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Flying, falling, and flying again – a chef’s tale comes full circle

The higher you fly, the harder you fall, they say, and chef Conrad Gallagher has proved the truth of that more than once in a career of both star-studded highs and controversy-laden lows, but he believes everyone deserves an opportunity for a fresh start – and he’s making the most of his.

He’s cooked for presidents, rock stars and royalty, was once the youngest chef ever to receive a Michelin star and has lived the Porsche-driving, model-dating lifestyle of the celebrity chef to the full. He’s also gone broke more than once, headlined restaurant business failures, and twice faced off life-threatening illness.

It’s been a career of ups and downs – his 2010 autobiography is aptly sub-titled “My rollercoaster life” – but through it all there’s been a passion for cooking as an art, a vision of beautiful places for people to indulge in beautiful food and, like many who attract attention with big visions and grand plans, his failures too have attracted attention.

“I opened my first restaurant at the age of 23, what did I know? I live my life very differently now.

“I’ve learned a lot of lessons – the importance of family and friends, of treating others like you want to be treated, that what goes around comes around. I’ve found the balance of work and personal life. I’ve learned to know my own strengths and weaknesses,” he said in our interview looking at his current business and future plans.

Now based mostly in Dubai while entrenching family roots and a retirement plan in South Africa, in Port Elizabeth and nearby St Francis Bay, Gallagher is looking back on what he calls in his characteristic straight-talking way “five years where everything I touched turned to sh*t, followed by five years that turned into gold” – the gold being finding his niche in setting up restaurants for other people.

Leaving five rocky years in South Africa behind him at the end of 2016, he opened more than 50 new restaurants in two years for Aura Hospitality, the largest restaurant group in Qatar, and worked with St Regis Hotels to conceptualise six distinctive restaurants for their luxury St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort on the exclusive island in Abu Dhabi.

Gallagher was recruited by Aura as consultant chef to lead the company’s expansion drive into malls, resorts and tourist sites and was then made managing director of the company. He was instrumental in Aura-operated restaurants receiving three FACT Dining Awards in Doha in 2019 – recognised as a benchmark for hospitality excellence in the Gulf states.

His success in developing multiple new restaurants and getting them off the ground for their owners in the burgeoning global foodie and luxury destinations of the Middle East paved the way for a fresh start with his Food Concepts 360, an international restaurant consultancy focused on conceptualising, designing, building, staffing and marketing restaurants for an array of global clients.

He opened the business in late 2018 and spent most of 2019 working on a number of large hospitality projects in Saudi Arabia, while setting up a suite of inter-related hospitality service companies with offices in Dubai and Johannesburg.

Working with a team of chefs and specialists in hospitality and design, Gallagher combines his classical training, inspiration from global travel and his passion for fine dining and stylish hospitality to develop or revamp menus, and devise creative concepts for unique high-end restaurants, taking them from concept through construction, interior design, décor and brand positioning to implementation, staff recruitment and training, launch and business management.

The tiniest details are looked at – from staff uniforms to the selection of cutlery and even the paper that menus are printed on.

Food Concepts 360 offers a turnkey service and currently has 90-plus projects in various stages of development, across Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with some work in Mauritius and the Maldives, and most recently moving into Africa with projects in Benin, Egypt, Nigeria and southern Africa.

“It’s a business built on quality, standards and innovation,” he says – and less than a year after being established in December 2018, Food Concepts 360 was named the top Food and Beverage consultancy in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2019 by UK-based LuxLife magazine.

“I realised I’m good at this,” says Gallagher.

“And I know that I wouldn’t be as good at what I do now, if I hadn’t gone through what I have. You can’t be an expert in the restaurant business if you’ve only ever been successful, if you’ve never experienced having to tell your staff that we’re out of cash, never had to tell 200 people that there’s no tomorrow.”

He knows that restaurants rely on today’s takings to pay yesterday’s bills, that margins are slender at best, and he’s ridden the downturns of the global economy – the Celtic Tiger boom-then-bust of the mid-90s hitting his Peacock Alley restaurant that he opened in Dublin at the age of 24, and a decade later weathering the global economic crisis of 2008/09 that hit his Geisha Wok & Noodle Bar in Cape Town.

In the process he’s learnt how to cast his eye across a spreadsheet to get a grip on cash flows, forecasts and profitability, and turn business models around for viability – not skills taught in cooking school but gained through hard experience.

