A home from Home experience at Kevin Dundon's Dunbrody House
Aoife Carrigy meets chef Kevin Dundon to sample the full Dunbrody House experience that he's bringing to this year's Taste of Dublin festival.
When I arrive at Dunbrody on a sparkling day in late May, Kevin Dundon is waving a guest off outside his fine old sprawl of a country house hotel. He strolls me to the demo kitchen of his on-site cookery school which doubles up as a studio for many of his TV cookery shows.
An upside-down strawberry, orange and rhubarb cake is just ready to come out of the oven. We grab a generous slice each - and a healthy dollop of freshly whipped cream, of course - and take ourselves and our cuppas around the back of the ivy-clad house to the most glorious sun terrace I've had the pleasure of enjoying for some time.
"When they planned these houses, they knew what they were doing," Kevin remarks. Indeed, Dunbrody House in Wexford is beautifully situated in a nook of Hook Peninsula, its estate bridging the two adjoining seaside villages of Arthurstown and Duncannon but its sun-trap of a terrace is perfectly sheltered from whatever breeze might be whipping along the shoreline just over the crest of this hollow. There are white strands a short stroll away, and 20 acres of well-tended gardens and estate parkland to explore - including, in pride of place, the kitchen gardens that provide up to 90pc of fresh fruit and vegetables for Dundon's restaurant.
At the heart of all of this is the original 1830s house with its award-winning Harvest Room Restaurant, its all-day Dundon's Champagne Seafood Bar & Terrace, several reception rooms and 22 individually decorated bedrooms, each with their own charm. And outside, a cluster of out-houses contain a luxurious spa, a three-bedroom lodge, a micro-brewery, an old-school pub (aptly named The Local and built from up-cycled materials three years ago when the local village's only pub shut up shop) and the aforementioned cookery school.
That's a whole lot to keep a fella busy with. And Kevin manages to fit in a whole lot more too as one of Ireland's best-known chefs with a half-dozen cookbooks to his name and regular TV appearances both here and in the US, where he owns and actively runs an Irish restaurant, Raglan Road, in Florida's Disney Springs. You might well think that when he was planning his elaborate career, this fella also knew what he was doing and had an equally elaborate plan.
Kevin's achievements certainly started early, becoming the youngest executive chef to be employed by Fairmount Hotels in Canada in one of their five-star branches at just 22 years of age, before being head-hunted by the Shelbourne Hotel back in Dublin. By the age of 30, himself and his wife Catherine had bought their dream country house and started to build the "true love and real chef's paradise" that he now calls home.
Twenty years later, this world-renowned chef and hotelier is also a publican, brewer, cookery school owner and a high-profile Good Food Karma brand ambassador for SuperValu. "We're doing this great project at the minute to get Ireland cooking one extra meal a week at home from scratch, and to show them how simple it is." He has even found time to produce his own line of chutneys and jams here in Ireland, and of home-ware in the US.
Kevin's international profile offers him the best of both worlds, allowing him to cook his way around the world but come home to what he describes as "an amazing environment for the family" which includes children Emily (15), Sophie (13) and Tom (8).
"Cooking is a great way of seeing the world and paying for your world trip, and it's also a great way of understanding and experiencing different cultures through their different foods and flavours," says Kevin. This year's Taste of Dublin 'homecoming' theme will showcase Irish chefs based abroad. "There are so many who are travelling all over the world making a name for themselves in the country they're in, so to bring them back here and share their stories will hopefully inspire young people to get into the business and show them that there's more than just Ireland."
His cooking career has brought Kevin to some exciting places, such as the food festivals he will cook at later this year in Milwaukee, New York and Hong Kong. And he is in pre-production for an exciting new TV travel show that will retrace his grandfather's 1948 trip on what was the inaugural commercial flying boat trip from England to the Victoria Falls.
"He kept an amazing diary from the minute he stepped on the boat, which could only travel during the daylight. The first stop was Sicily and he talks about the food, the markets, the fish, the hotels, the museums, the churches - everything he saw." The journey continued through Cairo and Uganda to the Victoria Falls, from where Kevin's intrepid ancestor skipped on to Cape Town. "He picked up my mum and her mum from the Queen Mary and came back through Kruger National Park and Jo'burg with them. I'll be reliving that whole experience too, staying overnight with tribes, eating their food, drinking the blood they drink, lots of edgy stuff like that!" But for all his jet-setting, Kevin insists that all he ever wanted to do was to cook every day. "The only regret I have is that the more successful you become as a chef in the mainstream, the less cooking you do," he says. "I'm the happiest when I'm physically cooking," something he learned during his executive chef period in this 20s and which the Dunbrody dream was supposed to deliver back to him.
"I never wanted to do TV," he says, explaining that it was something he fell into by chance. "And then through recession I didn't really have a choice. Bills had to be paid."
Thankfully, Kevin does manage to cook most days, just not necessarily in the same kitchen every day. Most weekends you'll find him assisting head chef Sebastien Geber at Dunbrody House Hotel ("it's really his kitchen… we have a very collaborative relationship but I give him free rein"). Or you might find him in his cookery school test kitchen, trialling new menu items to be rolled out in Raglan Road, or shooting episodes of his latest cookery series. Or you could track him down doing demos around Ireland as part of SuperValu's Good Food Karma road trip or around the world as part of food festivals like Taste of Dublin.
At one recent Food & Wine Festival in Austin, Texas, Kevin served 5,000 portions of pan-seared Kilmore Quay scallops with a Mornay foam in just two days. "They were hugely popular," he says - so much so that this winner dish will take pride of place at the Dunbrody House pop-up kitchen at this year's Taste of Dublin.
