Food writer Élodie Noël talked to chef Grainne O’Keefe, who recently won Best Under 30 at the FOOD AND WINE Awards, about the dishes and flavours that have marked her life.
Head Chef in Clanbrassil House, Dublin 8, Grainne O’Keefe is also culinary director of award-winning BuJo burger joint in Sandymount. Trained in DIT Cathal Brugha Street, the 28-year-old has worked at The Merrion, Pichet and Bastible before taking the helm of the Dublin 8 eatery in 2017, offering a modern Irish cuisine focusing on a charcoal grill.
What is your first memory of taste?
When I was younger, my grandparents had a farm in Ballinaglera in Co. Leitrim and my grandmother would always make us Weetabix with hot milk, and loads of sugar. I don’t really eat cereal anymore but that would be a taste - and a smell - reminding me of my childhood. I grew up in Dublin but don’t have a lot of memories from home, being with my grandparents would be the first and best memories.
What is the plate that made you want to be a chef?
I didn’t eat any fancy food when I was young, I had never really gone to a proper restaurant until I went to college, but I used to watch cooking shows and get cookbooks from the library. I had no idea what was going on in either of them, but I wanted to know what this all was, and how it tasted. I really had no idea. Everyone was really surprised, they thought I’d be a hairdresser or something (laughs). I loved seeing the kitchen environment on TV and I wanted to make a career out of it. A lot of chefs have these lovely stories of picking berries when they were young and they’d come home and their ma’ would make a berry pie, and the smell of the berries made them want to cook and for me it was a case of, ‘nah, I kind of want to just do this’. I remember watching Hell’s Kitchen with Marco-Pierre White or Ready, Steady, Cook. I just loved watching chefs in the kitchens - which is funny because that's probably when young chefs were most getting abuse and it seemed like a bad environment, but I thought it looked great. I was in awe of what they were cooking.
Have you experienced abuse yourself in kitchens?
No, and I don’t know if it’s because I picked the right kitchens and I’ve been lucky or if it’s because I have quite a strong personality, I would have never accepted someone trying to abuse me in a kitchen. I haven’t really seen it, obviously, I’ve heard about it a lot, from kitchens all over the world, I know it happens but it didn’t happen to me.
READ MORE: My Life in Plates: JB Dubois
What is the dish that could make you cry?
When you get a really fresh piece of fish, and it’s cooked perfectly with a simple garnish, and a nice sauce. To me, that’s the perfect food. I probably wouldn’t cry eating it but sometimes when I go to restaurants and the ingredients are amazing and the food is cooked so well it looks like art, then I’m like ‘f*** this is amazing!’.
What is the dish that reminds you of your family?
It was really basic stuff, fish fingers, spaghetti bolognese, waffles and beans. There was nothing fancy, ever.
What is the dish you don’t understand?
Rather than a particular dish, I don’t understand overly complicated food. I don’t get it when someone has an amazing ingredient and changes it to the point that you don’t even recognise what you are eating, and it doesn’t taste like it would have tasted. I would much prefer to have something simple and well-cooked than to have foams and gels and things looking stunning but you don’t know what it is. Molecular cuisine works in kitchens where chefs can spend months and months developing dishes, using the best ingredients in the world. They have years of experience and the resources to pull it off. They are doing something that you can’t get anywhere else. But when you go to a restaurant where the chefs are not at that level but try to replicate that, I don’t think it works. There are a lot of chefs that I love, their food looks very complicated but it’s not, they are just really skilled. In Dublin, Mickael Viljanen at The Greenhouse, or Ciaran Sweeney at Forest & Marcy are probably the best examples, or Bastible. They use great ingredients, they cook them really well but very simply, they have beautiful flavours but the food also looks amazing.
What is the dish you wish you had created?
The île flottante! I’m not a massive dessert person, I always order cheese at the restaurant rather than dessert, I’m more savoury than sweet, but floating island is my favourite. It’s not technically a hard dessert but the person who thought about it is a genius. I love custard so getting a big bowl of custard is just perfect!
What is the dish you can’t admit you love?
I am never afraid to admit that there is a food that I love, there is nothing I’d be ashamed of, but a lot of people think chefs eat lobster or steak for dinner every day - I love cheese on toast with Worcestershire sauce.
What dish could you eat every day for the rest of your life?
I’d get really bored eating the same thing. I love sushi, and you can get a lot of different types, so I wouldn’t get bored of that quickly. Cheese and crackers, I could eat it every day.
Any secret sushi spot you’d like to share?
Ukiyo is good! There is Yamamori… In Dublin there is not a huge focus on sushi but when I go abroad there are much better places. I always try sushi when I’m visiting a city near a coast. I’d love to go
What is the dish you are the most proud of?
It is the whisky-aged côte de bœuf that we have on at the moment. It’s Irish beef aged for 80 days by Higgins Butchers, sprayed with Teelings whisky every three days. It’s not really done anywhere else in Dublin. I had heard about it being done in America, I found it interesting so I looked into it and this process is great for breaking down the fat, it changes the flavour, makes the beef more tender. So I rang Rick Higgins and he agreed to do it for me. We went to Teelings and picked the whisky. It took a couple of months to get it right but I think it really works, it’s beautiful. Now we are playing around with it, we are trying different whiskies, scotch, single malt, peated. The whisky flavour isn’t strong but it is noticeable. It’s probably the most interesting dish we have, although it’s very simple. We cook it over the charcoal so we get a lovely charred flavour, people love it.
What do you think when customers order well-cooked meat?
I don’t really have a problem with this. We usually cook our meat medium-rare, depending on the cut. A fattier meat like a rib-eye needs to be medium-rare, and with a fillet you could go to rare. I understand people eating well-done steak - my sister eats it that way so I couldn’t get annoyed at it. I do find it more surprising when people order a rare côte de bœuf, because you can’t render down all the fat, it’s going to be chewy no matter how good the beef is. In here we don’t really have people ordering well-done steak, probably because they know we are quite specialised in beef. The front of house would always recommend medium instead of well-done and people like it. I think what happens is when they cook it at home, they don’t rest the meat properly, there is a lot of blood coming out and that’s what puts them off.
What is the last dish you had?
I had a green juice this morning - I don’t really eat breakfast. If I’m going to the gym I’ll have a green juice and maybe some fruit, I just don’t like eating in the morning. If I’m working I’d have food with the staff before service and that’s it, the majority of the time I eat once a day. I think a lot of chefs would say the same, it’s hard to eat three meals a day when you are working, and you are not that hungry being around food all the time.
What dish would you make for the person you love?
Once a year, on Christmas Day, I cook dinner for my sister and my brothers. It’s probably the only time in the year I cook for them, unless they come to the restaurant! I put a lot of effort into it. I always make a traditional roast, ham, duck or goose, with carrots, potatoes, sprouts.
What is your death row dish?
I’d say a really nice rib-eye steak with pommes Anna, green beans from M&L Szechuan Chinese, and an île flottante. With a glass of Morgon.
What is the next dish you are working on?
I want to get some lobsters in soon, I’ll cook them on the grill. I want to do a lobster linguine dish with garlic butter bisque. We are also going to do a rabbit and smoked ham terrine, simple with a few pickles.
Author: Élodie Nöel
Élodie is a French journalist who relocated to Dublin about three years ago. She immediately fell in love with the island and its amazing food and has been writing about it on her blog Lemon Lipstick. You can follow Élodie's food adventures on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.