FARMER: A Vision for Healthy and Sustainable Fast Food
Today’s episode, the second of a two-part series, features Jp McMahon, a chef, restaurateur and food activist based in Galway, a city on the west coast of Ireland with a buzzing food and drink scene. I recommend you listen to that episode, which is episode 43, Eat Galway and Food on the Edge, before listening to this episode.
Today’s episode opens with Jp describing his idea for a fast food franchise called FARMER, including his Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for it.
Other topics Jp discusses include how he strives to express location — in Jp’s case, that would be Galway and one of the most magical places on earth, Connemara — in his cooking. And, a bit of fun, whether his cooking style can be compared with James Joyce or Samuel Beckett. Jp, I should mention, is an English lit graduate and lover of literature.
The show closes with Jp describing a boat trip with fellow chefs on a choppy sea to one of the Aran Islands during the inaugural Food on the Edge symposium. Food on the Edge is an annual chefs’ gathering (now in its second year) that Jp organises with his wife and business partner, Drigín. You can hear more about that in the first part of this episode.
What You’ll Hear About in this Episode
Jp McMahon talks about:
- his experience of launching a Kickstarter campaign for FARMER, his proposed fast food franchise
- the importance of investing in strong branding for your food (or drink) business
- how, in order to challenge anything you have to engage with that thing
- how sustainability has moved from being a buzz word to being good business practice
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Get the Show Transcript
If audio isn’t your thing, you can download a transcript of the show here: Ep #044. JP McMahon (2). Can Fast Food be Healthy and Sustainable?.
You can also find the full transcript of the show at the end of this post.
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
- The Friendly Farmer
- Castlemine Farm
- Daniel Patterson
- Daniel Patterson to step away from Coi
- Roy Choi
- LocoL — Revolutionary Fast Food
- The Aran Islands
- Aran Islands Goats’ Cheese
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Transcript of the Show
Catherine Moran: That leads us on nicely to FARMER. You are currently running a crowd funded campaign, I think on Kickstarter-
JP McMahon: Yeah.
Catherine Moran: -For FARMER? Would you outline your vision for FARMER?
JP McMahon: I suppose FARMER has been in genesis for about 2 years, and it originally started from talking to 2 farmer friends of ours. Ronan Byrne who’s a chicken and duck farmer, and Brendan who is a beef and lamb and pork farmer, and they’re small farmers. They’re of a new generation of farmers that I think are social media savvy, they’re very much into marketing their product as opposed to just sending the animal off to the Co-op and it’s just sold in a very generic way.
They were kind of saying, “Well God, we can’t produce any more to sell the way that we’re selling it because we’ve kind of exhausted that, because of the price we’re selling at. We can sell to certain restaurants, other than that we’re too dear for the supermarkets, we can’t really get in there. How do we grow and how do we expand?”
We sat down together and we talked about, “Well what if we did a restaurant that the farmers owned?” We talked about this and we looked at various options over the last 2 years, then I think following Daniel Patterson’s talk in Food on the Edge about his concept for fast food, LocoL.
Catherine Moran: Ah yes, Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi?
JP McMahon: Roy Choi.
Catherine Moran Yes!
JP McMahon Who were doing a kind of fast food franchise that’s going to use good food, but sell it at the price point of fast food in very disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Daniel is leaving his 2-Michelin star, Coi. He’s still going to be the owner but he’s stepping down as head chef to tackle this project. Because, I suppose, for Daniel — Daniel’s been a part of Coi for 10 years — it feels similar in a sense that a lot of times when you’re in the context of fine dining you’re preaching to the converted.
The people that come in through your door believe in organic food and they believe in good food. There’s only so many people you can convince that way. And to really try and tackle things you have to go out into areas that are the unknown.
The developing of that, I thought, “Well what if we set up a fast food franchise that would mirror the fast food industry in the sense of its products and its marketing and all those other things, but actually had substance in relation to its food.”
So the pork and beef would come from good farms; the vegetables would be organic; the potatoes would be Irish. Simple things that most people, I think, would never even think of in relation to fast food, or most people would just say, “Oh yes, it’s just a potato.” I mean, the potato itself, look we had the famine over a potato.
