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Image / Living / Food & Drink

Food writer and Grub Circus ringmaster Joe McNamee on his life in food


By Sarah Gill
05th Aug 2023

Miki Barlok

Food writer and Grub Circus ringmaster Joe McNamee on his life in food

A man who’s been writing about food since the late 1990s, Joe McNamee traded his chef’s apron for pen and paper, but his passion for the artform of food never waned. Here, he shares his life in food…

Joe McNamee is an award-winning restaurant reviewer and food writer, hospitality consultant and the founder and ringmaster of Grub Circus travelling food roadshow.

Grub Circus will be taking over the Theatre of Food space at All Together Now this coming bank holiday weekend once again with an action-packed programme of food-related frolics in a two-day extravaganza of events, demos, cooking competitions, tastings, workshops, debates and, at times, downright madness, featuring some of Ireland’s top food personalities including, chefs, producers, growers, makers, distillers, food writers and more.

With eight Michelin stars between them, chefs include Jess Murphy, Kwanghi Chan, Aishling Moore, Darina Allen, Enda McEvoy, and Paul Flynn, to name but a few.

Here, Joe McNamee shares everything from his earliest memories of food to his dream last meal on earth…

Joe McNamee

What are your earliest memories of food?

In the pram and stealing chocolate from my mother’s dangling handbag. (She actually caught me on camera doing it and I was still a toddler which just goes to show how strongly imprinted the memory remains—not the guilt, even though I knew I was doing wrong, but the taste of chocolate!)

What was the first meal you learned to cook?

I grew up with a magnificent and multi-talented mother but she couldn’t really cook to save her life so the first thing I learned to cook was fast food, burgers and fries, in my first hospitality job, in Mandy’s, in Cork, an Irish take on US fast food chains, like Wendy’s or McDonald’s.

Favourite ingredient or dish?

I refuse to name just one but my older son and I have played a game of top ten desert island ingredients for years and it does include a lot of superb Irish butter and cheese, new potatoes, peaches and Puy lentils.

An ingredient or dish you cannot stand?

I have yet to meet a food that I won’t at least try and have even eating ancient bog butter, undoubtedly repulsive to most right-thinking human beings, but I didn’t spit it out, in the interests of curiosity and bloodymindedness. Processed versions of real food leave me cold though and two teenage years working in a fast food restaurant recreating Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me and all its attendant negative impacts on my health and wellbeing mean I’m not your go to guy if you want company for a sneaky trip to MaccyDs – I’ve raised three children without ever darkening the doors of those golden arches.

What’s your go-to comfort food?

Cheese on toast, with coleslaw, just about all I ate growing up. Oh, yeah, and cucumber.

Food for thought — what would you do to improve the Irish food/restaurant/hospitality scene?

Properly educate health and safety inspectors about the true nature of food, especially Irish speciality products that are fermented, including raw milk cheeses and smoked fish.

Chef’s kiss — Tell us about one standout food experience you’ve had recently.

Again, I can’t do one. Yet another incredible meal in Michelin-two starred Dede in the Customs House, in Baltimore, but also the simpler yet equally authentic fare served in L’Atitude 51, my ‘local’ in Cork city, all washed down with superb natural wines. St Francis Provisions, in Kinsale, an all woman team serving sublimely delicious food, great wines and with none of the usual macho ego, just an uplifting feminine energy that is balm to the soul.

Secret ingredient — What, in your estimation, makes the perfect dining experience?

Great company of family and friends – even average or shit food can become more bearable when sauced with love and companionship. Although I try to make a practice of avoiding shit food!

Who is your culinary inspiration or food hero?

It was Myrtle Allen and when she died, my living inspiration became Darina Allen – don’t be gulled by that erstwhile mumsie image, Darina is a deeply political, deeply committed campaigner for truly sustainable, local, seasonal food and the work she does behind the scenes utterly dwarfs her still astonishing public achievements.

What would your last meal on earth be?

I’ve asked that question many times from the ‘other side of the fence’ but never before answered it but I do know I would have to cook it and share it with closest friends and family, with all those I love. And what would I serve …?

I’ll probably spend the next decade re-working the menu but it would begin with the sea, loads of Harty’s Oysters, from Ring, in Co Waterford. Then fresh pan fried mackerel. New potatoes, serve with too much butter and parsley. Then we’d turn up the dial to full-blown Rabelesian, crisp pork belly, using Lost Valley Dairy free range pork, 50 day aged roast rib beef from Eoin O’Mahony, of O’Mahony’s butchers in the English market. Loads of lovely fresh, seasonal vegetables, simply cooked.

For dessert, Bushby’s raspberries from Rosscarbery, cream from Gloun Cross dairy, Yum Gelato vanilla ice cream, a selection of single origin chocolate from Rose Daly, in the Chocolate Shop in The English Market, a magnificent Irish cheeseboard and all washed down with wines from Pascal Rossignol at Le Caveau and Brian O’Connor of Brian’s Wines. I realise this is my most extensive answer by a long shot — is it any wonder my waistband wakes up each day weeping!

Featured image via Miki Barlok