Tapas Bar Bookings
- Sep 02, 2015
I guess I’ve been lucky in life…
What I mean by that is I am lucky to have been in the right place at the right time. I firmly believe you carve your own way through life and a busy bee stands out 99% of the time – but you also need a little luck to meet the right person or to be in the right place when an opportunity arises.
I never knew or dreamed when I first put my chef jacket on as a lost 19-year-old that I’d end up where I am today. I didn’t even know what a commis chef was when I took the job that I was offered – I was just floating through life without direction or focus, hopping job to job and from one course to another.
Catering fell into my lap and that’s where the bit of luck came in – my brother Alan got me a job in a restaurant that his friend was a supervisor in, and he knew I was pretty much lost and struggling. That, however, was also where my luck ended; the next decade was spent working my ass off sacrificing everything else in my life to be as good as possible as quickly as possible. This in turn led to the opening of my first restaurant.
Bon Appetit opened its doors to our first customers on December 1, 2006.
We started off strong although I hadn’t a clue what I was doing when it came to running a business, cooking/food was my business and we were serving cracking food. We had a brasserie in the basement, a wine bar and private room on the ground floor, and the first floor was our restaurant. At the time I thought this was a great idea as in my head we could feed the masses in the brasserie and woo the food lovers in the restaurant – of course, upon reflection this really meant I could woo myself. We had an enormous mortgage and built up pre-opening expenses that you could buy a small island for.
But sure isn’t that how we all rolled back in 2006!
At first our customers were a little freaked out with all the changes that were made to this northside institution. Some young upstart from Glasnevin has taken over Bon Appetit and ruined the club, and they were not happy!
But after a while, things started to settle down and people decided whether they liked us or not. Some of the older customers went away to mourn, while new younger foodies came in, and we were starting to make our mark and create our own following. Word spread very quickly that we were cooking great food and things were looking pretty damn good.
Unfortunately, though, this was the heady summer of 2007… and we all know what happened next.
La Brasserie When We First Opened
This was the time to knuckle down and try to stop the massive losses we were incurring. I was still a baby in the world of business and I didn’t really know what to do when the recession hit. I was working 100+ hour weeks and was so close to the trees I couldn’t see the woods… or anything, for that matter.
In some way my naivety saved, us as my head was well and truly focused on the one thing I knew: food. In my head, 13 months into operating the business, that was all that mattered.
But in reality, that wasn’t all that mattered, as I learned during my first end-of-year accounts meeting. We’d lost so much money it was almost criminal – and we were continuing to hemorrhage more and more.
Our turnover was great, sure, but we were spending way too much and our mortgage and interest rates were strangling us. And yet, despite all this, I was sitting there deluded, thinking away to myself “But hey, the food we’re cooking is just savage!”
A week after that meeting, on Tuesday January 22, 2008, I brought my wife Sabine and my infant son Evan to the restaurant at 11.30am.
I didn’t tell them why until we got there, as I was playing it cool, but this date was the single driving force that I worked towards all those years; the reason I got out of bed at 5.30am and worked until midnight for eight or nine years previous.
It was the launch of that the 2008 Michelin Red Guide Great Britain and Ireland. The results were being released at midday, and we all sat in the office. Waiting.
At this stage I had accumulated years of experience in various Michelin restaurants and I knew what it took to win a star.
I remember my brother Graham asking me: “Do you think we will win one?”
I replied: “Well if we don’t, I don’t know what will.”
I knew we had done enough, I was in the kitchen every single day since we opened and there wasn’t a single dish that went out of the kitchen that I didn’t either touch, plate up or approve. There were no what-ifs; I did the work, I put the hours in, I lived the life.
But I was still shitting myself.
I was on one computer googling like crazy on the Michelin website and the nervous excitement in the office was incredible. It was 11.55am and still nothing. I picked up my phone which was a beautiful unbreakable Nokia 6110 and I had a text from my mate Joe, which read “well done, congratulations”
What’s that about, I thought; that caveman has never even eaten with a knife and fork – he wouldn’t even have a clue what a Michelin Star was. Then my Auntie Rita rings to congratulate me. I asked her what she’d heard and where she heard it – and she told me she heard on the radio I won some sort of award.
