Did You Know There is an Irish Chef who Cooked for the Mafia in Rikers?
Words: Shamim de Brún
Images: via Instagram
Words: Shamim de Brún
Images: via Instagram
Conrad Gallagher is an Irish chef who went from serving A-listers to cooking up a storm for the mafia in a New York jail.
Conrad first shot to fame with his Dublin restaurant Peacock Alley — which was awarded a Michelin star in 1998 when he was 26 and kept it till 2002. Irish rock stars, politicians, models, writers — they all flocked to this place. In the glory days, Conrad brushed off critics like pesky crumbs and entertained the likes of The Clintons, Bruce Willis and our own Bono. They couldn’t get enough of the fancy flowers, glass, linen, and what Leslie Williams, Restaurant Critic for The Examiner, calls ‘tall food … allied with strong flavours’. By tall food, he means ‘five things stacked on top of each other!’. Go tobann, with Conrad’s initiation into the Michelin Hall of Fame, Ireland had itself a bona fide superchef, and everyone was eating it up!
At the height of his success, ‘he was (allegedly) on a lot of coke, it was said, and fame had gone to his head at this point, extra marital affairs, etc.’ said Leslie Williams of The Irish Examiner in an interview with Char.
He opened up the Ocean seafood bar in Dublin’s Charlotte Quay, as well as Lloyd’s Brasserie, Christopher’s and Conrad Gallagher’s Shaftesbury Avenue restaurant in London — all of them failed. The empire crumbled faster than a poorly cooked soufflé. David Gumbledon, a late friend of Leslie’s who worked with Conrad, gave him the torrid inside scoop. “He told me Conrad would sometimes borrow whatever cash the floor and kitchen staff had on them so he could pay for deliveries and then repay everyone back with the money made at lunch… it was that bad.”
The disgraced Donegal chef left Ireland after this series of financial reverses. From failed businesses in Dublin to a stint in London that went up in smoke, Conrad’s career hit rock bottom. Peacock Alley closed down on 16 March 2002 and he was in New York two days later. According to this Guardian interview, the plan was to “use his name, in a land where a Michelin-starred reputation still counted more than rumours of unpaid fishmongers in a distant land, to start again; but to use it in a quieter, less ambitious way.”
The forensic accountants running the show at the Fitzwilliam, where Peacock Alley was located, figured out that Conrad’s ledger sheet wasn’t exactly in the black. There were many unpaid suppliers in his wake and worse. According to Leslie, “stories like the time a wine importer turned up with ten guests and at the end of the meal said to Conrad – take it off what you owe me,” were commonplace.
Apparently, there were also three swanky paintings by Irish modernist Felim Egan that Conrad supposedly sold off for nine grand to settle his debts. Turns out they weren’t his to sell. According to Leslie, “One day Conrad turned up and starts taking pictures off the wall – Dave (Gumbledon) is like “what are you doing??, Don’t take the decor…” Conrad says – I’m just borrowing them for a bit; it’ll be grand.” Reader, it was not, in fact, grand.
The hotel alleged that it had already coughed up the cash for those masterpieces. Cue the dramatic music and enter the extradition order. So Conrad was arrested on April 10 2003, by US Marshalls at the door of his new restaurant and sent to Rikers for detention.
Enter the unexpected twist: a brush with the Mafia in the OG Brooklyn Detention Centre. As if straight out of a gangster flick, Conrad faced intense moments in the slammer – cracked ribs from a Colombian drug lord, racial tensions, and dodgy prison grub. But amidst the chaos, he discovered an unlikely camaraderie with the Mafia.
If Conrad is to be believed, a week after arriving he was transferred to a predominantly-white area where 74-year-old Frankie Pero, the prison capo, had asked to see him. Frankie, better known as “Mad” Frankie, was a gangster who spent 42 years in prison for numerous violent offences, including a triple murder.
Having read this New York Times piece on Conrad’s history (where they call Ireland ‘the British Isles’), the unlikely duo fantasised about food together. The mob boss suggested a ‘nice veal cutlet with cap mushrooms and a little madeira jus’. The Donegal chef countered with a veal piccata with a side order of macaroni and a glass of chianti’. Mad Frankie thought this was gas and put the word out that ‘Irish’ was to be kept safe. And he was.
In the company of mobsters like Vinnie, Tony, and Mad Frankie, Conrad found himself cooking for survival. Bed when they said, up when they said – it was a Mafia thing. The mob’s meal requests became orders, and Conrad’s kitchen skills became his ticket to safety.
They didn’t quite become firm friends, though apparently, he wrote to them after he returned to Ireland. They changed his life and quite possibly saved it all because he could cook.
From pan-seared porcini with shaved butternut squash to a lamb roast fit for a capo, Conrad turned the prison kitchen into a culinary haven. And let’s not forget the intricate dance of bartering with Jews and Muslims for raw veggies, transforming his cell into a makeshift gourmet kitchen.
‘They looked after me, kept me safe, and in return, you do what they say,’ said the man once known as Ireland’s most famous chef. These days, he is more like Ireland’s most famous failed chef, and for a while, in 2003, he was known as Prisoner 61685053 at the Brooklyn Detention Centre known as Rikers.
Eventually, a free man, cleared of alleged art theft, Conrad returned to Dublin to open Salon des Saveurs and Conrad’s Kitchen in Sligo. In July 2011, Revenue filed winding-up petitions against firms behind Salon des Saveurs and the venture in Sligo over a €166,000 tax bill.
The persistent chef has been living in Dubai since 2016, according to his Wiki. His homes, restaurants, and money may be gone, but he’s still armed with culinary tales that could rival a Scorsese screenplay. And sure isn’t it a story that would make an excellent pub quiz question?