The winner of Best Chef in Ireland 2019 at the FOOD AND WINE Awards is Mickael Viljanen of The Greenhouse, Dublin. Here, F&W contributor Élodie Noël speaks to the chef about food that has shaped his career and influenced his tastes.
At the helm of The Greenhouse since its opening in 2012, the Fin has made of his joint venture with restaurateur Eamonn O'Reilly a creative laboratory for his fantastic dishes, using the best produce one can obtain. His work was crowned with a Michelin-star in 2015, which he has retained since then. Recently we sat down with Mickael to talk about the plates and dishes that marked his life.
What is your first memory of taste?
I come from the Southwest of Finland and I spent a lot of time with my grandad when I was small. We used to go down to the market every morning and get fresh fish like wild salmon which cost nothing in Finland. It’s like sausages here, it’s cheap, everyday food. I remember having wild salmon, morels and potatoes so much you’d be sick of eating them. Here you’d be paying a lot of money for that!
What was the plate that made you want to be a chef?
It was nothing in particular; I always loved cooking, I knew when I finished school I had no interest in going to study anything else. I’ve been working in a kitchen since I was 14, part-time and at weekends. I’ve never done anything else in my life.
Why coming to Ireland in the first place?
I’ve been in Ireland since 2000. I was in England first and I came back home, I’d been there for four days, I was sitting in a pub having a pint and the guy beside me was Irish, he happened to be a restaurant manager in Ireland. It was just before the Celtic Tiger years. We had a chat and he told me to go over. Almost twenty years later and I’m still here!
What is the dish that could make you cry?
There are a lot of things I like. I think the single best dish I’ve ever had, it was years ago, probably in the early 2000s, in London. It was a simple œufs en meurette and it was exceptionally good, poached eggs with a red wine sauce. Fair enough there was also white truffle on top, but I just remember sitting there and thinking, wow!
So is your approach to food to get the best ingredients?
Yes, especially in the last two or three years, we have been focusing on buying the best produce. There are certain things we buy in Ireland, which I think are good, but sometimes there is an issue with consistency. I go to France all the time, I use mostly French produce. I go visit three, four places, and I tell them, I want this and that. We get our veal from Limousin. At the moment there is a laiterie we work with, they have fifteen cows, they produce literally nothing. Hopefully by the end of this month, I’ll get butter off them. I had it in Pavillon Ledoyen (three-Michelin star restaurant in Paris, by chef Yannick Alléno), I did a bit of research to find where their butter was from, and now I’m going to get it. We spend a lot of money on ingredients.
This year all our lamb came from a small farm from Lozère; unfortunately, I find it hard to find consistently good lamb in Ireland. I am being asked “why don’t you use Irish lamb?”, but I don’t really care where anything comes from, I just get the best I can. We are not a cheap restaurant, when you come here, it’s for a special occasion, you’ll spend a lot of money. When people come, I want them to have the best possible produce that we can get. I have no loyalty to anybody but to our customers. If I can buy in Ireland, I do it, all our fish and shellfish come from here because it’s probably the best I can get my hands on, there is no question about it. But if I can get a better piece of lamb from the south of France, I buy it there. I get chicken from Bresse, they have hundreds of years of expertise. It’s all so new in Ireland, if you go back a hundred years, there was no real food culture as such.
What is the dish you don’t understand?
I have no interest in fads and trends in general. I find that they come and go, it might be Scandinavian this week, then it’s Spanish. But I’ve always said that good cooking and good ingredients are never out of fashion, I think you have to be based on that. You get new ingredients, new techniques, and you can apply all of them, but the bottom line is, it’s either good or it’s not. We just do what we like, staying true to ourselves. If I go home, there is a lot of fermented, smoked food that doesn’t suit here. At the moment everything you see is raw, pickled, it all gets pretty much the same everywhere.
What is the dish you wish you had created?
There are a lot of things I wish I had created! I spend most of my disposable money eating out. We are closed Sunday and Monday, I often fly to France and I go to visit better places than we are. So you see what they see that we don’t see. Every time you go somewhere you see something, aspects of service, item of food, products, like this butter that we have been after. And we chase things up like that.
