Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)

Chapter Fourteen

Off to Ireland 

So, we were on the move again, off to Adare Manor, in Limerick, Eire. Although I had been over for an interview and to see the place I really did not know what to expect working over there. We found a house, actually belonged to one of the office staff of the hotel, in Patrickswell just a few miles south of Adare. Nice enough, three bedrooms, on the edge of a small estate in this rural village, just far enough away to say I had gotten away once I had finished work. 

Adare Manor, formerly the seat of the Earls of Dunraven was an impressive and imposing Irish Manor House boasting the second longest gallery in Europe. The architecture was modelled on that of the Palace of Versailles. The dining room was quite large with part of it set in one of the original cloisters. The previous chef had a good reputation and he had gone on to open his own restaurant in Dublin. The majority of the staff were Irish with the exception of the F&B manager, he was Dutch and the GM, Chris Oakes, English.

The magnificent Adare Manor, part of the restaurant was house in the old cloisters, bottom right.

It was a real cultural shock though, coming as we did from London to rural Ireland, the difference could not have been greater, it was like stepping back in time to the 1960's. The village itself was very pretty but also very quiet, we went back there recently for the first time since we left and the difference was immense, the village was jammed with tourists, not a parking place anywhere, the total opposite to the almost empty street it used to be back in 1990. There was another hotel opposite the gates of Adare Manor and two or three pubs along with a half decent restaurant too. Adare itself could not be seen from the road or the entrance gates as it was set back in 1000 acres of beautiful rolling park land. Work had already started on the creation of a golf course but seemed to have stalled. Now there is security on the gates and you are not allowed in unless you have a reservation.

Photo’s of the food and restaurant at Adare from “Ireland, The Taste and the Country” by Mike Bunn

The kitchen was fairly well appointed, staffed and equipped if I remember correctly and I was raring to get stuck in. it quickly became evident though that supplies of quality produce were difficult to come by. Everything beyond the very basics in veg such as potatoes, leek, carrots, oranges and apples had to come down from Dublin and I mean everything. They were buying fish from a fish firm on the harbour in Limerick, chickens came from a local man but pretty much everything else came from Dublin – once a week! 

One of the very first things I did was to turf everything out of the fridges to see what we had, at that point I very nearly got back on a plane to England. The rotten veg, salad leaves, fruit etc I threw out that day was no one’s business!

It took a while but slowly the food offering improved but it often regressed as quickly as it moved forward, thanks in the main to the owners. Luckily, I never came in contact with either of them very often, when they came over, they normally arrived fairly late at night/early morning, and spent much of the early hours drinking in the downstairs bar, during the day they slept I think, I did all I could to avoid them. 

Their perfect meal was a burger, I rebelled against them so we never got on. No! I was not being a prima donna, I had been brought in for my cooking abilities, was being fairly well paid, I was there specifically to improve the food, that did not include me making and cooking burgers, there were far better qualified people out there to do that than me. They were happy enough to use my name, to promote their hotel using me and my newly published book and work me hard to achieve this improvement, so even if I was being a bit of a prima then I think I pretty much had the right to be so.

The fishmonger, when he delivered, when being the operative word here. I would place an order and it would turn up, as and when he could be bothered, I think. For instance, let’s say I had a party on the Thursday and I needed 4 sides of salmon for it, scaled, skin on and pinned, I would have to place the order on Monday for delivery hopefully on Tuesday, possibly Wednesday but at least, fingers crossed, before I needed it on Thursday. Not too bad if it was a dinner it was for because if it was a lunch I’d wanted it for I had to get it ordered the previous Friday to be certain I had it. Not only that but all deliveries came in old fertilizer sacks! I kid you not, and if no one was around when they delivered (which was more often than not). the bags were just left lying on the floor. The quality of the fish was okay though so what did I have to complain about? It made no difference anyway. 

I remember the first order I placed with the fruit and veg merchant in Dublin, I don’t recall the name of the firm but it was the one that Adare was using so we were not new to them or them to us, only me. The order arrived not the next day but the following day, long lead time! They did not deliver it themselves but sent it via a carrier. It was all stacked up on a palette, strawberries, raspberries, cauliflowers, courgettes, potatoes, all stack up on top of each other then shrink wrapped into one dripping squidgy mess oozing juices out everywhere. I could have cried! Instead I remember flying into an uncontrollable rage – how on God’s earth could anyone think that this was acceptable!

While in London I used to buy Oysters almost daily from an oyster farm in County Cork, as long as I placed my order by 6pm the oysters were on our doorstep in London by 9am the following morning, 6 days a week. I contacted the same oyster farm when I got to Ireland, their quickest delivery time was 3 days. 

I eventually got most of the suppliers sorted out but it took a while. I could not buy a wild mushroom of any sort, quail, guinea fowl, pigeon, not a hope. Game only if it was being shot locally. Neil and Frances of Park Hill Produce said they were coming over to Ireland for a short holiday and would pop in and see me. Please, please bring me some quails eggs and some quail to use I just can’t get any over here I pleaded! Not only did they bring me much longed for fantastic produce but Frances had carefully brought me 2 dozen quail’s eggs that she had kept warm throughout the journey and said would be perfect for hatching! I hurriedly found someone with an incubator that offered to hatch them for me but she was about 40 miles away. I drove up there and left the eggs with her then rushed back to quickly assemble all I would need at my end. 

