Analysis: a significant number of Irish restaurants and chefs have received stars over the last couple of decades

The 2020 Michelin Guide has proven a bumper edition for Irish gastronomy with more Irish restaurants recognised for the quality of their food than ever before. The Republic of Ireland now has 18 restaurants with stars and has 21 restaurants with Bib Gourmands, with Northern Ireland having three Michelin starred restaurants and six Bib Gourmands.

The Michelin Guide rating system was first introduced in France in 1926 as a single star, with the second and third stars introduced in 1933. According to the Guide, one star signifies "a very good restaurant", two stars signify "excellent cooking that is worth a detour" and three stars mean "exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey". A Bib Gourmand is awarded to restaurants serving ‘exceptionally good food at moderate prices". There are now three two-star restaurants in Ireland, namely Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud and The Greenhouse in Dublin and Aimsir in Co Kildare.

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, a report on how three Cork restaurants were awarded a Michelin star 

Since the Michelin Guide to Great Britain and Ireland was first published in 1974, there has been a keen rivalry between Dublin and Cork for the honour of gastronomic capital of Ireland. In 1974, both cities shared the spoils with one establishment each awarded one star to symbolise "a very good restaurant", but their trajectories were moving in opposite directions.

The Dublin restaurant was in the Russell Hotel on Harcourt Street, which had once been noted among the best restaurants in the world but closed its doors for good in 1974. The Cork restaurant was Arbutus Lodge run by brothers Declan and Michael Ryan, who were at the start of their gastronomic journey and would be associated on and off with Michelin stars until 1989. A detailed history of fine dining in Ireland and Michelin stars awarded over the years is available here.

Haute cuisine seemed to have departed the capital city and moved to the country house hotels, as Cork had three Michelin starred restaurants by 1975 with Ballymaloe House and Ballylickey House joining Arbutus Lodge in the spoils. It has taken 44 years for Cork to achieve three starred restaurant status again, with the announcement of the 2019 Guide of first time Michelin stars for the Japanese restaurant Ichigo Ichie in Cork city-centre, The Mews in Baltimore and Restaurant Chestnut in nearby Ballydehob. Belfast held three Michelin starred restaurants for a brief period in 2004 and 2005 before reverting to one in 2006.

From RTÉ Archives, a profile of Ballymaloe House's Myrtle Allen by Derek Davis for Davis at Large in1985

The 1980s were economically harsh in Ireland and this was reflected in the Michelin Guide. The highlight was 1983 when the country achieved four starred restaurants for the first time, with two of these short lived in Cashel, Co. Tipperary. Incidentally, the Ryan family of Arbutus Lodge managed the Cashel Palace Hotel and their young protégé chef Michael Clifford won the star there in 1982 and 1983, whereas Chez Hans, also in Cashel, maintained its 1983 star only for a single year.

It was not until 1989 that the Michelin Guide would again award a star to a Dublin restaurant, to Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud. Another five years would pass before Ireland would be awarded Michelin stars for five separate restaurants, with two of these in Kenmare, Co. Kerry (The Park Hotel and Sheen Falls Lodge).

The rebirth of Irish gastronomy coincided with the Celtic Tiger years from 1994 to 2007. Despite the subsequent recession, the numbers of restaurants managed to survive and grow. The recession also forced Irish chefs and restaurateurs to become more creative with the use of cheaper cuts of meat and with non-gourmet ingredients. The emergence from recession witnessed Irish chefs holding key positions in many world-class restaurants globally and Ireland’s reputation for food and cookery significantly strengthened. Details of how Ireland transformed into a destination for food tourism over the last twenty years is available here.

From RTÉ Radio One's Ray D'Arcy Show, an interview with Kevin Thornton

This reputation has been recognised by the 2019 Michelin Guide with its stars for Takashi Miyazaki in his Japanese restaurant Ichigo Ichie, Ahmed Dede in the seasonal Mews restaurant in Baltimore, which he runs with Robert Collender and James Ellis, and Rob Krawczyk in his intimate 18 seat restaurant, Chestnut in nearby Ballydehob. Michelin also awarded four new Bib Gourmands in the Republic to Clanbrassil House in Dublin, Tartare in Galway, Dillon’s in Timoleague and Brownes in Tuam, with Danni Barry, former Michelin starred chef in Epic, Belfast, awarded a Bib Gourmand for her own restaurant Clenaghans in Craigavon in Northern Ireland.

Historically, as one considers famous Irish chefs or cooks, the names that come to mind are those of Jimmy Flahive, Monica Sheridan, Theodora Fitzgibbon, Maura Laverty, Pierre Rolland, Jackie Needham, Mike Butt, Sean Kinsella, Myrtle Allen, Jimmy Kilbride, Jim Bowe, Declan and Michael Ryan, Catherine Healy, Eugene Mc Sweeney, Michael Clifford and Gerry Galvin. In 2001, Kevin Thornton became the first Irish-born chef to be awarded two Michelin stars. Five years previously, French-born chefs Patrick Guilbaud and Guillaume Lebrun of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin became the first Irish restaurant to be awarded two Michelin stars, which they have continuously maintained for over two decades now, and where they have consistently trained a steady stream of young Irish talent.

From RTÉ 2fm's Nicky Byrne Show with Jenny Greene, an interview with  the only female Michelin-starred chef in Ireland Danni Barry

Thornton was one of a number of Irish chefs who rose to prominence in the Irish restaurant industry in the 1990s. This group included Ernie Evans, Colin O’Daly, Alan O’Reilly, Brian Cleere, Gerry Kirwan, Stefan Matz, Derry Clarke and Conrad Gallagher. Paul and Jeanne Rankin, Robbie Millar and Michael Deane firmly established Northern Ireland on the culinary map. In the new millennium, other Irish chefs such as Ross Lewis, Dylan McGrath, Oliver Dunne, Stephen McAllister, Rory Carville, Keelan Higgs, Garrett Byrne, Cormac Rowe, Enda McEvoy, JP McMahon, Ultan Cooke, Martijn Kajuiter, Mickael Viljanen and Eric Matthews among others were recognized by Michelin, with Stephen Toman, Niall McKenna and Danni Barry keeping Belfast’s dining scene vibrant.

Barry made headlines in 2016 as the only female Michelin-starred chef in Ireland, although she was following a tradition begun by Myrtle Allen (Ballymaloe House), and followed by Catherine Healy (Dunderry Lodge) and Kai Pilz (Shiro) winning Michelin stars in their respective restaurants. It is interesting to note that Takashi Miyazaki is following a tradition of having a Michelin starred Japanese restaurant in Cork, set by Kai Pilz who had a Bib Gourmand from 1990 to 1995 and a Michelin star from 1996 until 2001.

The first woman to be awarded three Michelin stars in the United Kingdom was Antrim-born Clare Smyth, former head chef at Gordon Ramsay’s flagship Chelsea restaurant where she had maintained the three stars for eight years. Smyth has since opened her own restaurant Core in London and has been awarded two stars on her first solo appearance in the Michelin Guide in 2019. She will be among the speakers at the Food on the Edge conference in Galway later this month. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