This article was originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of Hospitality Ireland Magazine, in March of 2023.
Tell us about your background – where you grew up, studied, etc.
I grew up on a sheep farm in Connemara, Galway. We always grew our own vegetables, and my parents would have us out foraging for ingredients from a young age, so I was exposed to home-grown food and locally sourced ingredients from a very young age. We used to go out and collect seaweed, which my dad would cook, with lamb from our own farm, as well as seeking out wood sorrel and berries from the hedgerows near our home, for various recipes my mother would put together, so you could say I was brought up in a foodie background. I studied at the local school until I was 15 and then left to work at a pub in the village, near my house.
What first drew you to food and cooking?
I’ve had a passion for cooking for as long as I can remember and started working in a kitchen on my 15th birthday, washing pots in the local pub. My interest in food and cooking became evident to my colleagues, and I worked my way up to cooking alongside the chefs in the kitchen. Some colleagues were very encouraging, others not so much, but I won them over in the end, through my skills and intuitive knowledge of flavours.
When did you first realise that you wanted to do this professionally?
As soon as I entered the kitchen in my local pub, I knew I wanted to train as a professional chef, and that became even more evident once I donned the chef uniform. As a result, I applied for a cookery course in GMIT, Galway. I got accepted in 1997 and spent two years mastering the art of cooking in a professional capacity.
What was your first big role?
My first big role was as head chef at Byrne’s restaurant in Ennistymon, Co. Clare.
What was that like?
I was 21 and a head chef at a busy restaurant in a prime tourist destination. It was a lot of pressure, and I’m not sure I was ready for such an intense role at such a young age, but it has shaped me as a chef, and I look back on that time fondly.
What is the food ethos of the Lodge at Ashford Castle?
The Lodge at Ashford’s food ethos is simple: only use the best ingredients, don’t overcomplicate the dish, and cook with passion. In 2012, I co-founded Slow Food Mayo, to support our local producers and farmers. I only use ethically sound suppliers and regularly visit our producers, to ensure our standards are met. This is something the hotel supports me with – we only use sustainable, fresh, seasonal, and locally sourced ingredients in the kitchen at the Lodge. Our menu is a veritable calling card for some of the best food producers in Ireland, including Andarl Farm, Velvet Cloud, St Tola goat’s cheese, and Cuinneog Farmhouse. Paired with ingredients grown or foraged on the Ashford Estate, our dishes are filled with the flavours of the West.
What makes a great restaurant?
A great restaurant is one that guests want to come back to again and again – their experience during their first visit determines that. The flavours and quality of the dishes, the care and attention that the staff take when serving guests, and the overall atmosphere during their time there all have an important role to play. At the Lodge, we take special care to serve food that impacts the senses in the best way possible – the visual appeal of each dish, the smells, the flavours have all been thought out carefully, with this in mind. Our latest menu may even evoke nostalgic memories – inspired by traditional dishes that were a common sight on menus in the seventies and eighties, such as the Scotch egg, salmon gravadlax, and baked Alaska, which have all stood the test of time.
How are Irish people changing as customers?
Irish people are a lot more conscious about where their food comes from these days. They like supporting local producers, they value quality ingredients, and they appreciate when those ingredients are ethically and sustainably sourced. Wilde’s is a restaurant that embraces this. Our menus celebrate Irish artisan producers, which are paired with estate-grown and -foraged ingredients. Complementing this is our wine list of over 100 labels, which exclusively features green, sustainably produced wines from around the world.
What are the changing trends in hospitality – people’s expectations, new elements, etc.?
Simple, classical dishes have made a comeback. I find people are happy to spend money on quality ingredients. The farm-to-fork movement has encouraged this immensely. People want to know where the ingredients are sourced. The knowledge of eating produce that is local and/or highly regarded in the food community adds to the diner’s experience at the restaurant.
What are the major challenges at the moment?
Inflation is a huge issue at the moment, in any sector, and the food and hospitality sector has not avoided it. The increased cost of ingredients has been difficult to navigate – not to mention the talent shortages the hospitality sector is facing right now.
What are the main opportunities?
I have noticed a new-found desire from Irish people to buy local and sustainable foods over cheaper imported alternatives.
Do you think that the pandemic has changed what we look for in hospitality?
Yes, the pandemic has certainly changed things – not just for guests, but for those working in hospitality also. From a guest perspective, I think, after the pandemic, people want to make new memories and enjoy new and unique experiences. This means we must be creative about what we offer our guests. From the perspective of those working in hospitality, people have experienced work-life balance for the first time and have no desire to return to the old days of long hours and no time off.
Any other plans on the horizon for the next year or so?
As mentioned, we grow our own produce on the Ashford estate, including herbs, vegetables, and native fruits. We are working closely with the estate’s gardeners to expand this further, and over the coming years, we hope to become as self-sufficient as possible when it comes to ingredients for dishes on our menus, both for the Lodge at Ashford Castle and Ashford Castle itself. This is a huge undertaking, and a project that myself and executive head chef Liam Finnegan, at the castle, are very passionate about.
The LODGE AT ASHFORD CASTLE AT A GLANCE
How many covers (for lunch and dinner)? Lunch 50, dinner 80
Number of restaurant staff members – front and back of house? 40
Percentage breakdown between food & beverage and rooms? 50/50
Signature dishes? Venison Wellington, white-pudding Scotch egg, queen of puddings
Ashford Castle Dr, Castle Estate, Lislaughera, Ashford, Co. Mayo
T: (094) 954 5400