Kevin and Muriel Thorn­ton talk to Marie- Claire Digby about life post- Thorn­ton’s

Since Kevin and Muriel Thorn­ton closed their Miche­lin- starred restau­rant, they’ve never looked back. Now they’re look­ing for­ward to run­ning a new cook­ery school at their home, writes

The Irish Times Magazine - - INSIDE - Marie Claire Digby

‘ Iwas tak­ing pho­to­graphs, and then I felt a pain in my chest, and I was think­ing, what’s hap­pen­ing? And then I started cry­ing, and it was just so emo­tional.” Kevin Thorn­ton is talk­ing about his chance en­counter with sev­eral hun­dred Bud­dhist monks, light­ing can­dles and pray­ing for peace, at Swayamb­hu­nath or “mon­key” tem­ple in Nepal.

“It was amaz­ing, re­ally spir­i­tual – ev­ery­one was in Kath­mandu for hik­ing or for spir­i­tual [ rea­sons] and I wasn’t into ei­ther of them. But it found me.”

This chance hap­pen­ing was just one of a se­ries of life- chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ences Thorn­ton has en­coun­tered in a 10- month sab­bat­i­cal from the restau­rant busi­ness that has taken him all over the world.

Walk­ing bare­foot ( he has to be re­minded to put shoes on when the pho­tog­ra­pher ar­rives, but they don’t stay on for long) around his home in Ranelagh, Thorn­ton looks like a new man. The stresses of the past few years – the loss of a Miche­lin star in 2015 and the clo­sure of his busi­ness 10 months ago – are no longer ev­i­dent in his face, his eyes bright be­hind trendy new spec­ta­cles.

On Oc­to­ber 29th last year, the chef and his wife and busi­ness part­ner Muriel brought the shut­ters down on Thorn­ton’s, the Dublin restau­rant they had run for the pre­vi­ous 26 years, and em­barked on the next stage of their pro­fes­sional and pri­vate lives.

“I fin­ished pack­ing up the restau­rant at 4pm, and I was on a plane at 6pm, head­ing to Nepal and Kath­mandu to do some work with The Um­brella Foun­da­tion,” he says. “I needed an ad­ven­ture. Be­cause if I stopped and did noth­ing . . .”

Thorn­ton has spent al­most half of the past 10 months trav­el­ling, some­times fly­ing on one- way tick­ets, vis­it­ing places as re­mote as pos­si­ble, and hav­ing no set itin­er­ary. Nepal, Myan­mar, Viet­nam, Cam­bo­dia, Laos, the Philip­pines, France, Switzer­land, Crete, Italy, the US . . . his pass­port has rarely been out of his pocket since he re­dis­cov­ered his free­dom, af­ter more than 40 years cook­ing in pro­fes­sional kitchens.

Muriel wasn’t tempted to join her hus­band on these ex­pe­di­tions, though they did en­joy a hol­i­day to­gether in the US re­cently. “Muriel’s a five- star woman and I’m not,” Kevin says, adding that the cheaper and more down- to- earth his ac­com­mo­da­tion is, the bet­ter. Ham­mocks and dorm beds are men­tioned.

“He likes to be right in with the peo­ple. When he goes to Ethiopia [ where he has on- go­ing in­volve­ment in aid projects], he stays in the tents with the tribes­men,” Muriel says.

Kevin came back to Ire­land for his son Conor’s grad­u­a­tion from Trin­ity in December, and headed off again al­most im­me­di­ately, to Viet­nam this time, and the first of sev­eral long- haul ad­ven­tures. “It was the first time since I was 16 that I’ve just trav­elled some­where, with­out a pur­pose. With the restau­rant, your whole life is on a timer, 365 days a year.”

The de­ci­sion to close the restau­rant wasn’t one the cou­ple ar­rived at in a hurry. They’d been talk­ing about it for years, and the prospect of sign­ing a new lease was the cat­a­lyst for change. “I’d been push­ing it for a while, be­cause the pace Kevin worked at was not sus­tain­able. There was a re­view of the lease due and we would have had to sign for an­other seven years. I said to Kevin, we’ll be go­ing out of here in a box if we sign.”

There have been no re­grets since clos­ing. “I loved the restau­rant with my heart and soul, and it was a very dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion three years ago when we spoke about it. But then, when we made the de­ci­sion, it was ‘ wow’ – we never looked back,” Kevin adds.

“The last per­son I served was Frank Mur­ray, my friend. And then he passed away.” The mu­sic in­dus­try fig­ure and man­ager of The Pogues died sud­denly in December, when Kevin was trav­el­ling in Myan­mar. “It makes you re­alise the fragility of life,” Muriel adds.

