Why Ireland Is the World’s Next Great Culinary Destination

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Thanks to a new crop of Michelin-rated restaurants and a focus on family-run farms and artisan producers, the Emerald Isle is turning into a food-lover’s paradise.

Potatoes. Cabbage. Corned Beef. Guinness. If the idea of Irish gastronomy has always held something of an oxymoronic ring to it, you’re not alone. Though the country’s reputation for rolling pastures and grass greener than Augusta is well known, few people outside of the Emerald Isle have followed that fact to its most logical conclusion: Éire is fertile ground for just about every earth-bound delicacy.

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But a funny thing happened on the way to culinary obscurity. In the last decade, an influx of internationally trained chefs have teamed up with artisan growers and family-run farms to highlight the bounty of Ireland’s land and seas, marrying global influences and classical techniques with one of the world’s purest iterations of the local, seasonal food movement. At the same time, Ireland-born chefs are making their mark, honing their skills at home and abroad, bringing exotic flavors back to the motherland, and moving forward the idea of an Irish gastronomic legacy. All of a sudden, Ireland has turned into an exciting place to eat.

It didn’t happen overnight. After the Celtic Tiger years, “the [country’s] emergence from recession witnessed Irish chefs holding key positions in many world-class restaurants and Ireland’s reputation for food and cookery significantly strengthened,” chef and lecturer Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire told the Irish Times last year. “This was a result of many factors: greater educational provision; better mentoring opportunities both nationally and internationally; international initiatives such as the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium…and the work of State agencies such as the national food board, Bord Bia, and the national tourism agency, Fáilte Ireland, in promoting the country for its food and as a destination for food tourism. A number of phenomena aligned to create an environment that was conducive to the development of Irish chefs and the Irish restaurant.”

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You don’t have to take his word for it. In October, the famously dictatorial and notoriously stingy Michelin guide showered 21 Irish dining establishments with stars, including two for Aimsir, the 24-seat breakout restaurant on the grounds of luxury hotel Cliff at Lyons in County Kildare that surprised everyone by nabbing the country’s top honor—just four months after opening. Among the other honorees were fine dining restaurants like Dublin’s now two-star The Greenhouse—helmed by Finnish chef Mickael Viljanen, who has been crowned the country’s chef of the year on more than one occasion by various institutions—and newly starred The Oak Room at Adare Manor—a first for Limerick and Devon chef Mike Tweedie—as well as more relaxed bistros like Restaurant Chestnut in West Cork, where hometown chef Rob Krawczyk cooks pristine local meats and vegetables over charcoal. But varied as these restaurants are in spirit, one thing remains constant: Like their New Nordic forebears, each chef has expressed a passion that verges on obsession for sourcing the best local ingredients the country has to offer—and putting them on a pedestal worthy of the world stage.

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“Every chef and restaurant has taken the same brief, but run with it in different directions,” says Cornish maestro Jordan Bailey, who was head chef at Michelin three-starred restaurant Maaemo in Norway before opening Aimsir with his Danish wife Majken Bech Bailey, who oversees the front of house. “Some are looking back at old recipes that have been passed down and putting their own spin on it, some are swapping out certain ingredients with more seasonal produce, and others who are not Irish or don’t have any ties to the country are using their own heritage as a foundation for their techniques and methods but then applying it to Irish ingredients.”

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For Bailey, that means sourcing everything exclusively from Ireland’s larder—from over-matured asparagus spears from Baltray’s Drummond House farm to double-aged Boyne Valley Bán goat cheese, with the exception of sugar, wine, and coffee, which don’t grow on the island—and working with local producers to ensure the best quality. Before opening Aimsir, he spent three months getting the lay of the land, driving around the country to meet with Irish fishermen, foragers, ceramicists, and the like to forge the kinds of relationships that would make Aimsir a bastion of local, seasonal cuisine, even going so far as to cultivate now diminished heritage produce in his own garden.

“We use many native ingredients in the kitchen, the most native being Dexter beef,” Bailey says of the grass-fed Tipperary specialty, which he serves raw inside a tart shell made from Dexter tripe and seasoned with a smoked Loch Neagh eel emulsion, pickled mustard seeds, and lemon thyme. “The woman we get ours from has traced her cows back to the original bloodline. It’s very special.”

Bailey isn’t the only one who worships at the altar of the Irish landscape. Mike Tweedie went on a similar road trip—think five chefs and a dog in a camper van—as head chef at The Oak Room at Adare Manor, the luxury manor house hotel in County Limerick. “There was so much produce I didn’t know about, and it was amazing to learn about new things that we could take back to the kitchen,” he says on the heels of the restaurant’s Michelin win. “Kevin Wallace from New Leaf Urban Farm, just up the road in Ballyneety, is growing Crosne (a Japanese artichoke), and I don’t think anyone is growing them right now in Ireland. We’re privileged to have access to some of the best and most unique produce Ireland has to offer.” Tweedie is also a strong proponent of the small-batch local dairy scene. “We found Irish cheese—Young Buck, Ballylisk triple cream, Mossfield cheddar, smoked Gubbeen, Little Milk Company brie—that would beat any French or English cheese.”