It is a massive thing, and it doesn’t make sense to me, if you can buy potatoes in Ireland that are from Israel, that are cheaper than Irish potatoes, there’s something wrong fundamentally with our system, or with the global system. You see it if you walk into any restaurant on any given day in Dublin, I’m sure 70% of them will have boxes of Israeli baby potatoes, and that’s purely at a price point.
And often I think it’s a lot of bigger establishments that won’t even look at the issue of provenance, they’ll just go, “Well, look, a potato’s a potato, and we’ll just buy a potato and we’ll get it at the best price we can get it at.”
But to have a fast food restaurant that would care about provenance and the ethics of animal welfare, so the animals wouldn’t be all from a factory where they’re being killed en masse, where there will be a bit of care and consideration there, or that some of the elements on the menu would utilise much more of the animal. Whether it’s… you have your burgers and then you have other elements where we’re going to use this, these parts of the animals, so just a beef cheek, or the oxtail, or the ox tongue, all things that we use in Aniar and we use in Cava, and to have that. So it’s kind of like to mirror the system, but also to put in other things where people might learn a bit as well.
I do think, unfortunately, the busiest restaurants in the world are fast food restaurants or casual dining fast food places. I think to try and challenge the sector you have to engage with that sector, rather than just keep giving out about it.
The mistake that people make is that it’s cheap food, but we’ve already talked about the fact that it’s not cheap because it costs the environment a lot.
When you look at fast food menus, the mark up on food in fast foods is crazy; it has such a high mark up. I suppose most of the money is made there. So the paradox is that people think that they’re getting value there as opposed to value in a more expensive restaurant, but you’ll probably have better value in a more expensive restaurant because the produce is better, or even in a casual dining restaurant where they use good food.
The difficulty is that you have a sector that makes the most money and puts the least amount of effort into the food, and people think it’s the best value, and it feeds the most people.
I’m sure it’s the same in England, there are certain disadvantaged areas in Dublin, and you wouldn’t even imagine, people eat 3 times a day in fast food places. They have breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it’s for 3 to 5 pounds, or 3 to 5 euro. People think that’s not sustainable, it’s not nutritionally good, but it’s not sustainable in the sense of how can you feed someone for 3 euro in a restaurant with 3 meals and still make money out of that. If you’re selling a burger for a euro, your cost price must be 20 or 30 cent, I don’t even know how that’s possible to make something of substance for 20 or 30 pence. Even in this scale of mass-producing. So there are so many issues. I think that using good food and being a little bit more expensive, when you’re talking a little bit more, you’re talking like 50 cent, or a euro.
For me, when I look at independent fast foods, all of them operate say between the 3 euro mark to say 10 euro, there’s nothing more expensive than 10, and there’s nothing cheaper than 3, even if you look at a bag of chips or something, it’s like 3.50 or something like that. I definitely think that we can produce a food that is sustainable, not only on the environmental sense, but in the business sense, it’s sustainable to sell stuff at a price, like a chicken meal. If you look at the price of a chicken meal in an independent fast food place, it’s about 8.50.
I’ve talked to Ronan and I said, “I know I can sell your chicken for that price and make money so the staff are paid and the bill’s are paid, I know that’s possible.” It’s just about, I suppose, taking a bit of a leap of faith, but also I think of not expecting as much back. I think when people open restaurants, particularly who might not necessarily have, I suppose, the ethics that we do, and this happened a lot I think in the Celtic Tiger, where people just thought, “Oh I want to open a café, or I want to open a place because it’s cool and we can make a lot of money.” I think it’s those types of places that give the false impression that that stuff is cheap, whereas it’s not really at all.
Catherine Moran: Yeah, the local venture that’s on the west coast, isn’t that right? In the States?
JP McMahon: Yeah, and there’s a few other ones. I think there’s an organic fast food restaurant now that’s opened up in New York. There’s probably 5 or 6 little projects. As Daniel said, I spoke to him and someone was saying, “Oh what if someone copies you?” He said, “I hope someone copies me.” Because there are too many of the McDonald’s and even when it goes to the States, you’ve got Wendy’s, you have so much more of them in the States. To even to try and combat that a little bit, that would also nurture the community, and that’s one of Daniel’s ideas, is that you would employ people from the community, you would pay them a fair wage so communities that have no work, that eat a lot of fast food, would actually benefit, and they would still be eating the same food but it would just be better for them, that’s all. People are going to continue to eat fast food anyway, so why not just make it better?
