Temperatures boiled over at the country's top restaurant awards last night after a Michelin-starred chef announced that he was boycotting the black-tie event because the judging system was a "sham".
Oliver Dunne, head chef at Bon Appetit in Malahide, Co Dublin, took issue with the new revamped judging process for the Irish Restaurant Awards.
The chef, who won a coveted Michelin star in 2008, was nominated in the best chef category, which eventually went to Danny Millar, head chef at Balloo House in Co Down.
In previous years, the voting system was based solely on the views of a panel of judges.
However, this year it was broadened into four sections, with 30pc of marks awarded by 'mystery diners', 30pc by the public, 30pc by a panel of judges and 10pc for the menu.
Mr Dunne said the awards, which are run by the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI), had lost their integrity and were now more about marketing. He claimed that restaurants with the biggest customer database had a better chance of winning.
"If you're nominated for something, it should be based on your ability, not on begging people to vote for you.
"I know how the machine works, this is life, but it's wrong.
"I for one have had enough and am bowing out," he said before the ceremony at Dublin's Burlington Hotel.
Mr Dunne accused the RAI of "bombarding" restaurateurs with emails recommending how they could woo the public vote.
Celebrity chef Kevin Dundon, who was also nominated last night, said: "I didn't ask one of my customers at home to vote, to text, because they had to pay for it. I just wouldn't do it.
"But it only accounts for a small percentage of the total vote. Ultimately, I think the judges can actually make the call as to who's going to win."
However, Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the RAI, defended the decision to include an element of public voting.
"It's all about trying to get people out and supporting their local restaurant. We're an inclusive organisation and our door is always open if people want to discuss anything."
The judging system is audited by KPMG and was revamped with the involvement of Failte Ireland and Bord Bia in an effort to promote tourism at home and locally produced food.
The awards were sponsored by the 'Sunday Independent' Life Magazine and Santa Rita and attracted more than 700 chefs and restaurateurs.
Around a dozen restaurant workers picketed last night's gala event to protest against calls by the RAI to reduce the national minimum wage.
This is the second year that Danny has been nominated in the Best Chef category at the RAI awards. Balloo House won Best Chef, Best Restaurant and Best Customer Service in this year’s Co Down regional finals, going through to the All Ireland finals in Dublin last night.
After the regional finals, the RAI asked finalists to canvas for votes from customers though posters/table talkers in the restaurant.
A Balloo House spokesperson said: "We decided not to involve ourselves in this process as we did not like the idea of intruding on our diners for votes and preferred to leave the results up to the judges so that awards, if won, were on merit alone and not popularity.
"Traditionally, restaurants north of the border have not featured in the awards in previous years, so for the Best Chef All Ireland to be won by Danny for his cooking at Balloo House is quite an achievement in the industry."
Commenting on the award Danny said: “To be nominated alongside some of the country’s best chefs is very humbling. I am still a bit overwhelmed but obviously it’s a fantastic endorsement of our work at Balloo House which I couldn’t do without such a great team around me. It’s also a great boost for cooking from the North, which tends to get overshadowed at all-Ireland events”
Speaking about Oliver Dunne’s comments in the press, Danny explained: “I think Oliver Dunne makes a fair point that awards should be handed out on merit alone. We also chose to opt out of the customer canvassing, so I am happy that results were based solely on the judging panel’s findings.
"I suspect many credible restaurants did not ask for diner’s votes as it is not ideal to ask your customers to support you by spending money on a text vote. Perhaps Oliver has overestimated how much influence the customer vote had over the results. It’s maybe a bit of on overreaction to boycott the event. He is at risk of it looking like sour grapes”
Source: Irish Independent/Belfast Telegraph