Gwen McGrath & Ken Doherty

21st December 2017

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

21st December 2017

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

Part of an ongoing collaboration with Fáilte Ireland

We first meet Ken Doherty and Gwen McGrath at Assassination Custard[footnote]The name, according to Ken, refers to “a dessert made by [James Joyce’s wife] Nora Barnacle when Samuel Beckett was stabbed by a pimp in Paris in January of 1939. Joyce apparently paid for a private room in a hospital. The dessert was a baked egg custard (similar to a creme brulée) with brandy.”[/footnote], their tiny, brilliant restaurant off Dublin’s Camden Street, in August 2017. Ken is behind the counter frying goats’ kidneys while Gwen makes coffee, chats with customers and generally maintains order in the little two-table room, formerly a greasy spoon. The couple are so laidback and friendly, and their food – they describe it as “kind of Italian”, though influences creep in from the Middle East and North Africa – is so good that, after two more lunches, we resolve to pay them a visit on our impending road trip around Ireland.

When we rock up at their home in Kimmage two months later, there’s a storm brewing: Hurricane Ophelia is due to hit Dublin at any moment. We survey the darkening sky from their south-facing back garden, where an enormous rabbit named Camus shifts uneasily in its hutch, and then retreat indoors to graze on veal bacon and fiery padron peppers with labneh, which Gwen left draining in a yoghurt pot overnight.

Their house, which they share with their young daughters Betsan and Ailbhe, is a bit like their restaurant: small, homely, slightly eccentric – there’s a bath in the kitchen with a door on top serving as a counter – and full of personality. We note with approval their aperitivo shelf, the many curious cookbooks on the shelves, and the interesting contents of their fridge: soppressata, collard greens, stracciatella cheese made from Irish raw milk [see Kitchen].

At the restaurant, they are known for prioritising two things on their hand-written menus: vegetables and offal. For this lunch we cleave to the former. After the padron peppers, Ken lightly fries some flower sprouts (a cross between Brussels sprouts and kale), dresses it with a black garlic vinaigrette and tops it with shards of salted ricotta. Like everything Ken and Gwen do, it’s simple but outrageously tasty, the saltiness balanced perfectly with the sweet earthiness of the dressing.

The winds are getting up now and the rabbit is safely indoors. The storm will be upon us at any moment. They haven’t planned anything for dessert but Gwen, resourceful as ever, improvises something delicious with soda bread, labneh and homemade plum jam. We eat it standing up in the kitchen, as a strange, intense sunlight pours through the back windows of the house, heralding some very weird weather to come.

Continued below...

Let’s talk about how you got interested in food. Did both of you grow up in households where food was important?

Ken: Well, it was important in the sense of, you need to eat to keep going [laughs].
Gwen: We always had dinner on the table at home. Nana and granddad used to have a fruit and veg stall on Moore Street [a famous market street on the north side of Dublin], so we’d always have a big bag of vegetables at the weekend. We had to eat them before anything else. Now I always hate it when the vegetables are just an afterthought.
Ken: One of my most vivid food memories was seeing my dad eating tripe for the first time. It was like seeing a car accident: you’ll always remember it for the rest of your life. He loved tripe. He cooked it the Irish style with onions and milk. I remember it dripping off his mouth. I thought it was the most revolting thing.

But offal is a big part of your cooking now. When did you come around to it?

Ken: I don’t know to be honest. I probably tried a bit back then. It was more the visual aspect that shocked me than the taste – seeing the offal flop back into the watery milky liquid.

I can imagine how that might put you off.

Ken: Another thing [that got me interested in food] was going with my mother to the Tyrone Guthrie centre, an artist’s retreat in Monaghan, when I was 13 or 14. That really opened my mind. In the drawing room of the house, there was this big long table where they put on these huge great dinners that went on for hours. It was brilliant. That stuck with me for a long time, the idea of having a dinner, not rushing it, sticking around and chatting – that’s important. Your dinners at home were a bit faster, weren’t they?
Gwen: Yeah, we wolfed it down.

My granddad would put the dinner on in the morning and then go to mass, go to the pub, and we’d all come back, the huge extended family, and eat cabbage that’s been boiling since six in the morning

It was a means to an end?

Gwen: Yeah, but we always got all the right nutrients – lots of veg. And it was cooked from scratch. My mam was a stay-at-home mother with five children and it seemed like she spent the whole day building up to the dinner. And then we’d eat it all in 10 minutes [laughs].

Was your mum the only person who cooked at home?