Catherine Moran: It’s part of the vernacular, not only in Ireland, and in the UK, but really internationally, McDonald’s isn’t it — “You’re going for a McDonald’s”. But it would be nice to swap it out for something that was actually good for you.
JP McMahon: And not feel so guilty, because, in essence, there’s nothing bad in a burger or chips, there’s nothing bad for you in those foods, it’s the way that they’re produced. And 30 or 40 years ago we didn’t have this problem. The ways in which they make these foods now, or whether you make chips that aren’t from potatoes, or that you make-
Catherine Moran: It’s to do with the advances in food technology isn’t it?
JP McMahon: That’s what I mean. You make a burger from mechanically reclaimed meat. That technology wasn’t there. There’s nothing detrimentally bad for you in a burger, it’s the way that it’s produced. Okay, of course if you eat too many of them, but if you eat too much of anything… There’s no reason just to focus on a burger and chips. If we eat too much bread, or if you eat too much anything, it’s going to be bad for you. Moderation, of course. There’s nothing inherently bad in a bag of chips, it’s just the way that they are made.
Catherine Moran: If you don’t raise the cash [for FARMER], because Kickstarter operates on a time limited thing doesn’t it?
JP McMahon: It only gives you 60 days. We’re over half way through it. It’s looking very unlikely that we’ll raise all the money, but I don’t feel too bad about that in the sense that the idea that we’ve been sitting on for 2 years has garnered so much attention from doing the Kickstarter programme, and that in itself has great benefit.
Not even talking to yourself, but talking to Katie in The Sunday Times, like all of those things. Now I think that we have a manifesto as well because when you do these crowd–funding projects you really have to think about it and write everything down, and that was something I hadn’t really done. So we have a coherent map there of what we want to do, and so there are other avenues that I am going to look at.
If this doesn’t work there’s another crowd–funding platform which offers people equity, and that’s something maybe I’ll look at. That’s probably looking at different… maybe farmers to buy into it, I don’t know, but it’s something certainly that either way, we still hope that sometime in the late 2016 that we’d be able to open up a small unit. Because between ourselves and Brendan and Ronan, we have a little development kitchen already and so we have-
Catherine Moran: Is that here in Galway?
JP McMahon: Yeah, just in Oranmore. We have a little development kitchen and that. We have certain things. For me, the best place to put it is in Dublin because we have highest footfall, but saying that, what we’re really looking for is a small premises to come up because the previous thinking was that we had looked at building a restaurant called FARMER, and the cost was just astronomical, it was like three or four hundred thousand euro. Money that we just couldn’t get together between the three of us. So, thinking on a smaller scale of a kind of small fast food restaurant.
This is where we’ll need a lot more help in relation to the design team, and that, because I want to, from when people step into FARMER, that the whole place is kind of singing off the same hymn sheet. Whether it’s the trays that we use, whether it’s the napkins, I mean in terms of being recyclable and biodegradable, the packaging, everything will have to be sustainable.
It won’t just be, “Oh we have a cool idea, we’re going to do the food and we’re just going to leave everything else to itself.” I think that happens a lot and there’s so many great restaurants, particularly in Dublin, that open up with great ideas, and everything else is just left to, “well that’s just the restaurant” or “we can’t really deal with that.” To try and take the whole package, down to the wood of the restaurant, down to everything, is that can we put it all together so that when someone walks in they’ll know straight away, “I get the message of this place.” It’s not just about selling food and trying to put an idea forward; it’s about a holistic way of thinking.
Catherine Moran: It’s branding, though, as well, isn’t it?
JP McMahon: Yeah, I think really strong branding and I think that the Irish people, and maybe this is the same in relation to food, that we’re almost afraid to brand certain things. We say, “Oh well if you’re branding it you’re turning corporate.” I don’t think that’s the case because you can have good branding and you can have good corporations so it’s not necessarily… I think it’s just that when things get over branded and you look at the large brands of the world like Coca-Cola, that’s when people see, “Oh, that’s what happens when you brand something.” It’s not really, and I think we’re learning that, even if you look at the great cheeses that we have in Ireland.
