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Dublin's Forager Chef

Kevin Thornton, Johnny Savage

Photo by Johnny Savage

Chef Kevin Thornton with Wicklow wood pigeon smoked in 4,000-year-old bog oak.

These days, you can’t swing an organic bushel of bespoke kale without hitting a restaurant proclaiming itself farm-to-table. The Irish, however, never stopped eating this way. Go to Ireland and prepare to be blown away by its diverse artisanal food community. From handmade sausages to smoked fish and baked goods, everything is sensational and devoid of the self-congratulatory pretension you’ll find in the States. The whole world can sing a U2 song or quote their favorite Irish poet. But when it comes to naming an Irish food, most folks only know corned beef and cabbage. I spent a week in that country and never saw that dish, not once. What I found was a food culture that’s one of the most underrated on the planet.

       
The citrus-infused beetroot salad at Thornton's Restaurant.
       

No one has done more for Ireland’s modern food scene than chef Kevin Thornton. Born and raised in rural Ireland, Thornton developed a deep respect for the country’s ingredients. After earning a culinary arts degree from Galway’s Regional Technical College, he opened his eponymous restaurant in Dublin in 1995. Nearly 20 years and two Michelin stars later, his food is still the most progressive and exciting in town.

Thornton has made a rigid commitment to finding the best that’s in season, personally sourcing indigenous ingredients such as wild Atlantic sea trout or Comeragh mountain lamb. The last time I saw him, we drove into the countryside to forage for 4,000-year-old bog oak for a hay-smoked wild wood pigeon dish.

With so much elbow grease spent procuring ingredients, it’s no surprise that every dish on Thornton’s menu is deeply personal. The braised pig’s cheek with celeriac purée is sauced with poitin, a traditional home-style malted barley hooch. “I [created this dish] for my father before he passed away,” Thornton says. “When he was a kid, they used to have pig’s head for dinner or lunch. The head was boiled and served in its entirety. If you weren’t quick enough, there was none left. I wanted to create a more sophisticated pig’s head for him, using ingredients that were around in the ’30s and ’40s.”

Though Thornton loves telling stories of Ireland’s culinary past, he’s also focused on changing its future. He’s in the process of creating a luxury beef brand, Eireyu, which means “Irish happiness.” A Wagyu-Black Angus hybrid, the steer feeds on poitin and two pints of Guinness a day and gets regular massages. “The marble of the beef is overwhelming, and the flavor is mind-blowing,” says Thornton. “Eventually, I want to treat our beef with the same respect as we do our racehorses: playing chill-out music, providing a swimming pool.” I thought it was the best beef I’ve ever eaten.

James Joyce’s hero Leopold Bloom said in Ulysses, “Know me come eat with me.” He may have been speaking for all of Ireland, where food greatness beckons.

For more from chef, author and teacher Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel, go to andrewzimmern.com.

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