Gwen: My granny couldn’t even make a cup of tea, that was the story, but my granddad would make massive stews. All the grandchildren would call in and get their cup of soup or stew. He used to put lentils in it, and when they’d cook out they’d be amazing, all smooth.
Ken: Whenever we do a slow-cooked dish at work, you say it reminds you of your granddad.
Gwen: He’d put the dinner on in the morning and then go to mass, go to the pub, and we’d all come back, the huge extended family, and eat cabbage that’s been boiling since six in the morning.

The proper Irish way.

Gwen: Yeah but it takes on a new dimension – it’s like Italian food when it’s slow-cooked. These days people are in the habit of eating veg that’s just been blanched, so it retains all its nutrients. But when you cook it a little bit longer and it breaks down, different nutrients probably come through. You’re giving your body something else. We love that with Italian food, when the veg is all slimy.
Ken: The beef dish from the north of Italy, bollito misto, is one we like to make at the restaurant.

How do your customers tend to react when they see offal on the menu?

Ken: It’s always funny when people come into the restaurant and see ox heart or goat’s kidneys and say, “That’s disgusting I wouldn’t eat that.” You kind of go, “Well sausages, what’s in them?” You’re kind of conditioned to like certain things. I don’t understand. If you eat meat and the animal died for you, you should eat as much of it as you can.

“We thought it was going to be serious and po-faced, but it was the best fun we’ve had in a restaurant in a long time. It looks like something you’d see in Barcelona”
Gwen and Ken on their favourite places to eat and drink in Dublin

Why chuck half of it away?

Ken: Exactly. And offal is very tasty as well. That’s the most important thing, we’re not just doing it to be different. With the vegetarian-offal thing, we didn’t sit down with a business plan and say, this is what it’s going to be.

It wasn’t a concept.

Ken: No, it happened really organically. We love vegetables and want to showcase the vegetable. And some meat at the end, but let’s not just have any old meat, let’s have something slow-cooked, or offal.
Gwen: On our opening night we did tripe sandwiches, because we genuinely liked tripe sandwiches. We’d had them in Rome and Florence and they’re actually really good. And when you can do it, I suppose it’s worth showing it off.

So travelling has been an influence?

Gwen: Yes definitely. I remember, in Morocco, Ken sitting down at the table to eat sheep’s head. I was like, “Okay I’ll leave that to you.”

You were okay with the sheep’s head?

Ken: Yeah. In the main square in Marrakesh, you see all the stalls selling merguez sausages, you see the smoke rising, it’s a great atmosphere, raucous. Then the stalls that sell the sheep’s heads. You’d go over and squash in beside the locals. There’s no menu so you just point, and everyone’s eating the same thing. That kind of stuff, I always like. It allows you to meet local people rather than standing around with tourists eating the same thing. And it’s fun, they’d be all looking at you eating it, watching for your reaction, and you give it the thumbs-up. That social aspect is brilliant.

On The Menu

Lunch with Gwen McGrath and Ken Doherty
Dublin, October 2017

To eat:

Veal bacon on soda bread
Padron peppers with labneh
Flower sprouts with black garlic vinaigrette and ricotta salata »
Soda bread with labneh and plum jam »

To drink:

Root & Branch coffee with milk

If you could go to any restaurant in the world right now, where would it be?

Ken: Jesus. Off the top of my head, Coco Lezzone in Florence in amazing.
Gwen: I’m thinking of Cova Fumada in Barcelona, but we’ve been there so many times.
Ken: Have you been to Palermo? Oh my god. The street food there is amazing. If you asked what city, that’s where. Anywhere in Italy is good. Spain is good – Seville and all those places.
Gwen: If I could go anywhere, it’d probably be Japan, I’ve never been. Or India.
Ken: We got a bus and a train from Cork to Istanbul once. Went through France, Germany, Austria, Bosnia – the food in Sarajevo was really amazing, with a Turkish influence.
Gwen: We didn’t expect it at all. There was stuff that we’d never tried before: boreks, salty yoghurts. There was a place we liked, just like an austere canteen with benches and white tiles, and there’d just a woman working with a heated top, cutting out this pastry stuffed with lamb.
Ken: That was amazing.

Do you still travel a fair bit?

Gwen: It’s tricky when you have your own business. But with kids and stuff, it’s worth travelling to make these memories. They’re only small but we do it anyway. We would probably go away more if we had more money. We do day trips around Ireland, go down to Limerick or Cork or up to Belfast. I suppose it’s always food journeys, isn’t it? Obviously with the kids we have to pretend we’re doing it for them.

Are the kids interested in cooking?

Gwen: Ye-eah. They help out at the restaurant sometimes. They cut out the panelle [Sicilian fritters made from chickpea flour and other ingredients] and mix some things for us. They want to lick things [laughs] so we have to keep an eye on them.

