Life Food & Drink

Monday 20 January 2020

Derry Clarke: 'My summers in Kinsale kick-started my career as a chef'

Michelin-starred chef and L'Ecrivain owner Derry Clarke discovered his passion for the kitchen and the sea in a Cork seaside town, he tells our reporter

Taste of success: L'ecrivain's Derry Clarke. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Taste of success: L'ecrivain's Derry Clarke. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Derry Clarke as a young man during his Kinsale days

Andrea Smith

When I was a teenager, my summers were spent in Kinsale, Co Cork. I lived in Clonskeagh in Dublin, and my parents had separated. I was almost completely independent from the age of 12, as I boarded at St George's in Tipperary, and went to Kinsale every summer, where my aunt Carrie and uncle Stanley had a boat.

I was very lucky that they used to invite me down to stay on it with them. I suppose that's where my love of sailing and the sea began, although I have a motorised boat these days. My aunt also had a shareholding in a restaurant called The Man Friday, and when I was 13, I worked there for a few weeks, washing up, cleaning the loos and looking after the rubbish. I was quite mature for my age and I wasn't working long, hard days back then. I was just helping out for a few hours in the evening, and I loved it.

I liked meeting new people, and it was also my first time really being out of a structure, so I enjoyed the freedom. I also liked being able to make a few quid and having my own money. To this day, I have a lot of respect for anyone I work with who does the job of cleaning the dishes or washing up. I make sure they're well-looked after, because it's a hard job and no restaurant can survive without them.

I made great friends in Kinsale, including a pal from boarding school, Anthony, who lived there. Sadly, he passed away a few weeks ago. There were six of us in our gang, and we would spend the days going swimming, fishing and hanging around the beach. We had so much freedom and were so innocent and carefree. Carrie and Stanley let me be, and it was all about spur-of-the-moment adventures.

Derry Clarke as a young man during his Kinsale days
Derry Clarke as a young man during his Kinsale days

As I got older, we would get a bonfire going on the beach at night, have a couple of beers and someone would play the guitar. The simple things were the best. I eventually got an apartment so I had independence, and my friends would come down for weeks at a time and would want to party.

The late Peter Barry was the main owner of The Man Friday, and he was a genius and a brilliant boss. He was very good at training people and was a real restaurateur, and the place was always packed.

The restaurant is still going strong, and back then it was a smallish, 60s-style place. It was one of the best restaurants in the country and the food was amazing, and it's only when I look back now that I realise I took all of that for granted.

Kinsale was different then to what it is now, as it was more bohemian and was a bit of a hippy commune. There were great characters around who were running and owning restaurants, like The Spinnaker.

Peter got me to wait tables and set up the restaurant the following summer, when I was 14. I struggled as I didn't like having to deal with difficult people, but when I went into the kitchen the next summer at 15, I took to it like a duck to water. I wanted to learn a bit about the kitchen, as I always had an interest in food. It was a big thing in our family, as both of my parents were involved in food importing.

The chef was a guy called Xavier and he was great. The first job he gave me was to peel and dice onions, but I couldn't do it as I didn't know how. My cooking career took off from there, and Peter told me I had a flair for it and was a natural in the kitchen.

The following summer, I was finished school and worked the whole season from Easter through to the October bank holiday. I did that until I was 20, and it gave me the ambition to move on and learn.

I had originally planned to go to sea, maybe working in shipping, but I had to get more qualifications for it. After I thought about it, I felt that the whole area of restaurants and food was going to take off. Ireland was a very desolate place for food in the late 60s/early 70s, because if you wanted a good meal, you had to go to your local hotel. The only food they did in pubs were toasted sandwich in plastic bags and if you asked for coffee, they'd look at you.

I actually looked at going back down to open a restaurant in Kinsale, but it didn't pan out. I certainly have those teenage summers in the restaurant to thank for giving me the start in my career though.

Derry Clarke's L'Ecrivain is on Baggot Street Lower, Dublin 2;

Irish Independent

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