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29 April 2010

When the going gets tough...

It was just a simple enquiry to Sarah Nic Lochlainn, of Ardee's Fuchsia House Restaurant – “How's business holding up?”, that provoked the following, inspiring, reply. If you would like to hear more from this brilliant restaurateur, then Sarah is one of four local businesswomen talking on Wednesday May 5th on LMFM at 2.15 pm about how to think outside the box and get through tough times.
For the meantime, I found this reply to be genuinely moving and inspirational. A backpacker's manifesto!

Hi John,
Business is quite good. We've had a rough couple of years like everyone put we've gone back to 80hr weeks and are constantly trying to think outside the box and it worked out quite well for us.
This year we had a good Valentine's weekend, then we had Tom Doorley here doing his "Dine with Doorley" evening at the end of Feb. That went down a treat. Tom was very charming, informative and entertaining.
In March we were reviewed by Paolo Tullio. Of course in a town this size word got around that he had been before we even appeared in the Indo and that created a buzz. He also gave us a plug on "Today with Pat Kenny" for our value menu.
Following on from those two big names we've received a lot of local press including a feature interview on LMFM, the local radio station.
Although times are very tough, we feel more comfortable in this new-old Ireland. We find that people appreciate hard graft, value for money, a sense of humour, contribution to community and many of the old values have come back into fashion.
We never felt comfortable in the designer label Ireland of the 90s and 00s as like yourselves, we started out as backpackers and still see ourselves as such!
We both worked (very!) hard in our parents' businesses growing up and want to teach our children the value of hard work.
Through the very rough times of the past two years, we've stayed focussed on the fact that our children will grow up in a nicer society as a result of what's happening to us.
On the flip-side people appreciate our positivity and optimism. We made it house policy not to discuss doom and gloom with our customers. They come to us to get away from their own reality for the evening. When someone starts going down that route during a conversation at a table, we tell them we can hear the bell dinging in the kitchen and exit!
We have diversified into home cooking sauces and also do catering in homes and workplaces in response to people's new need and that has worked out well for us. It just entails SO MUCH extra work to set up a new enterprise as you know.
We hope to be at Bloom this year, so please watch out for us. Our sauces are called Aruna and we'll be under that banner. We look forward to seeing you there.
Best regard,

28 April 2010

Go The Irish Times

Over-Delivering the Hospitality

We have a problem with hospitality in Ireland.

For some crazy reason, and despite the fact that tourism has been a mainstay of our economy for several decades, we persist in the belief that hospitality is an instinct.
We think it’s something we just have – like freckles, or red hair, or the inability to finish sentences without saying “like”.
And we love to compare ourselves and our instinct to those who don’t have this instinct – the English, the Dutch, the French.
Do we need to work at hospitality? Do we need to learn it? Do we need to practice it? Hell, no way. Us? Sure we are all a bright fountain of quotes from Joyce and Behan, witty as Sean Hughes, fluent in the historical nuances of our little island, and anyway we all know someone who knows someone who knows just who you need to ask to get what it is you want.

This belief in our instinctual hospitality is not just ridiculous, it’s also dangerous. It’s dangerous to the well-being of our hospitality businesses. Several years ago I wrote a book called “How to Succeed in Hospitality”, written directly as the result of a series of disastrous experiences in several places to stay in Ireland just as the Celtic Tiger was roaring into overdrive.
The cream of the crop was a joint adjacent to the N6 where I broke my own cardinal rule: never complain. In the Bridgestone Guides, we don’t complain: we just pay the bill and walk away and consign the experience to the dustbin where those places live who will never get into one of our books.
But the N6 joint was just too bad: the filthy, uncleaned dining room; the untrained staff; the shambolic, straight-from-the-micro breakfast. I poured it all out to the lady behind the desk, whom I suspected was the owner, and I concluded by saying that I wrote about Irish hospitality, and that this place made me feel ashamed.
She looked at me steadily. Then she swiped my credit card.
She was the original Lisbeth Salander. Maybe, in retrospect, I was lucky to get out of there.

