In the foreword to 2004's Not Just A Cook Book: l'Ecrivain Restaurant, Dublin, the late playwright Hugh Leonard wrote that he remembered one act of kindness that caused his friendship with Derry and Sallyanne Clarke to be written in granite -- "and, embarrassing as it will be for them it must be told".
The first anniversary of his wife Paule Jacquet's death fell on April 13, 2001. So Leonard's thought was to mark the occasion ("or, to be truthful, avoid the pain of it") by taking his daughter Danielle and a couple of friends to dinner, and "assisting the day to pass quietly". The date, however, was on a Good Friday, and every restaurant in Dublin was closed.
"I have forgotten how it came about, but on the previous day and, according to Sallyanne's instructions, I parked my car outside l'Ecrivain, and members of the staff came out into Baggot Street bearing parcels containing dinner for four, already cooked," writes Leonard, who had been going to the restaurant since September 1989 (and, says co-owner Sallyanne Clarke, "put it on the map"). "Let us not be too fanciful, but a restaurant is more than its patronne, its chef de cuisine, its service, its Michelin star and the smile one gets from its petite sommeliere, Martina, and one can add as other ingredients that indefinable quality: its ambience. l'Ecrivain has them all -- in spades."
Let's not be afraid to be fanciful. Something of an epicurean institution, l'Ecrivain has been entertaining the great and the good for two decades now. Or more accurately, the husband and wife team of chef Derry Clarke and hostess Sallyanne have been entertaining the great and the good for two decades now. Green of eye and ash blonde of hair, Sallyanne swishes open the book that guests have signed over the years. I immediately recognise Colin Farrell's squiggle.
"He came in 2003 with Angelina Jolie and Val Kilmer," says Sallyanne. "They were very nice. It was when they were doing Alexander. He was always the perfect gentleman." Pierce Brosnan, she says, was in a lot when he was filming Eveyln in 2002. "He was living in Wellington Road. We saw him twice or three times a week," she recalls, adding the names of Roger Moore, Michael Caine ("absolutely charming"), Sean Connery ("he likes his food") to the list of famous thespians who've sampled their Michelin-starred fare.
"Anjelica Huston was a regular, too, when she was filming Agnes Browne," she says. "She loved the place." It is not all good news, however. Gabriel Byrne and his then wife Ellen Barkin came in 1989 one night and, grimaces Sallyanne, "we didn't have a table for them. Totally booked out".
Another day, a young fella by the name of Brad Pitt pitched up in the restaurant in the afternoon with "this very skinny, very pretty little girl", says Derry, with Sallyanne adding that she "turned out to be Jennifer Aniston". It was a Saturday and alas the restaurant was full. "He said he would come back another day but we never saw him again," says Sallyanne.
"The boys from U2 are regulars," says Derry.
"The one we hardly see is Larry Mullen," muses Sallyanne.
"Michael Smurfit used to come in all the time in the Nineties," she adds. "Now, we tend to get the younger Smurfits."
"We've had a lot of great customers over the years," says Derry. Not that the success, or mixing with the grande fromages, has spoiled them. Derry can recall during the height of the Celtic boom, a couple in the restaurant talking about their villa in Spain, their chateau in the South of France and their house in Killiney. He said to them, "We have a house in Tallaght and a mobile home in Courttown."
"I love doing things like that," he smiles. "I am not impressed by egos." Nor even his own Michelin star, which he won in 2003. "It is not that big a deal," he says over breakfast two weeks ago with Sallyanne. "Three stars is. That's a big deal." Possessing a Michelin star in a recession in some ways is not the greatest thing to have, he says. It puts people off, he believes, because they think perhaps the food will be too fancy and too expensive. "And both counts are wrong. In actual fact, we are cheaper than Peploe's and Bentley's put together," he claims. "I challenge anyone. We are cheaper than lots of places around town."
On July 7, 1989, he and Sallyanne opened l'Ecrivain in the basement of the Fitzwiliam Townhouse guest house on the corner of Baggot Street and Fitzwilliam Street (Conrad Gallagher, would later open Peacock Alley there.) They moved it to its present address on Lower Baggot Street in March, 1994.
Ordering fresh breads, pastries and coffees to the table this morning, Sallyanne is glamorous and full of joie de vivre. He is more reserved -- with an air of the enigmatic about him. Together, they are quite a formidable, and industrious, team. (They have two kids, Sarah May, born in 1990, and Andrew born in 1996.) Him huffing and puffing in the kitchen and she glowing front of house, their chemistry is almost theatrical. When Sallyanne says that they live on takeaways, she smiles and, pointing at her husband, says, "He cooks them -- and I take them away."
