Managing the Eat Galway group of restaurants and the global chef symposium Food on the Edge
Today’s show, the first of two parts, features JP McMahon, a Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur and food activist in Galway, a thriving city with a buzzing food and drink scene on the west coast of Ireland.
There are three central themes in this episode. Firstly, JP’s three restaurants in Galway, which he operates with his wife and business partner, Drigín. These restaurants, known collectively as “Eat Galway”, are Cava, Aniar and EAT. JP describes the cuisine of these three venues and the philosophy on which their cuisine is based.
Food on the Edge
The second theme of this episode is Food on the Edge, an annual chefs’ symposium held in Galway that JP and Drigín organise. In its second year, and held in October, so it’s coming up shortly, Food on the Edge brings together international chefs of global standing as well as local chefs to exchange ideas and push culinary boundaries. JP gives a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of organising Food on the Edge.
The Chef as Benevolent Idealogue
The third theme of this episode is the very idea of the chef, not just in terms of his or her role as a provider of food but also in terms of his or her responsibility as precisely that provider of food. So, we’re talking here about animal welfare, about farming methods that respect the environment and about developing ethical relationships with small-scale farmers and artisan food and drink producers that enable more sustainable routes to market.
Part two of my conversation with JP will feature in the next episode of the show, episode 44.
What You’ll Hear About in this Episode
JP McMahon describes:
- how he caters for several points on the eating out spectrum from Michelin-starred venue, to tapas bar to gastropub while using the same set of core ingredients and fresh produce
- how he uses ingredients and cooking to express a sense of place and explore the concept of an “indigenous style of cooking”
- the impetus for organising Food on the Edge and what needs to take place behind the scenes for it to happen
- his idea of the chef as a benevolent idealogue who takes a social stance and asks questions like “why are certain foods so cheap and what is the true cost of that?”
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Get the Show Transcript
If audio isn’t your thing, you can download a transcript of the show here: Ep #043: JP McMahon: Eat Galway and Food on the Edge.
You can also find the full transcript of the show at the end of this post.
Hot off the Press: News of More Accolades for JP McMahon
Food & Wine Magazine just announced JP McMahon’s Aniar as Best Restaurant in Connaught, 2016. The icing on the cake is that the magazine also inducted JP into their hall of fame. Double congratulations to JP, Drigín and their team.
Very Sound Bites from Jp McMahon
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Links Mentioned in the Show
- JP on Twitter, @mistereatgalway
- Drigín on Twitter, MsEatGalway
- Eat Galway
- Eat Galway on Facebook
- EAT Gastropub
- FARMER on Twitter, @fastfoodfarmer
- Food on the Edge
- Cook it Raw
- Mark Best
- Albert Adrià
- Nathan Outlaw
- Daniel Patterson
- Davide Scabin
- Sat Baines
- Matt Orlando
- Sasu Laukkonen
- Tim Raue
- Fáilte Ireland
- Fine Dining Lovers
- La Rousse Foods
- Róisín Dubh and Jerry Fish
- Lisa Hannigan
- The Burren
- Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT)
- The Galway Food Festival
- Katy McGuinness
- Food & Wine Magazine
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Transcript of the Show
Catherine Moran: JP McMahon, Welcome to The Artisan Food & Drink Business Show. Thank you so much for your time to talk to me today. I would like to ask you about three culinary adventures that you are currently pursuing. Firstly, your restaurants here in Galway city and Food on the Edge, and also FARMER. I know that’s a big ask because you’re clearly a very busy person and you’ve also got the Irish Times food column, which is Culinaria, and you run an award winning cookery school here at Aniar.
JP McMahon: In Aniar, yeah.
Catherine Moran: We might and we might not get time to talk about those, could we just get stuck in and talk about your restaurants? Would you describe what your restaurants are like?
JP McMahon: Yeah. I suppose the three restaurants are all located in Galway and they all sort of operate with a similar philosophy of trying to produce good food. Aniar is a Michelin star restaurant. I suppose people could call it “fine dining.” We don’t have table clothes or anything like that. It’s not stuffy, but I suppose it’s as close as we’ll get to fine dining, within the context of the other restaurants.
