The Keane Edge
Award-winning chef Jonathan Keane discusses his foodie upbringing in Connemara, his favourite Irish restaurants, veganism, and the importance of supporting our local artisan producers. Interview: Lucy O’Toole
He’s one of the nation’s nest chefs, but there are no airs and graces about Jonathan Keane. Since leaving school at 15 to wash pots in his local pub, he has risen through the culinary ranks to become head chef at the stunning Lodge at Ashford Castle. With a focus on local, high-quality produce and giving back to the community, Jonathan is taking on the big food corporations one incredible dish at a time.
“I grew up on a sheep farm in Connemara,” he says. “We always grew our own vegetables, and from a very young age we’d be out picking blackberries and wood sorrel around the hills, or getting seaweed from the beach. And my dad used to make black pudding. So you could say I was brought up in a foodie background.”
With little interest in school, Keane began working in the local pub, and soon found himself drawn into the kitchen. After attending the Galway International Hotel School, he worked in some of the country’s top restaurants, including a stint at Adare Manor. Since 2012, he has been working his culinary magic at the Lodge at Ashford Castle.
He is also a co-founder of Slow Food Mayo, a local group that is part of a global initiative promoting clean, local produce.
“I don’t like cheap, mass-produced food, or anything that is damaging to our local producers and farmers,” he says. “Slow Food is all about proper sourcing and proper traceability – not doing things on the cheap. It was always something that I was into. When myself and Aaron McMahon from Café Rua realised that there was no Slow Food movement in Mayo, we decided to set it up. It’s gone from strength to strength.”
Keane is also a member of Euro-Toques Ireland, a community that supports local producers and promotes Irish culinary traditions.
“I won’t buy any meat for my kitchen unless I’ve visited the farm, to make sure that all the animals have been treated properly. The big corporations are trying to bring in hormone-treated beef to give it a longer shelf life, but I’m against all that. It’s important to me to look after the local producers, so that we’re keeping money in the community rather than sending it out to the big giants.”
And there are plenty of incredible artisan producers in the West of Ireland to be excited about.
“All my pork comes from Andarl Farm in
Claremorris. He makes his black pudding the traditional way, instead of with dry product, and it’s brilliant. Burren Smoked Salmon is probably the best smoked salmon in the world – I use loads of it. Then there’s Galway Goat Farm, who make a lovely goat’s cheese called Cnoc Dubh. It comes in a little pyramid, and it’s fabulous.”
“We get all our sh off Gannet’s Fishmongers in Galway,” he continues. “He’ll tell me what’s sustainable, and I’ll buy it. John Ward of Dooncastle Oysters is probably doing the best oysters in Ireland at the moment. We actually went to school together, and now here we are doing business. It’s a nice connection.”
Keane has also been supporting his local community through his work with the Cong Food Village, which throws a festival attracting around
6,000 people to the Mayo village each year.
“About two years after I moved to Cong, I noticed a shift around the village,” he recalls. “There were nice cafés and gastro pubs opening up, and all of a sudden we had a lot of good food offerings here.
The Cong Food Village is all about community and education. We go to the kids in the school and bring them foraging, or we bring them into my kitchen. We work with the elderly too.”
As well as using some top-notch local suppliers, Keane grows and gathers a lot of the food for his kitchen himself.
“I have three polytunnels at Ashford, so I’m growing all my own vegetables for the restaurant,” he says. “Lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and more - they’re all organically grown, so there’s no chemicals allowed. I also bring all my chefs foraging. The Ashford estate is abundant with wood sorrel, wild garlic, wild hazelnuts, mushrooms, hawthorns, blackberries and rosehips. And we go up to Old Head once every ten days to get our seaweed and sea vegetables.
“But it’s not even all about the food,” he continues. “One of the reasons we go foraging every day is because I want the chefs to get out of the kitchen, to see what food is all about.”
He’s kept busy at Ashford Castle, but Keane also
nds time to enjoy some of Ireland’s best dining spots.
“My favourite place to go is Ballymaloe. They have a similar ethos to myself. The best restaurant, hospitality-wise, would be Neven Maguire’s McNean House and Restaurant. It’s just a fab night out, and he has such a generosity of spirit. It’s not just for the TV – all the customers get that. And Mickael Vilkanen, at The Greenhouse on Dawson Street, is the best chef in Ireland at the moment, in my opinion. I eat there whenever I go to Dublin – so I’ve probably been 17 times in the last few years. It’s savage.”
Although he tells me that one of his favourite foods to cook is lamb, Keane, unlike some chefs, also thinks it’s important to properly cater for vegans and those with dietary restrictions.
“These things are happening, so you can accept them and move with them, or be caught short,” he says. “It’s up to us to challenge ourselves to cook for these people. If your customer is coming to spend good money in your restaurant, you really need to be giving them a good offering – just as good as anyone else’s. We have a vegan menu here, and it’s just as good as the main menu.”
Among these offerings is a mouth-watering vegan lasagne. He swaps the lasagne sheets for ribbons of pickled celeriac, and opts for a vegetable salpicon – vegetables cut into little round balls in an olive oil
“It’s important to me to look after the local producers, so that we’re keeping money in the community rather than sending it out to the big giants.”
emulsion sauce – instead of Bolognese.
He is also passionate about training and nurturing the up-and-coming talent in the culinary world
– and is very much against the concept of the ‘celebrity chef’.
“I have a very strong dislike of Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White for what they’ve done to our industry, with their shouting and abuse. People see that on the telly, and it’s monkey-see-monkey-do. I experienced it. I was physically assaulted numerous times in the kitchen, and verbally abused daily. But that’s all changing now. Chefs need to be more selfaware – they need to be leaders.”
But all in all, he’s not too worried about the future of the Irish food industry.
“The Irish food scene is one of the strongest in the world at the moment,” he says. “Gone are the days of bacon and cabbage and Irish stew. We’ve always had brilliant ingredients, and the best lamb and beef in the world, but now we’ve stopped trying to copy London and New York and everyone else. Instead, we’re cooking simple food, nice and easy, and letting the ingredients shine.”
“ The Irish food scene is one of the strongest in the world at the moment”