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JP McMahon — an interview

Oyster Cucumber Arrowgrass

Oyster, cucumber and arrowgrass.

Image courtesy of Aniar restaurant, 2016.

JP McMahon is chef and proprietor at Aniar, a terroir-based restaurant 1 located on Ireland’s west coast city of Galway. He and his wife Drigin own a number of other food businesses, but Aniar – meaning ‘from the west’, is their flagship entity, and has held a Michelin star for the past five years. McMahon is well connected to chefs pioneering inventive food creations all around the world, not least due to his ambitious Food on the Edge symposium, a coming together of chefs from across the globe to listen and debate about the future of food. In this world of high end dining, while the taste is of course central, presentation can make or break a successful restaurant dish. Indeed, the aesthetics of the dinner plate is an intricate art form, with its own considerations and limitations.

So just how important are looks when it comes to food? While many senses are involved in appreciating a meal, including sight, what a plate of food looks like does not necessarily guarantee that it will taste good. I asked McMahon, how important he considers the visual aspect to be,

It’s integral, so it’s something that I would think about a lot. Two days ago we had a dish and all the elements were right, but we just couldn’t get the presentation right – to match up to the taste of the ingredients. The visuality of the dish is really important.

Creating an ideal balance between the visual appeal of a dish and the taste and arrangement of its individual ingredients entails some juggling. McMahon explains, 

"the difficulty sometimes with say, the traditional main course is that the protein is always going to steal the show. Yet the meat isn’t always the most colourful thing on the plate, and you don’t want to overshadow it with a load of different things. We get away with it a bit more in Aniar because people expect us to be slightly different. We can be top heavy on stuff like herbs and flowers."

Shallot Cheese Ramson

Shallot, cheese, ramson

Image courtesy of Aniar restaurant, 2016.

Taking McMahon’s approach, designing a plate of food is an endeavour that is visually led but other elements play a role too, as does a sense of playfulness. As McMahon comments, 

when we’re thinking of a dish, colour would be really important. We have a purple potato at the moment. There isn’t a massive difference between it and a regular wax potato, it’s a particular heritage variety potato, I just love the colour of it. And people don’t expect potatoes to be purple. So there’s a nice kind of play there.

Modern food production processes have narrowed and standardised the fruit and vegetables available to us; we have lost many heritage strains. McMahon is keen to preserve and experiment with these declining varieties, seeing this contemporary uniformity as something of a shame; “a lot of the time the colours that we expect food to be are really only that way in the last fifty to a hundred years. Before modern industrialisation, tomatoes would have been every sort of different colour. Companies standardised the red tomato, and the potato. There are about 450 varieties of potato in the world and we have hardly any of them. It’s nice to explore that”.

Vegan Tartare

Vegan Tartare. 

Image courtesy of Aniar restaurant, 2016.

A direct connection to the local, what the French call terroir, seems to be offset by a global jumping of concepts and styles from around the world. Nordic influences in food design seem to be everywhere right now. McMahon describes Nordic cooking as “very very clean, very minimal”. Plates of Nordic food are typically less formally stylised than traditional European presentation. There is a freeform, natural aesthetic that lends itself well to the seaweeds and wild plants of Scandinavia. Japan is another big player in global trends, with a lot of crossovers occurring between classical European and Asian cuisine. As McMahon explains, “an awful lot of Spanish chefs are going away from really bold flavours, and going towards raw fish and lightly seasoned vinegars – still maintaining a Spanish identity, but they’re borrowing the style of cooking from Japan. Particularly in the high end restaurants, where they’re serving little broths – that’s very Japanese but all with Spanish ingredients.”

Rooting dishes to the local environment can create surprising synergies. McMahon mentions the similarity between Nordic and Irish elements and comments,

the similarity between Japanese ingredients and Irish ingredients is also there. We can make Kombu here in Ireland or dashi. We might serve something in Aniar like a raw piece of fish in a little bit of vinegar and some seaweed. People might say that’s Japanese, but all the ingredients are Irish. So there is now much more of a focus on Nordic cooking and Asian cooking than there is on say French and Mediterranean styles.

Food trends seem to be cyclical in nature, they come and go in popularity, as McMahon explains, “styles go in waves – whereas everything maybe fifteen years ago would have been round and circular and square. Whereas now everything is much more organic and wild.  But there are still both of them – both styles co-exist.  There has been a bit of a backlash to say France and “classical” cooking in the last ten or so years – though I can see that coming back.” If it seems Japan and Nordic countries are leading the way at the moment, McMahon sees a synthesis; a delicate balance between order and freedom. He explains, “there is a cross-over, particularly with Noma going to Japan. Japanese food is very regulated and very precise. There has been a kind of move away from the rigour of French cooking and into a kind of wild Nordic influence. I think after Noma came back from Japan, they had almost brought back in a kind of nouveau structure. There is an awful lot of structure and delicate balance in their food”. This mirrors McMahon’s own philosophy for presentation in Aniar, which aims to be,

quite spontaneous and almost impulsive to a certain degree…. organic but also structured.

McMahon has a diverse background; he studied English literature and Art history, and is currently doing a part-time PhD in University College Cork. I asked him if both art and literature have influenced how he cooks and presents his food? He responds, “I’m quite interested in art, and I studied art history, so the artistic side of things is fairly elemental in all areas, depending on the ingredients of the dish.  This crossover between art and food, even when I was studying art and art history, pre-Facebook and Instagram, was already happening. If you look at the publishers, if you look at Phaidon, they do all the serious art history books and they do all of the top cooking books”.

Cookbooks are a source of inspiration too, not necessarily the recipes but also the philosophy, “People like Noma’s Rene Redzepi; an Australian Chef James Viles who just brought out a book called Biota; New Napa Cuisine by Christopher Kostow. All very influential chefs, at the same time they share a correlation between using ingredients and keeping them very pure."

It’s about trying to use indigenous ingredients to create flavours that you mightn’t get elsewhere, because we’re using the ingredients in a different way.

It seems even with all this talk of styles and fashions, it still comes back to something quite basic. For McMahon and chefs like him, it is about working with the materiality of local ingredients in the most direct and creative way - to produce dishes that both look and taste incredible.

Pork Belly Nettle Egg

Pork belly, nettle, egg. Image courtesy of Aniar restaurant, 2016.

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Terrior is a French term meaning directly connected to the local environment.

Caitriona Devery

Caitriona Devery is based in Dublin but originally from the Irish midlands. She currently works at University College Dublin. Caitriona writes mainly about food and the arts, and has written for a number of publications including Corridor8, Manchester Wire, and Rabble. She was part of Archipelago, a working artists group who with the support of the Cornerhouse Micro Commission programme realised the project Consulate of Cornerhouse. More recently she managed a heritage project on the social history of the peat industry in Turraun, Co. Offaly.