In this 'Chef to Chef' feature, sponsored by Keelings, Derry Clarke speaks to Natalie Collins, proprietor of the Newbridge Silver and Japanese Gardens (both in Co. Kildare) about the challenges involved in running not one but two restaurants.
Derry: So, Natalie, what is your title? Chef? Proprietor?Natalie: I am the proprietor of the Silver restaurant in Newbridge, County Kildare; and my company is Gourmet Goodies. I have two places: Newbridge Silverware - The Silver restaurant - and the Japanese Gardens restaurant in the Japanese Gardens in County Kildare.
Derry: Which came first?Natalie: The Japanese Gardens came first, and then Newbridge. I’m seven years in the Japanese Gardens and six years in Newbridge. I love it here [in Newbridge] – it’s a great place to work and it’s very innovative. They’re a fabulous community of people in Newbridge Silverware and they’ve taught me so much over the years about business.
Derry: Obviously, you didn’t come into this by accident – you must have started your career somewhere?Natalie: I started down in Ballymaloe, County Cork. I did the Ballymaloe course in 1993. Then I worked in Ballymaloe House for three years, under Rory O’Connell and Myrtle Allen, which was the best grounding I think any chef could have.
Derry: You couldn’t have gotten better, really!Natalie: Absolutely. It’s a fantastic learning kitchen – they teach you everything from the basics up. It was a fabulous experience, I have to say.
Derry: What came next?Natalie: I moved to London and worked with Terence Conran for a couple of years in Pont de la Tour. It was a fabulous restaurant. I worked there for a couple of years and I loved it, and then I took a couple of years out and I went cooking in New York. I was working for a wealthy family in New York for two years. It was an amazing experience – I did some fantastic parties for them. Then I headed off to Australia and I worked in Sydney for a year and a half. I learned a huge amount about salads and about fusion food, which I just loved. I love salads, I love coming up with new ideas. It was an amazing experience, and I must say that the food in Australia is superb.
Derry: Why would you say that?Natalie: The quality of the ingredients, the quality of the chefs. It has beautiful food and beautiful people and the quality of the ingredients are far superior. But, saying that, coming back to Ireland to work I’ve noticed that we are surrounded by some of the best ingredients in food, from our meats to our vegetables – it’s really, really good.
Derry: So, New York, then Australia, and then you came back here to Ireland?Natalie: Well, my Dad and my sister are racehorse trainers…
Derry: You’d never want to go into that area?Natalie: I did! My Dad wasn’t too well so I came back to help my sisters for a couple of years. I found it very difficult – the cold mornings out on the Curragh at 6am just weren’t for me. I needed my warm kitchen back again! So, that’s what I did. An opening came up in the restaurant at the Japanese Gardens [a semi-state body] and I knew I had a lot of experience. I’d never ran my own place, but I knew I had it in me. I’d wanted to be my own boss ever since I was young.
Derry: So you had to put a tender in for that, did you?Natalie: I did.
Derry: People reading this would like to know: to go down that route, is it an easy road or a hard road? What kind of process is it?Natalie: It is difficult. You’re up against fierce competition and I fought my corner. I got the tender because I was passionate, and I still am passionate about what I do. I’m a very hard worker and I put in the hours. I’m a people person, so I relate well to people. I knew I could give them the level of service that they expected.
Derry: When you got it, you must have been nervous?Natalie: Oh, my God, I cried! I got the news during Christmas week. It was something I really wanted to do and at the time I was working with my sisters and I knew I had to get out of there. It was a fabulous job but I knew I had to do something so I had planned this for many months. After I heard, I cried all through Christmas, all through New Year’s! It was a turning point in my life and it was the best decision I ever made, without a shadow of a doubt.
Derry: When you opened, did it take off for you straight away or was it a hard slog?Natalie: I was lucky, it took off for me straight away.
Derry: Did it help being a local person, being from the area?Natalie: Absolutely – I’m well known in the area. Not that I was lucky: I worked hard, I gave a good service, but I did know a lot of people in the area and they supported me. And then Newbridge approached me and asked me to come and work for them. It was such an honour, because I can remember this place being built and I remember thinking ‘I’d give my right eye to have The Silver restaurant’. I met with the team, I met with William Doyle who owns Newbridge Silverware, and there were some changes in the restaurant. I ran it for the first couple of months to see how we got on, and then I took the lease on the restaurant six months later. I’m here ever since.
Derry: Now: two restaurants. Running one is hard enough, we all know that, but running two?Natalie: Absolutely. What I was doing was running backwards and forwards to the two restaurants. When I opened my first place, it was easy. The difficult part was getting it set up and getting it running. I just thought: ‘This is amazing, this is easy, and I can go and open another place no problem’. But I had my difficulties in the first three years, trying to run the two places, so I then realised that I had to run one or run the other. I couldn’t run from one to the other. So I came over and managed Newbridge. I have my head chef but I’m the executive chef, I go in and out. Most of the time I’m at Silver, and I have a great team over in Kildare that look after it. People always ask me do I want to expand but what I want to do is to hold on to the places that I have and to make sure that I’m giving the best service that I can. There’s an awful lot of wages that I have to pay, so I have to make sure that I’m bringing in the money to produce the revenue to look after my staff.
Derry: What time do you open at?Natalie: We open 9-5, seven days a week. Well, 9-6: we stop serving at 5.Derry: Do you find a seven-day week operation in a restaurant difficult?Natalie: I’ve never known anything else, so it never made any difference to me. The thought of not opening for a day and not making any money would shock me, I wouldn’t be able to cope with it! So I’d much prefer to have it working seven days a week. We close Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, St Stephen’s Day and New Year’s Day – that’s it.
Derry: You must get tourists? This is the Newbridge Silverware Factory after all…Natalie: Yes, Newbridge Silverware and the Museum of Style Icons. I have a very good working relationship with Newbridge – one feeds off the other – and Newbridge is very good to me. They bring a lot of tourists to the place that I feed. I give a quality service when they come in, so it works both ways. We have a great Sunday lunch trade.
Derry: What would you do on Sundays?Natalie: We do a ribeye of beef and we cook it from the night before so it’s soft and tender. We have beautiful trimmings. We’d use an awful lot of Irish dishes, like today we’ve got a glazed bacon omelette, which is lovely, one of my most popular dishes.
Derry: With cabbage?Natalie: Absolutely! One of my main vegetables is cabbage, and if I take it off the menu it’s like ‘Oh, my God!’. War breaks out. But, yes, we do an awful lot of Irish dishes. We make our cakes – we do cupcakes and we make our cakes available for sale for special occasions. We make homemade jams, as well.
Derry: Is there revenue in that?Natalie: Without a shadow of a doubt. It all adds up.
Derry What do you do outside this place, relaxation-wise?Natalie: I support my sisters in racing. I ride as well - I love horses.