Eric Oppenheim is the American head chef at Caffé Parigi, one of the new generations of cafés in Dublin which are making a name for high quality, low priced, wonderfully crafted eating options. Gordon Hunt speaks to the Missourian about Italian food, highly qualified Europeans and staff who are hungry for more…
About five years ago I was having lunch with a friend in a café in Dublin. While discussing anything and everything, war, recession, music and sandwiches, she told me of an accountant friend of hers. “He says that not one of the café’s on his books are turning a profit this year,” It was 2008, custom had vanished before costs could catch up, rents were at their zenith, rates were backward, wages were too high and it was proving impossible to get people through the doors in enough numbers to even see the break-even point. I wasn’t in the industry at the time, but I wondered would this be the end of some form of café. Would there ever be a time when they could turn it around, or had the world made a decision to never return. Obviously whole swathes of cafés shut around the country, but then again, what industry didn’t feel the brutal effects of the extinction of the tiger?
Heart of Dublin
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Roll on a few years and a new wave of coffee shops have opened up. Many have remained of old, but there has been a noticeable movement to a new style of shop. Cleaner, fresher, less squashed — the industry has evolved. Eric Oppenheim is head chef at Caffé Parigi, a three-year-old café in the heart of Dublin city centre. Based amid the numerous big businesses who survived the onslaught of the late noughties, he couldn’t be better placed, and the growth of his business is a clear reflection of that. “The café has been open for three years,” explains Eric. “It was started out as a simple concept. Two friends, Dino Visibelli and Victoria Mikulecz – one Italian and one French – got together to create a type of café that you would get to see in Milan or Paris – very nice, very up-style. Basically a very nicely presented café with good quality food, on a budget.”‘On a budget’, how timely a sentence – we spoke only a couple of days before the Ministers Howlin and Noonan took to the stand and orated their misery. “Nothing is too expensive, we create good styled high quality food, on a budget. It wouldn’t work if we charged too much.”
Cover The Spread
Well it does work, and word has spread. Everybody that Caffé Parigi was originally catering for was more or less within five minutes of the premises. Now, Eric says, that has spread out to perhaps fifteen minutes. Considering the density of the working population in the area – based just off Sir John Rogerson Quay – that tripling of its geographic pull means big business. “We opened our production kitchen for the catering end of things in 2011,” says Eric, of the new facility opened up nearby. That was in line with the immediate surge in demand. For now, the Caffé Parigi brand doubles as a catering facility, too. “Catering has been very successful, it’s been getting busier and busier and busier. For the production kitchen we had to hire two extra chefs. The way it set up, when they originally opened, everyone loved Caffé Parigi and asked the owners if they could cater to their specific offices. That’s when they started thinking of the production kitchen, which now does the food for the café as well. One of the owners is very hands on. She’s in the office and does quite a lot to market the company. The other owner is in the café working, so they are heavily involved, yes.”
Indeed the sharp rise in custom, which allowed for the venture into catering directly to businesses, actually worked on two levels for Eric and his team. “Well we used to have queues out the door, which wasn’t nice for people. Now, by catering to a lot of our regular clients in their workplace, we have freed up some valuable space in our café to give a far better level of service to those who come in there. It means we are serving our customers from more than one outlet now. The café is still just as busy as it ever was.”
Eric is an interesting chap – originally from Missouri, the American has done the rounds before settling in admittedly well to his current position. “Well I’m originally from, Jefferson City, Missouri. But, I went to culinary school in Scottsdale Arizona.” Having spent time there myself, I had to note how wonderful a place it must be to live. “Yea it was hard to leave,” he laughs. “I went to school out there, worked out there for a couple of years and then went back to work in Kansas City, Missouri. I worked in a place called Bristol’s, a sea food house, for five years. Then I got a job in Lidia’s of Kansas City.” Lidia Bastianich is one of the foremost authorities for Italian food in the US — a very big name over there. “I worked for her for about five years as sous chef – she also had a place in Pittsburg which I used to look after as well. She also has a few high profile places in New York. Actually, I met my wife Aileen, who is Irish, in Kansas city,” he says. So she dragged Eric to Ireland? “She brought me home,” he assures me. Eric came to Ireland in 2010, worked briefly with Kevin Dundon in Dunbrody House before helping with the starting of Bel & Bellucci. Originally brought in as sous chef, Eric got his first role as head chef at the new restaurant only weeks after joining — a culinary coup perhaps. “Well…with Bel & Bellucci, it’s clearly an Italian concept. With my background in Italian food, I was just more experienced, the right fit. I was there for just over a year, but they weren’t progressing in the way that I thought they would, so I went to Alexis, in Dun Laoghaire. I was only there a few weeks, it just didn’t suit me, and then the opportunity here came up and I took it. And I haven’t looked back.”
It’s A Team Game
Eric is now a key member of the team at Caffé Parigi, part of the thought process with regards expanding the business. The plans are to keep growing and to expand out, internationally – to really set out a brand that can work. “We have many competitors, but the one thing that we believe in our own work is that we try to give the customer really good food, made from scratch, produced in a more elegant style. For example, we do sandwich platters and stuff for local business but even though their ordering is ‘just’ a sandwich platter, we go the extra mile and put in on nice plates, decorate it, so it’s like that you order in a four star restaurant. It’s part of our brand, we want the customer to experience four star food at a better price. So the business is starting to expand more and more. We’ve been waiting for the business model to really prove itself and, now that it has, we are seriously considering opening up another venue in Dublin.” The eventual plan, Eric tells me, is to actually have three venues in Dublin and then to take it across to seas into other countries as well. “Plenty of planning and a lot more staff will be needed for that though!”
Coming from Missouri to Dublin is clearly quite a culture shock, with Scottsdale adding a third extreme to the areas Eric has worked in. However, it’s perhaps surprising to hear exactly what it is he finds different about working here, than working in Kansas.“You get a lot more qualified individuals working in this industry in Ireland,” says Eric with a surprised tone in his voice. “In the US there are plenty of qualified people, but many people over there who work in the industry do so just to have a job – they’re not too interested in anything beyond that. Over here I have found that almost everybody is highly qualified in the trade and keen to learn more and more. We can give someone a job to do and leave them to it, we can trust them because the hunger is there.”
Eric’s colleagues add a further touch of pan-border flair to proceedings. In his production kitchen, Eric is joined by an Irishman, a Pole and a Slovak. Add in the French and Italian owners and you create quite the mixture of culinary influences. However, it is outside the kitchen where Eric has noticed the biggest change since coming from America. “One of the things I noticed is getting products into the business. I don’t feel that, maybe, the customer service is as good here as maybe it is in US.”
Irish in customer care negative comment shock!
However, Eric is quick to point out a pretty cast-iron logic to this view. “I put a lot of that down to competition. In the US there is just so, so much competition – there are companies that simply have to go that extra mile in every regard to survive. For example, in the US a supplier has no problem in getting something to you at odd hours of weekends at short notice – now, I don’t expect that service here, its over the top to a degree, but I do find that the customer service level from companies supplying the products here isn’t at the level of the US. But, in saying that, some of the companies which we deal with do an excellent job. I guess in general, if I have a problem with a piece of equipment, many companies will sort it out immediately – but there are occasions when we might not get a call for a week after we inform the company.”
Envying the way they do it back in Kanas perhaps? I guess, there’s no place like home, no place like home, no place like home…