All eyes on celebrity chef ’s lat­est ven­ture

High king of chefs or failed restau­ra­teur, crit­ics will be watch­ing Con­rad Gal­lagher with in­ter­est, writes JOHN MEAGHER

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

GOR­DON Ram­say does not pull punches. Not when it comes to dis­cussing fel­low celebrity chefs. “Con­rad couldn’t run a bath, never mind a restau­rant.” The Con­rad in ques­tion was once so fa­mous in Ire­land, so ubiq­ui­tous, that he hardly needed a sur­name. Now, Con­rad Gal­lagher is try­ing to roll back the years by open­ing a new Dublin restau­rant and by prov­ing Ram­say wrong by mak­ing it work.

With the restau­rant trade es­pe­cially hard hit by the re­ces­sion, Gal­lagher’s tim­ing is brave, to put it mildly. Yet last week, as he pre­pared to open his lat­est es­tab­lish­ment – Sa­lon des Saveurs – he was as up­beat as ever.

He said he was go­ing to be hand­son this time, hav­ing learnt from the mis­takes of the past. And there have been many, many of those.

For some, Gal­lagher is seen as a neat em­bod­i­ment of the Celtic Tiger’s rise and fall. Brash, bril­liant and am­bi­tious, he lit up the coun­try’s culi­nary scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s be­fore fall­ing from grace in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion. In just six years, he went from earn­ing his first Miche­lin star to serv­ing time in jail in the US.

His sub­se­quent ca­reer in South Africa saw him be­com­ing the toast of Cape Town’s food­ies, be­fore his restau­rant col­lapsed and he was de­clared bank­rupt.

He left be­hind a trail of an­gry cred­i­tors in Ire­land and in South Africa, but any­body ex­pect­ing the Done­gal man to re­treat into ob­scu­rity could hardly be more wrong.

Now with his sec­ond wife, Candice Coet­zee – a for­mer Miss Port El­iz­a­beth – and their two young sons, Chan­dler and Conor, Gal­lagher says he is back in Ire­land for good.

And the 38-year-old has been in fight­ing talk, as he tries to re­pair a badly dam­aged rep­u­ta­tion.

“I have gone full cir­cle a cou­ple of times,” he told the Ir­ish In­de­pen­dent this week, “and what I have learnt is that if you keep it small and tight, you have one place and you run it well – be­ing dish­washer, door­man, cook and host – you have a much bet­ter chance.

“Es­sen­tially, it will be a tast­ing restau­rant, with all the ta­bles tast­ing ta­bles, not full meals. It’s a French con­cept – you sit down and have ei­ther five, six or seven cour­ses.”

Restau­rant critic Paolo Tul­lio be­lieves Gal­lagher will have a tough time mak­ing his ven­ture work.

“It is an in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult pe­riod in which to be en­ter­ing the restau­rant trade and I have to ap­plaud any­one who tries.

“It will help, of course, that he is so well known,” said Tul­lio, who will be just one of sev­eral crit­ics beat­ing a path to Gal­lagher’s door in the com­ing weeks.

“It will be in­ter­est­ing to see what his food is like be­cause there’s ab­so­lutely no doubt that he has tal­ent.

“If you were to think of the 10 best chefs this coun­try has ever pro­duced, Con­rad Gal­lagher would def­i­nitely be in that list. But he’s clearly not a very good busi­ness­man.”

For oth­ers in the busi­ness, the re­turn of Gal­lagher won’t be met with ap­plause.

“He is a wholly dis­like­able crea­ture,” says Trevor White, the for­mer restau­rant critic who de­vised the an­nual Dubliner 100 Best Restau­rants guide­book.

“He is the clown prince of Ir­ish cook­ing. I think it’s in­cred­i­bly au­da­cious of him to re­turn to Dublin and ex­pect to be taken se­ri­ously when you con­sider the way he treated peo­ple.”

White is re­fer­ring to Gal­lagher’s then sup­pli­ers, many of whom were left un­paid as a restau­rant em­pire crum­bled.

The chef also earned no­to­ri­ety for the brusque man­ner with which he treated some staff mem­bers – some­thing I saw for my­self when I in­ter­viewed him in 2001. He also had a love-hate re­la­tion­ship with crit­ics.

