Over the last few years in the beverage industry, I’ve spent a lot of time visiting restaurants and cafes, meeting chefs, tasting new drinks, and figuring out what refreshment innovations they represent and what lessons I can learn from them. Every so often, I spend time at an establishment so inspiring in its competence, so pure in its intent, and so graceful in its performance that it makes my head spin. Tea at the Shelbourne was one of those experiences.
A few weeks ago, I paid a visit to the legendary Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, Ireland and had the pleasure of taking afternoon tea with Executive Chef Garry Hughes. I wanted to spend some time getting to know more about this storied, historic hotel and how they’ve conquered the world of high tea.
Let me set the stage for you. The Shelbourne is a magnificent 191-year-old Victorian hotel overlooking St. Stephen's Green, just a few minutes from all the grand sights of Dublin, including the National Gallery of Ireland, Trinity College, and the National Library. The hotel is crazy-luxe, with classical styling, sumptuous textiles, marble floors, a style butler, floral butler, genealogy butler, doormen, footmen, porters and more, all dressed to the nines in tuxedos and fine silk hats, and opulent living and dining areas. Veuve Clicquot champagne flowed like honey.
Chef Hughes looked handsome and clean cut nestled there in the sunny corner of the Lord Mayor’s Lounge, with his smart chef’s jacket and relaxed, welcoming smile. He’s cooked for celebrities from George Bush to Bill Clinton, as well as made his mark in the world's best restaurants and hotels. He recently had the privilege of hosting Michelle Obama and cooking for her under extreme, high-security provisions.
As our interview began, the staff brought by warm buttermilk scones with clotted cream and house-made strawberry jam, and I swear I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. After taking ages to pick a cuppa from their list of twenty-one loose leaf teas, I settled in and spent some learning about how he’s created one of the most celebrated afternoon teas in the world.
M&M: Tell me about the hotel and what you do here.
GH: The hotel has had an essential role in the literary, social, political, culinary and artistic traditions of Irish society over the last two centuries. The Irish Constitution was actually drafted here in 1922, and we still have one of the two original copies here in our little museum. I've been here for many years, managing a culinary team that serves the needs of celebrities and dignitaries, Dublin natives, and travelers alike.
M&M: Tell me about afternoon tea service, specifically -- what makes the experience so renowned?
GH: I think it's the elegance of the ceremony. It's an iconic tradition in Dublin. In many ways, our tea service is at the center of Dublin city culture. We see young ones coming for their first proper afternoon tea, engagements, birthdays, and anniversaries.
Everyone in Dublin has a link to the Shelbourne. This place belongs to its people -- we employ around 500 staff, so everyone has an uncle or grandmother who’s worked here at some point in the last two centuries. My own grandmother would bring me here when I was a child.
There’s a theater to the tea, sitting down and listening to the live piano, picking out a tea, taking your time, observing the way the light enters the room...I want to create an atmosphere where people can forget the world outside and focus on having a wonderful experience. Most people come here on only the most special of occasions, and others, like yourself, are visiting from countries far away. I recognize that and want to make sure that if they only come to the Shelbourne only once, they have the time of their lives.
M&M: How do you find room for creativity in a place steeped in so much tradition? Do you ever get bored?
GH: It’s true that the hotel is very traditional, and we will always carry on elements of our traditions. There is still a lot of opportunity for creativity, though. I like recreating famous old-fashioned treats, bringing in celebrity chefs for a night, and always finding ways to put new twists on old traditions.
I’ve been having fun exploring themed teas, for example, a Grace Kelly-themed tea where everything on the menu ties back to the time she spent here and various aspects of her life. I’m currently experimenting with champagne jelly and a maddening scarf-like pistachio financier with vanilla crème, raspberries, and chocolate (she loved chiffon scarves). "The Pearl" will be a white chocolate and coconut mousse with strawberry jelly and lime crème, inspired by the Princess’s wedding veil, which was covered in lace and thousands of pearls.
