STAR QUALITY Award-winning Chef Andrew Walsh on the grounds of Breaffy House Hotel during a recent visit home. Pic: Karen Cox
From school leaver at 15 to Michelin Star chef in Singapore at 38
THE road to Michelin Star recognition has been a long one for Andrew Walsh. And the Breaffy man often thought long and hard about whether the career route he was going down was worth it.
When he describes the long hours, the oppressive work environments and the often low pay, you can see why he frequently wondered whether the juice was worth the squeeze.
It is now, though.
In August, he was awarded his first Michelin Star – the pinnacle certification of his industry – for his restaurant Cure in Singapore.
He’s the second Mayo chef to receive a Michelin Star, and reckons he’s the only Irish chef outside Ireland and Britain so honoured.
And he’s still not 40 – indeed he turns 39 this Thursday.
Like all good stories, it’s best to go back to the start.
We meet in Breaffy House, where Walsh was first exposed to life in a kitchen as a 15-year-old kitchen porter in the late 1990s. Prior to that he had worked in the family pub, The Shamrock Bar and, from a young age, the concept of hard work was not alien to him. He was in Third Year in Davitt College in Castlebar when he decided school was not for him. His parents, Andrew and Mary Teresa, sat him down. They were not keen on his plans to leave, but they knew their son was – is – headstrong and independent.
They agreed, on one proviso: he finish his Junior Cert with good results. He obliged.
His brother, Lyndon, was a chef in the TF Hotel in Castlebar at the time, and there was a vacancy for a full-time kitchen porter. The journey was underway.
He developed a taste, if you’ll pardon the pun, for the culinary world, and Lyndon enrolled him in a culinary course in GMIT in Castlebar. Andrew credits Lyndon as an ‘inspiration’, and in GMIT, it was clear that lecturer Ide Jennings was going to be another.
Andrew openly admits he took a bit of managing in college, a 15-year-old enjoying the social side more than the educational aspect, but a bit of guidance from Jennings and Lyndon went a long way.
Walsh showed enough promise to earn one of the better placements on the course, at Darcy’s Restaurant in Kenmare, where he worked under James Mulchrone, a chef from Newport.
The possibilities that existed with food and cheffing first hit home while he was in south Kerry.
“I came from big numbers, which are the carveries in the TF and the weddings, and that’s all great. You learn how to work fast and hard and [how to do] calculations, but Kenmare was the first time that I saw a fresh lobster and fresh crabs come in and dishes like caviar, fois gras, truffle.
“When I saw this I wanted to be the best chef I could be because I was so thrilled and excited, I saw the potential in food,” he recalls.
But going down that road would entail a lot of sacrifice. The journey would take in Dublin, France, Australia, New York and London before pitching him up in Singapore ten years ago.
That journey was a real test of character. The Gordon Ramsey-type kitchen environment we’ve seen on TV is one that Walsh bore witness to.
He credits his survival to his family upbringing – he was one of eight kids – and a toughness from his days playing full-back in Gaelic football for Breaffy. Having played behind him in goals, this writer can attest to his battling qualities.
“It was hardcore stuff in the kitchens. You’re getting abused, f***ed around the place. That was it back then. When I was playing football, I wasn’t afraid to get stuck in. It was the same in London. One restaurant, I won’t give the name, it was so competitive,” he says.
“I was on pastries in this restaurant and we’d figs on with a fois gras dish as a starter. There was one fig left, I needed it, so did another chef. The chef says, ‘I don’t care who comes out with it’. We were in the fridge belting each other. I came out with the fig, and he came out with one tooth missing. That’s the way it was. There were punch ups. You’d be throwing pans at each other with oil. There were scars, burns.
“There was a Michelin Star restaurant where one chef was told to take off his hat and soup was poured over him. I saw that happen.
“I’ve seen guys being kicked, locked up in the hot plate, put in there as a punishment. One guy heating up a knife and scalding a fella because he messed up. It was like fight club.
“The night before, [you have] guys knocking off your fridge, and you come in the next day and your stuff is gone off. They know you’re up for the next position with them, so they’re trying to make a fool of you.
“Even in London I would be told ‘Hurry up you Irish so and so’ and ‘You potato head’ and so on, those kind of digs.
“I just cooked better than them and faster.”
And it is not as if the working environment was offset by good pay.
“We didn’t have much money,” he explains. “We would get to the petrol station at the end of the evening – it was the only thing we could afford – and we’d share a sandwich and a bag of crisps.
“I remember working in London at Christmas and getting home at three in the morning. I’d shower, put on my fresh uniform and sleep until 5.30am in the uniform. Some nights we slept in the restaurant.
“It’s not an overnight success. You miss out on things, you miss Christmases, you miss anniversaries. Your girlfriends get pissed off,” he said.
He recalls working for free in Michelin Star restaurant in London when he was due to be on holidays just so he could get the staff food, as there was no food at home in his fridge and no money in his bank account.
It is little wonder when you read about those type of conditions that Walsh asked himself about his long-term plans ‘many, many times’.
But all the time he was learning and improving. He took a big step forward when he moved to Singapore a decade ago at the behest of Michelin Star chef Jason Atherton. He was opening his first Singapore restaurant, Esquina, and he wanted Walsh to run it.
Then, in 2015, Andrew took the plunge and went out on his own as the chef/owner of his first venture, Cure.
His Irish upbringing has inspired several elaborate dishes in Cure, under the ‘Nua Irish’ cuisine menu.
He talks about how he uses potatoes and Irish soda bread with his very own unique twist to create novel dishes. His days on the bog are even the inspiration for one dish, a pre-dessert called ‘childhood memories of peat’ which is rolled to look like a piece of turf and filled with smoked-peat-milk ice-cream.
Irish oysters, crabs and mussels are among the many Irish products exported to Singapore for Cure. The passion flows from Walsh as he talks about the different dishes, and the art and craft that go into them is readily apparent.
He also has four other concepts under the Cure umbrella, including Butcher Boy, an east-meets-west bar and grill.
The long journey led to his dream being fulfilled last August, when Andrew Walsh was honoured as a Michelin Star chef. It was particularly satisfying because of the trading difficulties his businesses have experienced since Covid hit.
“It’s like lads who want to win All-Ireland finals. If you’re a Gah footballer and you want to win an All-Ireland with Mayo, or an actor who gets an Oscar, that’s what a star is for chefs.
“Because it’s everything that you’ve trained for. You’ve put in the hours, 18 hour days and to get the recognition, finally, from your peers. Not everyone gets it. It is a very prestigious award. They don’t hand them out in Tesco,” he said.
Pull of home
As we speak, his brother Lyndon joins us, the man who started Andrew on his journey in the late 90s.
“When we were young fellas in college you’d read about these fellas that have got there and, you’re like, wow,” he says.
And now, sitting across the table is one – his younger brother. The family pride is obvious.
What does the future bring? Will Andrew Walsh come home and set-up shop in Ireland? He certainly has no plans to rest on his laurels anyway.
“We’re always looking to the future. I will not get relaxed with this star,” he reveals.
“I’ve always had this romantic idea of coming back. You know, get a nice piece of land, potentially grow some produce for the restaurant on it, purchase or build a restaurant. That it could be maybe self-sufficient.
“Perhaps in the future, but restaurants are like anything, you open them up and you’ve leases. I’m tied into my leases (in Singapore) for five to seven years.
“I am looking at the opportunity of one of my more casual restaurants, Butcher Boy. If I put that into Dublin, that would give me the opportunity to get home, instead of once a year, maybe three or four times.
“The more you are away from home, you do miss it. I miss nature.”