He also knows the dangerous allure of fame – widely regarded as Ireland’s first celebrity chef, the success of Peacock Alley and its Michelin star in 1998 made him a sought-after guest on chat shows and the like in Ireland, then he had his own programme Conrad’s Kitchen: Access All Areas on BBC Food, taking viewers behind the scenes of his culinary upgrade for Sun International in South Africa in 2005, and hosted his own reality cookery contest, Head Chef, on Irish national television in 2011.

Today’s online, digital, social media world offers myriad opportunities to create “cooking programmes” beyond the scope of traditional television, but Gallagher says he’d rather leave those opportunities for his sons to take up – his focus now is on the business of bringing great food experiences to life.

These days, in between his work across the Middle East, Gallagher makes regular trips to South Africa, where his family are based in Port Elizabeth and the nearby coastal holiday village of St Francis Bay.

Here, where his parents also travel from Ireland to spend half the year, is his “retirement plan”, he says, having bought a 30ha farm in the St Francis area with long-term plans that it will supply the fresh produce for a small, seasonal fine dining restaurant aimed at the discerning food and wine lover.

This set-up of the farm together with the restaurant and a luxury country house set to open in December 2021 is called Peacock Alley – the name of his Dublin restaurant where at age 26 in 1998 he became the youngest chef ever to be awarded a Michelin star.

The farm is currently being planted to various food crops for the restaurant and trialling different breeds of livestock.

“After years of living and working globally, we’ve decided to put down roots here – my wife is from Port Elizabeth, our kids go to school here, we’ve built a home here. This is it for us,” says Gallagher.

Despite years spent globe-trotting, cooking and operating in the restaurant industry at its varying levels of scale, courting both controversy and the highest levels of excellence in the chef’s profession, Gallagher’s loyalties to home, family, old friends remain tight.

“I’ve spent seven months at a time away from my wife and kids when times were tough and I had to do it, but I don’t want to anymore. Family is too important – I’ve learned that.

“My mom is my idol, and my parents spend six months of the year with me.

“People I went to school with are still my best friends – that’s never changed. When I was on TV five nights a week, I was still hanging out with the guys I went to junior school with.”

Gallagher’s involvement in South Africa goes back to 2002 when he was brought to the country by Sun International then-CEO Peter Bacon to upgrade food and service standards to fine dining level in the group’s high-end resorts including the Table Bay in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, Sun City and the Palace of the Lost City, and Zimbali Lodge on the tropical KwaZulu-Natal north coast.

Coming after both highs and lows in New York, London and Dublin, the Sun International job was a highpoint and a productive relationship, and he was with the company until 2009, meeting his South African wife Candice in the process.

Then he opened the trendy Geisha Wok & Noodle Bar in Greenpoint, Cape Town, to enthusiastic reviews until the global economic downturn hit and he left South Africa after being sequestrated, opening restaurants in Dublin and Sligo in 2010 and hosting Head Chef on Irish national television in 2011.

But these were the days of the global financial crisis and the final demise of the Celtic Tiger as Ireland became the first eurozone country to enter recession in 2008.

“By 2009/10 the restaurant business in Dublin was completely on its knees, just not enough foot traffic to keep going, and restaurants and hotels closing their doors by the day. Two of the national banks went bankrupt. I was advised at the time that the only way to get out of the lease was to let the Revenue Commission liquidate the business to recover monies owed. It was standard practice, happening all over, and I had a young family – I couldn’t be working 20 hours a day for nothing.”

A brief stint as chef and consultant in the USA followed, before he returned with his family again to his wife’s home country of South Africa in 2014.

While in Cape Town, he was asked by the owners of Café Chic, a part-restaurant-part-nightclub in a restored Victorian building in the trendy City Bowl, to revive a venue that had closed down a year before, a casualty of the city’s ever-fickle restaurant trade.

Despite a tourist-friendly location, a historic building and stylish interiors, Café Chic soon ran into the typical problems associated with a nightclub in a mostly residential area, when all Gallagher really wanted was to run a restaurant.

“The place had been closed for 18 months when we came in. We got the restaurant back up and running but very soon it was overshadowed by the nightclub – the club was busier, making more money, there were queues every Thursday and Friday night. And the busier the club got, the less the restaurant mattered. We lost the foodies and got flooded by the party people.”

The nightclub attracted complaints from neighbours and regular visits by the police for noise pollution and pavement dust-ups, there was a threat of the liquor licence being revoked and so Gallagher switched to trading as a restaurant only, which worked for a few months until winter arrived and the tourists departed.