We're also taking initiatives into collaborations with other brands, working on our TV show, and holding exclusive teas for food bloggers and industry professionals so we all have a chance to connect.
M&M: What trends do you see in the Dublin food scene?
GH: The primary one, of course, has been the move towards fresher, healthier foods. Most of our awards and certifications have evolved over the years and now have stringent requirements about using regional food sources. I love this challenge. We are gratified to offer the finest in seasonal Irish ingredients. For such a small and isolated country, we actually have great products. Our salmon comes from County Cork, our ham is from Waterford...our tomatoes, beef, and dairy are all Irish. Fruits are a bit harder to find, so I try to stick to just the ones that are in season. All of our breads are baked in house, and as of a couple years ago, we smoke all of our own fish here. That was one of my favorite developments.
M&M: The salmon is my favorite thing so far. I love that you mentioned how much you love your job. What do you hope to create in the next 10 years? Any plans to move to another venue?
GH: To be honest, I don't know if I ever want to leave. My work here is so much more than a job. Every day you look forward to meeting someone new and interesting. Just recently, we bought in a group of kids from the children's’ hospital for a free children’s tea, and it made everyone’s day. To have the opportunity to serve them was really something. We served fancy but kid-friendly food, things like marmalade mousse, tiny milkshakes, white chocolate tea, and ham and cheese sandwiches. We're also working on a menu for a tea based on Paddington Bear from children’s literature, and it has petite chocolate brownies with a strawberry tartlet.
I guess when the time comes to pass the torch, I hope to represent the past and to leave a legacy, knowing someone new will take my place and carry on our culinary heritage here.
M&M: I have to admit, I’ve never seen service like this in Portland, Oregon. We’re coming over the hump of a neo-hipster agri-foodie movement that often disregards the class that traditional establishments are steeped in. How did you train such a nimble team? It seems like each tiny dish has been prepared and delivered with authenticity and enthusiasm.
GH: We hire trained professionals who’ve already held esteemed positions in the hospitality industry. Some even took pay cuts to be here because they wanted to join a flourishing, close-knit team. My staff are happy here; some been around for years. Many have told me that they plan to continue working here for as long as they can.
M&M: I really like how the staff took great pride in explaining each dish to me, and they seem genuinely pleased to be here. No one on the staff is lackadaisical, they all have this "pep". One of the things I struggle with in my business is how to expand while maintaining a high level of quality and service. How are you able to execute your vision under so much pressure, when you can't be everywhere at once?
GH: I have absolute trust in my team, which is a luxury. I can take off my chef’s coat at the end of the day, or take a day off to spend time with my family, and feel 100% confident that every single guest’s needs are being met. The position has taught me to delegate and trust my partners. At the end of the day, you want to know that you can support the people you work with, and that they support you.
As the interview came to a close, smiling, anticipating guests begin filing into the room for the second sitting of the tea service. Soon, every table in the room is covered with turf-smoked salmon bites on multi-seed country bread, braised Waterford ham sandwiches with shallots, cherry vine tomatoes with goat cheese, chicory on granary loaf, and on and on.
I spent another hour or two lingering with the staff and chatting with Lenka, my server for the afternoon and Queen of All Things Tea-Related. She was a joy and gave me so many practical tips about my trip around Ireland. Finally, I headed home with a little to-go box of treats to share with my new Irish friends.
My day at the Shelbourne was magical, so much so that I returned a few weeks later for Sunday brunch before getting on a plane back to America. Chef Hughes was right. Dining at the Shelbourne isn’t something you can just do any old day of the week. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that truly lived up to its name. I'll never forget the hospitality I was shown. Lenka, Garry, and the team inspired me to change up the game in my field and fill my life with people who are just as engaged and inspired by the art of fine drinks as I am.
€40 per person, open 7 days a week. The aforementioned Grace Kelly tea is now on, call ahead for reservations: +353 1 663 4500, 27 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, www.shelbournedining.ie
Best bets: Spice tea, lemon zest tea, rose petal jelly, SALMON
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