“I was banned from his restau­rants af­ter fail­ing to recog­nise his ge­nius in a re­view for Food and Wine,” White says. “I wasn’t overly crit­i­cal, but he al­ways had a prob­lem with any­body who wasn’t gen­u­flect­ing to him. I think he had tal­ent, but he was never in the same league as the likes of (Miche­lin­starred chefs) Kevin Thorn­ton or Ross Lewis.”

Other restau­rant re­view­ers felt very dif­fer­ently in the mid-90s, when Gal­lagher’s so-called “vertical food” was the big story in the Ir­ish cook­ing.

“No one else cooks like Con­rad Gal­lagher be­cause no one else can cook like Con­rad Gal­lagher,” wrote John McKenna, of the Bridge­stone food guide. “His food is a the­atre… an al­le­gory for in­tel­lec­tual com­plex­ity and rich­ness. Thrilling. Ou­tra­geous. Unique.”

The Ir­ish In­de­pen­dent’s Myles McWeeney pro­claimed him “the High King of Ir­ish cui­sine”, while Tom Door­ley, in the Ir­ish Times, called Gal­lagher “a na­tional trea­sure”.

In 1998, the hy­per­bole seemed to be jus­ti­fied when Gal­lagher won his first Miche­lin star. He was just 26 and his restau­rant, Pea­cock Al­ley, was the hottest venue in town.

Like many chefs feted so young, Gal­lagher quickly sought to ex­pand. But as he opened up more restau­rants and signed yet more book and TV deals, he strug­gled to keep up with the fast pace. His busi­ness skills were found want­ing, par­tic­u­larly when he split with the en­tre­pre­neur­ial restau­ra­teur Do­mini Kemp, the mother of his first child.

“Do­mini has a great busi­ness brain and she was there to steady the ship in the early days,” says a well­known Dublin chef.

Gal­lagher’s at­tempts to crack Lon­don’s tough high-end mar­ket were to fail. Mean­while, back in Dublin, he was strug­gling to turn a profit and ris­ing rents were swamp­ing him. Dur­ing all this, he had to cope with tes­tic­u­lar can­cer.

The nadir came when he was ac­cused of steal­ing paint­ings from his for­mer em­ployer at the Fitzwilliam Ho­tel. Gal­lagher claimed to have owned the art, and sold three pieces to al­le­vi­ate his debt. He was ar­rested while in the US, and served six weeks in the Brook­lyn De­ten­tion Cen­tre – one of that coun­try’s tough­est pris­ons – be­fore be­ing ex­tra­dited to Ire­land. He was found not guilty, but, with his rep­u­ta­tion in tat­ters, he em­i­grated to South Africa in the hope of start­ing again. Once more, it all looked so promis­ing with his friends in the Dublin me­dia pub­li­cis­ing the suc­cess of the trendy Geisha Wok and Noo­dle Bar in Cape Town.

How­ever, af­ter the ini­tial buzz had abated, the restau­rant strug­gled to get pun­ters in the door, and Gal­lagher’s bur­geon­ing in­ter­est in prop­erty came at the very time the world­wide re­ces­sion was about to hit.

A cur­sory glance at South African in­ter­net mes­sage boards shows Gal­lagher had quite an im­pact in his rel­a­tively short time in the coun­try. But many of the com­ments stress his his­tory of fail­ures and the per­sis­tent strug­gle to stave off debt.

It re­mains to be seen if Gal­lagher has mel­lowed with age. Cer­tainly, the newly re­cruited staff at Sa­lon des Saveurs will be hop­ing he is a more agree­able sort than the self­de­scribed tyrant who ran Pea­cock Al­ley. In the words of So­phie Flynn Rogers, his for­mer per­sonal as­sis­tant, Gal­lagher had to be treated with kid gloves.

“We had a rule that when I rang him in the morn­ing on the way to work I couldn’t give him bad news first. Noth­ing about money, I had to tell him some­thing happy first.” – Ir­ish In­de­pen­dent

‘He is the clown prince of Ir­ish cook­ing. I think it’s in­cred­i­bly au­da­cious of him to re­turn to Dublin’

PIC­TURE: GARY VAN WYK

CON­TRO­VER­SIAL: Con­rad Gal­lagher at the Ta­ble Bay Ho­tel. The chef has re­turned to Ire­land to start a new restau­rant.

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