He'll be pairing it with Dunbrody Pale Ale, and serving alongside pork ribs with his own Proclamation Porter reduction glaze cooked in a wood-burning pizza oven. "We'll also be selling bottles of the porter glaze too. In the States we serve it with olive oil instead of balsamic vinegar for dipping your bread into - it's really good!"
Dessert will be elderflower jelly from Dunbrody's gardens with fresh Wexford strawberries and pouring cream. "We're producing a special strawberry lager for Taste of Dublin to bring 'a taste of Wexford' into our beers." Fruit beers are huge in the States, he says, and this version pairs "a strawberry nose with crisp flavours" for "pure summer drinking".
"I've always enjoyed doing Taste," says Kevin, who has appeared as a guest demo chef at the annual bash for the last 11 years. "Particularly when you get the weather, because there's a real party atmosphere and the music is always great. And it gives guests the opportunity to have snippets of restaurants they mightn't have tried before, but which they might book and visit afterwards."
This year is a new departure however, as it's the first time Kevin is bringing the full Dunbrody House experience with him.
Besides the pop-up restaurant, they will have a full bar to represent his Arthurstown Brewing Company, complete with the beautifully carved wood bar that will take pride of place in the new brewery bar being developed this year to facilitate public brewery tours. (The brewery currently offers daily tours for hotel guests - reflected at Taste of Dublin by talks on brewing from Arthurstown's master brewer.)
"We use our spring water from a deep well here on site, and barley grown in a field just across the road, which has won awards for Best Barley Field in Ireland because of the way the field faces the water and the way the sun hits the field."
The brewery itself is actually two breweries in one, including a smaller "test kitchen" brewery for seasonal or bespoke brews like the Cola Porter that was created especially for the recent Killarney Festival, or the half-dozen festival beers being brewed especially for Taste of Dublin.
Kevin and his brewery partners recognise that most craft beer drinkers are not loyal followers of any particular brand, but are by their nature always on the look-out to try something else. "So we try to offer that to them with something new all the time," he says. They're rolling out the 'random tap' philosophy found in The Local to other pubs, where a 'Taste of Arthurstown Brewery' tap can feature rotating guest beers on a regular basis.
With all that bespoke beer being served up to the Taste of Dublin guests, it makes perfect sense for Kevin to do a bit of barbecuing while he's at it, with interactive barbecue masterclasses in association with Flogas.
"We're going to bring the customers up to cook with me, so it's bit of fun too," he tells me with the genuine enthusiasm of a man who clearly has the barbecuing bug. "It's a very social way of cooking which I love, and it's very relaxed: at barbecues, everyone gets involved and touches and pokes and moves stuff around which is great, 'cos it gets people talking about food which is what it's all about."
While Kevin admits that his first choice would be a charcoal barbecue "because you get the true flavour", he says, "What I like about gas barbecues is that they're a great supplementary home-cooking facility - if you're cooking a steak, you can light up the barbecue outside the backdoor and get the high heat and good sear for the caramelisation without smoking up your whole kitchen."
The mistake people make is in forgetting to add flavour by burning wood chips, or other tricks that Kevin will divulge at his masterclass, which will feature a hot-smoked salmon cooked on a beer-soaked plank of wood. "A lot of the time the emphasis here in Ireland is on simply grilling rather than smoking so we're trying to give people a taste of both of those sides to barbecuing."
With all of these various elements involved, Kevin says visitors to Dublin's Iveagh Gardens can expect "the full immersion into what we offer at Dunbrody - besides the bed!" There are, of course, one or two other magic touches that simply don't travel but can only be experienced in the special corner of the sunny south east that Kevin calls home.
The wonder of a wander through the walled gardens and the stroll on that strand. The big chill in the spa or the extraordinary views out of windows such as the particularly special Bluebell Suite, with its apex raftered ceiling and sun-soaked two-seater sofa. Ordering a pint from the random tap in The Local to wash down beer-battered fish and chips, and maybe an ice-cream wafer sandwich to finish (at €1 an inch) and a quarter pound bag of penny sweets from the jars behind the bar. Or the simply sublime experience of catching rays in a perfectly planned sun-trap of a terrace.
For all of that and more, you'll have to book yourself in for the true Dunbrody experience at dunbrodyhouse.com. Kevin will be appearing at this year's Taste of Dublin in the Iveagh Gardens from June 16-19, dublin.tastefestivals.com
Kevin's top barbecue tips
Be prepped. Have everything ready before you start cooking, all your salads and your meats marinated.
Don't leave the barbecue once you do start cooking. Be on hand and be watching your food as you're chatting.
Always cook the food straight from the fridge. Don't leave uncooked meat sitting out in hot temperatures for long periods of time.
Give people choice. They'll expect it, so have something vegetarian, some fish and some meat or poultry like, beef, pork, lamb or chicken.
Have fun! Enjoy it. If you're organised and have your prep done, you will have fun. But if you're not you won't enjoy the experience as much.
Kevin's favourite food cities
"It's stunning, a real foodie hipster city with food trucks everywhere - and the barbecue capital of the world!"
"The floating markets and the street food were such a great food experience."
San Francisco, USA
"Always fun to eat in, although they're pricing themselves out of the market."
London, Paris and New York
"Big cities can offer one-dimensional restaurants and there's enough of a population for them to work, so you get all these quirky little places."
Buenos Aires, Argentina
"Lots of speak-easy restaurants hidden behind maybe a florist, and at the back there's this buzzing restaurant."
Photos: Patrick Browne