Saddled with an unused and unusable nightclub space in an unsuitable neighbourhood and an unsympathetic landlord, the bills were mounting and it was time to cut losses, says Gallagher.

“We just couldn’t make the numbers work using only 40% of the space, we couldn’t win in negotiations with the landlord, couldn’t get out of the lease, and it just got to the point where it wasn’t worth trying to make it through to the next high season. The demand wasn’t there, in a residential area that wasn’t really a restaurant location, in a building that really needed refurbishing, and frankly I just didn’t have it in me.”

Then came the opportunity for a move to his wife’s hometown of Port Elizabeth, to set up a small restaurant that could potentially run itself while he took up work opportunities in the Middle East.

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He set up Gallagher’s on Stanley Street in mid-2016 on the city’s trendy restaurant strip, but “within 10 to 15 weeks, I knew we were in trouble”.

“People came once, they loved it, but they didn’t come a second time. I could see the writing on the wall and I wasn’t prepared to start doing hamburgers and steak ‘n chips.

“I was losing and I wanted to get back to a place where I could provide for my family and Aura were already knocking at my door.

“Looking at joining them versus standing in a tapas bar serving 20 people, I decided to quit.”

Those last two South African ventures attracted much criticism for leaving unpaid bills in their wake, but Gallagher says that while there might have been issues of suppliers being paid on time, “I’ve never said screw you, I’m not paying. I’ve always paid as soon as I possibly could.”

Known for his outspoken views and larger-than-life personality, Gallagher speaks frankly about his failures without blame-shifting or ducking personal responsibility.

“I’ve made mistakes and I’ve upset people. I’ve always tried to mend fences, to make sure that people get paid.

“Look, there will always be the haters. And there are also always people who understand that everyone has bad days, makes mistakes, messes up. I believe everyone has the opportunity for a fresh start and when I look back now – I’ve opened up 50 successful businesses for other people since running a business that failed 12 years ago.”

Gallagher’s business today is very different to keeping a restaurant going day-to-day and spending nights in a hot kitchen. Now he is paid as an expert consultant for sharing his visionary thinking, culinary expertise and experience in the business of restaurants, and the projects are long-term – working with a hotel group from initial concept of a new property to the actual opening of restaurants can take up to five years.

Restaurant consulting across the globe, three or four businesses to control, a base in Dubai and future plans in development down in the Eastern Cape of South Africa – has Chef Gallagher bitten off more than he can chew? (Again? Some might ask.)

“This kind of business has far lower risks than trying to keep a restaurant’s doors open on a daily basis. It’s service-based, providing consultancy and advisory services based on my own experience, skills and networks, a service that clients are willing and able to pay for.

“I’ve a large team and it’s all done in a really well managed way. It’s very different to being in the restaurant business for myself,” he says.

It’s a business that now employs more than 500 people, most on a contract or project-specific basis – from executive and private chefs and culinary training specialists to interior architects, project managers, brand developers and graphic designers, across structured divisions with accountable managers, a structure the chef is accustomed to commanding.

Being able to meet the client’s needs at each stage of the restaurant development process is what sparked the inter-connected set of companies that Gallagher runs today, leveraging his experience and global networks along with his creative flair.

Food Concepts 360 is an international end-to-end restaurant and hotel consultancy and since part of the service is finding the right chef and restaurant team, The Chefs Connection was born – a specialist chef recruitment and headhunting agency that connects fine dining restaurants with Michelin-starred chefs, chefs specialising in particular cuisines from Spanish to sushi, top-end pastry chefs, corporate chefs and culinary directors.

Run by Gallagher’s wife Candice, who brings her international hospitality PR and marketing experience to all three companies, The Chefs Connection also sources super-discreet private chefs for short- and long-term engagements creating bespoke gastronomic experiences in the palaces, holiday homes and yachts of the world’s elite.

The Chefs Playground in Johannesburg is another spin-off from the work of Food Concepts 360. This newest venture serves the industry need for high-end training for chefs and supplies specialised tools of the trade, as well as serving the growing thirst of home cooks to sharpen their skills beyond the basics and delve into global cuisines.

“There was demand for us to set up a training kitchen for chefs, providing refresher courses and training in advanced techniques, and that opened up a new business avenue.

“Since we do restaurant design, selecting plates and table accessories, sourcing kitchen equipment and uniforms, that stirred up the idea of opening that business beyond our client base, to chefs and to the public,” Gallagher said.

