Saturday 22 October 2016

Life lessons with Derry Clarke

Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30

Derry Clarke took up exercise which felt like going back 20 years. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Derry Clarke took up exercise which felt like going back 20 years. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Derry and Sally Anne Clarke

Celebrity chef Derry Clarke (58) grew up in Clonskeagh and married Sallyanne Parker in 1987. They have a daughter, Sarah May (24), but sadly lost their 16-year-old son Andrew to suicide in December 2012. They opened their award-winning, Michelin-starred restaurant, l'Ecrivain, in Dublin city centre in 1989.

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I do a lot of media work, but I'm actually quite shy. I had an extremely bad speech impediment as a child, and went to a speech therapist for years. I also had elocution lessons. Even today, I will still stutter every now and again, but it only lasts for a second and it's over.

I've worked with chefs over the years who were bullies, so I never wanted anyone picked on or bullied in my kitchen. I was a victim of physical abuse in the workplace when I was younger, and I thought I was gone when the head chef of one kitchen held a knife up against my throat. The kitchen was a lot harder and more regimented back then, and it was almost like being in the army. Thankfully, it's all different now.

My own temperament is much better now than it used to be. I was fiery when I was younger and always wanted everything to be perfect, but I'm very easygoing in the kitchen now. Once you accept that you'll never be able to make everyone happy, you have a better chance of succeeding. My head chef, Tom Doyle, is calm too, which makes it easier.

I was going to open a restaurant at 24, but I knew I was too young. I wanted to make all my mistakes before I had my own place, and didn't open l'Ecrivain until I was 30. I'm glad I waited until I was more mature, because restaurants have such a high failure rate.

Marriage is a two-way thing so you have to give and take. When I met Sallyanne, I was attracted to her beauty, her energy, her style, her good humour and her kindness. Her best quality is that she's very generous, maybe to a fault. We're 28 years married now, and have had lots of pressures along the way. If I have any words of wisdom for guys reading this, it's that there are two words for a happily married life - 'Yes, love.' Say that and you won't go wrong.

I've also learned that nobody is perfect and we all have faults. To make a relationship work, you must have love, patience, respect, kindness and friendship - and space when it's needed.

I had an affair many years ago, which put massive pressure on our marriage, but we got through it. Our marriage could have ended very easily over it. I'm very glad it didn't. I couldn't tell you where I would be now if we had split up. The restaurant wouldn't be here, for sure.

When you lose a child, you don't think you can go on. You have cloudy days, overcast days and heavy days, but there are okay days too so you have to just go with it. I had an awful year after losing Andrew and still go through lots of downs today, but cycling for a mental health charity gave me a real healing because I did it for him. Andrew was a funny, easygoing and kind-hearted guy. He always looked after the weakest link, which is an admirable thing to do.

After Andrew died, Sallyanne and I just wanted to go away and live a different life. Looking back, I'm surprised we kept going, but we had to keep strong for Sarah May. She's great and definitely a daddy's girl. We're very close, and I want her to have a good life.

We're lucky, because a lot of parents who experience what we went through get divorced afterwards. The restaurant was a motivator too, because we employ a big team of people and have a loyalty to them.

We had to cash in a load of stuff, and our pension funds went into keeping the restaurant going. We had the option to cash up and walk away, but we thought we'd always regret it so we put all the money we had into it. Sallyanne reckons we'll never be able to retire, but that's okay with me. I'm very proud of what we've achieved, because our restaurant is still relevant after 27 years, and thankfully things are much better now.

We have a young staff, and I want to be positive and encouraging because a kind word here and there really helps a lot. I'm definitely more aware of mental health these days, and I'm careful that I don't put a scar on them or too much pressure. It took me a while to learn that, but it comes from getting older and being a dad. If I see anyone with a problem, I talk to them quietly and try to help.

It's almost impossible for a guy my age to be front-line in the kitchen full-time. It's a young person's game and you need to be as fit as a fiddle to face it. Having a young, ambitious head chef of Tom's calibre has given me more leeway to do other things, such as TV work. I'm still in the kitchen, but more so for the 'pass'.

I'm getting a lot of media work, and it's quite unusual to be getting TV gigs coming up to 60. I'm surprised that I'm still relevant, and think men have the same issue around that as women. Having said that, there are definitely more older men than women on TV for some reason.

I wish I had discovered exercise and healthy eating earlier in life. I had a triple heart bypass in 2013 to address a long-standing arterial problem, but when I came out of it, I was low and thought, 'What's the point?' After that, I did a bit of cycling in the gym and lost some weight, and it gave me a new lease of life. It was like going back 20 years, and I actually feel better now at 58 than I did 30 years ago.

l'Ecrivain, 109a Baggot Street Lower, Dublin 2.

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