Joe McNamee is one of the leading food critics in Ireland. Joe, a Cork-based food critic for the Irish Examiner, Food For Thought magazine (FFT.IE), has previously contributed to the McKenna Irish Food Guide and is known for his expertise in both the business and political aspects of the food industry. Cailean Coffey sat down with Joe to discuss everything from his development as a writer, his previous job as a graphic designer, his love of food, the rising level of obesity in Ireland and the problems with the governments muted response.
BYLINE: Growing up, was food and cooking an important part of your life?
JOE MCNAMEE: Hmm, was food and cooking an important part of my family life…. No. My mother is an incredible woman, multi-talented, had several careers and she’s something quite special but she’s a bit of a war criminal in the kitchen, it wasn’t her forte. I discovered food when I left home, when I started working in restaurants.
BY: How did you become involved in writing?
JOE: I suppose I’d always been interested in writing. We grew up without a television until 11 so I read ferociously, I would have read a couple of novels a week and it was one of my stronger subjects. I studied English in UCC before dropping out to become a pop star, a work in process obviously. But I think I would have always, even as a songwriter, I would have written. Then in the late 90’s someone knew that, even though I’d never fully trained, I had a substantial background as a professional chef in my previous life, and he asked me to write my own take on Anthony Bourdain’s book ‘Kitchen Confidential’, which had just come out at the time, to see if it fit my memories of a professional kitchen. And that was my first professional article really. It evolved from there, began getting more commissions and more work. I would have had a broad interest and interest in the arts back then so I was doing an awful lot more arts writing. I would have written about music and film in particular, and I would have done a lot of interviews. Doing interviews with people has always been a strong suit of mine, I seem to have the ability to make people want to talk.
I briefly edited a local listings magazine, a big, glossy colour production but unfortunately that didn’t last. I’d been working all along as a graphic designer, that’s what I’d trained as, so I was working in my own business but got burned on one particular contract so that effectively ended the business, so I went and worked at an advertising agency for a year and that completely killed off any lingering passion I had for graphic design, so I just went into Tim Vaughn, who was the editor of the Examiner at the time, and asked for a job subbing. He would have been familiar with my writing at that stage, I would have been writing quite regularly for features and the arts pages, so he said yeah and then after a year, two years, a job came up and I became Deputy Arts Editor. This was just in 2005, when Cork was becoming the (European) Capital of Culture, so I was brought on specifically to engage with that and it just continued on from there.
I took time away from journalism when my father died, but I’d kind of continued to write creatively, a few small things, but then I got back into writing but I actually started to concentrate specifically on food. Part of it was because when you’re writing features, you’re given a subject and you become a sort of dinner-party expert for all of two weeks when you’re researching the piece. I personally find it very important, when writing about something, to write about it with knowledge and to fully understand the topic. It becomes quite stressful, actually, when you’re given a subject because you don’t want to seem a fool So I often spend a lot of my time researching. After a while I realised I was putting in a lot more effort into researching a topic than its paycheck merited, so I decided to specialize in food. I would have written about food many times in my career but I decided to start turning down commissions that were offered to me and just concentrate on food. It was only a matter of months of refusing before the offers stopped coming in and I was fully concentrating on food. I was writing for numerous publications also, though the Examiner was my bread and butter. I was offered the opportunity to become an associate editor for the McKenna’s guide, the Bridgestone’s guide, which was a great honour and that further cemented me as a food writer. Nowadays, I write more about the politics of food and the policies involved in food production and consumption. While there is a smaller potential readership and fewer interested parties, it allows me to take a deeper look into the issue of the world and of this country.
BY: What’s the difference between writing about Art and writing about Food?
JOE: See with food, I start with an extensive knowledge base, so I can go in with a confidence and knowledge of my surroundings while at the same time I’m always, always learning. When I was in my early and mid 20’s, I was quite possibly the greatest chef that’s ever lived, in my own head of course, and then when I got to my 40’s I realised how little I actually knew, and I realised it’s always about learning. At a point, I went back to college and did a BA in Culinary Arts which was designed for senior chefs, the practical modules were supposed to hit Michelin Star standard cooking. Food is one of the most important aspects of our lives and you’re always going to be learning, but at the same time, you’re always going to be learning, you know, when it’s a food based commission that education gives you the opportunity to attack the subject with a huge level of confidence, and therefore go more in-depth with the subject. You cut through the fat much easier when you know and truly understand what’s going on in a kitchen and in the business.
