It has been almost 12 years since Nico Ladenis protégé Paul Flynn headed home for Ireland, unsure, in his own words, if he could actually cook.
"For so many years I had this great chef telling me what to do," he recalls. "By the end I wondered what my ability was - whether I even had any ability."
After nearly a decade working under Ladenis - including time heading up his Chez Nico restaurants in London's Great Portland Street and Park Lane - in 1997 Flynn headed back to set up his own restaurant in Dungarvan, County Waterford, with wife Máire, via a stint in Dublin.
Twelve years on, the Tannery has built a reputation among residents and tourists for its classically based, Irish-sourced menu a million miles away from the haute cuisine Flynn was turning out on Park Lane.
While his contemporaries in Ladenis's kitchens - such as Jason Atherton and Eric Chavot - have gone on to cook their own Michelin-starred cuisine, Flynn's style has gone in the opposite direction, towards a more rustic, instinctive fare.
"I became a lot less cheffy, that's for sure," says Flynn. "After I left Nico I wanted to leave all that refined style of food behind me. I didn't even know if I could cook. He was a great man, but I'd been told exactly what to do for nearly a decade."
What has carried over from Flynn's time with Ladenis is the French basis of his cooking, the consistency and the balance of flavours. Gone, though, is the intricate three-star cooking, replaced with gutsy, Irish food.
Bold flavours run through the à la carte menu, from starters of tortellini of corned beef, curly kale and turnip broth (€12) and glazed duck salad with Jerusalem artichoke, thyme and beetroot (€12.50) to mains of quail and foie gras pie with braised Savoy cabbage and Pedro Ximinez sauce (€29.50) and saddleback of pork with chickpeas and black pudding (€28).
There's a heartiness and generosity of portion in each dish as well as the obvious touch of an assured chef and more than a hint of Flynn's friend Richard Corrigan in his classic approach to Irish ingredients.
"It sounds clichéd, and I risk sounding like Corrigan, but it's French technique applied to our excellent Irish produce," Flynn says.
Desserts follow a similar template of well-cooked and gutsy comfort food, including warm chocolate mousse with violet jelly (€9.50) and rhubarb marshmallow with buttermilk sorbet (€9.50).
However, it is the early bird menu, implemented after the couple had been running the restaurant a year, that Flynn says keeps him cooking after 25 years now spent as a chef.
"We learnt a lot of lessons opening up the business," he says. "Pretty early on we were put in that box of a special occasion restaurant, which is a kiss of death. We have a population of 10,000 people round here and we need them to pop in for their tea."
Available from 6pm to 7.30pm Tuesday to Friday, the three-course menu is priced at €30 and is a lesson in keeping costs down and quality up. Dishes include an economically assembled truffle, cèpes and Parmesan risotto mouclade of mussels seared lamb's liver and kidneys with champ and braised cabbage and caramelised pork and bacon with celeriac rémoulade and roast shallots. Desserts include rhubarb meringue fool and chocolate mousse with violets.
COACHING THE TEAM
The skill of putting together this daily-changing menu, and coaching his three-strong team (soon to be four for the busy summer months) provides the spark each morning.
"I went to Nico as a boy, aged 19, and left as a man nine years later, but even then I was still being treated as a boy, being told what to cook the whole time," Flynn says. "These days I insist staff members come up with dishes for me. They might not get on first time but once we've worked on them and they go on the menu it gives them a great sense of pride."
The 75-cover restaurant has been joined by 14 rooms and a cookery school in the past five years as Flynn and his wife look to diversify their business. But his cooking still proves the main draw.
"We still don't have as strong a food culture as England," he says. "We have great ingredients but not the regional cuisine of England. However, we're getting there."
The Tannery Restaurant, 10 Quay Street, Dungarvan, County Waterford, Ireland
Tel: 00 353 58 45420www.tannery.ie
ALSO ON THE MENU
- Grilled market fish, potato and fennel soup with saffron dressing, €10
- Mousseline of smoked chicken, French onion casserole, €12
- Crab crème brûlée, pickled cucumber and melba toast, €12.50
- Pan-fried potato gnocchi, glazed root vegetables and red wine butter, €22
- Grilled cod, pickled mushrooms, spinach and aïoli, €27.50
- Seared scallops, celeriac cream, peas and chorizo croquettes, €29.50
- Banana semi fredo with toffee sauce, €9.50
- Blood orange and yogurt panna cotta, €9.50
- Warm chocolate mousse with violet jelly, €9.50
- Rhubarb marshmallow with buttermilk sorbet, €9.50
- Warm honey and orange madeleines with citrus yogurt, €9.50