What do you cook for the kids at home?

Gwen: Simple things. They love coddle and stews, or sausages or beans. They could eat pasta seven days a week.
Ken: Carbonara would be a classic of the house.
Gwen: And shellfish, although we started bringing home too much from the restaurant and they’d be like, “Oh, clams again?”

When you get back from a day’s work, isn’t cooking the last thing you want to do?

Gwen: It depends on the day. Ken will still do his weird stuff and try to make the kids eat it.

Pajata is a death-row meal for me. It’s veal intestines with the mother’s milk still inside it. It goes all curdled inside

Like what?

Ken: Tripe. They may not eat the tripe itself, though they’ll often have the sauce.
Gwen: What was the thing you ordered in Italy that they ate?
Ken: Pajata, have you had that? That’s a death-row meal for me.

That’s the veal intestines…

Ken: With the mother’s milk still inside it. It goes all curdled inside.
Gwen: They didn’t realise. They thought it was cheese in the sauce.

I’ve heard if it’s done well it’s great, but done badly it’s horrible.

Ken: I’ve never had a bad one.
Gwen: What else do we eat at home? We usually eat on the hoof, at home. And we eat out a bit, still.

Have you always worked in restaurants?

Gwen: I was working in a café from when I was 16, but it was always a secondary job, I never planned to do it forever. I studied industrial design.
Ken: We both did different things. I did history and history of art at University College Cork. I did photography a bit and a bit of film. I had my hand in loads of pies for years, never really figuring out what I wanted to do.
Gwen: I worked in the more macho restaurants. Ken laughs, because I kind of have that more drill-sergeant thing about me – not in terms of giving out, but in terms of neatness and organisation.
Ken: You’re very good at problem-solving.
Gwen: But I do love pastry. I wanted to do pastry because I’d heard it was one of the hardest things to learn. I could always cook – it was instinctive, I always knew how to do things. I thought, anybody can cook so I might as well learn how to do pastry.

We did a party on Friday and I made lamb neck cooked with dried limes. There wasn’t much in it but onions, a tiny bit of olive oil and water, but it was gorgeous. We cooked it slowly for two hours and served it with fregola

Do you have different approaches to cooking?

Gwen: Definitely. I always like food really simply prepared. “Don’t put that other ingredient in it, don’t do that.” Sometimes I don’t trust Ken…

Because he adds too many elements?

Gwen: But then you do it and it’s great.
Ken: I think we’re probably similar now, I have to be less elaborate.

Is Gwen the influence that’s made you less elaborate?

Ken: Yeah. I’m more pragmatic now. Before, I would be running off to the shop to get the right kind of beans or whatever. We did a party on Friday and I made lamb neck cooked with dried limes. There wasn’t much in it but onions, a tiny bit of olive oil and water, but it was gorgeous. We cooked it slowly for two hours and served it with fregola [a type of pasta from Sardinia]. That’s the kind of thing I would have cooked at home a lot more in the old days. A bit more time and effort – I’d have to go out and get the lamb neck, the dried limes…
Gwen: And then the kids are just like, I’m not eating that.

But all that time and effort now goes into the restaurant.

Ken: Yeah. Most of the offal, except for maybe ox tongue, is cooked to order. That’s the thing about the restaurant, we don’t cook very many slow things because we don’t want the leftovers. If we just grill or fry them, or serve raw, it’s easier.
Gwen: The turnover as well, we only have one fridge, we try to have everything fresh.

Do you eat lunch at the restaurant?

Ken: We try to have something before 12, even if it’s just yesterday’s grilled bread or something with olive oil and a coffee. Or some cheese.
Gwen: Tomatoes on bread. Just simple things. You’re buying these sandwiches with coleslaw and beef and chicken and pickles and mustard and mayonnaise. Okay, it’s probably great, but you can pare it all back and that’s great too.

We wouldn’t be fussy eaters. We’d never really complain. Unless something was really bad

Any foods you don’t like?

Ken: Nothing really. Drisheen [a type of blood pudding] was a bit much for me when I tried it. You get a bit of a gag reaction when you start to swallow. But I haven’t had it in a long time, I’d try it again.
Gwen: We wouldn’t be fussy eaters. We’d never really complain. Unless something was really bad.
Ken: I’m not mad about almond milk actually. I like almonds, but not almond milk.

You had to really root around for that one.

Ken: If there’s a storm coming and there’s only almond milk to drink, I’d have it [laughs].

This is part of an ongoing collaboration with Fáilte Ireland.

Assassination Custard is at 19A Kevin Street Lower, Dublin 8, Ireland; +353 87 997 1513

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Posted 21st December 2017

In Interviews


Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

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