Ireland's Foraging Ch(i)ef: Award-winning chef keeps it fresh, local and inventive
I remember Paul Cunningham visiting us in San Francisco and cooking up a storm in our tiny kitchen. One meal I distinctly have not forgotten was a delicious paella – fluffy yellow rice with flavors and aromas of saffron, sautéed bell peppers, peas, chicken, chorizo, prawns, seasoned with herbs, spices and pimentos for spiciness. Who was this “other Cunningham gentleman” I had never heard of? Although no relation to my husband’s (Cunningham) side of the family in their shared hometown of County Down Northern Ireland, over time, he has become a friend who happens to bear the same surname. During that trip, he often spoke about cooking, food, anything and everything culinary-related and always, always would say “Someday soon, I am going to have my own restaurant. It will have a tree in the center, and I will always sundry my tomatoes.” Fast forward to 2014 – Chef Paul, was able to open his first restaurant. Brunel’s, a tiny space seating 48, nestled in Newcastle County Down. We dine there every chance we have during our frequent visits to my husband’s beautiful homeland. Our palates are never more aroused than when we indulge and savor a meal prepared by Chef Paul. Just a few months ago, Chef Paul opened a larger space with more visibility, more seating – 65 patrons – in the same town. The space the new Brunel’s occupies very strangely ties to Paul’s grandparents: his mother’s father, a nurse, used to care for a patient in the same space. He met Paul’s grandmother while living and working there. Chef Paul’s opinion of this very poetic synchronism is no coincidence. “I am meant to be here,” he says. Notably absent from Brunel’s is the “tree in the center,” and he admits to not sun drying his own tomatoes – yet. His rekindled passion for foraging infringes on his tomato-drying time. Foraging is a form of acquiring food through hunting or gathering plant matter. Foraging in Ireland takes him to places with enchanting names like The Mourne Mountains, Tullymore Forest, Slievedonard and the shoreline along the coast of Ireland. This is one of Chef Paul’s favorite ways to discover unique flavors, new ideas for menus and decor for his exquisitely, artistically adorned plates. Chef Paul’s love for food began at a young age. His paternal grandfather “Granda Paddy” preferred Paul to all of his cousins for hunting, foraging and helping around his green houses. Granda Paddy taught him everything: from picking honeysuckle to sand eels in Dundrum Bay. Granda Paddy grew his own crops and lived off the land. He could catch a fish with a snare, with undeniable great skills and knowledge. Chef Paul learned how to nurture and care for the crops and respect the land from Granda Paddy. His paternal grandmother was a baker who provided the family with endless soda bread – Paul’s favorite - a famous type of Irish bread: very buttery and crispy on the outside, an established favorite with tourists and locals alike. Although there are many variations: wheat, with raisins, with caraway seeds; Granny’s most memorable was ”treacle soda bread.” Paul’s wife, Jennifer, does the cooking at home, and indulges him in soda bread on occasion. A mother to their two children and an artist, she uses her love for pottery to create serving plates and platters for the restaurant. By the time he was 14, Chef Paul realized he wanted to become a chef. He fell in love with cooking instantly. He attended Belfast Tech for two years and worked in various restaurants. He quickly learned hands-on experience was key. After working his way through, he found his partners who truly believed in him and began his journey as a restaurateur. Today he loves the buzz and thrives on the creativity even more. When it is time to create new menus Chef Paul does a lot of reading and gets most of his inspiration from foraging as the seasons change. In the kitchen, he describes himself as a wild chef. He is not a fan of dullness or predictability, he prefers to push boundaries and does not believe the word “guidelines” belongs in the art of cooking. His reputation for a foul mouth and temper precedes him. He’s been called every name imaginable in the kitchen. "I’ve gotten better now. I shout less. I don’t win awards; our team wins awards." Recently he was awarded “Best Chef In Ireland.” While he was absolutely delighted, he feels the burn to push even harder. A Michelin star is not out of grasp for him. He is grateful for “the support of his staff, partners, family, friends and of course (his wife) Jennifer for holding down the fort at home” while he works long hours to fulfill his dream o create a lasting legacy.