Friday 15 December 2017

Food for thought

Restaurateur May Frisby's Victorian house is chock-full of art and antiques, says Mary O'Sullivan, all of which reflect their owner's dynamic personality. Photography by Tony Gavin

Mary O'Sullivan

Mary O'Sullivan

There's a mountain of fresh organic fruit and vegetables in her American-style fridge, an industrial-sized juicer on the kitchen island, and endless bottles of healthy green stuff that she has just created from cucumbers, green peppers and spinach.

Add all that to the fact that May Frisby hasn't eaten red meat for 20 years, and that her favourite painting of all those on her walls is one of a Buddhist sitting on a chair, reading a newspaper, with his back to the world, and you could be forgiven for thinking that she's a New Age, sandal-sporting, hippy-dippy type, craving peace and solitude.

But, quite apart from the fact that any sandals she wears are either Jimmy Choos, Manolos or Louboutins, May is the furthest you could find from a person who lives a New Age alternative lifestyle. This glamorous, flamboyant entrepreneur -- who keeps her clocks 20 minutes fast -- is a petite, fiery ball of dynamism and energy. She uses the juices as a fuel to enable her to take on the world -- something May has done ever since she first started her highly successful food business and the restaurant, Pasta Fresca, 25 years ago.

It has required hard work, but the rewards have been good -- they include a lovely home, a gorgeous and talented teenage son, Charles, and an enviable social life. Apart from her paintings, the walls of May's house are covered in collages of photos of May and her closest friends -- including Bono, Paul McGuinness, Adam Clayton, Gerry Ryan, Keith Duffy, and John Hurt -- on beaches, at parties and on yachts. "All the men in my life," she jokes, before quickly adding: "There are no men in my life, only Charles."

Despite appearances, life hasn't always been easy -- the fourth eldest of nine children, May lost her brother Billy to lung cancer in 2002, her sister Irene to septicaemia two years ago and her beloved parents in between. She thinks of them all daily. May's father, who survived her mother by five years, was obviously a big influence. "After my mother died, my first phone call in the morning was to my father -- and the last one at night," she says. "He was a publican, running Frisby's in Killamery, Co Kilkenny. He got the first license for dancing in a public place in Ireland. I always remember the headline in the Kilkenny People: 'Frisby gets the ball rolling'," May reminisces proudly.

May's first job after finishing school was as a medical secretary. She says now that she would have liked to have become a surgeon like her first serious boyfriend, Armand Newman, a medical student at the Royal College of Surgeons, who is now one of the top plastic surgeons in Hollywood, and still a good friend. However, as it turns out, May got into a business along the same lines as the family one; she ran Shrimps wine bar off Grafton Street in the early Eighties. Shrimps was a hot spot with the in-crowd. The girl from Kilkenny was fast becoming a mover and shaker. After that, she started a catering company with a girlfriend. "It was around the time U2 were starting, and that's how I met the band -- we catered on the concert scene," she recalls.

Given that 25 years on, May still has the looks of an Italian film star -- more Lollobrigida than Loren, with her olive skin, brown eyes and great mane of tawny hair, which she tosses expressively -- it's easy to see why she turned to the Italian blood that lies way back in her DNA for the inspiration for her next business.

May's father used to laugh at the fact that she always played up the Italian blood, but it stood her in good stead. While in the United States, she took note of the Italian pasta shops and delis selling artichokes and extra virgin olive oil. May decided that this was the way to go. She found a premises in Chatham Street -- which at the time had five butchers and two fishmongers -- and she opened up. "Of course, no one in Ireland at that time had heard of artichokes or fresh pasta -- I couldn't make money," she recalls. So, she did a bit of lateral thinking and came up with a plan B. "I ripped out the shop, put in tables and chairs and started serving lunch and dinner, seven days a week," she says.

Pasta Fresca, as the name of her restaurant suggests, uses only fresh pasta, which is made in May's factory in Donnybrook. Her factory also supplies other restaurants and delis. She did open a second restaurant in Naas, but closed it down in 2008 -- something she doesn't regret.

May toyed with franchising the business, but her biological clock was ticking, so, instead, she opted to start a family with her partner at the time, Peter Bark, with whom she spent eight years. Forget the famous friends, the successful food business, the three-storey Victorian house: Charles is all that really matters to May, and his presence is felt all over the house. His den is downstairs, off the kitchen. The elegant hall has been taken over for table tennis, and Charles's musical instruments are everywhere -- he plays piano and guitar. Even the sumptuous front sitting room is in the process of being turned into his study. "Sit? I don't sit anywhere. I never sit. I don't know why I have a house," May protests.

She bought the house, then a wreck of flats and bedsits, 13 years ago. She immediately renovated and redecorated it, leaving only the roof untouched. All the floors walls and cornicing had to be restored and May had it done in such a way that is respectful of the age of the house. Many of the furnishings are antiques, and date from the same period as the house. May has bought them at auctions down through the years -- they make a perfect backdrop for her eclectic collections of interesting objets. Something of a magpie, she has a xylophone and a toy piano from her childhood, and, of course, she has kept every single one of Charles's many cuddly toys.

While May decries her lack of third-level education, it's obvious she loves learning and is very knowledgeable about art -- she has a large collection of books about artists she admires and, in some cases, pieces of their work, too. She has collections of ostrich eggs, giant clam shells and Venetian glass. She has a collection of tiny porcelain shoes, but it doesn't compare with her hoard of designer shoes -- something which enables this diminutive but feisty fighter to walk tall. And May intends to be standing tall for another 25 years.

"We've amazing clients, and had an amazing Christmas. I'm attacking 2010 with renewed vigour. I'm pulling out the bar and going back to our roots. We're moving with the times," she says enthusiastically. "People are eating more at home, and one of the things we're going to do is good takeout. We're refreshing our menus and reducing our prices -- we're here 25 years, and we're going to be here for another 25. It's not easy, but you've got to keep reinventing the wheel. And I'm a glass-half-full person," she says, and, in true Popeye style, she glugs down a glass of the green stuff.


Pasta Fresca, 2 Chatham St, D2. Open seven days per week for lunch and dinner, tel: (01) 679-2402/(01) 679-8965, or see, or email

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