In an old farm building in the grounds of Adare manor I set up a pen to keep my quail in, the barn like room it was in was large but was also full of all sorts of old rubbish but still it would suffice, I had also formed a small heated pen for the new chicks to be their nursery. Food was going to be a problem given how small they were going to be. I found a feed merchant, about 60 miles away in the opposite direction that would sell me feed for turkey poults. A few days later my eggs had hatched and I shot up country to go collect them. I had about 20 tiny little newly hatched quail, each one about the size of a bumble bee and very similar in colour too, all running around in a cardboard box with instructions to keep them warm as they had only been out of the eggs for less than a couple of hours. With the cardboard box in the passengers foot well and the heater on full blast I drove them back to Adare. Before leaving to collect them I had already switched on the heat lamp in their new insulated rearing pen so it would be nice and cosy when I returned. The pen had a lid on it to help keep the warmth in, when I got them back I placed the box on top of something to the side while I removed the lid to the nursery. Just as I was getting the lid off, the box containing my chicks started to slide off where I had perched it, it was just out of my reach, and in what seemed to be slow motion it slid gracefully off its mount, tipping as it did so, it’s contents, 20 tiny little quail chicks, all over the floor. Then everything went back to normal speed, the chicks vanished in seconds into the assembled and accumulated detritus around the room. It took me what seemed like hours to find them all but in the end I only found 19 of them, one had disappeared for ever! 

I raised those quail, used them on the menu, collected and used their eggs, reared more from newly laid eggs and when we eventually left Ireland I had around 250 birds that were producing over 250 eggs per day between them! I was selling them to restaurants and others far and wide! The quail were almost the size of Squab Pigeons they were so well fed. I guess there must have been a growth hormone in the turkey feed I was using because these birds were huge. Their eggs were also massive, many of them with triple and even some with quadruple yolks. There was a restaurant in the village close to the gates of Adare Manor, The Mustard Seed and they had a new chef, Shaun Smith Roberts, we became good friends, more of him later, and he took a lot of quails eggs from me. 

It must have been toward the end of 1990 that I persuaded The manager that I needed a good sous chef, that there was only so much I could do by myself, I needed a good chef to back me up and I found one, this young lad, he had previously won the Roux Scholarship, he had worked on the Flying Scotsman, he had worked in 3 star Michelin places in France, his CV was really impressive, and he was willing to come over and work with me. His name, Andrew Fairlie. He was all he was cracked up to be and we got on really well. Sadly Andrew has now passed away but he went on to become one of the UK’s, and definitely Scotland’s, best Chef, a Michelin legend, a really lovely man, now sadly missed. I like to think I had an influence on his food and his career.

The hotel had a walled garden, unused for many years so I set about reclaiming and restoring  it with the gardeners so we could grow the produce I was unable to get without buying it in from England.  It was a massive job and the first time I had any control over a garden, although, as it turned out, not my last. I’d worked very closely with market gardeners many times before but this was very different. Much of what we produced from it also, along with the quails and their eggs ended up in the kitchen of the Mustard Seed on Shaun’s menu. 

Again, I have to single out some of the staff I had back then. Firstly young Chris, who I worked with at Eastwell, then came to work for me at 74, then again at 116, also came over to Ireland with us. Andrew that I have already just mentioned, when he left Adare he then went on to Disneyland Paris which was just opening. Colin Brown, another Scotsman, I don’t recall where he came from but he took over as my sous chef after Andrew left. Then I interviewed a young boy, must have been about 16 at the time, no experience, applied for a position he seen advertised and came from home which was in County Mayo, may have been Sligo, but I do know it was miles away, it took him forever to get to me for the interview, I remember feeling really sorry for making him make the journey. Within a couple of minutes of him sitting in front of me in my office that day I knew I was going to take him on, his whole body language was perfect, I just knew he was going to become a good cook. Kevin Jordon, yep that was you! Mike Foley, Gerry, the chef in charge when I arrived who then became my sous chef until he left to be replaced by Andrew, a legend and others whose names I now forget. 

I really enjoyed Ireland, indeed we both did, it’s a great country filled with lovely people, it was just what I needed at that time in my life. I was able to kick back a bit and relax, life was not all work, I had time to do other things. I went shooting a lot, almost every day for at least an hour I had a gun over my arm and a dog by my side. I made friends with a few of the locals and four of us went out shooting quite a lot together. Good times indeed. It was Southern Ireland though and not without it’s problems, we were English living in a very republican town during the Irish troubles and while we did not come across many problems we were always aware of our nationality and the need for continuous caution.

It got to the point though when the owners were telling me what to put on the menu, such as a flattened breast of chicken topped with a tomato sauce and melted cheese and of course burgers. I was also starting to feel like I was hiding away, which I know I was, and I guess I was beginning to feel like I was being forgotten, so the time to return to the main stream was beckoning. Where and what were the next big questions to be answered and the search for the next step began.

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