One of the best tools for getting through life is a sense of humor. A conversation with Chef Paul Flynn of The Tannery, a contemporary Irish restaurant in Dungarvan, County Waterford, is laced with laughter. But this very funny man takes his cooking seriously.
We first encountered Flynn on the Food Network’s Tasting Ireland, Bobby Flay’s St. Patrick’s Day special. We were impressed by the Tannery and the chef behind it. It turned out we had a mutual acquaintance who introduced us via email. It was kismet.
We chatted with Flynn on the phone one morning (late afternoon in Ireland). This talented chef claims he got into cooking because he “didn’t study enough.” But there’s more to that story. A great cook is born not made. There’s an intuitive part to the process that can’t be learned. It’s a sense of how two flavors will meld; of unconventional pairings, a journey away from the expected. Paul Flynn is a master of that.
His first job was at Merry’s Gastropub in Waterford, close to his hometown, Dungarvan. It seemed a good fit. Wanting to pursue it further, he left for England the day after his 18th birthday in 1984. After his first year in London kitchens, he lucked out and got a job working for Nico Ladenis, a major force in the London dining scene at the time. Flynn started as a commis, the first rung in a British restaurant kitchen’s ladder, at Chez Nico in Battersea. The restaurant had two Michelin stars at the time. ”The 90s was an exciting time to be in a London kitchen, ” Flynn said. Six or seven of the best chefs in town were changing how they looked at food and becoming more innovative. London restaurants were emerging as a force on the international food scene.
By the time Flynn left Ladonis’ renowned Nico at 90 in 1993, he was head chef. His next stop: Dublin’s trendy La Stampa. He says that this fashionable eatery, catering to the likes of Bono, was motivated by winning accolades and pleasing critics. The focus was on technique not on innovation. Clearly, he was good at this formula. His first year as Executive Chef they were named the best restaurant in Ireland. In 1997, this chef who just wanted to cook left La Stampa. He and his wife Maire opened The Tannery in his hometown. “We made all the wrong decisions,” he says of the restaurant they opened in an old leather factory, in a bad neighborhood, with a “derelict house” on the street in front. He calls it a “heart over head decision”. But it worked.
Maire Flynn, whose background was real estate, runs the front of the house while her husband presides at the stove. The two are a good team. She was almost the girl next door, hailing from a town about 15 miles from Dungarvan. Flynn’s brother married her neighbor. They met when Flynn was visiting Dublin from London. It was pretty much love at first sight. She relocated to London to be with him and then returned Dublin when he moved there. They married in December 1993 and have two young daughters.
Apparently, running a successful restaurant wasn’t enough for this pair. In 1997, they opened The Tannery Townhouse, offering what they call “boutique style accommodations,” around the corner from the restaurant. And in case life wasn’t hectic enough, they started The Tannery Cookery School in November 2008. Flynn says he was never comfortable meeting customers and had no intention of teaching. He credits Irish culinary force, Darina Allen, for this turn-around. She would bring students to his kitchen and “make” him talk to them. She also hired him to teach at her Ballymaloe Cookery School. He found he enjoyed teaching and the school was born. Named best cookery school in Ireland in both 2010 and 2011, it mostly offers half-day and full-day classes.
Paul Flynn’s cooking philosophy can be summed up easily. Keep it simple and unpretentious. It wasn’t easy to get here. “I always tell people I spent my first 15 years learning to be a chef,” he said, “and the rest learning to be a cook.” He calls his food “delicate yet rustic”. It’s about working with the ingredients and making them sing. “I spend a lot of time creating deep flavors,” he said. He loves using the local bounty and preparing it in unexpected ways: a native salmon is paired with curried egg, local lamb becomes Moroccan lamb canneloni with hummus and red pepper cream, a seafood stew is enhanced with saffron.
The Tannery’s menu is not set in stone. It reflects what’s at the market and what Flynn feels like cooking on a given day. His kitchen reflects the seasons. In winter, he cooks heartier dishes and in summer, turns to lighter fare. When temperatures warm up, his style turns more Mediterranean; butter is swapped for olive oil. Some of the produce they serve comes from the restaurant’s three-quarter acre garden and their new greenhouse. The garden is a recent addition and growing vegetables and herbs is still in the learning-curve stage. To assist with this big project, they employ a full-time gardener. Having a garden outside the kitchen door is an exciting development. Flynn loves being able to cook with something that was in the ground a half-hour before.
This former underachiever has gone 180 degrees. He’s been a food writer for the Irish Times and authored two cookbooks (An Irish Adventure with Food and Second Helpings). His talent and vision garnered a third Michelin star for Nicos at 90 (awarded after he left). The Tannery was Hospitality Ireland Restaurant of Year 2006 and Flynn was named Georgina Campbell, Chef of the Year 2008. Now, the man who didn’t like to talk to people has his own show TV show. Paul Flynn’s Irish Food Adventure debuts Tuesday, June 28th on Ireland’s RTE One.
What’s next for this man who loves simple? Stay tuned.
Author’s note: If you are planning on dining in Ireland, there are great, even cutting edge restaurants to choose from. Upscale Irish eateries are turning out really creative food. Some incorporate traditional dishes, many use fresh, locally produced foods. There are some great places for foodies to put on their must-eat lists. The Tannery is one of them.