We have Cava, which is our tapas bar, which is probably the mother ship, as I call it, because it does the most amount of business. It’s a very popular tapas restaurant in Galway. Then we have EAT Gastro pub, which is our exploration of gastro pub cooking.
All of them are different avenues of food that I like to pursue. All of the food comes from the same place. We all have the same core suppliers, so the food that comes into Aniar or the food that goes into Cava, or the gastro pub, all comes from the same suppliers.
That’s one of the main objectives, is to try and produce different levels of food with the same good quality produce. Whether it’s artisan or organic, it’s from a small local producer. It’s not just the treasure trove of say, the fine dining industry. This can be used in gastro pub cooking to make chips or to make burgers, all of the things are commonly looked down upon in relation to fine dining. It’s just trying to educate people to show them that good food can be used in many, many different ways.
Catherine Moran: The three venues, they clearly present three different eating experiences and that was a deliberate decision on your part… I hate to use the word target, but to satisfy different segments of the market?
JP McMahon: I suppose it happened very organically. When we opened Cava in 2008, I couldn’t have said we had a strategy to say, “This is what we’re going to do.” It evolved very, very naturally. Two years after Cava, when we opened up Aniar, we were in a different place and we wanted to explore different things. Then when we opened EAT… Different opportunities arise and I suppose that ties into what you were saying earlier on about FARMER and what I want to do next. It’s about trying to get good food to the most amount of people, in various different ways. I suppose, I’m very diverse in what I like, so for me … it’s less a target market, I just wouldn’t be content if it was just pursuing the food that we do in Aniar, or just pursuing the food we do in Cava, because I think there’s just so much else there to be explored.
Each restaurant has, I wouldn’t say very different market, but it has a slightly different market. People come into Aniar once or twice a year. We only do a tasting menu in Aniar. It’s about 60 to 100 Euro a head, so it’s occasional dining. Whereas, people come into Cava two or three times a week and have a glass of wine and a tapa. I think the average spending cap is like 20 or 25 Euros. So Cava does a lot more people. It does maybe 150 people a night, whereas Aniar might do 25.
They’re two very, very different types of restaurants, but at the same time… I enjoy investigating the types of food and the types of experiences that we offer in Cava and in Aniar, and then also in the gastro pub.
Catherine Moran: We are currently sitting in Aniar, which I have seen described as Nordic-inspired.
JP McMahon: Yeah, it’s funny because my wife designed it. Our first head chef and a friend of ours had spent time in Noma. When Drigín [JP’s wife and business partner] designed it, Drigín hadn’t been to Norway or hadn’t been anywhere up there and she was more thinking of Connemara and the West of Ireland. But I suppose, when we got reviews, and the type of cooking that we were doing was very Nordic inspired… It was like hyper-local, very, very minimalist and pure. So, I suppose when people looked around, they saw the Nordic influence.
But for me, one of the reasons why I’m so attracted to Nordic cooking, and I’ve got a few friends who are chefs up there, is that there’s so many parallels in terms of landscape and food between the West of Ireland, even Ireland as a whole, and the Nordic countries. You look at Copenhagen, you look at certain Scandinavian countries, we have so much similar wild foods, we have so much similar grown food, because we’re on a very similar latitude. OK, they might have harsher winters and better summers, and we’re somewhere in the middle, but a lot of the beach herbs that we use in Aniar, that we’re used since we started, if you open up a book on Nordic cooking, you’ll see them all there as well.
For me, that’s the paradox of being hyper-local. Sometimes when you get down to being hyper-local, you end up being quite global because I’ve spent time in Canada, and they have a lot of the wild herbs that we have as well. The whole concept of an indigenous style of cooking is one that’s very difficult, and it’s something that I throw around in my mind a lot, to try to think, “Is what we’re doing in Aniar Irish? Is it a global phenomenon at the moment, inspired by the Nordic food revolution? Is it something else?”
The restaurant is nearly five years open now and it keeps on developing and it develops with myself and what I do, when I travel around, and Food on the Edge. We brought a lot of people here and a lot of ideas and interacts, so it is a kind of melting pot of global food ideas.
Catherine Moran: What does Aniar mean? Because we’ve got a truly international audience and not everyone will be a native Irish speaker, but it’s an Irish word?