I was waiting for him to break into a dance in the restaurant, with the long-legged blonde following high-kicking behind him, like the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of Irish cuisine. "We are a great partnership," says Sallyanne. That partnership, vis-a-vis their 20-year marriage, almost came asunder in 2003 when Derry strayed from the marital bed. When I ask if his affair, in a way, saved their marriage, the highly acclaimed chef shakes his head and says he doesn't know. "We sat down and we talked ... "
It worked because you forgave him, I suggest to Sallyanne.
"Yeah," she says, haltingly, "we got advice, obviously. We talked it through, we went to wherever," -- presumably meaning counselling. "We said, 'We are going to give it another shot'. And we gave it another shot." Their marriage has never been better, she adds. "But there are a lot of things now that, as I say, we don't let fester any more."
"We just back each other," says Derry. "And see each other's point of view."
Admirably, Derry and Sallyanne choose not to be another of Dublin's high- profile sham marriages -- where the whole town appears to know that their marriage is on the rocks as he is playing away from home with another woman, but they keep up the outward pretence.
"We didn't want that," says Sallyanne. "You either are going to have a relationship or you're not. Obviously, we took the kids into consideration but at the end of the day ... "
"But if you are not happy," says Derry, "you have to either sort it out or move on. That's life, isn't it?"
The beautiful blonde to whom Derry had just directed this intriguing rhetorical question began life on September 21, 1961. The name registered on her birth certificate was Sarah Anne Parker but she was later christened Sallyanne. "It was something to do with Sallyanne not being a saint's name," she laughs.
Saint or not, she and her family emigrated to Chicago in 1963 ("times were rough in Ireland and dad drove lorries") before returning in 1968 for a funeral and deciding to stay on. They lived in Kimmage Road West. In August 1985, Sallyanne (the eldest of the six ) was working for an insurance company when she rang Derry who she knew through friends.
"I was in work at Bon Appetit and Sallyanne said she needed an escort that night," says Derry; a claim Sally roundly disputes.
"I gave you a few days notice!" she laughs. "The guy who was supposed to go with me won a holiday and couldn't go."
In any event, the 1985 Prudential Insurance Ball at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham was the start of their relationship proper. Legend has it that Derry proposed in the car park of the Victor Hotel on Rochestown Avenue with the bon mots: "Would you take this ring before I lose it?" She had only known him a few weeks. "He is still impetuous," laughs Sallyanne now. "I'm more cautious."
She inherited that caution from her parents who were shopkeepers in Dublin -- her father Des had a shop on the North Circular Road and her mother Sadie a boutique in Crumlin. "So I knew from an early age that the till wasn't my personal piggy bank."
On October 7, 1987, they were married in St Agnes in Crumlin and had their reception in Killiney Court Hotel. Their honeymoon in Gran Canaria had a light comedic feel of Noel Coward-like farce to it: the new bride was sick with bronchitis and the first few nights the groom spent gloomily at the bar. "They kept asking him to produce his wife," Sallyanne laughs. "They didn't believe I was on honeymoon," he laughs louder.
Born in Hatch Street on August 28, 1957, Derry lived in Clonskeagh. His father DJ (for Dermot Joseph) was "ahead of his time," he says. "He was a food importer. He loved food." Like father, like son.
Derry says in terms of his cooking his upbringing was more Continental than Irish in that he was always being brought out to restaurants during his childhood. He doesn't like food out of season or show-offy. He likes cheaper food. In fact, he has a new cookbook coming out that underlines that fondness for simple fare: Keeping It Simple. It has hundreds of his recipes, from simple salads to slow-braised food. "It is cheaper food, easy-going food," he says. "It is for the times, actually."
Apropos of which, he says that he says he rang chef Dylan McGrath when his restaurant in Ranelagh, Mint, closed its doors. There is no shame at the moment in going out of business, he says. "It's shit out there, times are tough but his restaurant was too small," says Derry of Mint, which had 37 covers compared to l'Ecrivain's 120 covers.
"It is a different kind of pressure and a different kind of restaurant. You have to be really more savvy on the business: what's coming in, what you're using. I would be definitely conscious on what the kitchen spend is. We are 20 years going. Trust me, we have seen lots of restaurants come and go."
