A Donegal chef is helping to bring Donegal food producers to a global audience as he oversees menus for 600 people from 50 different nationalities a day.
For the past two years, Maurice McGeehan of Fintown has been the corporate executive chef for Airbnb headquarters for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) in Dublin.
“We’ve really built something unique here,” Maurice said.
The online hospitality service has already received praise for the design innovations of its building, The Warehouse, at Hanover Quay in Silicon Docks, one of three Airbnb sites in the city. Maurice and his multinational team of 15 chefs are making sure the meals served at the EMEA headquarters also receive attention, not alone for their quality, but for the food ethos that inspires them.
Maurice is bringing his ethos to Donegal as well - he took part in the recent Off the Street Letterkenny food festival, and will give a demonstration at the Taste of Donegal festival in Donegal town. He and his wife, Priscila, have started their own business, Blas Na Tíre, producing artisan chutneys, relishes and seasonings.
The Airbnb menu is heavily seasonal and sustainable - “Whatever comes into season now we start using,” Maurice said - and operates on a zero-waste policy.
That means, for example, if pineapple is used for breakfast, the chefs use the pineapple skins for tea, or for pineapple sugar syrup; if cauliflower or broccoli is served, the leaves are pickled for later use. Milk comes from Dunlavin Dairy in Wicklow in reusable urns, saving about 3,000 milk cartons per month from a landfill. Maurice has also introduced milk bottles into all Airbnb office fridges and tea and coffee areas.
“I'm trying to bring back how things were done years ago, to minimise the impact on the environment,” he said.
Donegal providers used include P Gildea butchers, Letterkenny; Quality Sea Veg Ltd., Burntonport; and Noone's Farm Fresh Poultry, Clonmany.
“We would stay away from massive, big food companies and stick with small companies in Ireland,” Maurice explained. He said, “We’re looking at sustainability, trying to highlight Irish produce and celebrate what we have in Ireland. Let’s support our local guys.”
Menus are also designed to promote health - they use more prebiotics in the winter to boost immune systems; daily snacks they make for the offices include dehydrated fruits and vegetable crisps.
“It is all to do with the impact on the environment, and the impact on health,” Maurice said. They contact local producers to see if they have an excess of a particular crop. “If I get it today, I could use it tomorrow,” he said.
And everything is made from scratch, from yogurts, to cured meats and cheeses, homemade pates, and gravlax and other cured fish. They do their own carbonations for the beverages they make and have eliminated processed sugar from the menu, favoring natural alternatives such as palm nectar.
“It’s a lot of labour, but there is a lot of love in the labour,” Maurice said.
The international buzz of the European headquarters has contributed to the international spirit of the menu, which tend to follow a weekly, regional theme. Last month, a Basque-themed week included braised fennel with patxaran and orange, and hake in green sauce with clams and mussels, among other dishes; the world street food week menus included salt cod, manchego and serrano ham croquettes with aioli, and baked sweet potato wedges with maple caraway seed, drizzled with tahini.
Maurice’s work at Airbnb allows him to put in practice the ethos he has developed throughout his career. “When this job came up, it just felt like the job was meant for me,” he said.
Maurice and Priscila met in London in 2007, where Maurice worked with chefs from around the world, experiencing the range of cuisine from rustic to Michelin-standard. He received a scholarship to complete his BSc degree in international culinary arts, studying under leading British food authority David Foskett, MBE.
In 2012, Maurice and Priscila moved to her native Brazil, where he opened an Irish restaurant, Úr, pro- viding contemporary and classic Irish dishes in the seaside town of Praia do Rosa. To dress the premises, he shipped a 40-foot container from Donegal filled with home comforts, from a wicker basket for turf, to bar stools, pint glasses and other furniture from the McGeehan family pub and restaurant, The Mill Wheel in Fintown.
“Looking at things I had brought from home was a comfort,” he said.
Maurice and Priscila returned to Donegal in 2014. They have two sons, Gabriel, 1, and Patrick, 3, and Maurice has an 18-year-old son Lorcan from a previous relationship, who is making a name for himself as a DJ.
“When we came back I was kind of struggling - what am I going to do? Where am I going to fit in?” Maurice recalled. But he has found his way.
He organised the first pop-up restaurant at Ronald McDonald House in Crumlin on behalf of Airbnb. Maurice and Priscila had stayed there when their son Gabriel, then a week old, underwent major heart surgery. “I saw how much they looked after us and wanted to give something back,” Maurice said.
Maurice is also a member of the National Chef Advisory Council with Ireland’s new Chef Network, which sees him deliver talks on his work. “Cooking isn’t difficult - it’s like learning a language,” Maurice said. “Once you learn it, you can have many different conversations.”
Maurice tries to get that across in his public demonstrations - he will be at The Taste of Donegal at 5.30pm on Saturday, August 26th.
“Once people start learning how to do that and experimenting, that creates a lot of interest and excitement and fun, and that’s what I want to put across with my demonstrations,” he said. “Don’t be scared. Just go for it.”
There is more online at blasnatire.com.
While Maurice was working as a chef in London, he cooked for major corporate clients, including JP Morgan and the global law firm Linklaters.
He also cooked for members of the royal family, cooking for Queen Elizabeth at Ascot and also for Prince Andrew; and for celebrities, including actor Colin Firth, rapper Jay Z and singer Amy Winehouse.