The journeyman: Kevin Thornton's project in Ethiopia By Maggie Armstrong
He's known as much for his fiery attitude as he is for his flair in the kitchen. But that's just for starters, as Maggie Armstrong discovered when she talked to chef Kevin Thornton about the community initiative he is involved with in Ethiopia, and the extraordinary photographs he has taken along the way
Published 02/08/2014 | 00:00
Black & White © Kevin Thornton
A lot of celebrity chefs do charity. Sometimes, celebrity chefs do charity to add to the celebrations as their various culinary ventures balloon and bugle-sound. It's not that they don't care. But helping others is a well-advised way to undercut the relentlessly middle-class form of excess and pomp that being a celebrated chef involves
Charity looks good, and it suits the megalomaniacal character type. Or so the preconceptions go. Kevin Thornton throws this preconception into disarray. He's been going to Lalibela, Ethiopia for seven years.
When I interviewed Thornton for this magazine in 2012, I thought his trips to Ethiopia were just for decoration; sprigs of garnish atop his various other culinary ventures, with two Michelin stars and a TV career behind him. A nouveau 'White Man's Burden', to which I gave passing mention to flesh out a profile piece about him and the delights he offers in Thornton's on St Stephen's Green. But it turns out he has gone deeper and deeper in.
Thornton has gone so deep into tribal life, breaking from the tourist trail with several cameras and an investigative mind, it's an achievement to have made it back. Here he is on a sweltering day inside his restaurant, avid, intense and hushed as ever.
Hair-gelled, with the look of an older commis chef, the famous name embroidered on his chef whites is the only reminder of his importance in the exploding niche of Irish gastronomy.
We've met to discuss what he's doing at the Electric Picnic, which we forget to do. Information is on page 13.
Thornton ploughs a lonely furrow next to other Irish chefs. Of course, he's a driven entrepreneur, a compulsive artiste. He's a contrarian with the press, sending back every question like an undercooked dish. And he is full-on sweary, the man who famously threw out a customer for wanting something less than what he was given (chips, Thornton will be annoyed to read once more).
But otherwise he's different to the boys. He's lean, sinewy, ascetic. He doesn't drink much. He's a chef patron, who backs his own restaurant with his decisive wife Muriel at the helm. He runs a "Zen kitchen", or so he says. And now, this expedition into Africa looks to be more defining than anything else he's done.
In a conversation peppered, doused and flambéed with "don't put that in", and "don't put that in either", and "don't, please - I'll get in shit", Thornton even convinces me that what he is doing isn't charity, it is love.
Thornton was born 57 years ago in Cashel, Co Tipperary, where he worked from 12 as a cook, kitchen porter and in abattoirs. As an apprentice he was fascinated by the bodies of cows. The sight of four stomachs being carved open filled him with wonder.
He left school after his Inter Cert to study catering and then went hitchhiking around Europe. He worked in vineyards, and made and sold beads on Paris's Left Bank. He used to have dreads. His right ear is pierced; the stud has a black and white swirl, the Taoist symbol for yin and yang: balance.
A Swiss girl pierced it for him in her house when he was 18 using ice cubes and a sewing needle. When he came home to Cashel, with long hair, a beard, hoop earring and sandals, his father Ned, a truck driver, would cross to the other side of the road.
"He was embarrassed about me. I fought to get on with him. I worked hard to make him see me as a person, not as a restaurateur or chef or shit like that," he says. Despite, or perhaps because of his father's reservations, he opened his first restaurant in 1989, and got a Michelin star.
Ned has died and his mother, Rita, who was a dressmaker, is living in Cashel. He has two sons, Edward and Conor, three grandchildren and an "excellent team" of 20 in Thornton's.
About seven years ago, man-about-Dublin Trevor White suggested Thornton talk to Brody Sweeney of O'Brien's Sandwich Bars about his foundation. Connect Ethiopia creates business and trade links between Ireland and Ethiopia. Entrepreneurs like Thornton educate and mentor small food and hospitality businesses.
Thornton went to Ethiopia and opened a cookery school for chefs, teaching Ethiopians what Irish chefs were taught when Thornton helped set up the DIT Culinary Arts degree in 1985.
It was in a straw-bedded hut in the Old Abyssinia Coffee House that he fell in love with Ethiopia. A young girl was making coffee on a cast-iron roasting pan. The rich-smelling beans were pounded in a pestle and mortar and water boiled with charcoal and incense. As Thornton describes the process, hands grasping the air, you can see the curious young boy in the abattoir. "Then they get the third filter and they hand it to you. Really f***ing amazing," he says.
He could have left the brief at cookery schools, but the earth under the Sub-Saharan sun tantalised him. The crops grown were limited and the landscape was "wrecked", but it was the perfect climate for growing peppers, courgettes and carrots. He felt annoyed by the people's lack of drive. "There's all this land around and it looks like shit. And why does it look like shit, you know? Get off your butt and be proud of it. So I went out and I dug it up," he says, like the enemy of Zen.
