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Sole And Fire Culinary Director Richie Wilson On Bucking The Trend

By Emily Hourican

In a year of mostly bleak news, two Dublin restaurants bucked the trend. Sole won Best Seafood Restaurant in Europe, and Fire won Global Steakhouse of the Year at the World Luxury Restaurant Awards. Here, the culinary director of both restaurants, Richie Wilson, discusses 2020.

Asked how 2020 has been, business wise, Richie Wilson answers, “To say it has been challenging would be a massive understatement. Nobody out there could have predicted how 2020 was going to turn out, but it was certainly a long way from what we had planned for the year. When you add up the number of weeks we have been closed, it’s hard to say we did any business at all, really, for 2020. The year has been a complete write-off, in business terms. That’s not to say it hasn’t had positives. Our team were strong to begin with, but we are now galvanised, standing strong together, watching out for each other, united in our efforts to do all that is asked of us, and more, to ensure the safety of our guests and our team when we finally return to open restaurants.

“We had undertaken a considerable amount of works at the beginning of the year for Fire,” Wilson continues, “in part to celebrate the restaurant’s fifteenth birthday. With two weeks of closures scheduled – which was, in fact, a very tight turnaround to get open again – we made considerable changes to menus, cooking platforms, the service journey and layout of the restaurant. In hindsight, we could have had a lot of works done during the second lockdown, when these trades were allowed to return to work. Then again, we may have thought twice about doing them after such a year ... however, we are now in a position where Fire is looking magnificent, Sole is maturing beautifully, and we are ready for what is sure to be an extraordinarily busy period when we are open.”

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Of all the many challenges, what has been the greatest?

“This year has brought huge challenges, not least of which was ensuring that we stayed loyal to our team. We were determined to keep as many of the team as humanly possible with us, and I believe we have done that. The best investment we can make is in our team. We have all been together for so long, we didn’t want to lose any of that knowledge, or that level of commitment that each of them has.

“Having both restaurants ready to open under our new protocols was certainly a challenge – gathering sanitising products in the early stages was difficult on its own. Ensuring our teams were up to speed before we opened our doors once again was another. Ensuring minimal losses each time we closed the restaurants was probably the most difficult, from an operational point of view. We wanted to ensure that all of our guests had the same level of service and menu choice as they always would, and yet carrying that volume of stock when we closed could have been disastrous. It is a credit to our head chefs and beverage managers that it was not. Keeping up to date as the payment schemes changed from one to another and ensuring all the staff were taken care of, financially, was just one of the many challenges for the finance team, who overcame them all through very long and testing days. Front office, too, came under enormous pressure with reservations, ensuring we spoke to all of our guests, keeping them informed throughout, and maximising reservations within our guideline limits. It’s easy to see why we wanted to ensure the team stayed with us,” he says.

Have there been any positives from this time?

“Of course,” he says. “If you look hard enough, there are positives in every situation, and it isn’t hard to find them this year. In the restaurants, there have been many positives. The sharing of so much creativity on social platforms with each other has given us all an opportunity to see what we are all about. It has encouraged some to pursue areas of expertise they may not have before, giving rise to amazing results in cake decoration, for example, or experimental mixology.

“It has given us an opportunity to explore our menus a little more, refining ideas and dishes. It has also encouraged us to a look beyond our day-to-day environment and look for inspiration in areas that may not have been explored without the time afforded to us. It has sparked a renewed eagerness to get behind our environmental responsibilities. Most importantly, it has shown us how much we have taken for granted, and hopefully added a new level of care in our dining experience.”

Is there anything that Wilson has done that has proven beneficial to the business?

“I’m not sure we have done one specific thing. The measures we have taken have been quite broad. Our ability to adapt to the environment has been strong, and, along with our creativity, we have been able to provide some truly unique dining experiences. The creation of our outdoor dining area in Sole during the warmer weeks gave a new lease of life to the area. It has shown us that we can provide the al-fresco experience we all love – in good weather! Likewise, in Fire, our terrace has taken on a feel that we may have thought was only possible in warmer climates before. Now, with a little technology – and quite a few heaters – our terrace offers year-round outdoor dining overlooking the Lord Mayor’s garden. We have had time to share some great recipes through our ‘Cooking at Home’ videos on our social channels, along with some awesome cocktails from Helio, our head mixologist, who brought a really great level of fun and enthusiasm for his craft.”

What does a win at the World Luxury Restaurant Awards mean to Wilson?

“Well, you asked for positives from the year – it doesn’t get much more positive than that. I don’t believe it’s about winning awards. For us, it is the enormity of the recognition that comes with this. To be recognised on a global stage for the team’s dedication to Irish provenance, in both our food and our welcome, is amazing. To know that this is the level we are working at, that means the world to us.”

What are Wilson’s hopes/expectations for 2021?

“When you look to our hopes for 2021, we can only look to the colossal challenge we face to eradicate COVID-19. The vaccine is the game-changer we have all been waiting for – the delivery of that to the population will determine our level of expectation for 2021. With a speedy rollout, we would hope to see people return to the city, return to the workplace, return to shopping in person, return to celebrating together. When these return, we can then hope for a return to dining in a way that we excel, and at levels that can sustain the industry.”

Does Wilson think that the government has done enough to support the hospitality industry?

“I do recognise the efforts and lengths this government has gone to, to keep us all safe, to keep what is left of the economy moving and put us in a position where we could see recovery next year. I believe they have performed better than most across the globe. That said, engagement with the industry directly could and should be a lot better. The industry specialises in people – we are the experts in their behaviour, wants and needs on any given day or night within our environment. We know what will work in terms of restrictions and how to balance those with maximising our capacity. We have a track record of ensuring the safety and well-being of diners, so why not sit with leaders of the industry to seek their guidance and assistance?

“Outside of the pandemic, I believe there is still a large gap to be filled between what is needed by the hospitality industry and what is provided by government. We need to do more on the shortage of skilled labour coming through, especially now, when we will more than likely see many people return to their home countries, leaving an even bigger void in the labour market. More can be done to encourage young people into the industry. College course prices have soared, and now employers will have little or no resources to invest in this. It has to be said that the industry itself can and should tackle this together, but we will need government supports.”

Finally, how has Wilson found the last ten months, personally?

“There have been many personal challenges throughout this year. I am a ‘doer’ – I’m not for sitting around. Kitchens are physically demanding, and you certainly feel you have done a day’s work at the end of a busy day in a kitchen. Spending so much time on Zoom calls, emails, and general computer-based work has brought a completely different challenge for me. It has been mentally exhausting to be continuously planning, replanning, and putting in place the measures required of us during this COVID era and still ensure the restaurants maintain their ability to provide the experience we have become synonymous for, without being overshadowed by safety measures. However, along with everyone else, I have had so much time to devote to my family, especially during the first lockdown. Having this opportunity of time together is something I know I will treasure.”

SOLE Seafood and Grill

FIRE - No of seats - 280 usually'; currently 140

SOLE - No of seats - 120 usually, currently around 80

Revenue percentage breakdown for both: 70% food 30% drink

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Enjoy full access to Hospitality Ireland, our weekly email news digest, all website and app content, and every digital issue.
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Enjoy full access to Hospitality Ireland, our weekly email news digest, all website and app content, and every digital issue.
Enjoy a FREE Digital Subscription