JP McMahon: It is. It means, “From the west,” like “ag teach aniar [“coming from the west”]. I’m not a gaeilgeoir [an Irish language speaker] and people get confused because the restaurant has an Irish name, but we actually had a competition to name the restaurant because we had a good following in Cava. We said, “We’re opening up a new restaurant. Its focus is going to be on Irish cuisine.” The person that named it… Actually, I know him now and he actually did a cooking class in here… It was funny… It really kind of struck home, and it kind of hit the mark of what we wanted to do.
Catherine Moran: Very much, yeah. It’s a great name and I love the fact that it’s just one word as well.
JP McMahon: Year, I like one-word restaurant names. I like one-words and I suppose, for me, I try and get the names of things that we do to try and get them to summarise what we’re doing as a whole. Whether it’s FARMER, or Food on the Edge, or Cava, it’s just those… or EAT, as well. EAT is a very simple name. It’s just to try and conceptualise the whole project in one word.
Catherine Moran: Yeah, which is of course a challenge, isn’t it? You are not a Galway native, where–
JP McMahon: –No, I’m from Dublin, originally, and I came down in ’99 and my wife… I suppose I was trying to chase her around. She wasn’t my wife then. We spent some years in Galway; we spent a few years in Cork, and in Edinburgh. We travelled around to Spain and that. A lot of what we did in Cava, initially, kind of came out of traveling to Spain and really enjoying a particular experience that tapas offered, less so than the food.
The food was wonderful, but the experience of eating communally and sharing lots of dishes, I really thought that was something that wasn’t being done well in Ireland, at the time, in 2008. We went to various places in Dublin, even places in London, and was like, “They’re not really doing this kind of shared eating.” And when we started Cava, it was a big challenge to get people to share things. Irish people are not good at sharing things, and to try to get them to eat communally. That has really helped in that.
So I suppose, Galway, for me, and why we stay here… for me it’s a very continental city. It’s a port and it has the port mentality where you have a lot of people in Galway who are not from Galway. A lot of Europeans, a lot of Americans, and it keeps it very fresh. More so, I think, than Dublin and Cork, which have a very high indigenous population.
That’s not to say that they’re parochial, it’s just that I think it’s more difficult to find large groups of foreigners in Cork and Dublin, when we lived there. I supposed because Galway’s quite small and when we have the restaurants… Sometimes it’s hard to actually think of, “Who in Galway do we have working for us?” Because we have so many Spanish people, and French people, and we have a new Belgian chef now.
It’s funny, Galway seems to attract and awful lot of people. I think it’s that Galway has a nice cultural arts hub, which all the festivals clearly demonstrate. It does have a kind of party-town mentality. I think, since we’ve come here, it has changed from being solely about coming up, partying, and drinking, to having a really serious food culture, and that’s really good. I still think that even though we’re at it like 10 or 15 years, I think that the next 10 or 15 should hopefully cement… For me, I’d love Galway to be somewhere in between Copenhagen and San Francisco and Berlin. All of those places, but on a smaller level. I think for me, that’s the goal that I want to happen in Galway.
Catherine Moran: Certainly in terms of the raw materials, the ingredients have to be right, don’t they? They have to be there and Galway is just dripping with-
JP McMahon: –Yeah, Galway’s prime because you’ve got the sea on one side and you have all the fish coming in from Rossaveal [a thriving fishing port near Galway city]. Then you have the land in East Galway and you have so much good stuff. You have [county] Clare, which has got amazing cheeses, and you’ve got [county] Mayo as well. It’s just an absolutely epicentre of wonderful produce that surrounds us.
We’re very lucky, in Ireland, to have such good quality produce. I think it’s something that we’ve taken for granted for so long. Many people have rediscovered the quality of Irish food and ingredients, but for me, it was traveling to other countries and seeing what they celebrated and then saying, “God, we can celebrate this in Ireland.” We’re just not very good at taking pride and going, “We have amazing butter. We have amazing bacon. We have amazing beef.” For us, it was like, “Oh, well, it’s just beef.”
Then when you got to France and you go to America, you see that they absolutely laud Irish produce and then you go, “God, there’s something about this,” or they’re singing the praise of their produce and you go, “We have stuff that’s just as good in Ireland.” That’s what I realised from traveling, was that we need to celebrate this. That was one of the impetuses behind Food on the Edge, that so many of these chefs just don’t know what we do in Ireland. We take it for granted because we’re here and we go, “Oh, we’ve got great shellfish. We’ve got great beef.” But most of the guys that I’ve met on my travels with Cook it Raw or with other organisations, you’d explain it to them and they didn’t know anything about Irish food.
