JP McMahon recently published An Alphabet of Aniar, coinciding with ten years of celebrating a Michelin star. He talks to Hospitality Ireland about the history of Irish food and the changes that he’s seen in the industry.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2023 issue of Hospitality Ireland Magazine, in July of 2023.
Tell us about the new book.
The new book is called An Alphabet of Aniar: Notes for a New Irish Cuisine. It attempts to explore what Irish food means now, in the context of Aniar. Irish food has suffered from lack of representation, particularly on a global level. This book aims to change that. It uses the format of the alphabet to explore different themes and topics that we have examined in the restaurant over the last 12 years. It’s the story of a restaurant in the west of Ireland, as well as the story of Irish food.
Why did you decide to do this book?
I felt it was time to try and bring together everything we have been doing. After 12 years, we have covered so much ground, experimenting with Irish food, with different wild foods, with seaweed, pickling and fermentation. I wanted to put all this work into the context of the wider history of Irish food. Twelve years is a good age for a restaurant, and I think it was a good time to collect all our investigations under the one space. I also wanted to distinguish between what we have been doing – what I call new Irish cuisine – and traditional Irish cooking. I see them operating symbiotically, together. It isn’t that the new replaces the old. It rather builds on it. There is so much to discover about Irish food in the past. This will help us build a better food future.
You celebrated ten years of Michelin-star status recently. How was that?
It was good – a very wonderful milestone. Maintaining a Michelin star is a difficult process that brings with it many trials and tribulations, but it’s still just a normal restaurant with everyday restaurant problems.
We strive to be the best every day, and we hope that we fly the flag for what’s possible in terms of Irish food – 98% of the ingredients we use come from the island of Ireland. To produce a 22-course tasting menu has its challenges, but we meet them each season. Each year brings more discoveries and a greater knowledge of what we can do. I look forward to the next ten years of Aniar.
How has the Irish food scene changed in those ten years?
It has changed a lot. People are now more confident about food and eating out. Though Covid-19 changed the restaurant landscape dramatically, people were quick to return to eating in restaurants. Before the pandemic, we did mostly tourists. Now we do a better mix of Irish and international guests. I think the pandemic allowed us to appreciate the things that we have close to us. There are now many restaurants like Aniar, which champion Irish produce, wild food, and seaweed. There is a strong network of producers and restaurants working together to make the experience of Irish food better.
What do you see as the changing trends in hospitality – people’s expectations, new elements, etc.?
There are difficulties at the moment. People expect more for less, but, with rising costs, it’s difficult to meet with customers’ expectations. I think most changes that are happening are occurring in relation to people’s diets. We now offer a vegan and vegetarian tasting menu at Aniar, as well accommodating all other allergies – from gluten and coeliacs to fish, shellfish and nuts.
I think it’s important to be as inclusive as possible. Many restaurants with tasting menus don’t offer any alternatives. I don’t think this is the way forward. We also accommodate children in the restaurant and have a smaller tasting menu for them. Fine dining needs to be family friendly – as well as dog friendly!
What are the major challenges at the moment?
Staffing, energy prices, inflation – these three issues have certainly challenged us this year and last. It’s difficult to get a handle on the financials for the restaurant. Prices just keep going up. I don’t think we can put up the menu any more. A lot of restaurants are still closing. Between the challenges left behind by the pandemic and the new challenges, there is a lot against the industry at the moment.
What are the main opportunities?
There are still many people wanting to eat out. Our food culture is strong. Aniar had its busiest year in ten years last year. This is despite the massive increase in costs. So, we’re still here, fighting all the time. There are also more small Irish producers emerging all the time. It’s a great time for Irish food.
Any other plans on the horizon for the next year or so?
I hope I still have a few more restaurants in me. We had to put our plans for a ramen bar and Japanese restaurant on hold due to inflation and rising costs, but maybe 2024 will be a better year. I’m also trying to find a new location for Tartare, our cafe and wine bar that closed in 2022. I would like to move Aniar, eventually, to a place where I could have rooms as well. I think it’s the next logical step.
ANIAR AT A GLANCE:
How many covers (for lunch and dinner)? Dinner only – max. 32.
Number of staff members – front and back of house? Twelve.
Signature dish? Oyster ice cream with sea lettuce.