Gerry Galvin, Pioneer of Modern Irish Cooking, Succumbs at 70
I met Gerry Galvin on a dark day in Galway in 2005. My colleague the photographer Christopher Hirsheimer and I were producing an all-Irish issue of the magazine I was then editing, Saveur, and more than one of our contacts in Ireland had suggested that we meet Galvin and if possible have him cook for us. He no longer had a restaurant of his own at the time, but agreed to prepare some of his signature recipes for us in the upstairs catering kitchen attached to Sheridans in Galway, Ireland's leading cheesemonger.
A couple of talented young cooks, Dave Gumbleton and Enrico Fantasia, had been cooking for special events out of that same upstairs kitchen. The day before our appointment with Galvin, Gumbleton suddenly collapsed in the kitchen and died, struck down by an aneurysm. The cheese shop closed in his honor for the day, and we asked Galvin if he'd like to postpone our meeting. No, he said, but he'd like to dedicate to Gumbleton's memory the meal he was about to prepare — which turned out to be a delicious seaweed-flavored mussel and oyster hotpot, a roasted pork belly with pickled carrots and colcannon (potatoes mashed with kale, butter, and cream), and a tipsy pudding. It was a wonderful meal, traditional but prepared with a skilled chef's refinement.
Galvin was born in Dromcollogher, in County Limerick. His father ran a shop selling cloth and hardware, but he loved food and whenever he traveled the country on buying trips, he'd bring home local specialties — sausages from Dublin, cheeses from Cork, and so on. As a teenager, he had a classmate whose brother was going to hotel school in Shannon and who'd write home letters bragging about all the great food he'd eaten. Galvin thought this sounded pretty good, so he enrolled in the school himself, and then found a job in the kitchen at the Gresham Hotel in Dublin, then one of Ireland's finest hostelries. "This was a great experience for a kid from the country," he once told me. "I learned how to swear in Dublinese, and I learned how to make béchamel." He went on work in hotel management not only in Ireland but in England, Switzerland, and South Africa. But he found himself drawn back to the kitchen, and in 1974, he and his wife, Marie, whom he’d met and married in Dublin, bought a 50-seat restaurant called The Vintage, in Kinsale, a pretty little port town in County Cork. Though it subsequently lost this reputation, in the '70s, Kinsale was widely considered to have some of the best restaurants in the country, thanks to a number of chefs from other countries who had moved to the idyllic village over the years, drawn by its attractive situation, its access to good seafood and other raw materials, and its steady influx of tourists looking for places to eat.
To fit in, Galvin wrote his menu in French, and cooked French food. One day, he told me, a Belgian food writer came in, attracted by the menu, and left saying that he had been let down by the food, which wasn't what he'd expected at all. "I came to my senses and realized that I was just posing as a French chef," Galvin continued, "and I think that's when I really began to learn to cook." In place of escargots and entrecôte, Galvin started serving steamed rabbit sausage and ox tongue and making old-fashioned Irish breads and preserves. In this era, serious restaurants didn't serve "country" food of this kind, but customers at The Vintage liked what he was doing, and soon chefs from other parts of Ireland started to take notice of the way Galvin applied sophisticated technique to simple fare.
In 1984, deciding that they wanted a quieter life, away from the tourist hordes, Galvin and his wife sold their restaurant and bought a historic property called Drimcong House in Moycullen, in County Galway. Marie tended the herb and vegetable garden, Galvin fished for pike and eel in the Drimcong lake, and the menu offered such original creations as colcannon soup, black pudding with oysters and apples, and roast pike with lovage, bacon, and lamb sauce. Again, other Irish chefs paid attention to what he was doing and spread the word about his talents, and for 17 years, Drimcong House was a must destination on any knowledgeable Irish food lover's itinerary. The couple raised three children on the property, but none showed any interest in taking over the place, so in 2001, when the Galvins decided that they'd worked in the grueling restaurant trade for long enough, they closed.
Galvin didn't retire, though. He became a regular contributor of recipes and thoughtful articles on food to a variety of Irish magazines and newspapers. He'd already published a well-received book called Everyday Gourmet: Recipes from Ireland's Most Acclaimed Chef, and now he produced a book of recipes and reminiscences called The Drimcong Food Affair, following by a book of poetry called No Recipe, and, in 2011, a witty novel about a food critic who doubles as a serial murderer called Killer à la Carte. He was a friendly, modest man, well-loved and greatly respected in the Irish food community even if he never achieved much fame beyond Ireland's shores.
On Feb. 25, Gerry, like his friend Dave Gumbleton eight years earlier, suffered an aneurysm. He was rushed to the hospital from his home in Oughterard, near Galway, but never regained consciousness.