As Mr Justice Peter Kelly remarked recently in the Commercial Court, as creditors chased one of the many fallen angels who used to be masters of our universe, after hubris, comes nemesis. The hubris that built so many sorry-sad hotels is now headed for a nemesis called NAMA, and we have the truly appalling vista that hotels that include iconic names and destinations are to be managed by bean counters. Builders Hotels are going to become Bean-Counter Hotels.
What possible chance have these hotels of surviving? Little or none, in my opinion, in a market that is cannibalising itself with deeper and deeper discounts, and where only those steeped in the culture of hospitality have any real chance of being able to survive, thanks to the trust they enjoy from their customers, and their ability to get better.
But even the good are fearful, for the collateral damage being inflicted right now by hotels being kept open at any cost in order to reap tax benefits is causing the virtuous to suffer, big time. Between 1634 and 1637 the Dutch nation lost its collective sanity, on account of tulips: “tulipomania” drove those solid, sensible Calvinists crazy. What can we call our own mania for allowing thousands of hotel rooms we had no need of to be built: “hotelomania”?

Hospitality is an art form, but it is also a discipline, and a profession. Great hosts, like great cooks, are not born: they are made, and they are made through practice, and professionalism, which is why they master all the nuances of the art.
Everytime I meet someone who is truly great at the art of hospitality, I also meet someone who is a truly hard worker, and a truly dedicated person at that.
It’s almost twenty five years now since I first set eyes on Myrtle Allen, of Ballymaloe House. It was late during dinner service on a Saturday night, and Mrs Allen was clearing a table of its dirty dishes and cutlery and rolling up the messed-up tablecloths.
Fifteen years ago I made a television programme about Kelly’s Resort Hotel in Rosslare. My abiding memory of the programme and of the hotel is of Bill Kelly ferrying desserts out of the kitchen and into a packed dining room, late on a Saturday night.
In 2009, when the Hotel Federation reckoned hotel occupancy levels were not much above 50%, Kelly’s was trading with over 90% occupancy.
Time and again as we write our guides, the defining characteristic of a place is not the grandness, or the chicness or the design. Instead, it’s this sort of thing, from my editor Eamon Barrett:

“In hotels the greatest failing seems to be not getting the staff - every one of them - to understand how important it is that they engage with the guests. Eye contact, a smile, a greeting - all add to that sense of calmness that one seeks when staying in any guesthouse or hotel. In a 5 star hotel recently I stood at the bar for ten minutes while various staff members passed me by - all totally intent on their own task and problem - and oblivious to me as a guest”.

But hang on a second? Aren’t we Irish brilliant at the eye contact, as we simultaneously take your bags, and ask how your dog is, and explain all 10 courses of the tasting menu?
We are not. And the reason why we aren’t good is because we think we are great.
Even the guys who are running builder’s hotels think they are great: at one place in Dublin every member of staff shook my hand when I arrived and left: it was like being the parents of the bride in a wedding line. Sadly, when it came to breakfast, it took no less than 45 minutes to get scrambled eggs. Perhaps the chef was shaking hands with the chickens.
Away from this comedy of errors, one central truth has emerged over the last five or six years as we have been selecting and describing the different addresses that make it into our annual Bridgestone 100 Best places to Stay guide: the best places to stay in Ireland are getting better and better. They are trying harder and harder to create destinations that reflect not just the tastes and interests of the owner, but they are expanding and developing the scope and depth of what they offer. And that no longer means having a golf course nearby for him, or a spa for her (women’s golf, as folk in the business call them).
The following six destinations are places that exemplify this new trend, but we could have chosen many more.
On our last visit to Ballymaloe House, for example, my kids made some incredible pottery on a day-long course with the brilliant Kinsale Pottery School. We could have chosen the cutting-edge cookery courses offered at The Tannery in Dungarvan or Ballyknocken House in Wicklow. If you want to learn to cook from the best chefs in the country you could also choose Kelly’s Hotel, where chefs like Eugene Callaghan and Neven Maguire appear annually, in addition to serious gardening and wine appreciation courses.
I like the way in which some houses like Grove House in West Cork, or Kilgraney House in Carlow are incorporating art galleries into the space. If you are doing a spot of self-catering at the glam Inisbeg in West Cork you can take a moonlight kayaking trip around Reen Harbour with Atlantic Sea Kayaking.
The best places to stay are becoming not just expert in hospitality, but also expert in all the adventures and specialisations that their location can offer. The days of just opening up your doors and thinking that you are magically blessed with the gift of hospitality are over. To succeed now you must be a Master of the Little Universe that exists in and around your country house, B&B or hotel, and you have to know how to bring that universe to your guests.