He planted a garden and taught chefs skills that wouldn't go amiss in some other countries I can think of. "The whole idea was for something new in life. Why not all plant a seed?" He has since worked with 10 businesses and opened two chef schools and two farms and is working on an abattoir, a library and cheese-making facility. The girl in the Old Abyssinia Coffee House has gone on to open her own coffee shop.
This all involves navigating the authoritarian structures of a coalition government that has been in power since 1991, when the country was wrecked by famine.
So it isn't charity in the New Testament sense, which the Victorians adopted and which is alive and well in business circles today. Thornton is more a self-help guru.
"I'm not a goody-two-shoes. I don't go to poor areas because I'm not interested. It's not my job. I'm not qualified to go and feel sorry for people," he says.
Thornton qualifies the rant, saying he's not interesting in giving material things. It makes him cringe when Westerners tip over-generously or hand out money in Ethiopia. "I wasn't going to give them anything, unless they'd earned it. If you give people something for nothing, they have no respect for you."
There is nothing more stiflingly boring than being made to look through someone else's holiday photographs. But these are okay. As Thornton wades through the hefty stack on his coffee table, they even become engrossing. They are more like tableaus, story books pulsing with descriptions of ancient traditions. They are far from the stock, clichéd, tourist shot of the woman with the plate lip in front of the mud hut.
There was the bull-jumping ceremony in Turmi village, where women from the Hamer tribe are whipped by a teenage boy so he can prove his manhood. The 16-year olds' wedding which he hustled an invitation to, and then had to insult patriarchal sensibilities by not mingling with the men but with the women, because they would be cooking.
The blood drunk fresh from the cow's pierced neck that's "like a rich cream, a warm cream, and as it goes down, there's just a little hint of salt". (Pictured above.)
The pictures go on display at Electric Picnic.
He went to the Oma Valley, a protected area where he was required to take an armed guard. "I used to get really sick, you know I'd be tripping out for two weeks." You'd be what? "Hallucinating. Don't say that. Well, you can if you want." There is a very high risk of infectious diseases in Ethiopia. Thornton is rigid about the times he eats, swallows 12 cloves of garlic a day and Muriel puts him "in quarantine" when he's home.
I am curious as to why he doesn't just stay in his comfort zone of Lalibela, helping people and surely being feted by locals.
"I wanted to learn more about Ethiopia and about the people. I felt that I could offer more if I understood them more."
What does he think about the lavish way we live in Ireland? (It is lavish, compared with an Ethiopian farmer's diet of adura bread, chilli paste and coffee.)
"Yeah, it's kinda sick."
"The West is f***ed."
Has Ethiopia connected him more with Ireland's disenfranchised, Ireland's homeless?
This makes him uncomfortable. He walks past homeless people on his trip in from Ranelagh every day and knows some of them. "The last few weeks, stuff going around this area, all the overdoses. When you see things like this poor 25-year-old guy dying, your heart bleeds. For his parents.
"Ethiopia is very different; it's the beginning of life. They have their own sad things there too, and maybe I haven't learned enough. I saw this guy with a mental disability, 28 or 29, just roaming in the mountains. Singing and going around in circles. Who's looking after him, you know?"
I ask how he feels about being best known as a celebrity chef (the term is passé; they are more lifestyle brands now). He looks at me as if I've just offered him a bowl of expired blood. "I just do my work," he snaps.
"Andy Warhol said everybody will have their 15 minutes of fame. And it becomes celebrity? Bullshit. We're here today, gone tomorrow. We're passing through."
He tells me about a bronze sculpture he's been making from a tuna fish carcass. He's filled it with wax and it's going to be displayed in Thornton's, his first sculpture. Does he run such a luxurious restaurant because exquisite food suits rich tastes, or because he simply likes crafting and creating things, and this just happens to cost time and money? Or in other words, now that he has Africa, what use to him is Thornton's?
"We've been discussing this actually. Sometimes, this is not us," he glances nervously at the oyster walls that look so gloomy and executive on this fiery summer day. "I'd love to have a place that's stripped. And that's on the water. Like, I want people playing f***in' shit hot music," says the grandfather. "Raw. Really raw. F*** everything. Back to basics."
Speaking of shit hot music, Thornton's son Conor's band, Voxx, are playing at the Electric Picnic too. Conor has a wild, wavy fringe and his Twitter byline says: "I blow my load over the status quo, here we go".Kevin loves them.
Kevin Thornton brings a taste of Africa to Electric Picnic, August 29-31, 2014, with a demo of injera bread of Lalibela, Ethiopia, and sorghum, a gnocchi-like dish made in vegetable shells. Theatre of food at the Mindfield stage is a gathering of top chefs, baristas, mixologists, brewers, bakers and bloggers who discuss, debate and demo great food. Theatre of Food will be located beside Mindfield, behind the main stage.
- See more at: https://www.independent.ie/life/the-journeyman-kevin-thorntons-project-in-ethiopia-30469523.html#sthash.WowPeKU3.dpuf