So that was one of the reasons why I wanted to try and have a symposium for chefs, but also to try and raise the bar and to try and give Irish chefs confidence in what they do. If we have other people coming that say, “Oh, god, this is wonderful,” sometimes it takes that it’s almost contradictory. It’s nearly the same in Galway, if someone in Dublin likes the restaurant, then Galway people will like the restaurant more. It’s the same thing, internationally. If someone internationally says, “This is fabulous,” then I think the people there get a sense of pride and that happens everywhere, I think.
Catherine Moran: It’s like external validation is required, often.
JP McMahon: Yeah, absolutely.
Catherine Moran: I think we’ve been very lacking in self-confidence about our food ingredients for decades, if not centuries. I think things are finally coming home to roost with the Irish food and drinks and it’s a very exciting area to work in. Should we move on to Food on the Edge now? You’ve mentioned that a couple of times and that’s a chef’s symposium. The first one happened last October, here in Galway. You are the organiser.
JP McMahon: Yeah, I was. I suppose the idea came about from traveling and from taking part in other symposiums that showcased different areas. As I said, that was one of the ideas behind Food on the Edge, was to bring a load of chefs to Galway who were of international standing, to showcase them Irish food, Irish cuisine, and then also to get a load of Irish chefs together to listen to them and hopefully to learn and to grow.
It took about a year to organise. It was up and down because we didn’t have any money and it was kind of moving just from an idea, from contacting these chefs, some of which I knew, some of which I was just sending out emails or tweets or contacting them directly on Facebook.
The symposium itself, even though it’s not necessarily a new idea, I think the way it came about is very much a product of its time, in the sense of ten years ago it would not have been possible to do something like this, to just contact people who certainly are, in my eyes, extremely famous people. Think of Mark Best, or Albert Adrià, or Nathan Outlaw, all of these chefs that came… Daniel Patterson.
With the power of social media, you just have to take the chance and say, “Look, I’m organising this conference now, would you like to come?” We said, “We’ll cover your flights and accommodation and your food, when you’re here.” We sent out hundreds, a lot of emails, and then we settled on about 45 with about 5 or 6 Irish chefs.
Yes, it was a really wonderful event. I couldn’t get over the reception of it. I suppose, when you’re in the middle of organising it, it’s hard to think, “How will people understand this? Will they get it?” No, I was really surprised. We sold out in the end — very, very late because Irish people are devils for just buying things at the last minute.
My wife was still worried, I think, up until two months previous, we still had 200 tickets to sell and she was like, “Oh my god. Is this a good idea? What have we done?” Then, in the end, we of course had people ringing me on the day looking for, “Just let me in to stand.” Of course, I tried to do the best that we could do but…
I think the fact that we used a Spiegeltent as a venue, which the comedy festival was using anyway and we partnered with them… There’s only a couple Spiegeltents left in Europe, around four or five. They’re a 19th–century carnival tent that was put up in places and then taken down again. I think that lent itself a certain kind of boutique quality.
I think Davide Scabin was saying that for him, it was like being at MAD, which for me was a massive compliment. I set up Food on the Edge because I could never get to MAD because either I was busy, or one year, I couldn’t get tickets, and another year I was too busy. It’s a great validation for people to say that, to say, “Oh, this is really good. It’s like MAD,” or even René from Noma sent me a message saying, “You’re doing great work. Keep it going.” It’s really good to hear that because at least then you don’t feel like, “Oh, god, is this worth it? Are we doing the right thing? Are people going to understand it?” Initially, people are going, “Why would you spend 350 Euro to listen to chefs talk for two days?”
But I do think the long-term consequences of it aren’t necessarily any direct actions, but there are so many possibilities that will come out of it, even if it’s just a chef who decides, “I’m going to use more organic produce.” That’s ticked. That’s, for me, the most important thing. Or, “I’m going to stop buying this processed product and I’m going to find an alternative,” or, “I’m going to change the way I treat my chefs,” or, “I’m going to change the opening hours of our restaurant so we’ll have better working conditions for the chefs.”
