Kinsella, Sean (1931–2013), chef, was born on 24 June 1931 in Drimna, near Kilrush, Co. Clare, the son of Myles Kinsella, a labourer of William Street, Dublin, and his wife Bridget (née McMahon). He spent the first two years of his life with his mother's family in Cooraclare, Co. Clare, before joining his parents in Clonliffe Road, Dublin. His father worked in the boiler room of the Richmond Hospital. Sean attended the O'Connell School on North Richmond Street in Dublin until age fourteen when he left to become an apprentice chef in Frascati's on Suffolk Street. The next year he joined the Gresham Hotel where he served a tough and penurious apprenticeship under master chef Karl Uhlemann, cycling to and from work on a hire-purchased bicycle, which he leased out during the day. He then worked for a summer in Jammet's restaurant on Nassau Street before going to the Commodore Hotel in Cork where the sight of visiting ocean liners docking nearby at Cobh moved him to sign on in 1953 for the P&O line's SS Oransay 1.
Taken on as a sauce chef, he was promoted to assistant chef several voyages later and came to run a small restaurant catering for about fifty elite passengers. P&O sent him to train in restaurants in Hong Kong and Tokyo and in the Ritz Hotel in Paris. In the mid-to-late 1960s he was appointed executive chef of P&O's flagship ocean liner, the Canberra, where he had a staff of 200 cooking 12,000 meals a day. Having sang in amateur talent contests as a teenager, he loved the limelight and began doing cooking demonstrations, which developed into a showpiece event, drawing hundreds of onlookers. Also making television appearances in various ports, he honed his cheeky patter, providing housewives with practical tips, spiced with jokes and anecdotes. In 1967 he married Eileen Meacock, a ballet teacher from London, who he met when she was a passenger. The marriage did not last.
Unhappy with P&O's move towards setting all menus from headquarters and also anxious to be near his elderly parents, he left in 1972 to buy the Mirabeau restaurant, Sandycove, Co. Dublin, in partnership with an architect. He invested £10,000 and held a long lease on the premises, which included an anterior bar and seating for fifty. He lived in the upstairs apartment with his wife Audrey Sharpe from Cootehill, Co. Cavan, who he had met and swiftly married shortly before. Their happy marriage produced two sons.
The Mirabeau was part of a trend whereby restaurants were opened in the proliferating suburbs for a newly affluent clientele daunted by the arcane gentility of Dublin's established high-end restaurants. Kinsella offered conventional dishes cooked to a high standard and a lively, unpretentious atmosphere. There was only one booking per table so diners could stay drinking for as long as they liked. Once he had finished cooking, he loved bantering with customers long into the night, often driving them home; some stayed for breakfast.
His food was rich, in excessive portions and made from the finest and freshest ingredients. He gave away each night's leftovers and refused to serve anything frozen, tinned or instant. Such was his fastidiousness about cleanliness that he often changed clothes four times a day. Even reviewers who sniffed at his flamboyance and heavy, profligate helpings acknowledged the quality on offer, particularly the subtlety of the sauces and the freshness and variety of his lightly-done vegetables. His specialty was boneless duck in sauce. He raised the formerly dismal culinary standards prevailing in Ireland and collected numerous national and international awards and citations in international food guides.
Other Irish chefs made finer cuisine, but none could match Kinsella for glamour, as the many international celebrities he had befriended during his years at sea regularly called in. Visiting first out of friendship, they kept coming for the food and hospitality while also recommending him to their peers. Every year the bandleader James Last booked the entire restaurant and treated his sixty-strong orchestra to a gargantuan feast. Other celebrity customers included the singers Neil Diamond and Demis Roussos; the writer Frederick Forsyth; the tennis player John McEnroe; and the actors Richard Burton, Steve McQueen and Peter Ustinov. On one occasion, Ustinov was happy to eat in the kitchen because no tables were available. In 1980 Kinsella also acted as Laurence Olivier's personal chef when he was filming the war film Inchon at nearby Ardmore Studios.
Initially building up his clientele through word of mouth, from 1976 he began plying gossip columnists with details of celebrity goings-on at his restaurant, favouring those providing good write-ups with free meals. As a result, the high-minded Irish Times eventually banned all references to the Mirabeau. Customers flocked there, more to display their wealth than for the food and revelled in paying prohibitively for the pleasure. Kinsella added to the aura of conspicuous consumption by illegally parking his Bentley, later his Rolls Royce, outside the entrance. A vaguely decadent, if not to say louche, atmosphere developed as the night progressed, but regulars could rest assured that nothing embarrassing would appear in the press. Thus, Taoiseach Charles Haughey (qv) often dined there with his mistress Terry Keane (qv). Kinsella's own lifestyle was fairly humble. He preferred the bacon and cabbage cooked by his wife and eschewed drinking and smoking. A fervent supporter of the Dublin Gaelic football team, he regularly brought his father to watch them play.