Kilcolman Rectory
In a perfect world, before you open a country house you would train as a chef, an interior designer, and a gardener. Sarah Gornall has trained in all these disciplines, and it explains why Kilcolman Rectory is such a dream country destination, hidden away a few miles west of Bandon. You could bury yourself in the gorgeous aesthetic of the house, but when there is fishing with an expert ghillie, cookery classes from Sarah and, especially, the chance to locate your inner Winston Churchill by doing a course on watercolour painting with local artist Jenni White. Select some of the garden’s beautiful flowers, set up your easel, and the rest is surely easy… (Enniskeane, Co Cork 023 8822913)

Rathmullan House
You can’t keep up with Donegal’s Rathmullan House. Pioneers of sustainable cooking and food production, celebrated as one of the best kitchens in the country with Kelan McMichael having succeeded Ian Orr, they even operate a Rathmullan House mobile kitchen, which won the Bridgestone Award for sustainable cooking at 2009’s Electric Picnic. Back up at Lough Swilly, and the opening last year of the new Rathmullan Sailing and Watersports School is another enticement to head up to the Fanad Peninsula. Five days scooting around Lough Swilly on their new Laser Bahias, or exploring the coastline in sea kayaks, should build up a respectful appetite for great cooking.
(Rathmullan, Co Donegal, 074 915 8188)

South Aran
A few years ago, we went out one morning in Enda Conneely’s boat and, only a short distance out into the seat at Inis Oirr, we were quickly hauling in mackerel and pollock on our rods. We brought them back to Enda’s Fisherman’s Cottage restaurant, sliced them for sashimi and enjoyed them with wasabi and soy sauce, and a perfect espresso. It remains one of my all-time favourite breakfasts, and I want to do it again, maybe taking in a powerboating course, or doing some more serious sea angling. If the water isn’t your thing, then Enda and Maria also offer yoga, pilates and chi gung courses, sea vegetable and macrobiotic cookery courses, as well as life coaching. (Inis Oirr, Aran Islands, Co Galway 099 75073)

Gregan’s Castle Hotel
There are a number of places in the Burren in County Clare that are splendidly out-of-the-box, and which feel as if they couldn’t exist anywhere else – The Burren Perfumery and Tea Rooms; O’Loclainn’s Bar; An Fear Gorta, to name just three. But amongst modern Irish country houses, Simon and Freddie Haden’s Gregan’s Castle is one of the most singular, thanks to a sublime aesthetic – Mrs Haden is one of the great interior designers – and also thanks to Mickael Viljanen’s incredible cooking. They can organize surfing, rock climbing, horse riding and more, but our ambition is to take a day-long guided tour of this extraordinary landscape with local guide Shane Connolly, digging deeper into the flora, geology and history of this out-of-the-box place. (Ballyvaughan, Co Clare 065 707 7005)

Gougane Barra Hotel
Every summer, Neil and Katy Lucey set up the Theatre by the Lake, just at the back of their splendid Gougane Barra Hotel. Everyone arrives for dinner before the show, then troops into the little theatre, where Aidan Dooley might be performing his Tom Crean extravaganza, or Des Keogh might be confessing the life of an Irish Publican, or Mick Lally might be sorting out suitable matches in John B. Keane’s The Matchmaker. To see such chamber dramas and comedies in such a setting is a blessing, whilst the hotel itself is one of those traditional, modest, family-run Irish hotels that happily constitute the very antithesis of the brash builder’s hotels. (Gougane Barra, West Cork 026 47069)

Parkswood House
Terrie Pooley used to run a fashion design business in London, so if your ambition is to learn how to make dresses, fashion perfect trousers that actually fit you properly, or maybe just understand how to work a sewing machine, all the while enjoying comfort, incredible views over the River Suir and great local foods, then a course at Terrie and Roger Pooley’s Parkswood House at Passage East is just for you. The Pooleys are great people people, amd Parkswood is simply pristine (Passage East, Co Waterford 051 380863)

11 April 2010

Asian Junction Catering

Asian Junction, West Cork

Piers Gourley-Diment hasn't got the website for his company, Asian Junction, finished yet, but if the Vietnamese spring rolls we tried and which Piers was selling at the Clonakilty Market are anything to go by, he won't need to worry about his site, as his food will see Asian Junction take off like a rocket.
Like most ethnic cuisines that wash up in Ireland, the fire of Asian cooking is usually subtracted from the equation. Well, Piers knows his way around fiery chillis and dipping sauces: a few bites of these spring rolls and our mouths were delightfully on fire: the real thing! the real burn!
Piers worked in Asia as a photographer and diving instructor, and wound up at the Chiang Mai cookery school. He has learnt well, so if you crave the flavours that blew you away when you were on holiday, then Asian Junction is your destination.
Courtmacshery, West Cork Tel: 085 722 0259

09 April 2010

Clonakilty, 21 years later

Here is the text of a speech delivered this morning to launch the newly sited market in Clonakility.
It was only when Jix Kelleher asked me for a few words that I realised that it was just over 21 years ago that the story told in the speech happened. 21 years! And Tom O'Donovan and his sisters are looking as young as ever!

