Young foodies are turning up the heat in hard times
The recession has not stopped two Irish women from following their dreams, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan
'MY MUM always made lovely icecreams and desserts," says Louise Bannon, a pastry chef at Noma Restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, which ranks third in the list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants.
Louise, who is 28 and comes from Greystones, Co Wicklow, attributes her interest in food to her mother, who has always been an aficionado of French food, and is herself a very fine cook.
After leaving Rathdown School in Glenageary, Louise did a certificate course in culinary arts in DIT Cathal Brugha Street. She then went to work on the waiting staff in Ballymaloe House where, after a few months, Louise asked head chef Rory O'Connell if she could work in the kitchen. O'Connell said "yes" and so began Louise's real love affair with 'the professional kitchen'. She returned to Cathal Brugha Street and took her degree in culinary arts.
Whilst completing her degree, as part of the European Commission's Leonardo da Vinci programme, 18 of the students got their first international culinary experience by going to Paris for three months to work in different restaurants. Louise asked to be placed in a Michelin star restaurant, which she was, in the fabulous two-star Les Ambassadeurs Gastronomic Restaurant at Hotel de Crillon in Place de la Concorde.
In 2005, she worked for a year on starters and pastry in Dublin's Michelin-starred Thornton's Restaurant. She describes Thornton's food as "a bit more classical" than the Crillon. Louise then applied to do a Stage (unpaid work experience) at Heston Blumenthal's famous "Fat Duck" restaurant in Bray in Berkshire -- "Number two on the world's 50 best". Whilst there, she went to visit the two-star Michelin restaurant of Tom Aiken's in South Kensington and he offered her a job on the spot. Louise describes Aiken as "incredibly inspiring".
"It was very tough, maybe working up to 18 hours a day but you learned a lot. . . the food looked amazing and tasted amazing." It was undoubtedly a defining experience.
In November 2006, Louise returned to Ireland to The Mill Restaurant at the Village at Lyons, working with executive chef Paul Carroll and a very inspiring Spanish pastry chef. She then went to work with Dylan McGrath at Mint restaurant in Ranelagh, where he achieved a Michelin star.
We have all seen McGrath's trials and tribulations. However, Louise is loud in her praise of the chef and her experiences in working with him. She said: "I knew I was going to get into the long hours, madness and ambition, a la Aiken's, but I love to work under pressure."
"Dylan was very much involved with, and supportive of, his team -- and his presentation is so impressive." Unfortunately, however, the economic situation was not in McGrath's favour at that time, and Louise and her colleagues found themselves out of jobs when Mint closed in April 2009.
Louise decided to leave Ireland for a new challenge and applied to Noma. Noma's founder and head chef, Rene Redzepi, previously worked at the World's Number One Best Restaurant -- the three star Michelin restaurants El Bulli in Spain and The French Laundry in California -- but his food is not in any way Mediterranean.
Noma has has risen stratospherically in a short three years, developing its own distinctive style. The cuisine in Noma is completely Nordic -- horse mussels, deep-sea crabs and langoustines from the Faroe Islands, halibut, wild salmon and curds from Iceland, lamb, musk ox, berries and the purest drinking water from Greenland. They are constantly smoking, salting, pickling, drying and baking on slabs of basalt stone. While others use wine in their sauces, at Noma they use beers and ales, fruit juices and fruit-based vinegars for imparting a lively freshness and edge. Vegetables, herbs, spices and wild plants in season play a prominent role.
Louise says it was always her dream to work in one of the best restaurants in the world, where she could learn and progress. There are lots of new ideas at Noma and she finds it a very exciting environment to be in. Most of her colleagues are from other parts of the world -- English, German, American -- and one other Irish person, Trevor Moran from Stillorgan in Co Dublin.
Forget your apple pie and icecream, no matter how nice, it is all about intricate, delicate detail on a plate. Her favourite dessert at Noma is Skyr sheep's yoghurt mousse and sorrel granite. Louise is a star on the culinary planet -- watch out for her.
Another young woman who has been making waves in Greystones in recent times with her superb fish shop, deli and cafe is 27-year-old Amy Caviston. The shop, simply called 'A Caviston', on Church Road, will be two years old next month. Amy's grandfather, John Caviston, founded the well known Caviston's Fish shop, deli and restaurant in Glasthule, so you can take it Amy knew her pollock from her pike by the time she was five years old.
Dad Stephen Caviston believed she should learn the business from an early age and Amy "was working, washing pots in the kitchen during holidays from 12 years old".
When Amy met her future husband, accountant Shane Willis, a native of Greystones, they decided to open their own fish shop in Greystones. They looked for about two years for a suitable spot and eventually their present location right in the heart of Greystones came up. The premises was bigger than they initially wanted but they decided to go the full hog with fish counter, deli and a really smart cafe dining area.
Amy, who has the friendliest and most welcoming personality, said her mornings start at 4am, when she gets up and heads for the fish market, now in the Millennium Business Park in Finglas. She loves the market, saying everyone there is nice and such great fun. "They really mind me and load up the van for me." She then heads back to Greystones and Shane unloads the van.
Shane's brother, Ronan, has also joined the business and takes care of the "office end of things", leaving Amy and Shane free to concentrate "on the floor".
The cafe does lovely homemade desserts, including a flour-free orange cake. You can have all sorts of light bites from their deli and fish counters, as well as open sandwiches of Annagassan crab, Boston shrimp, fish pie, lobster in season, Cajun salmon burgers, lamb casserole, Toulouse sausage and chickpea stew.
Amy also has a great range of artisan products, including Kelly's Organic yoghurts from Moonshine Dairy Farm in Co Westmeath, Wicklow Farmhouse buttermilk and cheddar cheese, Terry Butterly's Coastguard Seafood's smoked salmon and crabmeat from Annagassan, Co Louth. She is also doing pizza bases from the Artisan Pizza company. Also proving very popular are a new range of lollipops and fudge under the label of Pandora Bell from Limerick.
Amy said that the "hot" fish off the slabs these days is Gurnard -- "with which you can do so much, great for goujons, fish pies or anything".
Amy and Shane now have a son, 10-month-old Freddie, who "has been to the fish market three times already".
As I was leaving on a cold day on which they were closed for business last week, an old man tentatively approached the door. A smiling Amy greeted him by name, saying "is it a cup of tea you want -- come in, come in, I'll get you some".
Louise and Amy are shining lights in the foodie scene and brilliant examples of young people's 'get up and go' in these recessionary times.