Food & Wine

‘I’m not a naturally talented cook, I taught myself everything’ – JP McMahon

The owner and founder of Aniar in Galway on the moment he realised he wanted to be a chef, his favourite comfort food, and his idea of ultimate happiness

JP McMahon: life’s a marathon, not a sprint. You can learn anything at any age. Just take your time. Picture: Eric Schofield

JP McMahon’s interest in cooking began at the age of 15. Now culinary director of the EatGalway restaurant group, which comprises Michelin-star Aniar Restaurant, Cava Bodega and Tartare Café and Wine Bar, he also runs the Aniar Boutique Cookery School and has penned cookbooks including The Irish Cookbook and Cava Bodega Tapas: A Taste of Spain in Ireland. He is the founder and symposium director of Food On The Edge, a coming together of chefs to talk and debate the future of food.

What was your earliest ambition?

I wanted to be a playwright or a photographer. My Nana said I had a double-barrelled name and that would take me places. I fell in love with writing when I found out that the poet Francis Ledwidge was a relative of mine on my mother’s side. I loved cooking as well and even though I started cooking when I was 15, I really didn’t fall for it until I was 19 or 20.

Did your Leaving Cert matter, in the end?

Not at all. I had a dreadful time in the last years of school. Panic attacks, depression, I just rebelled. I got 250 points in my Leaving. The only thing that matters about your Leaving is that you do it. I went back to college as a mature student when I was 22. Over 20 years later, I just finished my PhD. Life is the best teacher.

What’s a scent that you associate with your childhood?

Probably the smell of hay. My friend’s family had a huge hay shed. In the late summer we would climb all over it. I grew up in Maynooth, when there was still a lot of countryside surrounding it.

When you look back, was there one particular moment in life that led you to pick your current career?

The first time I fell in love with food was on a family holiday in Tipperary and we went to a restaurant called Chez Hans. My brothers and sister were eating burgers and chips. I picked spaghetti bolognese. I remember my mum saying that I wouldn’t eat it, but I did. It was an epiphany of sorts. I realised food wasn’t just for eating, that it had a history, that it was part of culture.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

I’m both, depending on how I feel and the situation I’m in. You could say that the extrovert in me is the chef and the introvert is the writer, the aspiring poet or playwright.

What’s your motto for life?

Always be humble. Even when you think you know the answer.

Which five famous guests would you love to have at your dinner party?

Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, WG Sebald, Toni Morrison and Susan Sontag.

What personality trait do you admire in others?

Friendliness and openness.

What’s more important: ambition or talent?

Ambition. Without a doubt. Just keep doing what you do until you get good at it. I’m not a naturally talented cook or writer, I taught myself everything. I believe you can do anything that you put your mind to.

What’s humanity’s most useless invention?

The gun.

What do you wish you could be better at?

Piano and guitar. I was in a band when I was younger: I was the singer. We recorded a demo that is long lost. We were called The Darkness! But I bought a piano for my 40th birthday to start learning. I’m 44 now and still trying.

You’re buying a new item for your home –assuming money is no object, what are you getting?

A new kitchen with a conservatory.

Can you remember a line of poetry?

“Busy old fool, unruly Sun,/Why dost thou thus,/Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?” (The Sun Rising by John Donne)

What’s your party piece?

I sing Hurt by Johnny Cash or Save Me a Saturday night by Neil Diamond.

You’re going to the kitchen to prepare your favourite comfort food dish for yourself – what is it?

Spaghetti bolognese – I could eat it forever. I hope it will be my last meal.

What would your loved ones say is your most unappealing habit?

My forthrightness.

What’s a good piece of advice?

Never stop learning.

What do you wish you’d known at an earlier point in your career?

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You can learn anything at any age. Just take your time.

What has been your favourite achievement to date?

I have three: Finishing my PhD, maintaining a Michelin star in Aniar for ten years, and running Food on the Edge for seven.

What’s your favourite day of the week and why?

Sunday. Nobody usually calls me. But my favourite day to eat out is Monday. It’s quieter.

Is there an afterlife?

Not as we think there is. Or the one I grew up with (the Christian one). But energy never dissipates. So maybe I’ll be a tree. Or cosmic dust. Wordless, nameless peace.

What’s your idea of happiness?

A good book and a glass of natural/organic wine. And a little sun, just enough to warm you. And some Irish charcuterie. And some farmhouse cheese. And . . . okay, I’d better stop.