In 1991 John and Sally McKenna began their research into Irish food, giving up their Dublin flat, and splurging on a broken-down Renault 4. They set off around Ireland to discover what they hoped would be an exciting food culture and John has written about Irish food ever since.
John McKenna has won numerous awards for his food writing, including a series of Glenfiddich Awards, the Andre Simon Special Award and the Slow Food Ireland Media Award. A long-time writer for the Irish Times, contributor to RTE television and news programmes, John also has written for various international publications, including The Art of Eating. He is regarded as a leading commentator on Irish food.
The McKennas’ Guide Plaque is the most respected badge of merit in Irish contemporary food. Awarded only to those who are described in the McKennas’ Guides, the plaque is the ultimate signal of culinary creativity and imagination.
John speaks to West Cork People about the changes he’s seen in the Irish food industry.
Originality, creativity, innovation, lack of cliché, value, service, charm, welcome, atmosphere — these are the criteria that restaurants are judged on for the McKennas’ Guides.
John has seen the Irish dining experience “utterly transformed” in the last 25 years. “We used to imitate when we cooked – usually copying the French way – and now we innovate. It’s completely transformed and it’s miles better. We used to be homogenous, now we’re heterogenous.”
More restaurants that just do one thing: ramen bars, pizza restaurants, restaurants that specialise in beef, or in non-meat cookery is where John sees a niche in the food industry. “In terms of food production, we need more specialisation and less commodity: more ‘West Cork organic grass-fed Hereford striploin’, and less ‘beef’.”
Food businesses have had a difficult time over the last few years with more than a few closing. John believes that key to the survival of the ones that made it through the recession was “serving good food at a fair price”.
“What killed many businesses was the fact that they offered bad value for money and that is a no-no. Remember cost isn’t the same as value and everyone has an in-built value barometer, so they know when they are paying too much. Fool them once and you won’t get a chance to fool them a second time.”
West Cork is synonomous with good food; its remoteness not phasing the many artisan food producers and restaurants that have started up a business here over the past number of years.
“It’s a good place to open a food business or restaurant because the society here is open and welcoming and there is a respect for good food. However, it’s a hard place because the population is small and the area remote, but that doesn’t stop people, so there have been a lot of good new places opening in the last 18 months.”
John and Sally’s business has also totally changed since they first started writing about food.
“Our business has changed utterly, from being producers of traditional print books to makers of apps,” explains John “But books haven’t died: our book on ‘Where to Eat and Stay on the Wild Atlantic Way’ is probably the fastest selling book we have ever published. But for guides, the web is where it is at, because people want mapping. Our eat2015 app – which is the 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland 2015 – has been in the app charts for six months now and has even been the number one selling app at times, to our considerable surprise.”
Due to other work commitments, this year the couple have had to step back from the A Taste of West Cork food festival, which runs every year in September. “We have been deeply involved over many years…but I am looking forward to simply being a punter at the events,” says John.