A rebel chef from the Rebel County is planning to shake up the food scene in the Kingdom. Having closed his iconic Cork restaurant, the Ivory Tower, American-born Seamus O’Connell is opening a new restaurant called Malarkey in Killarney.
Food for Thought – FFT.ie spoke to Seamus in late April, when he was hard at work preparing to open his new business in mid May.
For those of you who know Killarney, Seamus’ new restaurant will be in the premises formerly occupied by Chapter 40 Restaurant. “It’s funny,” he says. “I was in that restaurant in its heyday and thought it was such a great place. It was everything the Ivory Tower wasn’t. It had a good-sized kitchen and plenty of space for diners. It was so professional whereas my place was a converted upstairs office room with a kitchen where the bathrooms were.”
The restaurant may have been limited in size, but Seamus O’Connell has never been limited in imagination. He arrived in Cork after years spent working in New York and via a stint in Michelin-starred restaurants in France. He opened the Ivory Tower in 1993 and his internationally-educated palate and innovative cooking soon drew attention to Ireland’s second city.
The restaurant gained rave reviews from the New York Times. The Restaurants Association of Ireland named O’Connell its Chef of the Year in 2004 and fellow rebel Anthony Bourdain filmed in the Ivory Tower when he came to Cork.
“In many ways, the Ivory Tower was the restaurant I had always dreamed of,” says O’Connell. “I could be inspired by what was on offer in the English Market outside my door. It was just me cooking for my customers three nights a week, which meant I could cook what I wanted with no limits. It was great fun really.”
This doesn’t mean that there weren’t difficult times. O’Connell had an infamous run-in with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland in 2011. They closed the Ivory Tower for a week that year for breaches of food safety regulations.
O’Connell understands why the FSAI took the stance they did but still doesn’t agree with it. “The original fracas wasn’t about the kitchen at all,” he says. “It was about HACAAP rules and regulations, which I disputed from day one. I was being told that in order to serve sushi, I’d have to freeze it for 72 hours before serving whereas I’d been trained to serve fresh fish. I was being told that any game I served had to be frozen after three days. None of this is what cooking is about. It’s a NASA space authority type of approach which results in chefs throughout the country lying through their teeth saying that they have followed what are nonsensically stringent rules.”
He doesn’t anticipate this being a problem in his new venture. “I had to battle bureaucracy all of the time in the Ivory Tower because the building simply wasn’t suited to being a restaurant,” he says. “Malarkey is an entirely different set-up.” This isn’t all that will be different. The menu at Malarkey will have a distinctly Irish feel, which is a new departure for this master of fusion food.
“When I first arrived in Ireland, I came to Killarney looking for Irish food,” he says. “What I found was mostly lasagne and burgers which weren’t Irish and weren’t even very good. What I found in the hotels was mostly French food. I couldn’t find what I was looking for and I thought that other people were bound to be looking for it too. I always thought that I’d like to address that, and this is my chance.”
He previously tried his hand at Irish food when he worked at Shebeen Chic in Dublin during the recession years. “I hadn’t really experimented with Irish food before because I didn’t feel it was my place as an American,” he says. “But I really enjoyed messing with Irish classics and reinventing them.”
His take on what constitutes Irish food is interesting. “The canon of Irish dishes isn’t a large one,” he says. “But there are things on my menu that feel Irish to me in that they use indigenous ingredients – beef cheeks for one.”
That beef cheeks dish with smoked ox tongue in a red ale stew certainly sounds like contemporary Irish food. So does the main course of hay-smoked rack of Kerry lamb served with smashed turnip, poitín and bay leaf gravy.
Funding Malarkey hasn’t been easy. O’Connell lost his investor at the last minute and tried to secure online funding. “I was clutching at straws at that stage and remembered that when I opened the Ivory Tower, I did it by asking 20 previous customers to give me a grand apiece and offering them free meals in the restaurant in return. I thought maybe I could do that again, but I don’t know anything about social media. I don’t know how to play the game.”
He has since had to fund the restaurant out of his own pocket, which has definite pros and cons. “It gives me artistic freedom, but it also means that the restaurant has to make money from the very beginning,” he says.
His search for staff wasn’t as challenging. “Firstly, I placed an ad on www.lhotellerie-restauration.fr and got applications from 30 or 40 chefs in France but I didn’t end up going down that route as I realised that finding accommodation in Killarney was a problem,” says O’Connell. “So, I went to a local café and asked the waitress there where she would advertise if she was looking for local staff. She said www.indeed.ie. I put an ad there, in the Killarney Advertiser and a sign on the door and found everyone I needed.”
Whatever happens with his new restaurant, Seamus O’Connell is looking forward to having more scope. “The kitchen and the restaurant itself are so much bigger and I’ll have a team working with me,” he says. “No matter what we create at Malarkey, I can guarantee that it won’t be too serious. I like having the craic and I’ll make sure that there’s a range of prices. There will be everything from what the National Geographic called ‘the best Irish stew in the world’ to tasting menus at the high end of the scale. This will be Irish cooking for everyone.”
I wonder if Killarney knows what’s about to hit it?