With three restaurants in Galway, including the Michelin-starred Aniar, JP McMahon is one of Ireland’s most esteemed chefs. A champion of Irish produce and founder of the Galway Food Festival, he campaigns for chefs to utilise Ireland’s bountiful ingredients from the land and sea, a philosophy that’s shared by Ashford Castle’s George V Dining Room. Here, JP McMahon talks to us about what Irish foods you must try, his dream Galway food tour, and why we should all be eating more seaweed.
What does Irish food mean to you?
“Irish food is a rich tapestry of produce that covers both the food on the island and the history of food in Ireland. From the first people 10,000 years ago, we have inherited oysters, shellfish and seaweed. These for me are the first Irish foods. From the first farmers, we get our beef and barley, our goats and sheep. From this we have established some wonderful dairy from lush green pastures: butter, cheese, grass-fed beef. Ireland is a land of ancient proportions when it comes to food. We have always produced food, always cooked it simply. But this simplicity is not rudimentary. It is a keen simplicity that keeps our food tied to the sea and the land. A natural untainted food, beaming with a sense of its own terroir.”
You’re committed to supporting local produce and suppliers. Can you tell us about some of the suppliers you work with and what makes them special?
“We work with a variety of producers in the west of Ireland. All have a purity of vision. They want to make the best products possible in the purest way. From the most beautiful sheep’s yoghurt to heritage vegetables from Bia Oisín, The Friendly Farmer’s pasture-reared chicken and organic Connemara lamb. I know them all on a personal level and that’s important to me. Food needs to be local, but more importantly it needs to be personal. That’s what connects people with a sense of place.”
What Irish specialities do you recommend visitors try?
“Our shellfish, organic lamb from Connemara, Dexter beef, seaweed, our wonderful farmhouse cheese and black pudding. Finally, if you visit during the autumn and winter, be sure to try our game. Also, look out for menus with wild food: particularly mushrooms and herbs.”
How and why did you set up the Galway Food Festival?
“We set it up to highlight Galway as a good food destination, as a place that cared about where its food came from. Every year, 70,000 people come to the festival, which takes place over Easter weekend. We have markets, events, demonstrations, and a food tour. It’s a wonderful weekend to encourage people to think about the role of food in their life.”
If you were to spend a day exploring Galway’s food and drink scene, what places would be on your must-visit list?
“Of course I would recommend our own places (Aniar, Cava Bodega and Tartare Café + Wine Bar), but also Kai, Loam, Ard Bia, Coffeewerk + Press, The Kings Head, il Vicolo, Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, the Galway Market on Saturdays, The Dough Bros, Brasserie on the Corner, Kappa-Ya: the list is endless depending on your preference. You can also take a Galway Food Tour with Sheena Dignam. We have a little food map in Aniar, so visitors can call in. I’ll give them a copy!”
What local ingredients do you most enjoy cooking with?
“Oysters and seaweed. These are the true national foods of Ireland. As an island, we have under-appreciated the sea. It’s now time to change that.”
What are the biggest influences on your cooking?
“I read a lot and I am self-taught as a chef. So many diverse chefs have influenced me, from Antonio Carluccio to Rene Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson. I love to absorb different influences from everywhere in order to make great food. Also, our producers continue to inspire.”
What have been some of your career highlights so far?
“Food On The Edge; opening three restaurants in Galway; running the Galway Food Festival; holding a Michelin for the sixth year at Aniar.”
Are there any other Irish chefs that you admire?
“I admire Ross Lewis and Darina Allen for inspiring a generation of chefs to focus on indigenous Irish produce. Kevin Thornton was also a trailblazing influence in my understanding of the future of Irish food. There are so many young Irish chefs at the moment cooking in Ireland. It offers inspiration for the future. We have the best produce in the world, we just need to learn how to use it.”
Feast on the best produce from the West of Ireland when you dine in the George V Dining Room at Ashford Castle.
Image Credits: Lead image © Wonderfulife Productions. JP McMahon © Wonderfulife Productions. Connemara sheep © iStock/LuckyTD. Houses in Galway Bay © iStock/esseffe. Native Irish oyster © iStock/foodandwinephotography. Aniar restaurant interior © Julia Dunin.