Ireland’s newest Michelin-star chef: ‘You see people copying and pasting plates, you see dishes that are influenced’
At Silverstone in Northampton, England, this week, French chef Vincent Crepel, who arrived in Ireland just over a year ago, was awarded a Michelin star for his cooking at Terre restaurant, which opened in September 2022 at the Castlemartyr Resort in Co Cork.
any — including me — had expected Crepel to land two stars straight off, but Michelin sometimes moves in mysterious ways and that second star can surely only be a matter of time. For now, Crepel says, diplomatically, he is delighted to be off to such a good start.
“When I got the call from Michelin last week to invite me to the awards ceremony,” Crepel tells me after the ceremony, “I wasn’t sure that meant that we would be getting a star, and the woman who called wouldn’t tell me, so it has been a nerve-racking few days. I have enormous respect for Michelin and my whole career has been about striving for excellence, so to be awarded a star today as chef patron of Terre is a huge honour for me.”
Overnight success is, of course, rarely that, and Crepel’s achievement is the culmination of two decades of hard work.
To understand the chef and his food, with its focus on Asian flavours underpinned by classical French technique, something we haven’t seen in Ireland before, it’s worth delving into his background and exploring how he has ended up in East Cork.
Born in the Pyrenees, Crepel grew up in a home where good food was an important part of everyday life.
“My mom is a great cook,” he says, “and, in France, we have a strong culture of sitting down together for meals. Sometimes we would drive for hours to go to a family meal, and then spend the whole day eating and digesting on the couch, with everybody falling asleep. My grandmother is Italian, and I remember her making fresh pasta and leaving it to dry on kitchen towels for three days in the kitchen.
“So I am rooted in this idea of family eating together and food being for sharing. I don’t know if that’s what led me to become a chef, but sharing, making people happy, and getting people together might have been part of it.”
Crepel sounds as if he might have been what we Irish might call a ‘messer’ in school.
“I liked to make jokes and was not really focused on study,” he says. “I enjoyed looking out of the window, sports, physics, French literature, poetry, drawing, being outside in nature. And when you are like that, without focus, people tend to propel you toward jobs that are more manual than intellectual. So I didn’t decide to go to cooking school, the decision was made for me. I think 90pc of chefs were kids like me, steered in that direction. So, at 17, I moved away from home to train to be a chef. And I found I liked the precision of the kitchen, making something from scratch and seeing the results, pushing myself to learn and be the best I could be.”
After four years of being drilled in French technique, conforming to the rigours of the brigade system, followed by an apprenticeship in the Basque country, Crepel landed a position at (the now three-star) Arzak in San Sebastian. It was very different to what he was used to.
“At Arzak, it was okay to be creative, which, for me, was something new and interesting. French kitchens are a bit army style, very structured. At Arzak, I came to realise that there is not only one way to do things, that it’s good to have the basics but, after that, you can do anything. This was the start of me building myself and the personality of my food around those techniques. I began buying the professional magazines to see what other chefs were doing. I was hungry to learn.”
Next, Crepel spent time in Singapore, working initially in five-star hotels and then with André Chiang, the legendary French-trained Taiwanese chef who held three Michelin stars at Les Jardins de Sens in the South of France.
“The restaurant was on the 70th floor, with beautiful views out over the city,” he says, “but the kitchen was very small, with low ceilings and narrow windows. I remember going in in the morning, coming out in the dark. It was very, very tough and the kitchen was relentless. But what we did was amazing, and for the first time in my career, I had my hands on high-end ingredients from all over Asia, including Japan, in a kitchen using classical French techniques. I understood the perfection of it, and the possibilities it held.”
After two years, Crepel moved with Chiang to open Restaurant André, a boutique restaurant located in a small house owned by Peng Loh, the founder of international hospitality and fine-dining group Unlisted Collection. Within a very short period of time, the restaurant appeared on the World’s 50 Best list, and the bond between the three men grew.
Homesickness for Europe drew Crepel home to France via a stint at the three-Michelin star Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville in Crissier, Switzerland, the most exacting kitchen in which he had ever worked. “It was,” he says, “a good school for me.”
The year 2014 saw Crepel and Chiang, backed by Loh, open Porte 12 in Paris. “André was the face and I was the hands,” says Crepel. “I had visited Paris only once in my life before we decided to open a restaurant there. And, for the first time in my career, I was going to be cooking for French people. I just opened the bag, and pulled everything out: Asian flavours, French techniques, everything I had learned. And it was good. We were named the best restaurant in Paris after three months.”