BY: You worked in a professional kitchen for ten years, as you’ve previously stated. Once you left the kitchen, was it always your intention to come back and look at it in a journalistic way?
JOE: No, no, I never ever thought that I’d ever end up describing myself professionally as a food writer, it was just something that I kind of fell into. I started working in restaurants at the age of 15 part-time and that was nearly a means to an end, to finance the weekend’s drinking – food was an afterthought. It was only when I was around 20, 21, I had this girlfriend that no matter where we were, she had to cook a Sunday roast. No matter where we were in the world she’d find a way to make a Sunday roast. So, after a few weeks of that I said I’d take over the cooking, and, while she did a great job, I was doing a better one and I became far more interested in the minute details of it. After that, it wasn’t my full-time job, but for money I’d start doing cooking jobs and I started actually paying attention to what I was doing. I worked under all sorts of chefs, learning different things and I spent close to a year, six months maybe, working under Seamus O’Connor, who is the chef proprietor of The Ivory Tower, which is an iconic Irish restaurant, and I learned a huge amount from him. This was just before he opened the Ivory Tower and we worked in a kitchen together and he persuaded me that I could take over after him once he’d gone. Food has always been – since my 20’s – has been an important part of my daily life, and I’m the type of person who wakes up in the morning thinking “Ohh, what am I going to cook for dinner today?” I married someone like my mother, another wonderful woman who shouldn’t really be allowed near a kitchen. But to answer your question, I never thought I would be writing about food.
BY: You brought up the interesting point, that both your mother and your wife shouldn’t be allowed near a kitchen, do you think that in this age where takeaways are so easily accessible, and restaurants are so easily accessible, that people, especially students, are losing the ability to cook?
JOE: Losing the ability to cook or never really having it? I was a bit flippant about my wife and my mother, they are both women who have professional careers, but an awful lot of that came at the expense of time at home, in the kitchen, learning to cook. Now saying that, I think cooking is an essential skill and one that all children should be taught in primary school rather than secondary school. It’s a fundamental life skill. There’s only five things we can’t live without: air, water, sleep, shelter and food, and yet food is diminished to maybe 10% or less of our spending, which has decreased from about 50% a hundred years go, and then the amount of time devoted to it: a lot of people spend ten minutes or less total a day in their preparation of their food, which I think has a hugely negative impact for our physical and mental health.
BY: What are your thoughts on Ireland’s increasing obesity levels? Do you think there’s a big divide between what people see as healthy food and what they see as tasty food?
JOE: Unfortunately, I have to plonk myself in with the obese people here, so I’m basing this off personal experience. So much of what we do around food is a sort of Faustian bargain that we have traded food, our knowledge of food and our preparation of food for convenience. We want the convenience, the time for leisure purportedly. We go to the supermarket once a week, as it’s the easiest place to go, but we never truly know where the food is coming from, how it’s processed, how they’re produced and it’s more and more we surrender these controls over our own nutrition and dietary health, the more we have problems with obesity. Obesity is just one acute symptom of this trade-off. Up to the industrial revolution, most people, barring the kings and the queens, would have played some part every day in the preparation of their own food. Most people will have done growing or had something going on, but then the industrial revolution demanded workers and there was no time to do anything else, and for the first-time farming was becoming fully professional, that’s really when farming became industrialized.
BY: Do you think there’s anything extra the government can do to combat the issue?
JOE: I could spend the next two days telling you things the government could do, and pointing out things they haven’t been doing, and things the government have been doing that are completely counter-intuitive. But there is a new program, a new Health department report released relatively recently, looking at a more concerted aspect of the problem and it’s the first admittance that there must be an interdepartmental strategy effort. That’s a very important aspect because while one department may be doing something very good, another could be doing something that has a completely negative effect, and asks for the absolute opposite. But, as this funded and run by the health department, there’ll be people in Education looking at it and thinking ‘That’s going to cost money and we don’t have money so we can’t do it’, I don’t see a great enthusiasm across departments. To be perfectly honest, I hold the belief that a state-prevention will never really do anything if it’s reactive, if it can become pro-active then it’s a completely different beast, and to achieve that we need a public outcry and public movements outside of government. The government seems much more interested and occupied by trying to aid and nurture the agri-food industry and is less interested in servicing the need of its citizens and that’s always going to be a problem.