Derry was 10 years of age when his parents' marriage came and went. "It was kind of unusual then in Ireland," he says. After a few years, his mother May moved out and got an apartment in Booterstown, where she lived until her death in January 2001. He says his parents' break-up when he was so young didn't affect him emotionally.
"To be honest, it made it easier. There was less tension. They split up, Irish style, There was no divorce then, Three years later, his mother moved out.
"People say to me: 'You must have had issues.' But I didn't. I had a very happy childhood. If anything, I had a silver spoon in my mouth," he says (referring perhaps to his primary school education at St Conleth's in Clyde Road and then boarding school in St George's in Portroe, Lough Derg).
Was it because your own parents had separated that you and Sallyanne were determined not to break up?
"That never crossed my mind," says Derry.
"The very first question you asked us today was about living and working together," says Sallyanne. "That is a really hard thing to do. Any couple will tell you that it is difficult."
"Each person is individual," adds Derry. "So you have to have your individuality but you are a team as well. You have to be generous to your partner and also your mate. But it is difficult."
"To answer your question," he continues, "we wouldn't have got back together again or kept it as we are now if we felt it wasn't worth working on. I think we came back in a fresher way, the two of us, a different approach, a more mature approach".
What did they learn from the process, the pain?
"To listen is the biggest thing," answers Sallyanne immediately. She adds that "you have to air the grievances instead of bottling them up and putting them to one side. The other thing about it is that we were working -- it was business, business, business and we had the kids too. We weren't taking time for ourselves. That was a really big mistake. We try to do it, but we are not brilliant at doing it," she says, "because if someone is sick, then I'm in or he's in."
The following week we meet up again for breakfast. Sallyanne is delayed and Derry is already in the restaurant. I use the opportunity to talk to Derry on his own about how he won back Sallyanne's trust after what happened. "Time, I suppose," he answers. "Time is a healer, isn't it? I suppose it is one of those areas where people have affairs ... " he breaks off.
"It happens a lot more than people think. The only reason you are talking to me about it is because we are prominent and have a restaurant but there are loads of couples who go through it every day and not everyone hears about it. It was one chapter in my life and I have to look back on it and I have to face that. The only thing I can do now is make things and move on in life. If you were to dwell on everything you did in the past, you would be stuck in the past, whether it was positive or negative.
"She stuck by me. It made our marriage stronger in the end," he adds, pointedly.
I suggest that she could have given him a kick in the balls and walked out, saying, 'I want a divorce and the house'.
"Of course, of course, of course," he says. "And if she had done that, I wouldn't have blamed her. Do you know what I'm saying to you? That is the thing: you have to stand up and be counted. I did, you know. I put my hand up. It moved on from there. And see if we can move on. And we did. It just shows how strong we were and are together."
With that, the peroxide apparition of his wife appears in the doorway of their award-winning eaterie. She is all warmth, bubbly bonhomie and teethy Daz-white smiles. And the restaurant seems to light up with it. Doubtless what Hugh Leonard once called the balm of Sallyanne's presence.
"She really is the key to it all," says Derry. "Considering she is a person who wasn't even in the business when we got this place, she is a real people person. She makes everyone feel at ease. It is quite amazing actually how she does it. None of this would have happened without her," he says, adding that even if he had opened l'Ecrivain on his own, it wouldn't have been successful sans Sallyanne.
"We are 20 years open this year," he says.
"Twenty great years," adds Sallyanne without recourse to hyperbole (or the 16-hour days). With him 51 and her 46, they are too young to retire. Sallyanne says that she regrets perhaps that they didn't expand the business during the Celtic Tiger years. Yet, she adds, they are proud of the fact that they didn't let anyone go during the downturn.
"At this moment in time, all we're hoping to do is just keep our heads above water," she says, maybe a tad melodramatically, as the restaurant always seems to be full (and not just with Colin Farrell and the like.)
Derry namechecks Ross Lewis's Chapter One and Kevin Thornton's own place before settling on Patrick Guilbaud's as the restaurant in Ireland he most admires. There is, as ever, a mischievous glint in Derry's eye as he pauses to ponder the imponderable: Ireland's taste in food. "Irish people don't understand food as much as they think they do in general," he says. "They still think the well-done steak is the thing. Look at the success of Shanahan's on the Green."
And the success of l'Ecrivain too, as the foodies and the film stars would surely attest.
l'Ecrivain Restaurant, 109a Lower Baggot Street, Dublin 2. Tel: (01) 661-1919 www.lecrivain.com