First date in the city of love
While Paris brought Conor and Joanna Dempsey together, they left a piece of their hearts behind in the French capital
Joanna and Conor Dempsey's first date really couldn't have been more romantic. Having been introduced to one another by a mutual friend at a bar in Paris in 2001, they fell in love one afternoon sitting by the Seine and chatting into the small hours.
"I have a thing about hands and Joanna has lovely hands," says Conor, chef/owner of Amuse restaurant on Dawson Street. "We connected straight away, and I knew that first evening that she was the one for me. She was ambitious, very intelligent and spoke two different languages exceptionally well. When you meet someone you know you're going to spend the rest of your life with, you don't question it."
Joanna was 23 and Conor was 20 when they met, and the first thing that struck her was that he was really ambitious. "Conor looked like a baby when we met, but he had a plan of exactly what he wanted to do in life," she says. "I was impressed as he was so young."
At the time, Joanna was on Ibec's Export Orientation Programme, where she got a year's sponsorship to work abroad in the sales office of Irish meat exporting company Kepak. Conor was working as a chef at La Cote Saint Jacques, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Burgundy, but preferred to head to Paris on his days off as it was livelier. After they fell in love, he moved to Paris and worked at Le Jules Verne on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower. "The restaurants in France were immensely tough," he recalls. "I had no French going over, so the language barrier was hard."
Conor, 34, and his brother are from Artane, and his love affair with food began at 16 when he took a summer job in the kitchen of the Temple Bar Hotel. He decided to leave school and embarked on an apprenticeship as a chef when summer ended. "There was murder about me not going back to school," he chuckles. "My mother had gone to college, which was what she wanted for us. I went to work at Commons restaurant, and then when I was 18, I went to London. My poor mum was devastated when I was leaving."
Conor worked for the next two years at The Restaurant Marco Pierre White in London, which had three Michelin stars. He learned a lot, which was a great help when he moved to France, although Marco himself wasn't around in the restaurant very much at that stage.
Joanna thinks it's amusing that she fell in love with an Irish man in Paris, even though she had dated French men and says they're definitely more romantic. "It was just easy and natural with Conor," she says. "We were big party people, and we had loads of fun. All of our friends were young, out of college and had money for the first time, so we were discovering ourselves. Conor and I were in Paris for two years, and when we came home, I wanted to see if the relationship was what I thought it was, because it's always different when you're living abroad. I wanted to see if he would fit in with my friends and family, and, thankfully our relationship felt as good at home as it did away."
Joanna, 37, is from Clontarf and comes in the middle of Patricia and Tommy Harvey's six daughters. Her dad was a self-employed builder, and her mum is a former secondary school language teacher. After school, Joanna went to DCU to study international marketing and languages, and went to Paris at 21.
She and Conor have been together now for 14 years, and were married in 2007, holding their reception in the penthouse of the Clarence hotel. They now have two children, Claudine, 4, and Will, 3, and while it was hectic having them 14 months apart, they are loving parenthood.
The pragmatic pair always thought they might return to live in France one day, and still dream of it now, but have both ended up with their own businesses here. A year after they came home, an opportunity came up unexpectedly for Joanna, as her aunt and uncle were retiring from their catering company, Vernon Catering. She and their son Ronan bought it, and they now supply over 1,000 products to restaurants, bars and cafes (www.vernoncatering.ie). This means that Joanna is in work at 4am and finishes at 2pm.
Meanwhile, Conor works the other end of the day, as having cheffed in restaurants like The Chop House and Dax, he really wanted to set up a restaurant of his own. Having searched around for the perfect location, he finally found an affordable city-centre location that was small enough for him to be hands on without having a huge team.
Amuse opened a year ago, and it's a sophisticated 40-seater Franco-Asian restaurant that specialises in tasting menus. Conor is passionate about the quality of his food, and it has been garnering rave reviews from critics, not least from Lucinda O'Sullivan who called it "the hottest little dining room in town." It also won 'best newcomer' at the recent Irish Restaurant Awards. While it's fine dining, it does great, affordable lunch specials for people who want to try it out. "We have put exciting new Asian flavours on classic French food," says the man who was head chef by 23. "Our service, design and wine are very French, and the reaction has been great."
Now living in Clontarf, Joanna and Conor have busy lives balancing their businesses and children. She says there is great harmony in their lives, and they each know what the other needs without having to ask. One of their favourite things to do is go off by themselves for a couple of days and eat in gorgeous restaurants. Joanna admires that Conor is always very calm, and never gets stressed.
"I had to learn how to deal with stress in the French kitchens, as if you couldn't cope, you wouldn't make it," he points out. "When you reach a stage in your life where you don't need anything else, you're content. I have my family and my little restaurant, and Joanna, and she makes me a better person."
Amuse, 22 Dawson St, Dublin 2
(01) 639 4889, www.amuse.ie
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