All these things came up. Sustainability. How we tackle the issue of the chef shortage, which is massive, not only all over the world but in Ireland and the UK, definitely. Nathan Outlaw spoke of that. Unfortunately, Sat Baines, who was supposed to come, hopefully he’ll come next year, he’s changed to a four-day week in his restaurant. All of those issues.
It was really nice to see that you had a very diverse bunch of people, from Singapore, from Mexico, from Australia, and all of them had the same concerns about ecological stuff, organic stuff, how to work with small farmers and producers so they have a more direct access to market. Everyone had the same concerns. Everybody. It really did feel like a little family of chefs.
The plan for next year is to… I suppose we’ve already started organising it and we’re releasing one speaker a week. We’ve already released eight speakers. It’s about 45 speakers, so by the time we finish announcing them, it’ll be next year. We’re bringing back five who spoke last year because I want there to be a certain continuity. I don’t want it just to be a symposium or conference and then everyone goes away, then you start again and you have a whole new crew and you changed the theme. So, the theme is going to stay the same: “The Future of Food.” That will be the theme of the conference every year.
The speakers will come and they’ll talk about it in personal or political ways. I think Mark Best, Matt Orlando, Sasu Laukkonen, and I think… I can’t remember the other two who are coming back… Tim Raue is coming back as well. They’re going to continue where they left off but also talk about what they’ve been doing for the year since. And even for those guys to say that they’ll come back… Nathan Outlaw is coming back as well, sorry. For those guys to come back and say, “If you’re doing it again, I’d love to come back.” That’s a great gesture towards the success of it.
Catherine Moran: Yeah, absolutely. How did you fund it?
JP McMahon: We funded it mostly ourselves. Fáilte Ireland [Ireland’s national tourism development authority] assisted us in a large part. About halfway through the project, they helped us a lot with flights and that. We had a couple of sponsors, like Fine Dining Lovers and La Rousse Foods [an Irish wholesale supplier of fine food and beverages]. Some smaller, in the context of Ireland… Ideally, we’re saying, “We’d love to just get one international sponsor,” but that never materialised so it was kind of like trying to get five grand from this person, five grand from this company. Hopefully, it will get easier. But, we’ve probably made a small loss on it, but not as much as we thought we would.
I always had the belief, naïve or otherwise, that if we put it on and put it out there and the calibre of speakers was there, that we would be able to fund it with the money that came through. I think if we had of had a slightly bigger venue, as well, because in the end, we were hoping to sell about 350 tickets and about 100 or so were speakers and media, so that only left 250 tickets. Then there was an issue with the speaker tent, where we lost about 30 tickets. We can look at that for next year, but they’re all learning things. I think if we keep the audience at about 350, which is for me, what I want to do because I don’t necessarily want it to get too big-
Catherine Moran: You would actually limit the size of-
JP McMahon: –Oh, yeah. We’re looking at a speaker tent for next year and it’s about 350 to 400 people. I think it’s viable. All we have to do is cover the cost of the festival. Just with the tent, we had about 270 seats this year, it was just a bit tight. When you have 50 speakers, they’re 50 seats. Then some of them bring partners and then you have media, and all of a sudden you’re 100 seats out already. It’s just about having about 200 seats more. I think that makes it nice and exclusive. Given that other events in the same nature, such as MAD or such as the LitFest, they all sell out as well, I think it’s nice to keep it in a small size where people feel that they’re getting the benefit of it and all of the events that we organised around it.
We had some music in there, Róisín Dubh, with Jerry Fish, and Lisa Hannigan, and we had some street performers. All the speakers went and all of the audience went, so there was no “speakers going one way and the audience…” For me, that was very important because I didn’t want it to be this kind of going on stage and stepping away… All of the speakers sat in the audience and they were approachable. We all had lunch together, outside the speaker tent. We did some street food and that, and showcased not only the food of The Burren but also a lot of foods from Connemara as well. That was important, as well. All of those things made it what it was.
Catherine Moran: What did you learn about running such a large conference?
