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