Lifestyle – Chef JP McMahon has been instrumental in putting Galway on the food map through his own restaurants, the Galway Food Festival and Food On The Edge. Ten years after opening his first premises, his passion is undimmed as Judy Murphy found out when she met him.
JP McMahon doesn’t have to think too hard about the high point of his 10-year career as a restaurateur in Galway City. “Winning the Michelin star for Aniar,” he says simply. Aniar, which opened in 2011, won the coveted award just 14 months later and the Dominick Street restaurant has retained it ever since. “Keeping that is probably the hardest thing we do every day,” he says. Another high point is the staff who have worked for them, many of whom are still in contact.
The low-point for the man who, with his wife Drigín Gaffey, owns two other restaurants in Galway is also an easy question to answer.
“Having to close Cava,” he says of the Spanish tapas bar Cava Bodega which was the couple’s first restaurant – it opened in 2008 on Dominick Street.
Cava closed in early 2013 because of what JP describes as “our equivalent to a bad mortgage”, namely upward-only lease. When the recession came, they were in trouble. It was closed for a year but since its reincarnation in the city’s Middle Street, has gone on to new levels of success. However, at the time they closed, he didn’t know if it would ever re-emerge.
Aniar, meanwhile, attracts food-lovers from Ireland and abroad – mostly abroad, he says – many of whom visit Galway to dine there and in the city’s other Michelin-starred restaurant, Loam.
As well as running Aniar, Cava and Tartare Wine Bar, which collectively operate under the EAT banner, JP has also found time to become a mentor on the RTÉ series, Taste of Success, write a weekly food column for the Irish Times and launch a campaign to have food education included on the school curriculum. He’s also written a cookbook and regularly speaks at food conferences worldwide. In 2015, he broke new ground by launching Food On The Edge, an annual two-day symposium held in Galway every October, which has put Ireland on the international food map. It’s no mean feat for a man who turned 40 this year.
JP McMahon came to cheffing indirectly and without formal training but few people have had more influence on Galway’s or Ireland’s food scene than he’s had.
Dublin-born and raised in Kildare, he graduated in English and Art History from UCC, and during his holidays, worked in the Crawford Art Gallery Café when Isaac Allen of Ballymaloe was at the helm. Before that, JP had worked in an Italian restaurant in Maynooth during his school holidays – his father taught physics in Maynooth University.
At different times too, he worked in the kitchen of Fat Freddie’s in Galway and was head chef there when he and Drigín got an opportunity to open their own restaurant. They opted for a Spanish theme with Cava Bodega. Later came Aniar, with its focus on West of Ireland ingredients and fine dining. That was followed by Eat at Massimo (now gone). Last year they opened a café and wine bar, Tartare on Dominick Street, across the road from Aniar, again focusing on locally-produced food and selling organic wine.
For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.
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‘Give even one big GAA game to Ballinasloe’
It’s the most centrally located ground in the country but Ballinasloe’s Duggan Park won’t host a single inter-county match this year – much to the annoyance of one local councillor who wants the GAA to allocate at least one big game to the venue.
Cllr Michael Connolly told a meeting of Ballinasloe Municipal Council that the ground is entitled to host major football and hurling fixtures – even though all but one of the Galway footballers’ home league games are assigned to Pearse Stadium with the other one in Tuam.
“If they gave us one match in Duggan Park, it would be something,” he said. “But at the moment, it seems as if it is being ignored.”
The Moylough councillor described it as the most accessible ground in the country and a venue in which players and supporters like to travel to – unlike, he suggested, Pearse Stadium.
He said that it was “a hateful venue” and few GAA supporters relished the prospect of travelling to the “far side of the city” to watch a football or hurling match.
A recent meeting in Gullane’s Hotel to discuss Duggan Park was attended by Deputy Denis Naughton, Senator Aisling Dolan, Cllr Evelyn Parsons and Cllr Declan Kelly among others.
But the Duggan Park Committee then issued a statement saying that the ground is owned by Galway GAA and any use of the facility needed to be authorised – and no authorisation was given to the meeting organiser, former Mayor of Ballinasloe Joe Kelly, for this purpose.
Mr Kelly has been a staunch campaigner for the redevelopment of Duggan Park and has called on the local authority to row in behind this initiative.
They went on to say that there is a plan in place for the development of Duggan Park which is multiple staged which started with the new dressing rooms, flood lights and a new entrance to the venue.
Planning permission is in place for this development and that €500,000 has already been spent in the Duggan Park over the past number of years carrying out these projects.
The work in the ground, they say, is done to an excellent standard by local contractors with the support of the previous Town Council for grants and sports capital grants.
Former tourism magnet officially on register of derelict sites
The fire-ravaged hotel that was once one of the most popular in the county is now officially considered a derelict site – and that has led a local councillor to call for it to be either redeveloped or levelled.
Portumna’s Shannon Oaks Hotel, for so long popular with anglers and golfers in particular, has been boarded up for more than a decade since it was destroyed by fire.
Local councillor, Jimmy McClearn, has called on the owners to reopen or sell the property – adding that it should either be levelled or redeveloped.
“We are a tourist town and we need a hotel. The last thing we want is for a hotel to be shut up,” he said.
“It is a fine facility and on an extensive site so there is no reason why it should be boarded up,” he added.
The Shannon Oaks saga has gone on for the past twelve years – but now the owners, the multi-millionaire Comer brothers, will be forced to pay a derelict site levy if they do not reopen or redevelop.
That amounts to a seven per cent levy based on the market value of the property, which is worth around €1 million even in its derelict state.
The Shannon Oaks was ravaged by fire in September 2011 and four years later, the site was acquired by the Comer Group who, at the time, gave an undertaking that it would be reopened.
Around two years ago, planning permission was granted by Galway County Council to Barry Comer of the Comer Group to renovate the hotel by providing 60 new bedrooms along with 40 apartments to the rear of the structure.
However, there has been little or no movement on the site since then and now the owners are being again asked to give some indication as to when the hotel will be rebuilt.
It is considered an integral part of the tourism industry for the town and that is why pressure is mounting on the owners to rebuild the hotel.
Cllr McClearn said that all he is asking for is the owners to develop the site and provide a hotel there. “It’s not much to ask in a tourist town,” he added.
More than €200,000 worth of cannabis seized in East Galway
More than €200,000 worth of cannabis was seized in during two separate search operations in East Galway on Saturday.
Gardai from the Divisional Drugs Unit conducted a search at a residence in Aughrim and seized cannabis plants with an estimated street value of €146,000 and €20,000 worth of cannabis herb which will now be sent for analysis.
Two men (both in their 30s) were arrested at the scene in connection with the investigation and are currently detained at Galway Garda station under Section 2 of the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Act, 1996. Both men remain in custody.
A separate search was carried out at a residence in Ballinasloe yesterday afternoon and cannabis herb with an estimated street value of €35,000 was seized. Cannabis jellies and €7,510 in cash were also seized.
A man in his 40s was arrested and later released without charge and a file will be prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions.