Restaurant

Maria Archer Of Dede At The Customs House Baltimore

By Robert McHugh
Maria Archer Of Dede At The Customs House Baltimore

Robert McHugh speaks to Maria Archer, co-owner of Dede at the Customs House Baltimore, ‘where purity and balance are never at the expense of flavour.’

Dede at the Customs House Baltimore was recently crowned the all-Ireland winner of the Irish Restaurant Awards 2024. Its menu is created with Turkish and Irish seasonal ingredients, with inspiration from both.

The restaurant was opened in 2020, as a joint collaboration between Dublin woman Maria Archer and Turkish chef Ahmet Dede. Since then, the establishment has received numerous awards and accolades, including two Michelin stars.

Maria Archer gave an exclusive interview to Hospitality Ireland recently, about how she altered her career path to open the restaurant, its unique offering, and her love for sailing.

Dede at the Customs House Baltimore has been crowned the all-Ireland winner of the Irish Restaurant Awards 2024. How does it feel to win such an honour?

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It was absolutely incredible. It was a wonderful surprise. It’s a rush of happiness and pride, really.

I was delighted for the whole team. It was great to be recognised by our peers.

There are so many amazing restaurants and chefs in Cork – it is peaking, in terms of food and high-quality restaurants. Cork can compete with anywhere.

Can you tell me a little bit about your own background – where you grew up and where you studied?

I grew up in Dublin, in Dalkey. I went to school in Glenageary, and then I went into advertising, marketing, and then design.

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I always wanted a restaurant. We had a holiday home in Baltimore, so I wanted to open up a cafe and deli while continuing to do corporate work in the wintertime. The plan was to have a cafe and deli during the summer, but then I met Ahmed. The restaurant he was working in was closing down, and he wanted to open a business in West Cork.

I asked him if we could do something together. We were due to open the restaurant in March 2020, but Covid put a stop to that, so we didn’t get to open until July.

We had a baptism of fire for the first two years, but a number of things we did during that time we still incorporate. We had to be very versatile and flexible. It was a difficult start for a restaurant.

That year, a Michelin inspector came in, and we were awarded our first star during Covid. That was during the Irish lockdown of the one-hour-and-45-minutes menu – if you remember those?

We had to have a short menu, where you went outside if you wanted a drink, first of all, and then you would come in for dinner and then back outside again. So, we adapted and went through all of that for two years, and then at the end of two years, we were all allowed to open up normally. We were awarded our second star that year.

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Do you think that your corporate background helped during this difficult time?

Absolutely – 100%. We were able to adapt and to change quite quickly. That is something you learn to do in the corporate world. You have to adapt to overcome obstacles and to move forward.

What do you enjoy most about your job, presently?

The same thing that most people enjoy – the happiness that you witness in the restaurant. So many people come to us for amazing celebrations or special occasions.

When they are happy, the whole restaurant is alive. If they are enjoying themselves, that is the best aspect of any restaurant – the pleasure that customers have.

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What do you think are the main challenges in the industry at the moment?

You probably know all of these already. The energy costs, obviously, is one. I mean, that’s still an enormous factor. We’ve been through two years of Covid, and then two years of extreme energy costs within the industry.

We also have the problem of accommodation. Staff accommodation is a huge issue in every part of Ireland. Restaurants have had to adapt, whereby we have had to provide accommodation for our staff, rather than have staff try and find their own accommodation.

Rising costs has been a huge issue within the industry, because, obviously, with energy costs increasing, it has increased all of our suppliers’ costs as well. Managing all of that has been very difficult. You do not want to be the most expensive restaurant – nobody does. Nobody wants to increase the prices.

Everybody has taken a hit on their margins during this time, but it is important not to take a hit so big that you go out of business.

Is it a delicate balance, getting the price right?

You have to ensure that you cover all of your bills, that you provide the quality and the service that is needed because cutting back on that severely impacts the service quality within the restaurant as well.

It is all of these factors that have to be considered, not just the standing costs, like food and wine. Everything has increased.

Do you have a business motto?

I suppose we do. After Covid, we adopted the octopus as our spirit animal. We commissioned a local sculptor to make it. She is made out of copper!

She is our spirit animal within the restaurant industry because we believe that the octopus embodies everything that a restaurant has to be. It has to adapt and use each of its arms in an intelligent way.

Within the restaurant, our main philosophy is that nothing is impossible.

What do you like to do when you are not working?

Oh, gosh. When are we not working in this industry?

We went sailing yesterday, from Baltimore Harbour over to South Harbour, over in Cape Clear. It was a great day for spotting a few dolphins.

I enjoy sailing and water sports. I never get the time for it, but I like gardening. I absolutely love music events.

I think my number-one favourite thing to do is visit other restaurants. You are never bored in Cork!

What will be the next chapter for Dede at the Customs House Baltimore?

At the end of this month, we are opening another restaurant next door. It will nearly be going back to Covid-style dining. It will have some of the elements from that time and some of the elements from the present menu, but in a much bigger format.

After we get the restaurant open, we hope to go into product production as well. We hope to perform test marketing in the restaurant, to see what people like. We have very unusual ingredients and sauces on our menu that you would not be able to find anywhere else.