Over Ethiopian INJURA BREAD in a silent dining room, KEVIN THORNTON contemplates the future
Sad tidings I bring for vegans, vegetarians and caring foodies of the world. Even the carrots are weeping. This is not a valedictory metaphor for master chef Kevin Thornton, whose legendary restaurant closed its door two weeks ago on the spookily chosen weekend of Hallowe’en. The weeping carrot is a literal part of Thornton’s world view, formed – as all who know him or who read his columns in THE GLOSS where he wrote from 2006 to 2008 – at a tender age when, while working at an abattoir, he had an extraordinary insight: all animals knew they were about to be slaughtered especially the pigs, who cried. Over the years his insight has embraced all of nature.
“Anything that’s living has to be taken from the ground with respect,” he says. “If the soil is dry and you put down water, and then a microphone, you hear crackling – the carrot crying as it comes back to life again.” It’s not as daft as it seems: “Some Indian cultures won’t eat the apple until it drops.” He is not advocating a society for the prevention of cruelty to vegetables, but he is stern. “Vegetarians should understand that
vegetables have to be respected, not pulled from the ground and let rot in the fridge.” And he walks the walk: his account of the killing of his own cattle is more like an assisted death than slaughter.
The restaurant is not yet closed when we meet, but I am having a Winterfell moment. In the empty room the tables are impeccable – all silver and white – but there is no bustle, no smell. True, there’s no food, but something more fundamental is missing. I mention photographer Mike Bunn, who loves to snap the remains of the dinner party – wine-stained cloth, ends of cheese and fruit, dropping flower petals – curiously conveying the spirit of the vanished guests.
“Perhaps we’ll get him to photograph our last evening,” exclaims Muriel, Thornton’s wife and business partner. “Have you seen his portrait of Kevin?” It turns out Bunn is an old pal. She brings me to a diptych, which covers a whole wall – one panel showing Thornton in Fellini-esque fallen angel profile, the other an exploding star – bearing the legend “You are not a star – you are Supernova.”
There it is. Upfront. The vexed question of that Michelin star, controversially taken away after 20 years, leading those ignorant of the indomitability of the Thorntons to conclude it was the catalyst for the closure. The Michelin loss is emblazoned and confronted, like much in their lives, through art, friendship, and music reference. It has no power to hurt now.
And Supernova? That’s the star which exploded from having too much matter. Thornton has matter a-plenty – chef, artist (his blue tuna sculpture is acclaimed), voyager, photographer, teacher – but the combustibility, one suspects, is deliberately nurtured. It fires all he does, from the mundane to the sublime: from teaching the children in Crumlin National School (from whence he has come) about collecting and growing herbs for cooking ribbon pasta, to proclaiming his great passion for Muriel.
“I always dreamt of Muriel before I met her, dreamt of meeting someone who understood me. We are soulmates.” She agrees. Clearly at Thorntons the plat du jour is a plat d’amour. Their first date was at a Lou Reed concert. He told her he had a spare ticket – it cost him a fortune. One can only imagine the dynamic of that meeting – the blonde ingenue and the young man with the elfin Bob Dylan aura. He was livid because the organisers wouldn’t turn the lights down. Their long walk on the wild side has its traditional side too. “I told her I would always take care of her.”
Who takes care of whom might be a moot point in this relationship: their separate roles work seamlessly. For all his talk of the earth, she comes across as the earthed one; he the dreamer. “When you’re creative you have to push your boundaries and go to the unknown,” he says. “We have a mortgage of course,” she says. “But we have a lot of equity in the house.”
Between them, they have decided the bread we shall break will be Ethiopian injura bread. His description of the fermentation process involved is stomach churning; the reality is ambrosial. “It’s like pancakes. The French took it from them.” Injura bread will be Kevin’s staple diet for the next month, as he heads off to Ethiopia. “It’s the best way to organise the comedown from twenty six years of this,” he says.
She frets and is “keeping an eye on the situation.” He is phlegmatic, having gone twice a year since 2011. “The Ethiopians are quite like the Irish. They sent us aid during the Famine. Some people wanted them to do western food. But for me it was to teach the value of their own food. I thought it would make me a better teacher if I could understand more.”
They acknowledge they agonised over the last few months. That’s over. “I’m so happy. If I stayed I wouldn’t be able to breathe,” he says.
“We’re packing it up, but we’re taking it with us. The creativity, the sense of theatre, born from respect for nature,” she says. The first project is Kevin Thornton Kooks. “With a K for Kevin, because he cooks and because of the Bowie song.” It’s an umbrella for many things, but especially Thornton’s masterclasses in their home, which are fully booked for March.
“We are going to have a long Christmas – for the first time in 26 years,” they say. “And spend time with the family.” So why Hallowe’en? “It is supposed to be the closure. The beauty of going into hibernation.” Can anybody see that happening?
Illustration by Lauren O’Neill
This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our December issue, out Thursday, December 1.
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