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10 things I’ve learned from a decade running a Michelin-starred restaurant

After ten years running an award-winning restaurant, chef-patron Jp McMahon is in a prime position to dole out some pearls of wisdom.

McMahon, whose name is now synonymous with Galway’s culinary scene, opened Aniar in 2011 when he was just 28.

It was awarded its first Michelin star two years later in 2013 — which it has retained every year since then.

The Dublin-born, Maynooth-raised chef, who also co-owns Galway’s Cava Bodega tapas restaurant and Tartare café and wine bar, explains that while the restaurant technically hit the ten-year milestone last year it didn’t feel right to celebrate.

“We lost 18 months to the pandemic,” he says by way of explanation.

J.P. McMahon. Picture: Eric Schofield

So, instead, the team is marking it this year — and McMahon, who tweets under the handle @mistereatgalway, is offering us an insight into what it’s like getting to, and staying at, the top for so long.

But before we jump into what he’s learned I’ve one question for him — how have you changed as a chef after ten years?

There’s a pause.

“I used to think I’d to do everything myself,” he says, “I would hope I’ve got better at delegation.” This is what he has learned after ten years at the helm of Aniar.

1. Food has to be fun

Michelin star kitchens can turn into a very serious machine that just doesn’t stop. There’s no more smiling, there’s no more craic. But just because you have a Michelin star or you work at a very, very high level, doesn’t mean you can’t have fun every day and be creative. Sometimes when you get to this level, the failsafe is to keep things very similar because with Michelin, you have to have consistency and the more you change things, the more inconsistencies arise. But for me, the creative impulse is very important.

2. Food has to educational

It’s really important not to just be a restaurant serving food – and this doesn’t just apply to Michelin star restaurants. We certainly try to keep it in mind with our other restaurants too, but with the Michelin restaurants you usually have more time with people, more time to talk to them. I want the customer to leave knowing a little bit more about their food, that could be where it has come from or how something was cooked.

3. A Michelin star is a collective effort

Michelin stars are often seen quite individually and attributed to the head chef. But for me, the Michelin star has always been a very collective endeavour. The whole kitchen team and the front of house, the sommelier, maître d, the manager, everyone is responsible for maintaining it. I see myself as a conductor of the staff, and I try to draw out their various attributes and get the best out of everyone.

Trout with Elderberry, Aniar Picture: Anita Murphy
Trout with Elderberry, Aniar Picture: Anita Murphy

4. It’s important to nurture young chefs

Cooking at a very high level is a young person’s game, so it’s really important to train and nurture younger chefs. The analogy I like to use is Premier League football. You have a window where you’re able to work very long hours and after that it’s almost like you have to go into management. It’s important to be able to train and transfer your knowledge to younger chefs and nurture them so they can carry the torch.

5. Food needs to have a narrative

I think one of the learnings you can take from fine dining and apply to any food establishment is that every bit of food can have a story and tell you something, whether that’s a scone or a croissant. Food can often become just something we eat when we’re not doing something else, like grabbing lunch. The experience of Michelin star dining allows you to bring a kind of drama or performance to food, to welcome the guests and tell them about where their food is produced, the history of eating a particular kind of food, at this level you have that opportunity .

Duck and Pumpkin, Aniar Picture: Anita Murphy
Duck and Pumpkin, Aniar Picture: Anita Murphy

6. We need to demystify the fine dining experience

I did not come from a foodie family. I started cooking at 15 and the places I trained in were not illustrious places, I came from a very humble ordinary food space. I believe fine dining and Michelin star restaurants should be for everyone. If you don’t like that experience, that’s absolutely fine, but if you want to go, it should be open to you. Guests can be put off by dress codes (which we don’t have at Aniar) or because they think they aren’t intelligent enough to understand the menu or the wine menu – for me, it’s the restaurant’s job to be able to make the customer feel like they’re wanted, needed.

7. Food producers are vital for creating great food

I see this as self-evident, but people often don’t realise how important the base product is. You can’t get a Michelin star with hard work and great skill – you have to have really good food. Therefore, you need to have producers that can get you really good fish or grow really good vegetables.

8. Children need to be allowed into Michelin star restaurants

About five years ago we decided we’d have a kids policy at Anyar and bring in a tasting menu for children. It came about from Europeans coming into the restaurant and asking for one. I think a lot of times, restaurants just don’t want the hassle, but for me, it’s really important that kids come in and try stuff. That builds their food experience. And we’ve had great experiences with kids in Aniar. We’ve had 9-year-old’s come in and have the whole tasting menu – and they have no problem telling you what they think is good and what’s not. We had one recently who said, ‘the food is great but the music is terrible!’

Stephen Graham stars as head chef Andy in Boiling Point Picture: Cork International Film Festival
Stephen Graham stars as head chef Andy in Boiling Point Picture: Cork International Film Festival

9. The calmer you are in the kitchen the better it is for the service and staff

The type of chef portrayed in ‘Boiling Point’ is almost historical now. I think chefs used to copy the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Marco-Pierre White, but it’s so unproductive. I’ve worked in places where you were afraid to go to work, and afraid to make a mistake and you spent half the day trying to hide. That’s not a good working environment for anyone. In my kitchen, we try to keep things almost zen. It doesn’t help anyone to lose the plot. Whether you lose the plot or not, it doesn’t change the fact that a mistake has been made. Toxic masculinity is still alive and well in some kitchens, but it’s less prevalent than it was and I think it’s fading away.

10. Having a Michelin star is like playing in the cup final every night

When people ask me what it’s like being at the helm of a Michelin star restaurant, I say having a regular restaurant is like playing in the league, where you can win, lose or draw. Sometimes things go wrong, sometimes you have a bad night. But with Michelin, you can never have a bad night. It’s like playing in the cup final, you either win or you lose. You can’t draw. And if you lose, you’re out.

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