It is a great honour to be asked to officially open the Clonakilty Farmer's Market, not just because markets are so vital to our economy and our culture, but because doing so brings me full circle, and gives a completeness to something that happened 21 years ago.

Back then I was a know-nothing food writer – nothing much has changed, as you can see – when two men in this town took myself and Sally by the hand and showed us what west Cork meant.

I use the term “meant” deliberately: West Cork isn't just a place, it is a way of thinking, a way of seeing. West Cork means what we want it to mean, so long as we can understand it.

After Tom O'Donovan and the late Eddie Twomey had shown us all around Clon' in March 1989, I immediately understood what “West Cork” meant. It was the fastest and, I think, the most profound lesson I ever learnt. It changed my life: a year or so later I was living in West Cork, because I wanted that thing that Tom and Eddie had revealed to me.

They revealed an openness, a pride, and a kind of poetic everydayness that I had never seen before. They revealed life to be an art, and a particular sort of West Cork art at that.

I have been addicted to it ever since, and I have been grateful to Tom, and Eddie, ever since.

Markets are meshworks, places where everyone is equal, and where everyone's equality gives enormous strength to the endeavour. In recent years people have procrastinated about markets by pirouetting around legislation. As a recovering lawyer, let me say something simple, and slightly legalistic, about legislation: never let it get in the way of doing the right thing.

Doing the right thing means having a thriving, well-surrported market in every town. We need markets as the bedrock of our local economies. We need markets as the bedrock of our local food cultures. In West Cork, we need markets as the bedrock of our tourism culture.

Markets need to be supported by the town authorities, and by the townspeople. Markets create simple economies, and complex cultures. Markets give people a chance to start new businesses, in the most direct, accessible, low-risk manner. We have a national economy which is in crisis. One way to solve the problem is through markets, where local foods from local people are bought and sold and where the money never travels more than a few miles. If that seems like a simple solution to a complex problem, then that is just what it is.

The glory of West Cork is a Can Do attitude. But it's not gung-ho. It's simply creative, and imaginative. Artistic, if you like. Everyday markets are part of that artistic glory, that singularity, part of the colour, the fabric, the mesh of talented people.

I wish the market well, and I know that, with the right support, it will thrive, and become another jewel in this town that already offers so many singular jewels.

And I want to thank the town, and to thank Tom, for what was shown to me 21 years ago last month. I wish that everyone who visits Clon' will have the great fortune to see what I saw then, and to come to understand West Cork, and to know what West Cork means. Thank you.

John McKenna

01 April 2010

A Good Friday: Dingle Farmer's Market

We are just off on our way to Dingle, to officially open their newly reconstituted Farmer's Market, tomorrow.
So, that will be a very Good Friday in Kerry, and we will post some pics of the stall holders after we have cut the ribbon, smashed the champagne bottle against the trestle table, thanked the Mayor and the Committeeee, kissed the babies, arm-wrestled John O'Donoghue, launched the regatta and eaten our way through the town.
The kids can taste those Murphy's ice creams already...

Double AA in Waterford

Great retail experiences aren't too common in Ireland. We still lack a dedicated service culture, one that expresses the nobility of a retailer who truly understands their chosen calling.
But if you take a trip to Waterford, you can get a Double-AA retail experience, in two very different circumstances.
The first A is Altitude, Eamon and Julie Barrett's store up the hill in Ballybricken. Buying a bike and a pair of hiking boots here offered us two masterclasses: how to find the right pair of boots, and how to get advice to make sure you have gotten the right bike.
Smart, smartly-dressed, and very fit-looking staff were so on top of their game that the time we spent in the store was a pure joy, and the upshot, of course, was that we spent much more than we had intended to. The shop is an aesthete's delight, and we will be back for some of that cool gear. Altitude shows a retailer who has done The Edit: there is nothing but cool stuff here from the best, most serious brands, whether you are biking, hiking, surfing, skiing, or just want some cool threads to make you look fit.
The second Double-AA will take you down the road towards Passage East to Ardkeen Stores, the Jephson family's unique supermarket. Ardkeen is just what it says:it is a SUPERmarket, and one of the truly great retail experiences. Again, the Edit has been so rigorously carried out here by the owners that there is nothing but covetable Irish artisan brands for sale, and you want every one of them. Again, we spent far more than we intended, and we were as happy as sandboys.
So, a Double-AA rating for Waterford when it comes to retailing.