Although he had a reputation for being difficult with customers, especially with those who queried the bill, such theatrics were rare and performed mainly for publicity purposes. An exuberant and solicitous host, Kinsella greeted arrivals effusively at the bar where a great show was made of parading the uncooked food on offer before them. They were then ushered into the restaurant to order from unpriced menus. The bill was not broken down, being determined somewhat haphazardly by Kinsella who took into account the payer's apparent wealth and whether they were charging – as most were – to expenses. (Journalists of whatever type enjoyed meals either for free or at cost price.) The food was reasonable value, but the priced wine list had bottles going for over four times their cost. His refusal to price his menus was technically illegal and became increasingly contentious, leading to the Mirabeau's eventual exclusion from certain restaurant awards and food guides.
A striking figure with a distinctive silver beard, peaked eyebrows and an intense stare, his appearance on RTÉ's Late late show in early 1977 completed his transformation into a media celebrity. Spreading himself rather thin, given that he did all the buying and cooking for the Mirabeau, he performed regular public cooking demonstrations and was unstinting in giving time to numerous charities. In 1979 he made Christmas dinner for 700 homeless people at the Mansion House. He had little to do with his fellow restaurateurs, preferring to quarrel with them in the most public fashion possible. They in turn disdained his increasingly frantic publicity-seeking antics.
By the early 1980s his cooking had become old-fashioned and the Mirabeau's suburban location a disadvantage amid a trend towards lighter, more delicate dishes and the emergence of strong city centre-based competitors. The Mirabeau lost money, as the steep rise in VAT and the decision first to curtail and then to abolish tax deductions for client entertainment exacerbated the effects of an intense recession from 1980. Moreover, Kinsella became a focus for public anger during a time of worsening austerity and mass unemployment. His premises was robbed repeatedly and in July 1983 invaded by thirty unemployment protesters who then held a demonstration outside. Many semi-state organisations with large entertainment budgets also ruled it out of bounds.
The butt of po-faced commentators and irreverent satirists alike, Kinsella was an ideal target for revenue officials coming under pressure to clamp down on tax evasions among small businesses. Unhappy with his VAT record keeping, the Revenue Commissioners assessed him in April 1983 as owing £450,000 (including interest). Kinsella protested that the true amount was £62,000 and that Revenue had wrongly assumed a big margin on every meal. No write offs were permitted even though the rather arbitrary VAT assessment process produced exaggerated liabilities that were normally settled for a much smaller sum. He appealed the assessment to the Dublin circuit court, but the appeal was still underway in late July 1984 when a high court judge pushed the Mirabeau into liquidation by ordering the immediate payment of £15,600. The restaurant was sold to pay its tax debts.
With the help of assorted former Mirabeau patrons, Kinsella subsequently ran a succession of restaurants in various parts of Ireland and one in New York. He was incapable of working for someone else, never lasting for much more than a year in each position. At first he could fall back on giving cooking demonstrations in Ireland and the USA. He made a series of US television appearances and was in 1986 awarded an honorary doctorate by the New Hampshire College Culinary Institute. In 1985 he published Sean Kinsella's cookbook, which offered practical tips for simple meals.
By 1991 his waning popularity had reduced him to taking up a food concession in a bowling alley in Tallaght, Co. Dublin. Suffering from diabetes, he seems to have stopped working the next year and slid into obscurity. After leading a nomadic existence since the Mirabeau's liquidation, he was in 1993 given a local authority house in Shankhill, Co. Dublin. He had been forced to wait years for housing accommodation because it was assumed that he had secreted money offshore. The tax authorities had likewise pursued him for many years. Despite his modest circumstances, he later spurned financial offers from journalists seeking fresh revelations about Charles Haughey's personal life. For his part, Haughey invited Kinsella and his wife to his residence for dinner every Christmas.
He re-emerged briefly into the spotlight in early 2003 when he unsuccessfully pursued three separate personal injury claims in the circuit civil court against two supermarkets and Bord Gáis, each for damages of up to €38,000. The legal counsel for one of the supermarkets asserted they had learned of him making fourteen such claims in total. Latterly seeming bewildered by the decline in his fortunes, Kinsella remained passionate about cooking and loved recalling his glory days at the Mirabeau. He kept up appearances by going shopping in three-piece suits. In 2007 he was the subject of a sympathetic RTÉ documentary, which evoked a renewed appreciation of his significance as Ireland's first celebrity chef. No other Irish chef achieved anything like his level of fame until Conrad Gallagher in the late 1990s.
Sean Kinsella died on 19 April 2013 in St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin, and was buried in St Fintan's cemetery in Sutton, Co. Dublin.