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Interviews

My Life in Plates: JB Dubois

The French chef reflects on the food and flavours that have shaped him.

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Food writer Élodie Nöel spent an afternoon getting to know Head Chef at Grow HQ in Waterford, JB Dubois, who was also recently shortlisted for Outstanding Champion, sponsored by Kerrygold, in the 2019 FOOD AND WINE Awards in association with Rémy Martin.

Coming from Luneville, a small town near Nancy in the northeast of France, JB Dubois moved to Ireland to work in Galway over fifteen years ago. He is now the Head Chef at Grow HQ, the home of social enterprise GIY in Waterford. With his love for fresh, local, seasonal products, he has made the cafe, shop and cooking school the nerve centre of a whole new sustainable way of cooking.

At this year’s Waterford Harvest Festival, JB is teaming up with Chefs’ Manifesto ambassador Conor Spacey of Food Space to create a meal entirely out of food waste for 50 diners. For this occasion, we talked to him about the flavours and dishes that marked his life.

What is your first memory of taste?

My mum was using an old migrant recipe of sorrel broth. I remember going to harvest this sorrel in the garden with her, from a very early age. She would take off the stalks of sorrel and chop the leaves for the broth, and I was munching on the stalks when I was watching her cooking. My taste was always more for savoury, bitter and sour flavours than sweet.

What is the dish that reminds you of your mum the most?

In my family, food was very simple and nutritious. Both my parents were working long hours so I was helping as much as I could in the kitchen. My nostalgic dishes would be the bœuf bourguignon my mum would make with the leftovers of red wine from the weekend. On Sunday, we’d have pain perdu, which is French toast, it’s usually for breakfast but in my family, it became a tradition to have it for supper to use up all the leftover bread from the week. Now I cook it for my kids and I have it on the menu in Grow HQ, it’s one of the best sellers.

What is the plate that made you want to be a chef?

None really, food was always around me since I was a kid. In my family and in France, food is a part of the culture, part of meeting each other, friends and family, to sit down and have a talk. From a very young age, I was cooking dinner at home because my parents were busy at work. I remember when I was 9, I was organising a crepe dinner party for my parents and their friends.

So that was always what you wanted to do?

No actually, before cheffing, I started studying biology and sociology, and in the meantime, I worked in childcare. I used to teach the kids music, dancing and theatre. There wasn’t much money in childcare in France at the time, so when I needed to look for a proper job, being a chef came naturally to me. People were saying to me “you are cooking all the time anyway”. Now at Grow HQ, I have the opportunity to teach as well as cook, we have a cooking school on-site, so I’m combining my two main passions in a dream job.

What is the dish that could make you cry?

Well, as a French chef, I’m tough, I don’t cry easily to start with! (he laughs) The type of dish that could make me cry would be very simple, with simple ingredients, simply prepared, something with true taste. I’m lucky in Grow HQ I have an amazing veg grower, his name is Richard. What could really make me cry is the reaction of people eating a dish that I created with his vegetables? Rather than eating, I get more pleasure in sharing my knowledge about food. What could make me cry is the products I get here. For eight months of the year, I don’t have a tomato; when I get my first tomato of the year, or the first strawberry, or the first cauliflower, that’s very emotional.

What is the dish you wish you had created?

There isn't any really, I’m glad to get inspired by other chefs. I remember having a turning point in my career, I was working at Hayfield Manor in Cork, in the early noughties. My first mentor was Philippe Farineau. He’s got an amazing sense of combining food, I always remember tasting one of his sauces for a veal dish, a coffee and kumquat jus - it was just sublime, to think about something like that and put it in action... It taught me a lot about the balance of taste.

What is the dish you can’t admit you love?

I don’t really have guilty pleasures, but although it’s not what I preach, I don’t have a balanced diet at all. I work all the time, I eat lots of bread, cheese, and not enough fruits and veg.

What is the dish you could eat every day for the rest of your life?

It would be bread and cheese. Having a busy life, spending my time cooking food for others, when I arrive at home, I’m starving and bread and cheese is what I go for. I love Munster, it’s a cheese brushed with marc of Gewurztraminer, it’s just sublime. In Ireland in the past twenty years, the quality of the cheese has improved a lot, there are amazing cheeses now, Durrus, Milleens, Gubben, Cashel Blue. For the bread, I’m lucky because I just moved to Tramore, I have the lovely Seagull Bakery, I also use their bread at work. Sarah, the baker, she would definitely have a place in France, she makes proper baguettes and sourdoughs.

What is the dish you are the proudest of?

When I first started being a Head Chef, I was writing my menu and ordering the ingredients to cook my menu, trying to be local and seasonal. But now, at Grow HQ, I had to completely change my way of thinking about food. Now I look at the harvest list for the following week, I look at the preserves I did the previous season, and then I write my menu. What I’d be proud of is this challenge. Every week we choose one seasonal homegrown veg and that becomes our hero of the week. It challenges the team of chefs and the customers as well, to experience new ways of using and tasting vegetables. Vegetables are much more versatile than we’d imagine but we have to be very creative. This week, it is onions. I have about 3,000, it’s a lot to get through. So we’ll have French onion soup, onion bhaji, green onion flatbread, green onion jam and tatin style shallots.

Is it a struggle sometimes to find inspiration?

During what we call the “hungry gap”, from March to May, we are very limited on the amount of fresh veg we get from the garden so I have to be very inventive. Obviously, during the winter we don’t have tomatoes, so when people want ketchup, we give them beetroot ketchup, which is much healthier anyway because there is less added sugar. People are embracing the idea of being challenged and change their way of eating to eat healthier and more seasonal.

What is the dish you’d make for the person you love?

My wife Shauna loves convivial comfort food, that we put on the table for the family and brings a lot of conversation, in that respect she has the same ethos of food that I do, food should bring people together. We make a big roast joint, a lamb neck, pork belly. That’s what I’d cook for her, something that takes time, that you plan ahead.

What is your death row dish?

It would be what we call in the profession a ‘skateboard’, it’s an oversize megrim. It’s a fish which is found almost exclusively in the Irish seas, it’s from the turbot and halibut family. Most of that fish is shipped in Spain as white sole. I cook it on the bone so it stays nice and moist, it’s one of the tastiest fish I’ve had in my life. It’s completely underused in Ireland, I think only ten restaurants use it here.

Irish people are usually not fond of fish served on the bone, why is that?

This reflects what the food industry brought in the last fifty, forty years. They made the life of the customers too easy. Everything arrives prepacked, there is a disconnection between our food and where it comes from. When you buy a piece of fish or meat in the shop, you don’t see the animal anymore. But it’s a two way street, the customers need to make an effort to go back to the source of the food, and the food industry needs to change too. We are launching Grow HQ as part of Chef’s Manifesto in Ireland and we believe we have 10 years to change the food industry as it is now to save the world, because in 15 or 20 years there won’t be any food left.

For more info about the Wasted Supper Club at Grow HQ as part of the Waterford Harvest Festival, click here.