The cou­ple have spent a life­time in the hos­pi­tal­ity busi­ness – Kevin is 58 and Muriel is 54 – and they were ready to em­brace a more “nor­mal” life. For Muriel, that meant sim­ple things “like be­ing able to say yes when peo­ple in­vited us for din­ner”, and for Kevin, it was the free­dom to travel “with­out feel­ing guilty”, and ex­plore his in­ter­ests in pho­tog­ra­phy, mu­sic, ar­chae­ol­ogy and an­thro­pol­ogy.

Muriel, the self- con­fessed wor­rier in the fam­ily, was con­cerned that, hav­ing worked 18- hour days for the pre­vi­ous three decades, leav­ing the all- con­sum­ing restau­rant

‘‘ The stresses of the past few years – the loss of a Miche­lin star in 2015 and the clo­sure of his busi­ness 10 months ago – are no longer ev­i­dent in his face

busi­ness would be dif­fi­cult for her hus­band. His “come­down” is how they both de­scribe the tran­si­tion.

“What I was wor­ried about was that Kevin is used to work­ing at a very fre­netic pace and in a very high- oc­tane, cre­ative en­vi­ron­ment, and the ef­fect that it might have when that stopped sud­denly, be­cause the struc­ture of that is all we’ve ev­ery known.”

“She wor­ries, I don’t worry, there’s no point, it’s a waste of time,” Kevin says. And Muriel needn’t have wor­ried. Travel kept the chef’s en­quir­ing mind busy, and he says he “got to know him­self a bit more” in the process, rel­ish­ing hav­ing time to ap­pre­ci­ate “the sim­ple things, the sun­rise, the sun­set”.

“When I was 16 I used to travel a lot,” he says, which must have been un­usual for a teenager from Cashel, Co Tip­per­ary at the time. “I got this ear pierced when I was 16,” he says, point­ing to his right lobe. “And then I got this one done this year . . . be­cause I’m 17 now,” he adds with a grin.

While Kevin was re­liv­ing his teenage back­pack­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, Muriel was at home in Ranelagh, putting to­gether a plan for the next chap­ter in the cou­ple’s story. Next month, they launch a new busi­ness, run­ning cook­ery classes in their home, and they are also do­ing oc­ca­sional pri­vate cater­ing events.

“We have some clients from the restau­rant that we’ve done some work with since we closed and we’ll con­tinue to do that. Cook­ing for 20- 25, any­where they want, any­where in the world. I do the su­per­vi­sion and co- or­di­na­tion, like I did in the restau­rant. It’s like tak­ing Thorn­ton’s to some­one’s house,” Muriel says.

Kevin Thorn­ton Kooks is the name of the new ven­ture. “The K is for Kevin, and also be­cause he’s a bit kooky, and we want this to be a fun ven­ture as op­posed to the se­ri­ous­ness of the restau­rant. That’s why we chose to do it at home. We want to break down the bar­ri­ers that peo­ple might see,” Muriel ex­plains.

The classes will run on Fri­days and Satur­days from 9.45am to 4.30pm, with a spe­cific theme for each ses­sion. In the morn­ing ses­sion Kevin will demon­strate three to five dishes, de­pend­ing on their com­plex­ity, and once those have been tasted at a lunchtime break, the stu­dents, limited to six for each class, will have a go at re­pro­duc­ing them.

Kevin is ex­cited about shar­ing his love of food in a new way. “Each day there’s go­ing to be a new les­son. I’m a qual­i­fied teacher. I was in­volved in set­ting up the de­gree course at Cathal Brugha Street – I re­ally en­joyed it. I’ll be mak­ing peo­ple think dif­fer­ently about food and get­ting them to think out­side the box.”

Prospec­tive stu­dents needn’t worry about sub­ject­ing them­selves to harsh scru­tiny from a pro chef who once had two Miche­lin stars to his name. Even com­plete be­gin­ners are wel­come to en­rol – and the cou­ple are keen to stress that the classes will be “us­ing in­gre­di­ents that are read­ily avail­able, and food that ev­ery­one can cook”. The full- day classes will cost ¤ 295 per per­son, and gift vouch­ers will be avail­able.

Al­though his mother was the cook at home in Cashel, the fam­ily were all in­volved in get­ting din­ner on the ta­ble, and Kevin has been cook­ing since he was a child. In the in­tro­duc­tion to Food For Life, a book of pho­to­graphs he pro­duced as a fundraiser for Our Lady’s Hospi­tal for Sick Chil­dren in grat­i­tude for the care the hospi­tal gave to his son Conor dur­ing a se­ri­ous child­hood ill­ness, he writes: “Some­times go­ing back to school at lunchtime I’d be five min­utes late and the teacher would say, ‘ Where were you, Thorn­ton?’ and I’d say, ‘ I was cook­ing din­ner’. Ev­ery­one in the class would gig­gle, but to me it was nor­mal.’’

It’s a skill he be­lieves ev­ery­one should have. “Food is for ev­ery­body, and ev­ery­body is en­ti­tled to eat good food.”

