Helming the legendary Il Primo restaurant for many years, Anita Thoma is one of Dublin’s best-known chefs. She tells me what she’s been doing during Covid.
“Although I did my actual training in Cathal Brugha Street, it was my father really who prepared me for my career in hospitality. He came to Dublin with a brigade of chefs from Switzerland in the late 1940s. I started in the mid-1980s, and something I learned early on, particularly as a woman in the industry, is that you need to work hard to survive. Never has this been truer than now.”
Anita was recovering from surgery on her hand and in the middle of working through job offers when the pandemic hit. She’s spent the last year working on herself physically and is in the best shape she’s been in for ages, but, like others, she felt scared, uncertain and fearful of what was to come.
“The strength I’d previously called upon to see me through challenging work situations was called for once more. I started cooking again using ingredients from my own garden and it centred and calmed me. I found handwritten recipes of my mother’s, and I made her brack. The house was filled with food memories of happier times.
“When restrictions permitted, I was in Cork, batch cooking for my soon-to-be father-in-law. I’ve missed the privilege of working, I miss being surrounded by daily deliveries of fresh meat, fish and vegetables. I missed the popping in somewhere for a pint or a cocktail.
“Things will change, and maybe some things will be better. It’s very exciting actually to be a free agent, to explore possibilities, almost like starting over but this time with experience.”
NeighbourFood has been a godsend for many small food producers in Ireland. Deirdre McMahon tells me how she got involved with the Limerick branch.
“It was September 2019 when I first heard of NeighbourFood from David Fitzgerald, GM of the Limerick Milk Market. He’d been interested in the idea for many months as a good fit for the market,” she says.
“I’d been working in the food sector for six years, had good contacts with local farmers and producers, and I loved the idea of a local online-shopping platform.
“I’d started signing suppliers with a view to opening at Easter, but on St Patrick’s Day I got a call from Jack Crotty, owner of NeighbourFood, who was living in northern Italy, the epicentre of the unfolding crisis in Europe.
“He urged me to open as soon as possible as it could be a lifeline for suppliers if the markets were closed. I raced around signing suppliers and our first collection was on March 26. The next day, the markets were closed.”
With orders quickly ramping up, Deirdre had to adapt and had huge help from the milk market staff. Each Thursday, the little shop became a hub of activity with Deirdre and daughter Dorothy working flat out for 10 hours. In November, they moved into their own unit at the milk market which enabled a drive-through, contactless collection service.
“NeighbourFood has been my lifeline through this difficult time. Thursday is my favourite, when I get to meet our suppliers and customers. I see a lot of customers struggling with this current lockdown. I hope we’ll be out of it soon.
“I’m frequently asked if NeighbourFood will continue ‘after Covid’. I’m happy to say we are here to stay!”
“My brother Clifden and I are the third generation of the Foyle family to run The Strand inn in Dunmore East,” says Louise Foyle. “Between us, we have four daughters, so we hope we have someone coming behind to take over the reins in the years to come.”
It’s the lack of a Covid roadmap that’s the most frustrating thing for Louise. It’s a guessing game of when they can open, will there be guests inside, do they have to limit time on diners, etc. She understands they’re difficult questions but people need something to aim for.
“Last summer we were very lucky to open in July and fortunately we have a large covered terrace overlooking the sea. We had a busy summer but it was incredibly stressful for the team.
“Towards the end of September I got a phone call from the HSE informing me that we’d had someone dining with us that had tested positive. I asked for their name so I could give the details of the other guests who dined in that area, but they couldn’t do that because of GDPR.
“I offered to send all the names of guests so they could inform them but they didn’t want that either. I was told to inform my staff to watch out for Covid symptoms. This was incredibly frustrating as we’d wasted so much time taking everyone’s details over the previous two months.”
“My fear is that this summer might not happen, or the season might be too short. Seasonal hospitality businesses only have two or three months to make a living. This winter, fortunately, we had the CRSS to help pay the bills, but that won’t be there next winter.
“We’re very excited to get our doors open this summer, our bookings are very strong and we feel very fortunate to have such a great team.
“We look forward to welcoming all our friends and guests back to Dunmore East, for what we all hope will be an epic summer.”
The beautiful, romantic Eccles Hotel, with its plantation-style wrought iron balconies and porch overlooking Bantry Bay in Glengarriff, was where our grandmothers went on honeymoon during the war. After major investment bringing it back to its former glory and the addition of a Spa and Wellness Centre, it is a stunning destination, with amazing food. Its GM, David Manning, tells me how they’re faring.
“Closing in March 2020 hurt. Going from a great February with momentum building to our staff having to claim PUP was such a mental blow. Shrouded by uncertainty, with everyone in the industry turning to one another for answers, the Government’s poor, disjointed communication left us all deflated.”
With very short notice for reopening in July, they made it work.
“I could not be prouder of how our team adjusted to all our new systems and regulations. We had a fantastic summer and even managed to achieve 4-star status. We had excellent support locally and nationally.”
A year in, David says they are optimistic for the future.
“The bookings are flying in for summer. Head chef Eddie Attwell is back in the garden getting ready for the season ahead, and we have another refurbishment project waiting to commence as soon as restrictions permit builders on site.”
What David would really like is “a bit of clarity, a proper roadmap so that those of us in the industry can plan accordingly”.
“We have a strong team who are like family, and their livelihoods are uncertain. As their general manager I want to be able to offer them some hope and certainty. With nature at our doorstep, and so much to do within our 5km, it is a lonely place now, but we know the area will be thriving again and cannot wait to welcome people back to Glengarriff”.