But of all the discoveries Tweedie made along the way, what he saw on the coasts alone could create a seismic shift in Ireland’s—and the world’s—eating habits. “What surprised me most is how much shellfish we export out of this country. We saw perfect crabs, prawn, langoustines, and lobster all being boxed up for Spain and France and even China.”

But according to John Ward of Galway’s cult-favorite Dooncastle Oysters, none of that bounty is marketed as Irish shellfish. “In France, they’re labeled as premium French oysters,” he says, citing the superior quality of the mollusks sent abroad as a reason for launching his business in 2006. “Every time I bought oysters in Ireland, they were terrible,” he remembers. “As a nation we don’t eat that much seafood, but I couldn’t believe we weren’t keeping some of this stuff for ourselves.” So he did something about it, peddling his creamy Connemara bivalves to chefs directly, including Tweedie. “I’ve worked with John for two years, and I don’t think his oysters will ever come off the menu,” Tweedie says.

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It’s as much a testament to the change in Irish palates—Ward says locals now know to ask for his oysters by name, as well as seek out quality shellfish at nearby farmer’s markets—as the exacting standards of chefs across the country. Over at Ashford Castle, the fairytale 13th-century fortress turned luxury hotel in County Mayo, executive chef Philippe Farineau is another Dooncastle Oyster devotee, but he’s especially fond of Ireland’s sea vegetables. Small producers, like the mother-daughter–owned Mungo Murphy’s Seaweed Co., in Connemara, are taking Eire’s aquaculture to new heights, harvesting and foraging for seaweed but also raising the culinary stakes with a boutique abalone farm. “If you try the produce of the sea, you will understand why Ireland will soon become the capital of artisan food—even outdoing my own native land,” says Farineau, referring to his French lineage.

Like Farineau, plenty of foreign chefs have abandoned the more celebrated corners of their homelands in favor of Ireland’s under-the-radar mystique. Takashi Miyazaki left Japan eleven years ago but has maintained his traditions at his Michelin-starred restaurant Ichigo Ichie, in Cork, where he elevates Irish ingredients—that Connemara abalone, for example, as well as crab from Castletownbere, fish from Ballycotton, and sea urchins from Bantry Bay, among others—with Japanese techniques in 12-course kaiseki menus. “The freshly caught fish in Ireland is second to none,” he says. He would know. He also makes his miso with Irish barley and forages for seaweed, which he uses to prepare dashi and vinegar, with a local supplier. “We have some of the best produce in the world,” he says. “It’s been a gradual process, but we are finally getting recognition.”

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Much of that is thanks to people like JP McMahon, the chef owner of Michelin-starred restaurant Aniar, who also created Food on the Edge, an annual two-day symposium in Galway where chefs from all over the world speak about food culture, current events, and their experiences, techniques, and ideas, creating an open dialogue with Irish chefs and residents who have taken a strong interest in the food they eat. Farineau cites Euro-Toques, another chef network that fosters community and engagement as well as mentorship opportunities for younger chefs, as a source of inspiration. And Miyazaki points to Kevin Aherne, who started the fEAST food festival in East Cork and closed his now Michelin-starred restaurant Sage in Midleton as early as 2012 to reinvent it as a temple to the extremely local: Everything he serves has been prepared using ingredients that come from within a 12-mile radius.

But it always comes back to the vendors. “In my mind, it is the smaller independent suppliers that are making the biggest impact and difference in our daily work,” says Viljanen of The Greenhouse in Dublin. “They go to extreme lengths to produce world-class products.” Krawczyk, the West Cork chef, agrees. “It is so important to us to tell the story behind each of our ingredients and to share our knowledge and passion for ingredients with our guests,” he says. “Together with the food producer, we are telling a story of our terroir—of Ireland’s terroir.”

Of course, the Irish food revolution is as much about elevating local producers as reclaiming a distinctly Irish culinary identity. Though domestic ingredients are enjoying the spotlight, food historians like Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire acknowledge that there’s still more work to be done as far as shining a light on ancestral dishes beyond Irish soda bread. (Though, Tweedie claims Adare’s 1826 restaurant makes one that’s the stuff of legend.) Whether that has more to do with the dearth of translations of Gaelic texts—and therefore a lack of education about historical dishes—or the only relatively recent formation of the Irish state, he wrote in an essay in the Folk journal of ethnological studies that “…Engaging and celebrating our food stories enable us to provide and enjoy more authentic food experiences and to also safeguard our intangible cultural food heritage for the next generations.” It seems everyone working in Ireland’s food scene, from suppliers to chefs, is off to a good start.