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Irish chefs return to their roots

When the Irish first became prosperous, they turned their backs on traditional food. Now it's making a comeback.

By Giancarlo La GiorgiaContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 14, 2009

Irish icons: Ireland is known for its green scenery (Kinsale, Ireland).

Alfredo Sosa/Staff

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Dublin, Ireland

Not so long ago, visitors in Ireland seeking a culinary holiday would have been greeted with blank stares by their hotel concierge, who would have promptly directed them to the nearest French or Italian restaurant. The Irish have long been know for, but not particularly proud of, their meat-and-potatoes cuisine. Of course, all this has rapidly changed since the economic boom of the 1990s. The current recession notwithstanding, residents have become well-acquainted with the finer things in life – especially great, home-grown food.

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Today, Ireland has gourmet food shops galore, as well as plenty of ethnic eateries – beyond the usual haute cuisine imports from continental Europe – owing to the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. The country also boasts six restaurants with Michelin stars, Most of these are run by native sons, foremost among them being Kevin Thornton, the first Irish chef to earn two Michelin stars for his eponymous restaurant, Thornton's, in Dublin's Fitzwilliam Hotel.

Although he's trained in classic French cuisine, having worked under renowned French chefs Fernand Point and Paul Bocuse in his early days, Mr. Thornton still prefers the foods of his childhood – bacon and cabbage with potatoes and parsley sauce, or a hearty lamb stew – to cassoulet or bouillabaisse.

However, the same can't be said of many of his countrymen, he says.

"Eating habits here have changed completely. People grab a burger or take-away food on the go, and home-cooked meals are becoming a thing of the past," says Thornton, lamenting that old classics like bacon and cabbage are now considered "low-class" foods. "Most typical Irish restaurants won't serve it because they don't think anyone would order it. It's a shame."

Of course, you wouldn't mistake the version of bacon and cabbage at Thornton's, served as a multilayered terrine, with the sort that was once a mainstay on the menus of old-fashioned mom-and-pop restaurants.

Still, beneath the architectural cladding, the components of the traditional dish are all there, and just as in the old days, the ingredients are sourced locally, making each bite a true taste of Irish terroir.

With few exceptions, he says that the produce, cheeses, meat, and seafood served at Thornton's are "as Irish as I am."

Contemporary Irish chefs like Thornton have certainly helped make the "buy local" ethos fashionable again, but so far, the popularity of their updated classic dishes has yet to translate into a revival of the simpler (and less expensive) cuisine they're originally based on.

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