MACNEAN HOUSE AND RESTAURANT
Phone: 071 985 3022
Such is the demand for Neven Maguire’s cooking at MacNean House and Restaurant that you are well advised to book well ahead. And so generous and accommodating is Neven, that it causes him a degree of embarassment.
"There are always cancellations," he says. "People should never be afraid to give us a ring and see what we have. We're great at phoning back. But it's true that we do fill up pretty quickly."
Well there are lots of reasons for that. The border village of Blacklion - stroll a few yeards past the restaurant and you're in Fermanagh - and its hinterland are not exactly peppered with serious restaurants. Or any restaurants, to be honest.
But the real reason is Neven Maguire's cooking. I have eaten some of the best food of my life here, a whirl of culinary brilliance, a combination of deep understanding of the raw materials, of invention and restraint. Neven Maguire is not a good chef. He's a great one.
Before it became fashionable – almost compulsory – to do so, he was in the vanguard as far as local produce was concerned. And his faith in such produce has always been such that he has never been afraid to let it do the talking on the plate. There’s no vanity about Neven, no bells and whistles, no showing off. Just brilliantly intuitive cooking in which he understands a piece of meat or seafood from the inside and treats it with the greatest of respect.
He also studiously avoids the witch doctoring of the chef’s world in which the simple is made complicated and techniques are carefully guarded secrets. In his teaching and his books he is adamant that anyone who wants to can cook. And he shows them how, in simple, accessible, encouraging words and advice. That generosity is born of great confidence combined with great human decency. It’s no surprise that Neven is the nation’s favourite chef.
He has been cooking since the age of twelve when he started to help his mother Vera in the kitchen. Vera and her husband, the late Joe Maguire, bought the restaurant in 1969. This was unfortunate timing. The Northern troubles erupted and Blacklion suffered two bomb attacks both of which destroyed the front of the premises. The Maguires struggled on until 1976. They then closed the restaurant and switched to the bed and breakfast business for which there was considerable demand because of the swelling numbers of customs officials and Gardaí.
By 1989, the restaurant was open again. Vera had kept her hand in by running a catering business and Joe took over the front of house role. Neven, now aged 16, was so convinced that he wanted to cook that he left school right after the Junior Cert and headed over the border to Fermanagh College in Enniskillen.
His first overseas post was at a grand hotel in Berlin. "The chef took me over to this huge fridge and showed me the beef and the lamb. And he told me it was all Irish because Irish is best. It was a very proud moment for me," he recalls.
This must have been a pivotal point because Neven combines his huge enthusiasm for local produce (pointing out that Cavan, Leitrim and Fermanagh is exceptionally rich in this respect) with a profound interest in learning from other cultures and far-flung cuisines.
After a stage at the outstanding Arzak (which has three Michelin stars) in San Sebastian and a spell with Paul Rankin at Roscoff he was ready to take over back home in Blacklion giving, as he says, the respect to local produce that it deserves. "We have a fascination with the exotic," he says. "It takes a lot to persuade people that food produced by their neighbours is world class, but it can be."
Every year, Neven Maguire takes his kitchen team abroad "just to eat and drink, look for ideas, soak in the culture of cooking and food." "We eat five star and sleep one star," he says. "They're the priorities."
Unlike most celebrity chefs (and his books and TV appearances qualify him for that title) he remains utterly committed to the restaurant. "Honest to God," he says, "I'd hate to spend less time in the kitchen. This is where I need to be."
What's his philosophy? "It's all about seasonality. Seasonality is critical. And local produce. I have two butchers round here who are simply the best. And I can get the best dry-aged beef on the planet. I just want to celebrate the stuff that people are producing and growing around here. It's a treasure trove. And I like the flavours and the textures to do the talking. I don't want to interfere."
It's interesting to watch Neven address his kitchen team. They all look at him adoringly, protectively.
"There's no yelling in my kitchen," he says. "No abuse. I won't tolerate that kind of thing. I look after my staff. They are the greatest resource."
And what about the Michelin star of which, were he in France rather than Blacklion, he would already have at least one?
"I don't chase stars," he says. "Michelin is not a goal for me."
And you know, this is probably one of the key reasons why Neven Maguire's cooking is so assured, so real and so finger-licking good.