The college dropout who cooks for the stars
- 21 September 2015
- From the section Business
Cathal Armstrong was 19 when he opened his first restaurant with his father in Dublin.
"It was a disaster from the beginning," he recalls. "We never had a business licence, we never had a health permit - who knew you needed such a thing? The walls started closing in and we began running out of money."
In less than a year the restaurant had closed.
"But no doubt I learned more in that ten month period than I would have learned in four years at college," he says.
That proved to be true. Over two decades later Mr Armstrong, now 46, runs Eat Good Food Group which operates Restaurant Eve, Eamonn's and Society Fair as well as a bar. The firm has an annual turnover of around $10m (£6.5m) and employs almost 150 staff.
With the restaurants located in Alexandria, Virginia just a few miles from the United States' capital, he has ended up cooking for film stars, presidents, millionaires and a host of other celebrities. He has also represented the US in Thailand, promoting American cuisine and sustainable food and has been named by the White House as a champion of change for supporting healthy school meals.
Luck of the Irish?
So how did a college dropout and self-described bottle washer from Ireland end up becoming one of the most sought after chefs in a region obsessed with success, power and money?
Listening to Mr Armstrong describe his career it would be easy to attribute his rise to the luck of the Irish and a few chance encounters along the way. But the self-deprecating humour and easy-going charm disguise a steely business sense and a thorough knowledge of the restaurant industry gained by hard work and stamina.
Born in Dublin in 1969, Mr Armstrong grew up in a family that relished food. His father did most of the cooking and grew his own vegetables in the back garden. Dinner was an obligatory event that always included an appetiser, main course and dessert.
When he was seven-years-old Mr Armstrong was sent alone on an exchange visit to France to learn French. The trip became a summer ritual and over the years he developed a passion for French cuisine.
He was less enthusiastic about college where he spent two months studying computer programming before dropping out. That's when his family decided America might be a good experience and packed him off to stay with friends in the Washington suburbs where he got a job at an Irish bar.
'I had no clue'
One thing led to another and after ignoring a summons home from his father, and winning a Green Card in the annual US government lottery, he was taken on at Vidalia, a high-end restaurant in the heart of Washington where he began learning the art of "serious cooking" and worked his way up the kitchen ranks.
"I really had no clue what I was doing," he says. "So many restaurants sear a piece of meat, put it onto a hot plate and then it goes into the oven. You take it out when you think it's cooked and hopefully you get medium rare or medium or whatever was ordered."
Vidalia had much higher standards as Mr Armstrong found out during his first New Year's Eve in the kitchen.
"At least 60 steaks were sent back over cooked. The chef finally gave up screaming at me because it was a disaster. Thankfully I wasn't fired. And sometimes an experience like that can be the best learning experience you're going to have. You just learn to figure it out. I went back in the next day, got back on the horse and started figuring it out."
He figured things out so well that in 1998 the owner of Vidalia asked him to be the chef at Bistro Bis, a landmark restaurant on Capitol Hill and a favourite haunt of lawmakers and lobbyists.
"Over the course of my almost four years there I cooked for Hilary Clinton, Martina Navratilova, Tony Curtis and a long list of celebrities. When Michael J Fox and Mohammad Ali came to talk to Congress about Parkinson's disease, I fed them. It was a pretty amazing experience."
When famous American cook Julia Child turned up unannounced, she was so impressed she returned the following day.
"Cooking for all these celebrities, I started meeting people who had money and were interested in investing in me so we started looking for properties where we could open a restaurant."
Expensive not overpriced
But Mr Armstrong was cautious. When asked to borrow $4m as part of a finance package he balked: "I needed to sleep at night."
Eventually, in 2004, he and his wife Meshelle, a restaurant manager, opened Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia. Backed by a group of local businessmen, they have taken on a more modest debt of $2m.
"In its heyday, before the bottom fell out of the economy in 2007, Restaurant Eve was fabulous and virtually ran itself. But the luxury dining industry took a relatively big hit with the drop in the economy and hasn't really recovered that well.
"I find myself having to explain to people the difference between overpriced and expensive. Overpriced is paying $2 for a can of sugary water. Paying $200 for a fine meal in a restaurant is not overpriced - it's expensive."
President Obama paid a surprise visit in 2011 when he and the first lady celebrated their wedding anniversary.
Mr Armstrong had taken a rare day off work when the restaurant's general manager called him at home. "He said, you have to come in, the President is going to be here in half an hour.
"I got to the restaurant and all hell was breaking loose. There was security everywhere but they sat down at a table and had dinner in the dining room with everybody else. The only thing they did that was unusual was to ask the guests in the bar not to move while they were coming and going. Other than that you wouldn't have noticed there was a small army surrounding them!"
Despite his success, in a typical week Mr Armstrong still works between 90 and 100 hours.
"It's a tough business. You do it because you love it and because it's fun. I initially believed that it wasn't important - it's just dinner, you're not curing cancer or sending people to the moon.
"But I realised that being sustainable and environmentally conscious is important and that we can influence people - even the president of the United States - with the food that we're serving. So it is important and not just dinner after all."