I mean there are brands, if you look at Durrus or you look at Gubeen, and they have logos. That’s all part and parcel of building a business community, and building a community that cares about food and sustainability, but also that understands that for things to distinguish from other things, we need strong branding. I think we’re learning that.
Catherine Moran: We’ve clearly established that you are an activist chef, but I’ve also seen you described as a bookish chef. I know you have a great grá, which is the Irish word for “love”, a great grá for James Joyce, the works of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.
JP McMahon: Absolutely.
Catherine Moran: And while these two writers are a part of a continuum, the great Irish literary tradition, to my mind anyway, they’re poles apart in terms of their style. What I would like to ask you is which literary style is your cooking most like, that of James Joyce or Samuel Beckett?
JP McMahon: It’s very difficult, I think-
Catherine Moran: It’s a horrible question, I know.
JP McMahon: –I know. The older I get, the more I like James Joyce, I don’t know why that is. I think when I was younger, Samuel Beckett, I suppose, appeals to the teenage mind. It also appeals to the mature mind as well, but I’ve always driven between the two of them.
Beckett is a minimalist and Joyce is an encyclopaedist. I suppose maybe in the sense of having different restaurants, for me, Aniar is like my Samuel Beckett in the sense that it’s very pure, very minimalist. We’re always getting rid of things, we’re always trying to cut things out that aren’t Irish, going, “Do we need this product?” Can we find an Irish alternative? Can we make it without it?” Say we don’t use black pepper in the restaurant and after a while you don’t miss it any more and you find different alternatives, people just get used to not having it.
I think the other side of me in relation to Cava and to the gastro pub and to FARMER is like Joyce, just constantly trying to push out more, and more, and more to see what I can learn and to see how food can be done differently. So, it’s very difficult, I think it depends on my mood.
I suppose, for me, when I’m cooking on an individual level I do favour clean lines and I favour minimalism in relation to the amount of ingredients, most of the time. Even if you look at the menu of Cava and here [Aniar], the dishes are built around three or four principal ingredients, particularly for Aniar in the sense that we change the menu daily, or the menu changes daily, rather. The menu changes when stuff changes. If we have a dish for eight weeks, we have it for eight weeks. If something drops off then it changes.
But sometimes the menu will change twice in one night because we’d have, say, pheasant that would run out, and we’d just go onto pork belly and the garnish would change slightly. It’s a very contingent thing, but all of the ingredients, or all of the dishes are made up of three or four ingredients.
Last night we had hogget on and we had a bit of roast onion, a little bit of pickled onion, and we had it with some pickled ramsons. Then we had some onion powders because we dried the onions as well. So, sometimes we’re looking at an ingredient from three or four different ways, but we’d only have three or four ingredients on the plate. If we can get away with three, so we could say, “Oh let’s put the lamb and the onion and … ” Say we had it with a liquorice sauce, and I put those three things together and can we get something else out of the onion, or can we get something out of the lamb. Is there any other way we can push it?
For me, the best dishes are three or four bold, contrasting flavours, where people can really see what they’re eating. There’s no camouflage or no hiding, if you have hogget, and onion, and liquorice, then you can see those elements, and it’s not like in context sometimes when you get into fine dining and you have like seven to ten things on the plate and you can’t even find some of the ingredients on the plate. For me it’s very much about transparency.
Catherine Moran: I was going to say, and things laid bare.
JP McMahon: Yeah, and I think that ties in with the West of Ireland and with Connemara, and all of those things. Actually, the restaurant’s getting a makeover in January, so hopefully the floor will be dark and we’re going to have a Connemara stone wall at the back there.
We’re opened five years and we were recently in Copenhagen and we went to four or five restaurants as a little research project. Not really in relation to food but the Scandinavians do design so well. We have these new chairs, but all the chairs will be like this, so these are just five of them and we’re going to change them all to that. For me it’s about trying to bring nature in. When we opened this space first it was very clean, and actually one person, they said, “Oh I thought it was a dentist’s” from passing by. I get the sense that there is a lot of straight lines and that.
What I want to try and do is to bring in wood, and stone, and the sea, to bring them in in elements so when people sit in the room, a bit like the little wooden sculptures that we have here — a carpenter built them for us — because just to try and bring wood or nature in in a metaphoric way. Hopefully that was just the start of it; we’re going to bring in a little more. The design of the restaurant is very important for me in relation to the type of food that you’re eating, and it all plays into the same agenda.