For me, the most important is that you always learn something. There a hundred things I wish I had figured out first! Sometimes it’s the most obvious thing. For example, I had lunch with Jean-François Piège in Le Grand Restaurant (two Michelin stars in Paris), probably my favourite restaurant in the world. I had a tarte tatin à boire (a drinkable apple tart), it was so simple and so clever. He used tons of apples, he made a liquid caramel that was slightly warm, he put it in a little cup, put a lid on it and served it with some caramelised arlettes. You drank it, took a bite of pastry, and it was the best tarte tatin I have ever had.
What is the last dish you had?
I haven’t eaten this morning yet, I only had coffee and cigarettes! But last night I had this new dish that we just started on the menu, chocolate with lime, parsley, banana and aloe vera.
When you go to these restaurants, how do get inspiration without copying?
You don’t want to just take a dish and bring it back. It could be an ingredient. You might see a lamb dish, and there might be a clever combination, you remember what you had and what you enjoyed about it and then you make it your own, you do something else with it.
What is the dish you can’t admit you love?
Listen, I eat a lot of shit. I eat processed food, it’s convenient, it’s fast you know. I try not to have too much of it, but I do, like everybody else. I just love processed cheese!
What is the dish you are the most proud of?
Nothing because I get bored very easily. I also think nobody has created a dish, it’s always done somewhere else, I don’t think there are many dishes people can call their own. I think you should be proud of what you do every day, you need to care, or you’ll never be happy. We have tried to take our foie gras parfait off the menu ten times, then people email and ask if we have it, it’s a nightmare! We have a passion fruit soufflé on the menu, I think we sold 18,000 or 19,000 of them, I took it off but we get requests to bring it back and I don’t want to say no to customers. It’s important to give them what they want but at the same time to keep things moving. When you have a signature dish, it needs to evolve over time. Someone smart once said to me “you need to polarise sometimes,”. If you please everybody, you are doing something wrong. If you don’t want to polarise, we will all be doing the same thing. What we do here is not for everybody, some people love it, some people hate it. I think that’s an issue in Ireland, a lot of places are doing the exact same thing, the chicken, the beef; if I do that, I get bored.
What is the dish that reminds you of your family?
I’m a funny creature for that, I don’t know really when I’m home, I was born in Sweden, I lived in Finland, I’ve lived in England, I’ve been in Ireland half my adult life. I guess cured meats, preserves, fermented food, that would be home for me. A lot of smokiness, sweet and savoury combination. But there is nothing in particular that reminds me of home.
What is the dish you’d make for the person you love?
I guess it depends on the person… I like simple things. To me, there is nothing better than if you get a beautiful piece of fish and cook it perfectly. We do a turbot dish at the moment, with a charcoal-grilled butter sabayon, I love it myself. If you have a perfectly cooked piece of fish, with simple garnish a beautiful sauce, that would be it.
What is the dish you could eat every day for the rest of your life?
Any sort of bread. I love bread; I hate bad bread. I think the biggest problem in Ireland is that there are no bakeries. I mean there is, but not in every corner. Finding good bread is a massive problem. If you go to mainland Europe, people buy bread twice a day. In Ireland we buy it twice a week. When bread is three days old, I don’t want to eat it. I’d rather go get bread in the morning, eat it during the day, and the next day you go again. If you buy a baguette in France, it’s 80 cents in the country, in Paris it’s €1.50, here your baguette is €3.50, that’s the difference. It’s not massive, but if you have that twice a day, you are talking about good money every month. That’s what makes it impossible. I’ve been wondering why there are not more bakeries in Ireland, maybe it’s a matter of volume, but it’s a pity, because I could live on bread. Here we make our bread every day, twice a day.
What is your death row dish?
I have a full menu of stuff! I like simple things that give you pleasure when done properly. I’d have a good terrine of foie gras to start, à l’ancienne, with bread, a bit of salt, maybe a few cornichons. Then I’d have a bœuf bourguignon, and a rhum baba to finish. I think Dublin is missing a very good bistro, or bouchons like you find in Lyon. Somewhere very affordable, which does simple things right. Not trying to be trendy, it should be a place that is a little bit crumby, cheap, not refined, but really good and really simple food.
The Greenhouse Restaurant, Dawson Street, Dublin 2, tel: (01) 6767015 ; email: @thegreenhouserestaurant.ie
Author: Élodie Noël
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.