Last night, the Restaurant Association of Ireland held its Irish Restaurant Awards in the Burlington to celebrate the very best restaurants, gastropubs, wine lists, chefs and service in the country. And fair play to all who picked up deserved accolades. Personally I was most pleased that Mickael Viljanen down in Gregan’s Castle was recognised as the best chef working in Ireland today.
Tonight, another event in The Sugar Club will take a closer look at the state of Irish restaurants. You can read all about the second installment of For Food’s Sake here to see if it sounds like your kind of thing, or just turn up and pay your fiver in for the chance of winning a six-course dinner and overnight stay for two people at Gregan’s Castle. I had been looking forward to being there to chair the chat and divvy out the snazzy prizes, but I’ve no doubt that the brilliant Stuart Clark of Hotpress fame will fill my shoes with great style (metaphorically speaking). Though better known as a music journalist, Stuart is one of the most enthusiastic lovers of good food I know, and I greatly enjoyed subbing his ‘Ethnic Ireland’ column in FOOD&WINE Magazine every month for several years.
I’m sorry to be missing this evening’s event in Dublin, which is shaping up to be a really great night. As someone who has been involved in the Irish restaurant industry for over 20 years I was looking forward to getting stuck into a good old barney about what we do well and what we could do better. Indeed there’s not much that would have kept me away from it.
But sadly the Irish restaurant industry – and in particular the Dublin restaurant scene – has lost one of its most charming front of house smiles this week. Anyone who has eaten regularly in Velure, 101 Talbot, l’Gueuleton, Locks Restaurant and Ely HQ over the last ten years may have been lucky enough to be served by the most memorable Michael Lydon. It wasn’t just that Michael was such a handsome devil, though that always helps eh? Nor that he hails from such a quick-witted family with whom he had honed his banter over his too-short 35 years. Winning looks and a way with words only go so far on the floor.
There’s other things you have to have too. Grace is up there – the physical grace to make a marathon of menial tasks look like a dance that wouldn’t break a sweat. And the good grace to know that madam is always right, even when she is being fowl (sic). And gracious enough to know that when madam or sir are being foul, all they really need is that little bit more effort to turn them round, even if that does sound like bloody hard work.
But then remarkably few waiters or restaurant managers I know have ever been afraid of hard work. You work hard, and you play hard, and if that sounds like a hard life, it’s not – at least not while you’re young enough to have the energy to throw into it. And if it sounds like an unfulfilling life, it’s not that either. Not if you love what you do. And though many Irish people feel uncomfortable about loving a service role, it’s actually something we are very good at. And it’s something that can be surprisingly rewarding.
People eat out not because they hunger for physical food, but because they want to see people and they want to see life. They want to be looked after, feel taken care of, have their whims predicted and their needs indulged. They want to be catered for and to be shown hospitality. And though, like our British neighbours, we Irish totally undervalue the work done out front-of-house, we have a natural affinity for it. We’re good at the craic, and we’re good at welcomes.
Like so many of the very good friends he collected in the various Dublin restaurants he worked so hard in, my beautiful friend Michael Lydon took great pleasure from doing what he did professionally, and from doing it well, and with pride. He had ambition, and he had skill. He had passion for the food he served, and respect for his industry, and plans for himself within it. He had curiosity to learn more, and the generosity to share what he knew. He had serious presence, and great style, and energy and grace. Such grace. He’d make you laugh, and make you feel warmly welcome.
I won’t be in Dublin tonight to chinwag about the state of Irish restaurants, because I’ll be in Galway, chinwagging with Michael’s family – those he was born to and those he’ll always belong to. We’ll be celebrating one of the souls who to me epitomised what is and can be so very great about Irish hospitality. We’ll be reminding him how very proud we are to have served with him, or to have been served by him. RIP Michael. You did yourself proud. You’ll always be remembered you as you always were: young, and alive.