Graham Neville is the Commissioner General of Euro-Toques Awards Ireland. The Euro-Toques Food Awards, which was established in 1996 by committee, was based on an original idea by chef Myrtle Allen, as a way to annually to recognise and celebrate the very best food produced in Ireland. I spoke to Graham about the awards, his background and where he sees the industry at the moment.
Currently Graham, who is now Head Chef at Dax restaurant, was also Head Chef at Restaurant FortyOne, where he developed his own organic kitchen garden. His journey began in DIT’s Culinary School at Cathal Brugha Street. After graduation, he “Travelled the world working in different locations from TRU restaurant and Les Nomades in Chicago, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray, Le Caprice in London, La Pyramide in Lyon plus seven years with Kevin Thornton.”
The awards honour those who produce food of notable flavour and quality. They provide member chefs the opportunity to nominate farmers, fishermen, and food producers who make it possible to create superb meals by providing them with the best local produce.
Focusing on the foods and production methods that preserve the traditions and heritage of the Irish food, farming and fishing industries, each year Euro-Toques members are asked to nominate their favourite suppliers. The list goes forward to the Euro-Toques Food Council and from there the council arranges visits, gathers further information and then deliberates, putting a firm focus on flavour first, then how the product is made, what goes into it, what impact it has on the environment and a range of other considerations.
Unusually, there are no categories, headings, or regional distinctions in the awards – the committee simply selects the products or producers who they believe most deserve awards, with usually only five awards being presented annually. Also the awards are quite difficult to participate in as no producer can be in the running unless they have been nominated by a Euro-Toques chef who believes in and buys that product to put on their menu. This is central to the integrity of the awards. Producers cannot choose to enter the awards or canvass for consideration, and there is no cost to the recipient at any point.
Graham believes that the industry’s current innovation is centered on “Going back to basics – which incidentally is the theme we chose for this year Young Chef’s competition.” Trends visible from applicants in the competition show an increase in less established and new young chefs, which he feels is essential to develop the industry.
“We need to continue working on education with the purpose of forming and attracting youngsters to the kitchen,” he explained. “This is one of the key objectives within Euro-Toques and one that we have been working very closely with La Rousse Foods, our presenting partner.”
So what does Graham feel qualifies as ‘good’ food and produce? “Personally I like working with small artisan producers as much as possible. People’s devotion and attention to detail in growing or farming their produce is what makes excellent produce.”
He also has a large amount of respect for heritage and the producers who keep that in mind. “Small producers are the unsung heroes of our kitchen, they inspire us daily,” he stated. He also believes that the produce in Ireland is of an excellent standard, ranging from fish and meats to vegetables, cheese and milk but as a country we are not proud enough about it.
He stated that he likes the idea of Ireland as a food destination and that through continuing to develop the idea of ‘Irish food’ as a separate entity that our heritage and culture can be conveyed through our cuisine. “I think we need to continue focusing on quality and through a quality offer we will be able to define our culinary culture,” he explained.
There have been many changes in the industry over the last five years, including, according to Graham, a notable improvement in both food and service. “The fact that chefs are travelling, exploring, going on stages and bringing their knowledge back to Ireland has made a big difference,” he said.
Across the industry there seems to more of a willingness to learn, as well as educate. Also, the impact social media has had is also quite significant as Graham notes: “Find me a chef who doesn’t tweet these days? Or posts on Instagram! It’s incredible the knowledge you can extract from social media.”
There is still room for improvement in the industry overall. One of the biggest challenges Graham feels that the industry faces is actually acquiring new chefs. “I would like to see more young people choosing cooking as a career option. There are some real young talented chefs out there but we need more!”
A large part of this means ensuring the infrastructure is there to support them on their journey. “You only need to take a look at the quality of restaurants in this country to see that these are exciting times for Irish food,” said Graham. “Therefore, I would encourage anybody interested to get involved.”
Service is another area of concern for Graham. “We need to find a way to instill passion into the young people who work front of house.” He believes that many people do not consider working front of house in a restaurant as a ‘proper’ career, and wants to encourage more people to consider the prospects of working service as more of serious choice, as opposed to a temporary position.
“All of this is down to education and I feel very passionately about education,” Graham said.