating the right type of food at the right time of year.
“During the summer you’re eating a lot of fruit, a lot of vegetables and a lot of fish because the weather is lighter and warmer. During the winter you’re eating root vegetables, braised foods and stews because you’re body needs those extra slow released carbs. If you eat in season you’ll find there’s far less obesity.”
In Ireland, where he’s already a household name, people tell Dundon all the time they love his recipes because they work and they don’t have to go to any specialist stores to find the ingredients to cook them.
“You can get them from your local corner store. I do that purposely, because I want to get people cooking again,” he says.
His Irish themed restaurant Raglan Road opened in downtown Disney World in 2003 and was another instant hit.
“It’s my food philosophy, it’s Modern Irish Food in a restaurant. We are getting the highest scores for food in Disney. You can have a two-hour wait on the door to get in. It’s a real piece of Ireland in America.”
Dundon’s cooking for world leaders has even seen him cook for Queen Elizabeth. He laughs at the unlikeliness of it.
“It was the most bizarre situation. I was working in Canada and she had arrived for a horse show in Calgary. I was asked to cook for her. She had a taster. I cooked, he tasted it, and then it went up to her.”
Being Irish, were they afraid he might poison her?
“I think it was a security thing they always do. It wasn’t because I was Irish,” he laughs.
“She ordered salmon on an oak plank as a starter and she then she had rack of lamb well done. I think she wanted a steamed pudding. In fairness to her she was very nice when I went up to see her after.”
Then, at a NATO meeting in Canada one of Dundon’s guests included President George W. Bush.
“I found that experience frustrating because security prevented me from walking around the way I was used to. We were under a general lockdown the whole time,” he recalls.
Chefs are famous for being exacting, which can result in spectacular temper tantrums, but Dundon says he keeps his in check these days.
“When I was 21 and 22 I used to get a bit hot. I once fired my pastry chef because she did something wrong. It took me six months to replace her, which meant I was making them myself for six months,” he says.
“I learned my lesson fast. I’m totally mellowed out now.”
Modern Irish Food starts on PBS on Sunday, October 27.
Cillian Murphy in painful ‘Dunkirk’ interview with Stephen Colbert