Kevin Thornton was the first chef in Ireland to receive two Michelin stars at his restaurant Thornton’s in the posh Fitzwilliam Hotel in the Stephen’s Green neighborhood of Dublin. When he lost one of his stars in 2006, the chef didn’t greet the slight with the consternation that other chefs might. It liberated him.
After over 25 years in business, the chef has seen and done it all: television, radio, books. But there’s so much more to this native of Cashel, a city renowned for its blue cheese and the crumbling castle in the center of town, than the usual trappings of a celebrity chef.
There’s the cows massaged with Guinness in the final chapter of their lives, the culinary school in Ethiopia and the evidential proof that forging your own way as a chef and not falling for the trappings of trends is the road to fulfillment and success. In this interview, Thornton talks about how he’s weathered the recent economic collapse, diving for the sea urchins served at his restaurant, and why being a non-conformist and eschewing investors is the key to his success.
How did you feel when you lost one of your Michelin stars in 2006?
Quite honestly, it freed me up from the stress and worry of trying to maintain something that can feel like an enormous burden when your energies are focused entirely on trying to retain your stars. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a tremendous honor to have Michelin stars — and it certainly helps a restaurant’s bottom line — but the pressure of trying to adhere to Michelin’s standards can result in a transference of energy away from what’s really important. It was a bit of a relief to lose one of the stars and I feel free now to do what I want to do at the restaurant, which is to cook and please my guests.
You opened Thornton’s in 1995. How have you endured what equates to almost an eternity in the restaurant industry?
One of the keys to my success is that I’ve never followed trends and have really tried to avoid falling for the next big thing. I serve what pleases me at my restaurant, but most importantly I cook what makes my guests happy and emphasize service that makes them feel like they are the priority and not the other way around. I think restaurants who have garnered a certain level of esteem too often try to make it all about the chef and his cuisine.
Why have you eschewed investors?
Owning my own restaurant, which in this day and age is a rare thing at this level, means that I don’t have to answer to anyone and don’t have to compromise or please anyone but myself, my wife Muriel, who is also my business partner, my staff, my producers and my guests. These are the relationships that matter and these are the people I want to please. Don’t get me wrong, at times it has been a tremendous struggle to make ends meet throughout the years but Muriel, who is primarily responsible for managing the books, does a brilliant job at keeping this ship afloat. We’ve been in business together for decades and even though it can be stressful sometimes to be in a relationship with your business partner, it also makes us stronger and the love and respect runs deeper too.
How have you weathered the recent economic crisis?
We have actually fared better than some of the other restaurants in the country since we’ve always tried to run the restaurant within our means and have always used local products as much as we could in favor of more expensive imports. As a result, it wasn’t as if we had to all of a sudden cut luxury ingredients from our menus since we have always tried to maintain a balance between local and imported ingredients. Granted, it’s not as if all Irish products are cheaper than imports, quality Irish lamb is generally more expensive than imported lamb, but I would rather pay more where it counts than indulge in something opulent just for the sake of opulence.
What are some of the Irish products that you work with at the restaurant?
There are so many. I’ve always been a forager, I’m not just doing it to be trendy like so many chefs these days. So there are mushrooms and herbs that I collect almost daily from the surrounding forests. I dive for my own sea urchins in southwestern Ireland and have a lovely seaweed harvester that I work with in the northwestern corner of the country. There’s also a greenhouse owner who supplies me with much of my produce. We work closely together and he grows for me what I request specifically for the restaurant. He’s learning right along with me about new products and it’s been a very gratifying experience for both of us. He also raises heirloom pigs for me.
I’m also working on a beef project right now. I really enjoy Wagyu beef and appreciate the time invested in the cows before they are slaughtered. I thought it would be interesting to experiment by embracing our own Irish terroir instead of importing Wagyu from Japan. The cows are free range and are massaged daily with Guinness before they are slaughtered. It’s just an experiment and I haven’t served the beef in the restaurant yet but it’s been an enjoyable process so far.
Related: Beef And Guinness Stew Recipe
What projects have you been working on in Ethiopia?
Four years ago I was asked to join a trip to Lalibela, Ethiopia to work with the local community on things like vegetable farming and training for potential cooks in the region. I’ve been back several times since and it’s very gratifying work. We’ve planted large vegetable gardens and are working on maximizing production and increasing biodiversity. We’re working on building a culinary training center where cooking skills can be learned along with things like kitchen sanitation and agriculture. We don’t want it to be about adopting Eurocentric western culinary traditions. Instead, the curriculum will emphasize the embrace of local ingredients and cooking traditions. The most important thing is to offer skills that will make participants in the program self sufficient; training that they can use to benefit not just themselves but their community too.
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