JP McMahon: I suppose, you need a lot of people behind you. There was about ten of us on the team, in the end. Myself, my wife kind of project managed the entire thing, my sister, who is our graphic designer and she liaised a lot of the chefs. We had to take on a PCO, which I had no idea what it was, a professional conference organiser. They are the ones that organise the flights and all the logistics.
Yeah, it was an interesting educational thing. We had the people from the GMIT, which is the local chef college, assist us. All in different areas. Everything came together and that. For me, I’m very much an ideas person and I always need a really strong group of people to pursue that idea, no more than FARMER as well.
I’m always very communally orientated. I might know what I want in a very strong, egotistical way, but I know that it can’t be achieved without a strong group of people. I think organising the Galway Food Festival, which I’m one of the directors of as well, I learned through that, through working with a committee of ten or so to try and organise a city towards a certain food objective, which is difficult when you have all the businesses vying with each other. And to try and get them to come together over the weekend and, as I would say, pretend their friends, it’s difficult.
The more you do that, the more people see that they’re not really against each other, they’re all working together. We have a lot of tourists in the city, there’s, I don’t know, how many tourists that come, and if you have a good food business, then all the good food businesses will fill up. I think it’s just a learning experience.
Catherine Moran: You mentioned the word sustainability a few times … By the way, congratulations on being called Chef of the Year by Katie McGinnis and The Independent [one of Ireland’s national newspapers], a handful of days ago.
JP McMahon: Katie McInnis, yeah. Absolutely. Thank you.
Catherine Moran: She said, “The reason he’s my Chef of the Year is that his vision of the role of the chef, in terms of food education and sustainability, is bigger and better than anyone else’s. He put his money where his money where his mouth is and organized Food on the Edge.” I’m really interested in where your blue-sky thinking, big ideas for food come from. What’s your inspiration?
JP McMahon: I don’t know. I come from a non-food background, in the sense that I didn’t train to be a chef. I went to college and did English and Art History. I was always cooking. My father’s a physics lecturer. I don’t know why. I suppose, I’m very interested in the larger scheme of things, rather than the particularity of things. I think, for me, I always have a feeling that it’s never enough, whatever I’m doing, and that you’ve got to do more, I always say —whether that’s an illness or whether that’s a very positive thing, it’s hard to know.
Wanting to do more than I can, or wanting to see more than I’m seeing and just say… Take for example, the profession of being a chef. I’m trying to say, “I just don’t think it’s enough just to be in the kitchen cooking.” I think you have to take a social stance. And maybe that’s from running a restaurant as well, is that who you buy from marks you out. Then all of the decisions you make along the way, in relation to what you do as a chef and a restaurateur, create a certain ideology.
It’s not enough just to say, “I can’t do anything about that. I have to buy this, or I have to buy that, because that’s just the way it is.” I think the more people that make those decisions, they go, “No, we’re going to do this and if it costs more, then we’re going try and charge more or we’re going to try and teach people that maybe things shouldn’t be this price, maybe they should be another price.” That’s a massive issue.
The issue is obviously going to come down to cost and money in so many things, but I think that the focus should be on why are certain foods so cheap and how is that possible? For me, that’s a pressing concern. How can some foods be so cheap, that it’s almost unnaturally so, and what’s the costs to the environment, in the long-term?
I think that’s why it’s… Even, for example, organic vegetables. All the vegetables we use in the restaurant are organic, in the three restaurants, and a lot of restaurants say, “That’s not possible. It’s not viable.” It’s different when it comes to organic beef. I know beef farmers and there’s a lot more issues with just saying, “I’m going to be an organic beef farmer,” but in relation to vegetables, there’s no reason why 90% of your vegetables couldn’t be organic in Ireland, and only 2% of farmers, in Ireland, are organic, and 5% in Europe. We’re half the European average.
For me, when you look into not only the way the farming’s done, in relation to it’s natural cycle, but then also in relation to the absence of pesticides. So the one is the chemical and the other one’s the ecological. It’s a no brainer.
When you stand in the middle of a field and, say when we’re out and some of our organic farmers, they explain to you one of the reasons why they are. For me, it just seems like a no-brainer. Like why isn’t everyone doing this? Why isn’t this supported by the Government? Why isn’t this… So, it’s questions like that that really cause me to try to look at the bigger picture and really try to tackle some of these things in ways that I think that we can tackle them.
To be continued in Episode 44.