The unbreakable Nokia broke.
I threw it with such force without thinking, and it bounced of the wall in the office, shattering into dozens of little bits. This was what I worked for, this was why I didn’t really get to see my son in the early part of his life, and I felt I’d done it. It was hugely important for me to win a star on my terms – I wanted it young, I wanted it the first year we opened and I wanted it to prove to myself that I was good at something and all the hardship and sacrifices were worth it.
But then, back came reality. As the years passed, it became very obvious the Bon Appetit business model wasn’t working. We tweaked it here and there added a gorgeous Tapas Bar on the ground floor, which is still doing really well.
Our Brasserie had always done well and was the backbone of the business, so it was a really nice moment when it too was given the recognition of a separate award from the Michelin Guide (Bib Gourmand – which is basically an award for great food at reasonable prices), but it never really got a look in with the One Star big brother living above it.
I diversified. I added cookery masterclasses every second Tuesday on the ground floor, in where the private room was. They also proved hugely popular, and what I didn’t really expect is they were really beneficial to me as a chef/restaurateur, helping me to learn what customers really wanted.
The Restaurant, on the other hand, was the show pony. It was where people booked for anniversaries, birthdays, special occasions and the odd bit of business entertaining – but Malahide was a long way away from the city so that was very seldom sadly.
Midweek dining didn’t really happen and we relied on Saturday the special occasion day to save our week. That, quite simply, couldn’t continue. So in October 2014 we took the leap of faith, we combined the Restaurant and the Brasserie together, renovated the Brasserie and continued from then on with just one restaurant and our tapas bar.
I spent years thinking about this but always put it off – if I got it wrong, it would shut us down but something had to be done. The problem was we didn’t know the retention point of the upstairs customer after the change – and, perhaps more importantly, the fact that this would result in us losing the star we’d worked so hard for.
Would they like the changes and the loss of the Michelin star or would they really care? What percentage would stay with us and just dine downstairs, or would they take their business elsewhere? Would we appeal to a new audience who were terrified of us as a result of us having a Michelin star in the first place? Or maybe get back customers who tried the restaurant before and didn’t like it? There were so many potential scenarios but after all the calculations, it was still a huge leap of faith.
But we jumped. And the result was amazing.
Our New Restaurant
Our Wine and Tapas Bar
November 2014 was our first full month and our new restaurant Bon Appetit had 750 more guests than the previous year over the same period, along with the obvious huge reduction in all our costs and expenses – we were elated, it was a huge relief.
I was a little apprehensive that it could just have been a freak month, but thankfully every month since has been an upwards climb, and the books have look good every time.
As a business it was the right thing to do, as I said you need a little luck but fundamentally you need to do the work. Personally, it’s a bit more bittersweet – but its 95% sweet, and 5% bitter. The 5% of me – the guy who sat in accounts meetings and thought about how good the food was – would confess to being just a little sad.
I will always be grateful to the Michelin Guide for awarding Bon Appetit its star. That star has opened a lot of doors for me, but every dog has its day and the dining scene has dramatically changed in Ireland since 2008. I intend to keep Bon Appetit at the forefront of dining in Ireland and we will always deliver the best product we can to our amazing loyal and ever-evolving customers.
We just won’t have a star.
The 2015 guide comes out on September 17th and this chef will be raising a glass of Champagne and celebrating with his staff and my family as it will be a special day for me. A day of reflecting on the madness of the last 20 years with great fondness and I’ll always be proud of the fact that I did it.
But just as it was important to me to win the star on my terms, it’s equally important to relinquish it on my terms. And I know that Bon Appetit is so much better in its current form than it ever was; and our future is really, really bright.
I want to take this opportunity to personally thank all of the Bon Appetit customers and staff for all their support and efforts since 2006, I’m forever grateful to you all and I look forward to cooking for you all well into the future in the new and improved Bon Appetit Restaurant and Tapas Bar!
T-minus 3 days and counting…