Gráinne O’Keefe’s restaurant, Mae, has received critical acclaim since opening last year. She tells Alex Meehan about her journey to running her own business.
Some chefs come from a long line of keen cooks, or from families where cookbooks were common and meals varied. But to say that Gráinne O’Keefe didn’t come from a background like that would be something of an understatement.
“We weren’t a foodie family,” says O’Keefe, who was brought up in Blanchardstown in west Dublin in the 1990s. “I grew up with Findus crispy pancakes, waffles and beans, and things like spaghetti Bolognese, like everyone else I knew. That was just normal.”
It’s just a little different to the food O’Keefe is serving in Mae - named after her late grandmonther - the restaurant she opened in August 2021 on Shelbourne Road in Ballsbridge in Dublin.
She’s serving a set dinner menu of bread, snacks, starter, main and dessert for €68 a head, and describes the dishes as O’Keefe “modern Irish”. The seasonal menu features dishes like Iberico pork with anchovy, date and confit potato, or cod with brown shrimp, seaweed beurre blanc and trout caviar.
The wine pairings on offer benefit from the proximity of the French Paradox wine shop downstairs, where there is access to wines from vineyards all across France. Pairings cost €38 or €54 per person.
At 30, O’Keefe is young to be running her own restaurant, but from the time she was a teenager she knew she wanted to do something involving food. A boom in TV cooking programmes in the 1990s featuring chefs like Jamie Oliver brought a new world of food and gastronomy into countless Irish living rooms, including O’Keefe’s.
“When I was about 13 or 14, I started watching cooking shows and getting cookbooks out of the local travelling library. I loved what I saw and I was hooked. When I was 17 I moved into town and did a two year course in DIT Cathal Brugha Street, but all the time I was also working full time in an Italian restaurant called Il Segreto, which is sadly gone now,” she says.
“I was really curious about flavours because we never went to restaurants growing up – the first one I was ever in was Chapter One, when we went as part of college. I knew that the only way I would be able to try the food I saw on TV and read about was if I worked in a restaurant. Otherwise, I just wouldn’t have been able to afford to go anywhere.”
She stayed at Il Segreto for a year and a half, and applied to a lot of different restaurants for roles during that time.
“But I didn’t really know any chefs and I didn’t know much about the industry. I realise now I should have just picked where I wanted to work and knocked on the door. But back then I sent e-mails and letters, and waited,” she says.
Eventually O’Keefe was offered a job at The Merrion Hotel, where she stayed for two and half years, starting as a commis chef and leaving as a junior sous. She learned a lot, but didn’t enjoy the shift hours that are common to working in a hotel environment.
“You could be walking to work at 4am to do breakfast, and that just didn’t suit so I decided hotels weren’t for me. But then I did a trial in Pichet and just loved it,” she says. “There was a really strong team under Stephen Gibson and it was very buzzy. I stayed for four years, starting as chef de partie, and I was sous chef when I left.”
In Pichet, O’Keefe was running a team of 11 cooks at the age of 23. Most of her colleagues were older than her, and most were men. As a younger woman, did she have any trouble gaining the respect of the kitchen brigade?
“Nope. I grew up with three older brothers and I’m quite strong-minded. I don’t really take any shit from anyone and I never really have. I’ve obviously heard horror stories from other women who work in other kitchens but I think I’ve also been lucky in where I’ve worked. If anyone ever tried to give me grief because I’m a woman, I’ve just told them to f**k off, and that’s sorted it,” she says.
“I’ve never had a problem managing people, possibly because I moved out of home so young. I’ve always been quite responsible and I have no problem delegating, but after four years at Pichet, I realised I needed to move on to continue progressing.”
O’Keefe did a stint as head chef at Clanbrassil House before working with the high-end burger restaurant BuJo as a development chef. Mae has received critical acclaim since opening, and O’Keefe was named young chef of the year at the Food&Wine Restaurant of the Year awards last November.
But when I suggest that knowing how to cook and knowing how to run a business successfully are two completely unrelated things, she laughs loudly in agreement.
“Oh yeah, that’s entirely true. Being good at one doesn’t translate into being good at the other. They’re worlds apart and it’s been a massive learning curve. That’s definitely the reason you haven’t seen more chef-owned restaurants, though that is changing due to the growing importance of mentors in the industry,” she says.
“I worked with BuJo for two years before it opened and Michael Sheary, who runs it, taught me a huge amount about business. He’s exactly the kind of person you need to surround yourself with, just in life in general, if you want to get things done. The team at BuJo was hugely encouraging and taught me a lot about business.”
Mae has no investors – it has been opened by O’Keefe on her own with the help of the French Paradox – but she is aware that there’s been industry talk suggesting she couldn’t have done it on
“I find that really annoying. I put all my savings into it and my family have helped me. I read an article recently that referred to me as a co-owner; it shouldn’t have annoyed me so much, but it did. I sent a message to the journalist to say ‘if there is a co-owner can you ask them to give me a call because I’d like to talk to them. They can help me with the bills’,” she says.
“The French Paradox own the building and have been hugely helpful, but in terms of actually owning the restaurant it’s just me, and I’ve worked hard for it.”
Grainne O’Keefe’s favourite five
Chapter One. I’ve been to a lot of restaurants in my time and The Greenhouse was in the top three for me, so I’ve been watching with interest as Mikael Viljanen moved across the Liffey. Unfortunately Chapter One is always closed on the same days when we are, so I haven’t had a chance to go yet. All the reviews have been exceptional and of course, it now has two Michelin stars. I just know eating there will be an incredible experience. I’m expecting it to blow my mind.
The Cliff House in Ardmore, Waterford. The views are incredible, the restaurant has a Michelin star and the hospitality is excellent. The rooms are beautiful and the bar is really good for a meal. I don’t get to Ardmore that often, but it’s an inspiring place.
Bonito vinegar. It’s soy sauce infused with bonito flakes and vinegar; it’s got an incredible flavour and delivers tonnes of umami, that gorgeous savoury flavour. It’s great on its own, it’s lovely on oysters and I use it as a seasoning a lot. It’s not gluten-free, so I need to watch what I put it in, but it’s a fab flavour.
The Etxebarri Cookbook by Juan Pablo Cardenal & Jon Sarabia. It’s a gorgeous book from the Asador Etxebarri restaurant in the Basque region of Spain, and it’s basically all about cooking over flames. It’s a story about the restaurant and the chef, and how the ideas evolved. The recipes are really good and it just reminds me why I love cooking.
THE KITCHEN GADGET
I’m definitely all about knives - anyone who has eaten at Mae knows that we offer you a choice of handmade knives from makers all around the country. I personally use three of Fingal Ferguson’s chef’s knives. I love well-made knives.
For more from Gráinne, visit maerestaurant.ie.