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Cooke closes his Cafe but denies he's a victim of the downturn

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A LOT ON HIS PLATE: Johnny Cooke outside his restaurant in Dublin. Bad weather and the downturn hit business, but Cooke
says his decision to close had more to do with focusing on his catering firm. Picture: Tony Gavin

A LOT ON HIS PLATE: Johnny Cooke outside his restaurant in Dublin. Bad weather and the downturn hit business, but Cooke says his decision to close had more to do with focusing on his catering firm. Picture: Tony Gavin

A LOT ON HIS PLATE: Johnny Cooke outside his restaurant in Dublin. Bad weather and the downturn hit business, but Cooke says his decision to close had more to do with focusing on his catering firm. Picture: Tony Gavin

As he prepares to close the doors of his trendy 'cafe' in Dublin, chef Johnny Cooke has denied that he is a high-profile casualty of the economic downturn.

But Cooke, whose trendy premises in South William Street, Dublin, was a haunt of the expense account crowd, admits that the poor summer and the public's newly discovered appetite for a €20 meal did impact on 'Cooke's Cafe'.

The businessman maintains the recent downturn -- which has become acute in the last two weeks with the financial turmoil and business uncertainty -- did not gobble up his business, but puts his latest closure down to one of personal choice.

"I opened here 16 years ago. The restaurant business goes through cycles and things go quiet every five to seven years, so I've been though quiet periods before and it is no more than a coincidence that it happened at this time."

Asked for the reason behind his decision, Cooke explained, "Someone had been chasing the building for a while; it was nothing to do with how my business has been doing. I thought it was a good opportunity because I want to concentrate on my private catering business, where I have some great clients."

Cooke, who says he expects to be back in the restaurant business by next year, has revealed that business had been quiet over recent months.

"There's no doubt that it's been a quiet time in the restaurant business. During the summer, you'd usually have a lot of customers using the outdoor terrace but because of the bad weather that didn't happen this year."

Interestingly, it is understood that the lease for the South William Street premises has now been bought by Abrakebabra owner Graham Beere, who has indicated he may turn it into a sushi restaurant or use the venue to extend his chain of Gourmet Burger Kitchens.

As Mr Cooke explains, "Functional eating where people want to get in and out and have a meal, and maybe one or two beers, on €20, are what people are going towards now.

"Occasion restaurants such as Chapter One and Thornton's seem to be doing OK but the next level down is being hit.

"People are looking for a lot better value now, so a lot of restaurants are pitching their prices between €14 and €17.''

And with business at even some of the country's leading Michelin-star restaurants dropping by up to one fifth in the course of this year, the chef warns of the long winter ahead.

"It's a long way until Christmas. Usually what happens is that it would be quite over October and November and then restaurants would recoup most of there profits in the month before Christmas. But this year, who knows how quiet it's going to get over the coming months and whether or not some restaurants will even be able to make it until Christmas."

Cooke rode the crest of wave during the 1990s, attracting A-list customers from the trendy world of arts and entertainment and picking up a string of food and wine awards along the way.