It's like the world has caught up with me," says Richard Corrigan, with a wry smile. He's talking about the farm-to-table trend in 2010s London – chefs looking to the farm to dictate their menu, practising responsible farming methods and cultivating kitchen gardens. "Everyone talks about farm-to-table and seasonality and I'm like 'What? I've done that all my life.'"
At nowhere is this more evident than at Corrigan's, the Mayfair restaurant he took over and rebranded in 2008, with a focus on game and wild food. But Corrigan's career has been nothing if not eclectic. Following a sous chef job at Oak Room in Piccadilly under Jean-Michel Lorain, he found himself working at Bentley's Oyster Bar & Grill nearby in the mid-1990s. After gaining a Michelin star at Lindsay House in Soho, he returned to Bentley's in 2005, this time as owner, though always with an eye on preserving its 100-plus years of history. "Bentley's is an English tavern and I'm its custodian," he says. "And I never want people to say 'There was an Irish guy running it 30 years ago and he destroyed it.'"
Now, after almost 20 years of owning his two London restaurants – as well as the country house Virginia Park Lodge in Cavan, Ireland, which he made a silent vow to buy in the middle of his wedding night there – he's just opened his third, Daffodil Mulligan. And if you didn't think his career was eclectic before, consider an Irish restaurateur forged in Piccadilly and Mayfair opening a folk and jazz bar in East London named after an Irish punk band's rendition of a 1930s folk song and… well, you'll catch my drift.
As for the food, though it differs from Bentley's and Corrigan's, the farm-to-table ethos is just as much in effect – evidenced by the way he talks about the pumpkins that have recently arrived from the "just unbelievable" team who manage his operations' gardens in Ireland. "I'd like to think that the food will evolve into something really tasty," he says, "where people will go and have something really nice to eat for well under 30 quid. The menu is there for pocketbooks small and large." Slàinte, indeed.
We'd often have a plate of oysters in the west of Ireland, with some bread. I loved the flavour, I loved the taste, it's something that's very special to me, and I think Bentley's represents the native oyster more than any other restaurant in London. When I bought Bentley's, I opened up all the old historical contracts from 26 years ago, and those farms now supply us directly. And in my book, we have the best oysters in London, and there's no question about it. We don't fridge them, they're not stored in some warehouse in London. Bentley's was the most famous place in the 1970s to have oysters. Bentley's supplied London with oysters, and I really wanted Bentley's to have that kind of reputation again. And after 14 years I'm very proud and I think we have done that. When you think oysters,you think 'Bentley's counter'.
When I went to look at Bentley's before I purchased the restaurant, it had a seafood counter in the bar full of frozen shellfish. And I swore to myself at that counter that if I ever managed to get hold of this place, I was going to put a fucking obscene seafood cocktail back on the menu. It's a homage to what Bentley's should be, and we've done it, and it is obscene and it's fucking amazing. If you want to celebrate life, go and share a seafood cocktail between two people. It'll cost you 11 quid each. So what – it's amazing. Fiona Hannon, our head chef at the oyster bar who has been with me for 17, 18 years, is amazing. Mike Lynch, our executive chef, he's amazing. And between them, the bakery downstairs, the bread, English butter from Lincolnshire Poacher – Bentley's is a class act, and I'm very proud to be the custodian.
This has been with me since Lindsay House. There are a lot more game pies around London, but the one at Corrigan's is one of our stalwarts. It's mallard, it's grouse, it's partridge, it's pheasant – it's whatever we feel is great. And we keep it simple: we serve it with a smoked beetroot purée, we've served it with cabbage, with pickled pumpkin in season, and when that's gone we do something else. And I think it goes brilliantly. I mean, really, seafood cocktail and a game pie? I could easily float off into tomorrow world. I was brought up on game: we were always shooting ducks and pheasants for the farm table. When you eat something wild, there's something prehistoric in your tastebuds that kicks in, and you get different emotions that kick off into your brain. All food doesn't do that. Some food just fills you full of joy for a moment.
Langoustine with pumpkin soup
About four weeks ago the pumpkins started coming in from Ireland. I was looking at them going, 'How the hell are we going to use up all these pumpkins?' And then one day one of the boys was making a stock from some shellfish, and I went 'Hey, stop this, let's have a chat.' So we crushed all the bones of the shellfish really fine, we put in some roasted tomatoes, some thyme, a little bit of brandy and then some milk and we brought it up slowly, just to the heat, for 35, 40 minutes and then let it rest for four hours. We put it through a sieve, and we ended up with this milk of langoustine. And then we took out the pumpkin, which I'd put into the wood burning oven the night before, pulped it, blitzed it, added the nage of the langoustines to it and that's what we had. No miracle, just common sense – a common-sense approach to amazing ingredients.
Sugar-cured ribs with kimchi
At Daffodil Mulligan, we don't have to prettify anything. It's about pure, in-your-face flavour.
I was travelling around Northern Ireland a few weeks ago and I came across a guy called Peter Hannan. He has salt-aged, sugar-cured ribs of beef and pork, and I had to go visit him. He brought out these ribs he was testing and I went 'They're mine. Send them to me straight away.' And I just think it's a fantastic product. We make kimchi in Bentley's – we have lots of root vegetables coming from Ireland, and we've been making it for ten years. Fiona travels around the world, she tastes things in Colombia, Korea, Japan, and she always looks after the kimchi, so we used her recipe. I probably love ham more than anything else, and Colman's mustard was invented for Irish ham. I haven't come across anything finer.