Adap­ta­tions have had to be made to the cou­ple’s beau­ti­fully de­signed and styled pe­riod home in Ranelagh. A large is­land unit has been added in the kitchen, and this will be the class­room hub. Ad­di­tional ovens – steam, pizza and bread – a five- burner gas hob, a wok burner, and a work­top grill plate have been added to the ex­pan­sive La Cor­nue French range cooker that was al­ready in place.

Muriel is the de­sign tal­ent of the duo, ac­cord­ing to Kevin, and it was she who came up with the vi­sion for a teach­ing space that also works as a fam­ily home kitchen. “It looks like a home and that’s the whole idea. I want peo­ple to be com­fort­able,” Muriel says.

The im­pres­sive ar­ray of cop­per pans that have gone with them ev­ery­where they’ve

been in busi­ness, from the Wine Epergne in Rath­mines in the early 1990s, to the Por­to­bello premises they moved to in 1995, and on to Thorn­ton’s in the Fitzwilliam Ho­tel in the city cen­tre, now frame a win­dow over­look­ing their el­e­gant garden.

There’s just one thing Muriel is not re­ally happy with. There’s a large me­tal meat slicer, the sort of thing you’d see on a deli counter, propped up on a counter along­side her art­fully dis­played dried goods glass jars. “I’ve been bring­ing things home and Muriel says ‘ get that junk out of here’. It’s about mak­ing sure I don’t over­load the place,” Kevin ad­mits, while mak­ing a strong case for the re­ten­tion of the slicer for its abil­ity to cut veg­eta­bles pa­per thin, and carve up frozen tuna belly.

On the fi­nal Sun­day of each month, Kooks Wild Food Tours will take the class­room out into the great out­doors, with wild food be­ing col­lected on the seashore and in the Dublin moun­tains and cooked out­doors. There are also plans for what the cou­ple de­scribe as “a quar­terly move­able feast event – a cel­e­bra­tion of each sea­son and a re- imag­i­na­tion of what a din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence can be”. The first of these is planned for Hal­loween.

The cook­ery school and event busi­ness will close for a month in the sum­mer and again in Jan­uary. There’s a strong sense that the cou­ple are de­ter­mined to achieve a bet­ter work- life bal­ance this time around, and Kevin al­ready has plans for his Jan­uary break. He will be re­turn­ing to Ethiopia, a coun­try with which he has close ties and has vis­ited many times.

He first trav­elled there in 2011, as part of a Con­nect Ethiopia char­ity pro­ject, along with hote­lier Fran­cis Bren­nan. The two shared their hos­pi­tal­ity ex­per­tise with peo­ple work­ing in the sec­tor, with the aim of im­prov­ing stan­dards so that tourists would stay longer – and spend more money – in the coun­try.

He has made many re­turn vis­its to con­tinue his work there and had in­tended to go back as soon as Thorn­ton’s closed, but civil un­rest made that im­pos­si­ble at the time. “He’d have gone any­way, but I wouldn’t let him,” Muriel in­ter­jects.

He says he has “two things I have to fin­ish” in Ethiopia. Those are the com­ple­tion of a cook­ery school, and work­ing with the govern­ment on the es­tab­lish­ment of an abat­toir, both in Lal­i­bela in the north of the coun­try. “They’re still killing the an­i­mals at sun­rise on the top of a moun­tain and the blood and en­trails are flow­ing down into the river,” he says.

Ac­cord­ing to Kevin, the past 10 months have been part of a dream year, “and it’s not over yet.” He was head­ing for Sin­ga­pore the day af­ter we met, for “three days hard­core work” do­ing a lunch and a demon­stra­tion with the or­gan­is­ers of the World Gourmet Sum­mit, and was to fol­low that with a road trip to Cam­bo­dia.

Any­thing is now pos­si­ble for the cou­ple, who are rel­ish­ing their new- found free­dom – ex­cept open­ing an­other restau­rant, it seems. “We’ve had lots of of­fers, even two phone calls yes­ter­day, from peo­ple try­ing to see if we’d be in­ter­ested in do­ing an­other restau­rant,” Muriel says. “Bonkers,” Kevin replies. “Never say never . . . but no,” Muriel says, with con­vic­tion. For more in­for­ma­tion, see kevinthorn­ton­skooks. com

‘‘ On the fi­nal Sun­day of each month, Kooks Wild Food Tours will take the class­room out into the great out­doors

Chef and former restau­ra­teurs Kevin Thorn­ton and his wife Muriel: The cou­ple have spent a life­time in the hos­pi­tal­ity busi­ness and they were ready to em­brace a more “nor­mal” life. PHO­TO­GRAPH: NICK BRADSHAW

The kitchen/ demo area where the classes will be con­ducted. Be­low: Kevin Thorn­ton’s pho­to­graphs from his trav­els; potato dumplings, veg­etable curry, boat food and be­tel leaves.

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