The couple behind Aldridge Lodge had no idea that little Kaitlin was on her way, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan
When Billy Whitty and Joanne Harding got up on the morning of Friday, April 13, 2012, to start work at their Aldridge Lodge Restaurant and Guesthouse at Duncannon, Co Wexford, they had no idea that by that afternoon, they would be happy parents to a new baby daughter, Kaitlin.
Billy Whitty is a remarkable chef who, along with his partner Joanne, has built up a great business and loyal following in the south-east, and beyond, since first opening the popular restaurant some seven years ago.
Billy is master of all he surveys in the kitchen whilst Joanne, also a chef, is front of house. It is a combination that has served them well – and the pair, in a short space of time, achieved singular recognition by their peers and critics. They have also received a Michelin Bib.
Billy comes from a fishing family in Duncannon, so has always had an affinity with food. Joanne comes from Lucan in Dublin and it was while training to be a chef she met Billy when the two were working in Kevin Dundon's Dunbrody House in Wexford.
"I did my Leaving Cert and then I got a job in Dunbrody House in 1998 where I learned to cook on the job. I knew I wanted to be a chef and applied to college but I didn't get in – I got accepted into accountancy," says Billy.
"I had worked for two weeks during transition year in kitchens, so I knew what I wanted to do. I was also always cooking at home, and I had a little fish run. My father is a fisherman, and my mother had a fish shop as well, but that was my little sideline. I used to buy fish, fillet it, and sell it to restaurants, while I was at school," he adds.
Joanne, on the other hand was studying to be a chef in DIT Cathal Brugha Street where as part of her training she had to get work experience, which is how she ended up in 1999 in the kitchens of Dunbrody House. The two started going out.
"I was four years in Dunbrody and after that I had a restaurant in the basement of Horetown House. We ran that for three years and then Aldridge came up," Billy explains.
"My sister was building the house at the time, and we thought it would make a lovely restaurant, so we bought it. We retained the building as a house, with just a few minor alterations, in case it didn't work out as a restaurant."
The pair worked very hard over the next few years and, whilst still only 34 and 32 respectively, they say they had no plans to have a child.
"If someone had asked us, we were never having the children," says Billy, as he gazes adoringly at Kaitlin.
"We were always the sort of people that if someone handed you a baby, we'd go, 'Oh, it's doing something,'" adds Joanne. "We were just too focused; too work-orientated, just too selfish, really. We liked swanning off to Las Vegas, or Australia, on holidays. Now it's trips to Lapland – in a few years' time, anyway!"
Joanne says she had absolutely no symptoms of pregnancy.
"I had carpal tunnel syndrome (pins and needles) in three fingers. I Googled it and it said it might be from carrying heavy loads, but I was thinking plates, bringing stuff in from the van from the cash 'n' carry. I just thought that was that. I had a period regularly as clockwork every month, I was even on the pill! We were on our normal two weeks' holiday before the birth, enjoying ourselves everywhere. The day before Kaitlin was born, I was out in the field with our dog, a Rottweiler, a big girl, and I was playing chicken with her. The grass was high, and I'd duck down, and she wouldn't see me. I'd jump up and she'd come running, and the two of us rolled down the field! I came in, dusted myself down and had a curry for my dinner, then started work, and went to bed that night.
"Next morning we were doing breakfasts for guests and then I went up to service the rooms. We were doing our 'envelope corners' on the beds and tucking in the sheets. Whatever way I was beating the sheets, I felt a twinge, I thought I was after pulling a muscle – that was my first contraction – but I kept going. That was at 10.30am. I phoned Billy at 1pm, thinking perhaps I had a hernia, or appendicitis, or gallstones, or a blocked bowel. I asked him to get me a doctor."
"We had guests coming in," says Billy, "so I phoned my mother to come and bring Joanne down to the doctor."
Joanne takes up the story: "However, the doctor came up to the house and he asked me a few questions. Billy and his mother were outside the bedroom commenting on the fact that there was an awful bug going around. The doctor felt my stomach and said nothing but obviously he knew there was a baby there. I found out afterwards that he thought I was having a miscarriage. He went out of the room, saying, 'I'll be back in a minute.' He told Billy to pack a bag."
"I rang the staff to come in early," explains Billy, "and I went to pack a bag, and when I came back in with the bag, my mother was at the top of the stairs, saying, 'Billy, there is a baby.'"
"The doctor had said, 'how are your legs, can you stand up?,'" says Joanne, "so I did a little tap dance, felt a bit light-headed, and the next minute Kaitlin was out! Billy came up and kept saying, 'It'll be fine,' and I was saying, 'But Billy, there's a baby.' It's funny the absurd things one thinks of in times of crisis. They wanted towels and I was saying, 'Oh no, not my good towels.' I have only good towels.
"We arrived at Wexford Hospital by ambulance and they kept asking for our white card. It was a very busy day there, 32 babies were born there that day, and they had to free up a bed rapidly. They estimate Kaitlin was six to eight weeks premature, she weighed 2.5kg. They were wonderful in Wexford Hospital, they kept me in for six days, but Billy had to go back to work that evening."
"It was a Friday night and I had a full restaurant, so it was baby, home, work!" he says.
"On the Saturday, they had a pediatrician in who said Kaitlin might have Trisomy 21 ( Down Syndrome) and that threw us again. It was two weeks before it was diagnosed officially, but it didn't make any difference to us. She also had a heart murmur, with three holes in her heart, so she was in hospital for three weeks. It might hit another couple very hard if they had nine months knowing they were having a child and then all of a sudden they were faced with this. However, it didn't faze us at all."
Life is good for Billy, Joanne and Kaitlin, and they are very busy.
"We are not turning away as many for a Saturday night, but we are filling every Saturday night. We were lucky in that we didn't get big. When we opened in the first year, I remember the bank manager coming out and saying we could extend. I said no. We built what we built – small. When Kaitlin came along, that was the first time in seven years that Joanne wasn't there."
'I went to pack a bag, and when I came back in with the bag, my mother was at the top of the stairs, saying, "Billy, there's a baby here!"'
"I'm a control freak," says Joanne. "You don't want to see my bedroom, that's organised chaos, but in the restaurant I like the cups a certain way, I like the glasses a certain way. My theory is, I'm a constant, others may come and go, so I want things done my way, so they are always done the same – the right way. Our girls are super, the majority are there since the start.
"Service is very important, it's teeth and eyes, because you can go over to a table and you can say flatly, 'Hello, soup of the day is roast vegetable soup,' but if you have that glint in your eye and voice, it lifts the experience. People are hungry when they arrive. I know when we go out we have an early light lunch in anticipation, and by the time you get to the restaurant your blood sugar level has dipped, you are starving, and you are just hanging for a piece of bread, just give me anything to get going."
"We still do our €37 menu with amuse bouche, bread, starter, main course, dessert, coffee and petits fours. We also have our six-course tasting menus at €28.50 on Wednesday and Thursday and that is hugely popular. It is a 'country' tasting menu – good portions," says Billy.
As they set off on their first family holiday together, Joanne says, "People have been wonderful. In fact, we have only bought three outfits for Kaitlin because we received so many gifts for her."