Next Monday and Tuesday, more than 50 of the world’s leading chefs will converge in Galway for the second annual Food On The Edge symposium, to discuss the future of food with industry professionals and food enthusiasts from far and wide.
The convener of this gala gastronomic gathering is Jp McMahon, the chef and restaurateur behind Cava Bodega, Aniar, and Eat Gastropub, which he runs in partnership with his wife Drigín Gaffey. His inspiration for setting up the Food On The Edge event came from attending a similar conference in Canada, and taking part in other international chef gatherings in different parts of the world.
"I began to realise we have such good quality produce in Ireland but we weren’t really singing out about it loud enough," McMahon tells me. "I thought if I was to put this on and invite these people that they would come. I had already worked with some of the big names, like Albert Adria, and once I had some of those on board, I was able to use that as leverage to get a few more. I also travelled a bit to meet people personally and communicate what I was doing and what the philosophy was behind it so that’s how it all came about.”
Food On The Edge’s debut outing last autumn immediately established it as one of the hottest tickets on Ireland’s culinary calendar. “I was very happy with how it panned out but the biggest difficulty is still the financial one,” McMahon notes. “We put in quite a lot of our own money last year to get it off the ground. We have more sponsorship this year but we’re still putting in our own money. We have Fáilte Ireland and Bord Bia on board this year but there needs to be much more investment by the Government.
"For me, the vision of it is to put Irish food on an international footing with the way France, Spain and Italy are viewed, and I don’t think we’ll do that unless we put on events like this, and bring in 50 of the world’s best chefs, and showcase what we do, and get them to discuss what they’re doing. Last year the attendance was about 400 and we’ll probably sell out again this year, and we’re happy with that. I wouldn’t want to make it that much bigger because the intimacy of it is very important for the people who are coming to the conference to meet the chefs and for them to get close to each other."
McMahon notes how the value of the conference is about "half a million euros to the local economy" and that some 600 people are coming to Galway next week for the event. "That’s another 600 who’ll generate positive talk about it in their circles so I think we’re doing a good thing," he says.
Tickets are sold as either one or two day packages and McMahon explains this is partly to ensure the event’s intimacy; “It’s important that people attend for at least a day. It’s like a series of TED style talks about the future of food and I think it’s important for the people going there to get a sense of the event as well as to take something away themselves and possibly change themselves.
"We got a lot of great feedback last year from people who attended and changed things in small ways, whether that was just changing their suppliers to focus more on local and indigenous foods or whether they tried to make their kitchen a better working environment or tried to create a relationship between restaurateurs and chefs. There were a lot of issues that came out of last year such as environmental sustainability and ethical issues like trying to use better quality beef or chicken.
"When you talk about free range pork or organic beef it’s still a minority of people in Ireland that use that. It’s more expensive but that’s not going to change until more people use it. The reason why poorer quality meat is so cheap is that’s produced cheaply, but also sold in massive volumes. That’s something we need to change and make the country more artisan, more personable, to know the people that are growing the food rather than producing it in large factories.”
'Cheffing was always something I knew I could do as a job but it then became much more than that'
McMahon has been cheffing since his teens, mixed in with other jobs, but when did he develop the extra focus that would lead to fronting three acclaimed restaurants, and scooping a Michelin star for Aniar? “It was when we opened Cava in 2008,” he replies. “Before that I had been in positions of head chef and trying to manage five or 10 people, but when we opened our own restaurant, and the decisions were very much in my hands as to what I bought and how I created a work environment, that’s really when I began thinking about it; and certainly when we opened the second restaurant and the third. Now we have 37 staff and it becomes a lot more like you’re in an orchestra and working off all the different elements. You’re still a part of it but you become responsible for people and for certain aspects of the food industry.”
Alongside his culinary credentials McMahon also did a PhD in Post-War American Art and could easily have pursued a career in academe. “I was still teaching when we opened Cava though I reduced it down to one day a week but I was teaching European art history in a diploma," he says. "At that stage I hadn’t decided what way I was going to go. We opened the restaurant because the opportunity was there and we needed an income. Cheffing was always something I knew I could do as a job but it then became much more than that.
"The academia still influences a lot of what I do in terms of writing and speaking and thinking about things. Certainly some of the changes that we try to implement are through thinking differently about the industry. Interestingly there is a lot of new academic writing coming out about Irish food. I’m very interested in that and how we can bring that information in and I wouldn’t have access to that if I hadn’t been involved in academia. Food On The Edge combines both those restaurant and academe strands. There are some academicy/sciencey talks on climate change and sustainable fishing. Then there are chefs talking about down to earth things like how to run a kitchen on a day to day level or how to build a herb garden.”
I enquire if the current glut of TV cookery programmes ever make McMahon want to beat his head off the wall - albeit that several TV chefs have featured at Food On The Edge. “A little bit, but Neven Maguire came last year and brought seven of his staff so there is a connection there. People with the most influence have the greatest possibility of creating change because they are the ones at the forefront. If people like Neven and Rachel Allen recommend more organic food then people will listen to them and that’s how some of the things we recommend at the conference will be diffused.”
Finally, a non-foodie question; McMahon also proudly bears a fine array of tattoos. I ask what was the last one he acquired. “I got one just a few days ago, a skull drawing by Albrecht Durer from 1521 and I’m not finished yet, plenty of space left!”