Catherine Moran: If you want to bring Connemara in you’re going to have to bring the wild in as well.
JP McMahon: Oh, absolutely, and I think we have it in the food. So it’s constantly trying to push the boundaries in the sense of how natural and wild can you make the restaurant and people would still be comfortable sitting in it. You can put the wild in your food, whether it’s seaweed — and we use so much seaweed from Connemara in the food — or the wild and foraged ingredients. It’s trying to bring the wild into the design of the place and have things there, even if it’s just gestures. Even if it’s just dried seaweed.
We’ve looked at a way of doing seaweed sculptures or something like that, of trying to point out, so when people are sitting in the restaurant they can go, “Oh look, that’s the food we’re eating.” Even like the pickles and the ferments that we have here, and all our different vinegars, they’re there for people to look at and go, “Oh God”… sometimes the waiters can say, “This is the vinegar in your dish tonight,” or something like that. Again, it’s just about constantly trying to investigate what we’re doing, and then materialising that or trying to make that concrete in a more direct way.
Catherine Moran: Sounds wonderful. I’d like to wish you the very best for Food on the Edge and particularly FARMER. It will be very much watch this space-
JP McMahon: Well you’ll have to come next year. The 24th and 25th of October. We took them to the Aran Islands last year. We had 2 days chef excursions, so hopefully we’re going to take them into Connemara and hopefully to the middle one, Inis Meáin. We went to Inish Mór and hopefully we’ll go to Inis Meáin this time. Because they really loved it and I couldn’t have actually realised how much the chefs would have loved the Aran Islands. I just never even thought about it, it was just kind of, “Oh we’ll go to the Aran Islands.” Particularly Mark Best, the Australian chef, who went up to Dun Aengus, and that sense of culture, and that sense of depth of history-
Catherine Moran: -and edge.
JP McMahon: Yeah, I suppose when you think about Australia and America, they’re such new countries, and they were really, really taken away with that. For me, you take it for granted. The Aran Islands, the tourist’s go out there, you never really have time to go there and think about the place. It’s nice to get that external-
Catherine Moran: Perspective isn’t it?
JP McMahon: Yeah, I think so. It’s just nice for someone else to go, “This is amazing.” Then you go, “Oh wow!” Because when you think of Australia and America you think of all the Grand Canyon and all those sites, you think, “Oh, we just don’t have those things.” Then when you’re standing by Dun Aengus with the wall of cliffs and you’re thinking, “God, we really do have this stuff.” I think the sun came out and everything. It was just so glorious, and you were going, “Oh God, I couldn’t have planned it better.”
Catherine Moran: Did you fly or sail?
JP McMahon: No, no, no, we sailed. That was nice as well because it was a little bit choppy. It was nice. It was a kind of a sense of leaving the land and going out to a more ancient place. We went to the seaweed farm on the Aran Islands, we went to the goat cheese farm [Aran Islands Goats’ Cheese], and then we went to Dun Aengus. It was nice. I think the guys that came along with us really got a sense of what’s new and what’s old in Irish culture. You’ve got a new and sustainable ways of making cheese, and harvesting seaweed, but at the same time we’ve been eating seaweed for thousands of years. It was really great.
Catherine Moran: Wonderful. JP, thank you so much for your time.
JP McMahon: Thank you very much.
Catherine Moran: I hope you enjoyed finding out about the buzzing food scene in Galway and thank you once again to JP for taking the time to talk to me. You can find JP on Twitter as @mistereatgalway and you can find out more about his three restaurants at http://eatgalway.ie/. The website for Food on the Edge is http://www.foodontheedge.ie/.
All links mentioned in the show are available at the show’s website, which is www.myartisanbusiness.com. And you can download a free transcript of my conversation with JP there.
To get updates on when I publish new episodes of the show, subscribe to my email list and I’ll let you know when new episodes are live. So that’s all at myartisanbusiness.com.
You can find me on Twitter as @FoodDrinkShow, so please get in touch if you have any comments or questions or suggestions — you can always reach me there.
Until next time, I’m Catherine Moran, happy cooking, happy brewing, happy fermenting, happy distilling, and thank you for listening.