More than once dubbed as ‘The King of Casual Dining in Ireland’, when you see Joe Macken walking seemingly nonchalantly through Dublin with his pooches Fennel and Farrell you’d be mistaken for thinking he’s out for a midday stroll. But in reality, Joe is probably flitting between one of his several wildly successful eateries; Crackbird, Jo’Burger Smithfield and Castle Market, Skinflint and, most recently, “Jo’Burger all grown up”, Hey Donna.
Joe grew up in a hotel in Slane, an experience he describes as “totally unique”, giving him a very early taste of the service industry. He considered the staff there a second family in a way – “or a circus depending on your outlook” – but later he went to a boarding school in Dublin leaving the neolithic Valley of Kings and “wild natural mythicism” behind for a more metropolitan life.
Jo’Burger Rathmines (now Hey Donna) threw open its doors in 2007, winning restaurant of the year award in 2009 and bringing something to the table, figuratively and literally, that Dublin had never seen before. Over the coming years, everything cool about food culture in the capital stemmed from Joe’s creations.
Crackbird was perhaps the most important in consolidating the Macken empire as dozens of musicians who passed through the city professed their love publicly for their seriously addictive chicken. Originally planned as a 12-week pop-up in 2011 on Crane Lane in Temple Bar, it’s become an institution. Over the years artists as diverse as Jessie Ware, Professor Green, Shlomho and Charli XCX, who recently said she was looking forward to her show in Croke Park with Taylor Swift “but mainly the fried chicken”, have grazed there.
Through fresh and local ingredients, clued in staff, DJ sets in the restaurants at weekends and staying constantly ahead of the curve, Joe’s restaurants have become part of the vernacular for discerning Dubliners. We sit down with him in his south city apartment, alongside his dogs, for a conversation about the city’s food culture and what else makes Dublin’s dining don tick.
Dining seems to be such an all-consuming part of your life, but what outside of restaurant culture motivates and drives you?
I’m fairly driven by food, wine, restaurant culture all the time, it’s quite consuming – we have six premises with five restaurants and we always need to change and improve. We also just had a fire in one of our properties, so it’s a 24/7 rollercoaster, and that’s before you change the menus… And I’m working a new bar in one of our spaces too. So when all that’s put to bed it’s friends and family in the normal run of the month.
I’m hoping to make more time in my life moving forward for travel and other projects that are not based around my business.
Did you always want to work in this industry, or growing up did you have any other aspirations?
I wanted to read the news, be a ballerina and design stuff. In a way the restaurant is a dance… Now I dream about making cheese, rearing rare breed cattle and living near the sea – come back to me in 10 years.
Hey Donna in particular showcases a real diversity in taste and inspiration. Do you travel to find out about these new recipes?
I don’t see it that way at all, Hey Donna to me is Jo’Burger plus 10 years, or its me and my tastes plus 10 years… The same core things inspire me, make it in house, buy well from smaller suppliers, keep it fresh, cook it to order, give people doggie bags – reduce the waste. The same places inspire me too, South Africa, Korea, Australia and Lebanon, which in ways are all of our restaurants jumbled into one.
I’d love to travel more to eat more, but I find I can’t. But sometimes you can discover foods from around the world in cities nearer to you. I’m hoping to get to Zanzibar this year and Philippines in early 2019 with Anthony [Joe’s partner].
When did you start out as a restauranteur?
11 years ago, we opened Jo’Burger in Rathmines, it was sort of by accident. I had two sandwich bars in town, through the jigs and reels of a property thing I ended up with an extra property and I needed to do something with it.
When you say by accident, did you have a food background at all?
I grew up in a hotel and I had food businesses, I worked as a hotel manager, that’s what I went off to college and did. Jo’Burger just sort of came around, it’s a bit like the way Dublin is now, where people are just fucking addled by money you know?
You can really see it and feel it. Dublin was in the height of the boom and there were people going around with five grand bags and they needed a chair to put their bag on and everyone had become really fussy. I wanted something that was the antithesis of that.
You know exactly what to expect when you go to each of your restaurants. Do you think that’s one of the reasons why they’ve lasted and been so well received?