It’s a case of “sweating the asset”, making the space work 24/7, so The Chefs Playground serves both professional chefs and avid cooks by day, as a training and trial kitchen, a showroom for Food Concepts 360, a shop for chef attire, tools, designer tableware, cookbooks and speciality ingredients, and by night a venue for pop-up food-and-wine experiences, product launches, and evening and weekend cooking classes under the tutelage of expert chefs.

The Jo’burg Chefs Playground was launched to the trade in early 2020 and, dependent on coronavirus restrictions, the physical showroom, shop and training courses are set to be open to the public from September 2020, while a Dubai branch is in the planning stages.

Meanwhile the St Francis Bay incarnation of Peacock Alley progresses in the planning for a high-end, luxury gastronomic destination, open only in the summer high season and aimed at South Africa’s wealthy elite and the international “swallows” who have holiday homes along the canals of the village.

The restaurant will be coupled to a country house accommodating guests, with the farm supplying produce for tasting menus paired with South African and international wines.

“This will be a destination, for people to travel to St Francis just to eat there. Creative, innovative, superlative quality of ingredients and service, a wine list second to none – something very different to the norm that will put the Eastern Cape on the map of fine dining in South Africa.”

It’s perhaps the culmination of a journey that started at an early age, growing up in Letterkenny in Ireland’s County Donegal, a traditional Irish upbringing with mother and grandmother in the kitchen, where he learned the basics from them.

“Instead of playing soccer, I was more interested in learning how to cook. I was fascinated with the world of chefs and cooking from a very young age, and when my parents allowed me to get weekend and summer jobs at the local hotel, my fascination just grew.

“My mother bought me one of Paul Bocuse’s cookbooks when I was 14 and I knew, this was the kind of food I wanted to make. I wanted to go to France to learn – I had two years left to finish high school, but I was already cooking at a pretty decent level and I didn’t want to wait.”

Gallagher wrote to the famed French chef, the pioneer of nouvelle cuisine, concealing his age – “I said I was 18, could get away with it because I was very tall for 15” – and went to work for Bocuse as an unpaid stagiaire for a summer at one of his restaurants in Lyon.

Returning home, his parents agreed that he go to Killybegs Catering College in Donegal, in those days a sought-after training institution for chefs, instead of completing high school, and he showed his winning ways early on, winning four gold medals in the Chef Ireland culinary championships while a trainee chef and going on to win four more golds with the national team at Hotelympia, the UK’s largest chef competition.

“I worked at some amazing places during my college vacations and the minute I qualified, I had my heart set on going to New York to work at Le Cirque – I wanted to work with the Michelin-starred chefs who were leading that food revolution of the late 1980s.”

And at 18, he did just that – holding two and three jobs at a time in New York to further his dream, working for Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque and Laurent Manrique at the Waldorf Astoria’s Peacock Alley, and grafting in an Irish pub on his days off.

Gallagher credits Manrique as his greatest influence and mentor, and the two are close friends to this day.

“Manrique got me when I was just 18, freshly qualified, and on the first day in his kitchen he told me to forget everything I had ever learned. I was his sous chef and we worked 18-hour days together. When he moved, I moved with him.”

Manrique sent Gallagher to Monte Carlo to work for 18 months with Alain Ducasse at Hôtel de Paris, telling him that after that, he would “be ready”.

“I went back to Ireland after that – I wanted to be with my family and get going on plans for my own restaurant. I realised that I was now actually in demand – I’d worked for Bocuse, Ducasse, Manrique, Boulud. I was young, full of it, the rock ‘n roll chef lifestyle was starting to happen,” Gallagher remembers.

And so began the rollercoaster captured in his 2010 book Back on the Menu: My rollercoaster life.

A keen writer, as a distraction from the heat of the kitchen, the chef is now working on a follow-up to that book, telling the further ups and downs of the past decade, has a recipe book on potatoes in pre-publication and thoughts of a glossy Peacock Alley recipe book to add to the four recipe books he’s already published.

Coming off the rollercoaster ride, he’s learned the art of balance, working hard to divide his time between the ever-burning passion for food and restaurants, and taking time to relax and do his own thing as well as spend time with family.

His sons are “fanatical cooks” he says, well educated about food, and the family love going to markets together, eating out and making a point of prepping dinner together every night.

You’ll also quite likely find the chef on the back of his beloved Harley or on his boat, deep-sea fishing or gently pottering along the canals of St Francis.

And South African gastronomes are no doubt already looking forward to a visit to St Francis to experience Chef Gallagher’s world-class cuisine.