JP McMahon: “Sometimes we’re stuck in our kitchens and don’t listen to each other”

By Sophie Witts

- Last updated on GMT

Chef JP McMahon Food on the Edge Ireland

Related tags Chefs Ireland Restaurant

Chef restaurateur JP McMahon is the founder of Food on the Edge (FOTE), a yearly congress which sees international chefs gather in Ireland.

He also runs three restaurants in the EatGalway group, Michelin-starred Aniar, Tapas bar Cava Bodega and Tartare Café and Wine Bar, alongside studying for a PhD. Ahead of this year's FOTE, which is dedicated to the late Anthony Bourdain, he spoke to BigHospitality​ about Irish food culture and why the industry needs to turn words in to action.

How did FOTE get started?

It was for two reasons; to promote Irish food culture to overseas chefs and to give Irish chefs and producers a bit more confidence in what they do. I’d gone to similar gatherings around the world and felt this was something we needed in Ireland because we had this great product that we weren’t celebrating in the right way.

Is Irish produce underappreciated?

I don’t know if it is abroad but it’s definitely underappreciated at home. I think we take the quality of the land for granted. And you could say the same about the UK. There’s a mentality that we always think the exotic is more attractive. We associate it with the sun and fun but when we think of British or Irish cooking it’s very product-driven, like amazing beef, lamb or shellfish. On an individual scale if you asked tourists they’d probably say they know lamb stew and maybe black pudding, but the rich diversity isn’t communicated as much as it should be, and that’s one of the reasons why we do FOTE.

At last year’s FOTE you launched a drive to improve food education in schools, what’s happened a year on?

It’s difficult. We’ve had a response from the government saying that it’s not their responsibility, and that the responsibility lies in the hands of the parents and society as a whole. But we don’t expect children to learn maths from their parents or society, so why do we downgrade food? Why is it not on the curriculum when it’s probably the most important thing in people’s lives? So many of the issues we have with health and obesity are food related. When you meet 17-18 year olds who don’t know how to cook, I think that’s tragic.

This year’s theme of FOTE is 'conversations', why?

I think sometimes we’re stuck in our kitchens and don’t listen to each other. When you look at the chef industry as a whole you have lots of individuals highlighted, but there’s a much more complex picture going on beneath every iconic chef. Someone like Gordon Ramsay is often presented as an isolated figure but if you look at the reality of how the business works he has lots of restaurants and chefs and there’s lots of dialogue. Every iconic chef is made up of much more than just that person. Chef’s Table does that as well, it focuses on one chef, which is great and people want to have heroes, but the industry is a more collaborative place.

Do you think there are issues in the industry that are not being talked about enough?

There are lots of topics we think we’re talking about, like mental health and food waste, but sometimes I think we’re talking around them and things are staying the same. We go back in to our kitchens and there's still the status quo. These things have come up a lot over the last few years of FOTE and I hope they will again and that people will finally realise that we need to make concrete change. I feel that with a lot of the issues like the gender divide. [At EatGalway] have three restaurants and no female chefs. That’s a problem. That’s a fundamental issue that we have to keep on trying to tackle. It’s not enough to accept it and keep on going.


There’s been a shift with the #MeToo movement, mainly in the US industry…

I definitely feel we’re tapping in to that. We’re too chef-centric, but nearly every cheese maker I know is a woman, why aren’t we talking about that? We seem to get stuck on one question, why aren’t there more female chefs? But we have lots of women in the food industry and we need to highlight them. There is no overnight solution. We have two apprentices at the moment who are women that are great, and I hope that they will stay on as chefs.

What do you think of the Irish restaurant scene? The country gained three new starred restaurants in the 2019 Michelin Guide

It’s really on the rise. Over the last 10 or 15 years Irish food culture has only been getting better, but we’re not even half way there. While it is great that we have 15 or so Michelin stars in the country I think we need to open up restaurants of every style that will facilitate a food culture. Michelin stars do assist that, but they don’t create a culture.

What do you hope FOTE will be in 10 years?

I hope that we’ll still be here and will have inspired different people in the food industry, from farmers and producers to chefs and restaurateurs to try and build a better food culture. I hope that people all over the world will have maybe been to FOTE and been inspired by this moment in Irish food culture and gone back and decided to build their own. That’s why I’m trying to bring in as many diverse international speakers as I can because I think everyone has their own food story to tell.

Are you still studying for a PhD?

I’m doing a PhD in Food and Irish Drama, I do it in my spare time, whenever that is. My father was an academic and part of me still likes to do a bit of that. That feeds in to FOTE, it is good to try and think about things in a critical way.

FOTE is a bit like an academic conference for chefs…

It’s somewhere in between. We have a huge food village with 70-80 Irish producers, and a range of talks. Having been involved in a number of academic conferences I want it to be more action orientated, that when we start talking we do something. And we invite speakers back a year or two later to share what they’ve done since. At a lot of academic conferences there’s very little momentum or change, you talk about a subject then all go home. How do you effect change in our society? The best way is to talk about it, then actually go out and do something about it.   

FOTE starts on 22 October in Galway

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