They should be sort of like verbs, you know? I grew up in a small country hotel and in a small country hotel you’ve got these mad things like a wedding out the back, a funeral in the front room, lads having pints, there could be Sunday lunch and it’s like mixed farming – it just doesn’t work. So I’m trying to make our places easy so instead of seeing 100 things on the menu you go in and see that there’s just burgers, or just pizzas, or just chicken.
How important do you feel food culture is for a city like Dublin?
I think food culture is important for any culture. It’s mad in Ireland, because we didn’t have one and we’re still trying to find our feet. What we do have is unbelievable ingredients, we have access to unbelievable food in Ireland, we produce unbelievable dairy, amazing fish, the meat that’s coming out of the country is incredible. Food culture is now about how we get these things to the customer.
Has that made opening a place like Hey Donna easier because there are these amazing natural ingredients and people love the idea of traceability, from farm to fork?
Yes and no! It’s great to have access to amazing produce, we’ve access to amazing vegetables so we don’t have to be as meat heavy. It’s exactly the same as what Jo’Burger was when we opened up 11 years ago. As I said earlier, it’s more where I’m at now. As you grow up your palate changes or your lifestyle changes and, you know what, I think Dublin is changing.
When we opened up Jo’Burger it was the only place to go for a burger apart from Eddie Rockets, people used to drive for an hour to go for a Jo’Burger and wait in a queue for another half hour. I remember one night people were out waiting outside in the snow.
What do you think about the food fads and trends in Dublin. Do you think it’s funny that one week it’s donuts, the next is burgers?
I think we’re faddish. Instagram fads, everything. Everyone is expecting stuff to look a certain way, but I think if things are good quality people will always come back for it. If you go somewhere regularly and get a shit meal once you won’t mind, but if it happens twice or three times you won’t go back and that knocks fads. If something has integrity it’ll last, I believe.
The people that work in your spaces are almost as important as the food that’s being served, I don’t know if you’d agree with that? There are heads in there that you’d recognize from being out and about. Was that a conscious thing when you starting off or did you just enjoy working with like-minded people?
It was totally conscious. For one, not to say that I’m temperamental, but I just couldn’t be working with people that I didn’t like. Life’s about being happy, there’s no point in being unhappy.
I think it’s really important when you visit anywhere that when you go into a restaurant or pub that the person serving you can actually discuss and talk to you about where they’re from and know everything about it. They don’t have to be from Ireland, but they have to live it, they have to live Dublin. You want staff to engage with people.
Aesthetically your restaurants have always been on point and ahead of the masses. Why is design such an important aspect?
If your restaurant doesn’t have a cohesive message it will not work, design is the bit people see before they walk in the door. That is so important, if you can’t do it yourself get a designer, but know what you need. Know the message, know your market.
I mentioned heads, for people that understand food, or know about food, you are a head in Dublin, we spoke to Mango and he was comfortable with the idea of being a head…
Mango is a total head… [Laughs]
What does the term ‘head’ mean for you and what does it mean to be a reference point or figure in Dublin that people look up to?
To me heads are the current group of people that are literally styling the city. You see them posse-ing up and down South William Street, that’s what I’d normally think of a head.
If you come to Dublin from elsewhere, thinking you’re coming to a capital city, you find out Dublin is about three streets wide and everything that happens outside of those streets is the suburbs, realistically. It’s a really small space. It’s sort of growing now, we’re going to see Capel Street and other places actually beginning to grow.
You’ve said before that you like to walk the Great South Wall. Is Dublin’s unique location in being so close to the sea, the mountains and countryside a little less claustrophobic?
Physically, yes it’s less claustrophobic than European cities like London, Amsterdam or Paris, but the small size can be socially suffocating if you want to avoid heads. We’ve all gone through a bad break up at sometime or another and had to vacate South William/Fade Street…
But I love getting out of town and going to the Phoenix Park, North Bull Island or especially the South Bull Wall – Dublin is such an odd city in that we ignore our natural assets like the fecking river in the middle of town.
What are the characteristics of Dublin people that you like and admire the most?
I love the whole “Fuck it, it’ll be grand” attitude. I’m very much like that. It’s really local, it’s just so small and there’s a village mentality, and I love that.