The proprietors of Dublin's Vanilla Pod show that hard work can be rewarding, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan
'Large streams from little fountains flow, tall oaks from little acorns grow," is an old saying and so it is with the vanilla pod. I, however, speak not of a vanilla pod per se but The Vanilla Pod Eatery at The Park Retail Centre, Carrickmines, which is sprouting its own little pod by way of the Pod Pizza, opening on December 15, in the unit right next door to its initial venture.
The Vanilla Pod is a tale of hard work reaping extraordinary success for its three owners, Kate O'Sullivan, Veronica Muresan and Derek Breen, who is also head chef. When I say extraordinary success, I have to add that this trio had a wealth of experience, catering and hospitality training behind them. However, they couldn't come from more diverse backgrounds. Kate O'Sullivan is a farmer's daughter from Horse and Jockey in Tipperary; Veronica Muresan is from Romania; and Derek Breen is from "down the road" in Greystones, Co Wicklow.
Kate says, "Food has always been in my life. I always wanted a restaurant, to do something with food, so I went to GMIT in Galway and I did a four-year degree course in Hotel & Catering, graduating in 2001. I then had placements in Adare Manor, the Dunraven Arms, and then Mount Juliet, before coming to Dublin."
Veronica came to Ireland from Romania 12 years ago, where she had also trained in catering.
Derek laughs, and says he became a chef almost by accident – but, laughter apart, he has a good culinary pedigree. He started out as a commis chef in QV2 in South Andrew Street, Dublin – a restaurant which is no longer there but which was very popular in its day, and where he stayed for seven years. "They were very nice people to work for," Derek says. He also worked at Restaurant Na Mara in Dun Laoghaire before becoming head chef in Brown Thomas Dublin.
The girls met originally when Kate was managing a large restaurant in Clontarf, and Veronica applied for a job as a waitress there.
"At home I had gone to catering school, but I started working here as a waitress for Kate because my Romanian diploma wasn't recognised in Ireland. I then did a three- year course at Cathal Brugha Street, graduating with a BA in hotel and restaurant catering."
Kate then went to work as manager for Alan O'Reilly, who operated the restaurant in Brown Thomas Dublin, and who now has Alexis in Dun Laoghaire. She was joined in Brown Thomas by Veronica, as her assistant manager, and it was here that they met Derek Breen. They all worked very happily together at Brown Thomas and were familiar and friendly faces to many of the customers who dined there on a daily basis. They built up a loyal following over the five years that they were there. The Brown Thomas restaurant changed management a couple of years ago, and this spurred the three to do something together.
"Even though we were in the middle of a recession, we decided to do it," says Kate. "What we noticed was that the recession washes out all of those restaurants that don't know how to prepare or serve food. During the Celtic Tiger people bought restaurants as hobbies – with no experience. But we felt if we did something similar to what we were already doing, then we would do well."
"You can't just open a restaurant without experience," adds Derek. "We decided to make a living for ourselves, and enjoy it – that is very important."
"Derek thought of the idea of coming up to Carrickmines to the retail park. I kind of went 'a retail park?'" says Kate.
"I come from the area," says Derek, "so I knew it was needed. There is a huge footfall in here."
Kate adds, "I always thought the most important thing about opening a restaurant is that you have to go into business with someone who is in the kitchen. For anybody running a restaurant without a chef involved in the business... it's hard. Chefs are temperamental – apart from Derek! Derek is great at training chefs, he has great patience with them."
On the Vanilla Pod's opening day on April, 2011, 70 people came in. "I had never heard of The Park before Derek mentioned it. We really like it here, we see a lot of our old customers from Brown Thomas who also come to The Park," says Veronica.
"We keep it simple, so many of our old customers recognise us here. The customers all know our names. With so many restaurants the owners are not there – but one of us is always here."
"We use small Irish food suppliers for our meat, fish, and vegetables; our breads are made here. We try to keep everything simple. People want value for money, friendly staff – we have the same staff since we started and they are fantastic, very loyal," adds Derek.
The formula has worked so well that since the middle of last year, every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, they have had queues out the door. Rather than having people walk away, they decided to do something about it, but to do something "a little bit different". Apart from extending the Vanilla Pod to accommodate some extra tables, they decided to open Pod's Pizza in the unit next door.
"We've bought a wood-burning oven and invested a lot of money into next door, so again we will be hands-on making sure that what we are sending out we are happy with," says Kate.
The decor is urban cool with red-bricked walls and subway tiles, and the menu includes crostinis, risottos, pastas, and salads.
"We are trying to give the best of both Italian and Irish produce, and we are also going to do gluten-free pizzas and pastas."
Pod's Pizza opens on December 15 and it looks like being another winner.
Vanilla Pod Eatery, Iveagh Mall, Carrickmines, Dublin 18. Tel (01) 294 5126
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Splashing out in another direction is Urbun Cafe at Cabinteely Village, which is hosting a prestigious pop-up restaurant with a difference on December 16 and 17.
Greystones girl Louise Bannon and Belgian chef Yannick Van Aecken have been pastry chef and sous chef respectively at the world's number one restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen, for the past five years or so working under the charismatic Rene Redzepi.
Since taking part in Noma at Claridge's during the Olympics in London, the pair have gone out on their own, and are kept busy both here and in Belgium.
Louise and Yannick will be serving an €80 five-course tasting menu with a difference at Urbun, to include an aperitif and snacks, and petit fours to wind up. I would suggest you book early for this ...
Urbun Cafe, Old Bray Road, Cabinteely Village. Tel (01) 284 8872
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Another pop-up event is the Design Corner Christmas Shop at Park House, opposite the People's Park in Dun Laoghaire, which runs until December 24.
The shop is an initiative of the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Enterprise Board, and features work from 16 local designers, including Tara Hammond's lovely range of Slated Ireland Artisan Tableware. From starter plates, to table runners, platters and cake stands, they are very cool and add a chic dimension to your dining table. Look out for the new wood and slate platter at €65.
Also featured are Ali Nash Jewellery, Kate Betts Millinery, Laragh McMonagle Jewellery, Eva Dorney Goldsmith, Fiona Snow's fab decorations, and Christina Sanne's ever-popular Red Rufus SockDogs, which are great fun.