The tiny restaurant ran its course over the next five years and closed in 2019. And before Crepel had decided what to do next, Covid hit.
“In a way, it was lucky, because it gave me time to reflect and think,” he says. “Peng and I stayed in touch and he asked what I wanted to do. I said, ‘I want to open a restaurant in the south of France. I want sun and I want a garden. I want somewhere with heritage in the walls, somewhere beautiful, elegant, refined. And some time passed and then he called me and said, ‘We are buying a property in Ireland.’ I said, ‘Really?’ Ireland was not on my mind. And he said, ‘You should come and have a look.’”
Having never visited Ireland before, Crepel made five trips — accompanied by his girlfriend on one — to Castlemartyr before signing up. “I loved the building, the 17th-century manor house. And I had a very clear vision of how I wanted the restaurant to be.”
He arrived in January 2022, solo.
“It was very tough. I broke up with my girlfriend just before I came. I was in a dark place. And Ireland was very dark, very moody, very wintry. I was alone. I was asking myself, ‘Why did I come here?’ I shut off all social media so I could see and think and get inspired. I had to connect with the place. I’m not a Buddha, but I needed to reconnect with myself before I could do anything else.”
Crepel travelled around Ireland, returning over and again to the National Park in Killarney (“for me, the best place in Ireland”).
I started to cook what I wanted to cook and I didn’t look for people to praise me
“I climbed Carrauntoohil four times, I went to Ballycotton, I swam in the sea, I walked on the beach. It was like a spiritual retreat to connect me with the land and the sea. It was very different in February to the way it was in May, June and July. I felt there was a good energy, and because I wasn’t focused on the internet, I didn’t look left, I didn’t look right. I took care of my team and took care of myself. And I started to cook what I wanted to cook and I didn’t look for people to praise me, I didn’t look on Instagram to see what other people were doing. I think social media can be very positive but also can be very negative. You see people copying and pasting plates, you see dishes that are influenced. There’s nothing wrong with looking but I think, before, I spent too much time on Instagram, when what I needed to do was look inside myself.
As well as the food, Crepel took charge of the look and feel of the restaurant and its spacious, light-filled kitchen, a total contrast to many of the cramped spaces in which he had worked before.
“It is very personal, everything was designed to my specification.”
As soon as Terre opened in September 2022, word spread quickly that something special was happening in East Cork.
“I came with an open mind,” says Crepel, “and I find the customers are open-minded. I am very grateful they have given us a chance and are willing to experience what we have to say. And they seem to like it.”
At the time of writing, the tasting menu at Terre was priced at €180,rising to €210 in April, with lunch, comprising two fewer courses, a more accessible €110. There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a huge amount of money for a meal at a time when everyone is feeling the pinch. And the truth is that even €210 doesn’t reflect the true cost of the meal, but because Terre is located at Castlemartyr, the resort effectively subsidises the restaurant.
“I think,” says Crepel, “we are entering an era where it’s more and more difficult to be sustainable as a niche restaurant, which is what we are. We may be about to go into recession and the cost of everything has gone up. So, yes, it’s something that concerns me. And yes, I am looking all the time at what I can do. Instead of using caviar, what can I use instead? Instead of using wild turbot, how about I use line-caught cod, which could be nicer? We are expanding the garden as well to produce more of our own ingredients. I want to be an accessible restaurant, a busy restaurant and a sustainable business.
“But in the end, it’s down to how you — the customer — want to spend your money. And what you want to get out of this. Do you want a memory, an experience, do you want to share a meal with your family or someone you love, or do you want a pair of shoes? Will you remember the shoes one year from now? We are selling something that doesn’t last on the plate, but which we want to last in your memory. That’s what this is all about. That’s why the experience of dining at Terre is very personal and sometimes a bit radical.”
What he means by radical is the rather alarming shouted ‘Welcome!’ with which the kitchen team greet diners on their arrival into the kitchen for snacks (yes, just like The Menu) and the pumping rock soundtrack which accompanies dinner.
“You can get a good meal anywhere in the world,” says Crepel, “but the personality is what is different. We want to leave you with something to remember besides a line on your credit-card statement. Yes, it’s expensive, but the memory will last as long as you want it to last. At Terre, we want to make you discover new things, new flavours, new ingredients, a new tea from Taiwan, finger limes, things you’ve never tasted before. We give the best hospitality we can to make you feel warm, special, comfortable. We connect with people. And if we can do all of that, then I think it might be worth spending that amount of money dining with us.”
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