'I slept beside the wine boxes for a year and now I have a Michelin star' - Irish restaurant owner on what it takes to win the coveted star
“It’s been hard at times.”
“In the middle of winter when we’re closed, and all the money is gone back into repair and new equipment and unforeseen expenses, and you’re broke and self-employed and there’s no support for you, it’s tough… but you just keep going.”
Robert Collender, co-owner of Mews restaurant in Baltimore, moved to West Cork four years ago to pursue his dream of opening a coastal restaurant which has local produce as the centrepiece.
The budget was tight. When he and James Ellis bought their premises in the harbour town, there was little money for anything else. They lived above the restaurant, they learned how to do their own plumbing repairs, they did their own marketing, and they worked 90-hour weeks to save where they could on staffing costs.
So, when Mews was given its Michelin star earlier this month, Collender and Ellis and their team knew it had all been worth it.
“We lived upstairs in the restaurant in the first year. I had to climb across the wine boxes to get to my bed. It was the wine store as well as my bedroom.”
“We begged, borrowed, and stole and did what we could with what we had, and it’s always been that way. Our head chef will clean the bins out and mop the floors. I’ll learn about the electric work and the plumbing so I can save a few quid on that. Everyone has to do everything in our place. We don’t have the teams that other restaurants have. On any one day I might be an interior designer, a plumber and a sommelier.”
“You’re everything from marketing boy to glass polisher. So you have to take on many roles, and that’s what attracts us and that’s what keeps us busy.”
It's been quite a journey for Collender, Ellis, head chef Ahmet Dede, and their team.
“We (Collender and Ellis) drove the whole of the Wild Atlantic Way, talked to producers, anyone involved in food, and by the time we moved on to West Cork, there wasn’t going to be anywhere else.”
“We spent a bit of time there, going up and down from Dublin and eventually we found the premises - a premises that had been a restaurant for 25 years. It was a bit crumbling but the space was there, there was a particular atmosphere to the old stone mews.”
“You cannot get any further south west than Baltimore village; you’re pointing directly into the ocean. It just seemed so right. We moved down there, late on a very cold February evening and we polished the place as much as we could, picked up food from the market and opened our doors.”
“I’ll never forget the local people booked out our restaurant on our opening weekend. We had 30 people a night, and they never wavered in their support.”
“We just about made it work. James and I opened it four years ago. We did it on a tight budget. Everything we’ve earned has been reinvested back into the restaurant. Gradually we renovated the restaurant; gradually we increased our team; and we gained a reputation abroad; and we tried to attract people and be a destination that people would travel for food. West Cork is known for good food.”
But he added: “The season is very short so it’s always been a bit of a struggle financially; there have been good times and bad times. We’ve had to sacrifice an awful lot to keep it open - our salaries for one thing. Staff is our biggest expense. It always has been and it will continue to be.”
“Personally, it’s up to 90 hours a week, we do what needs to get done. My team, their commitment is just extraordinary.”
As time went on, Collender says the idea of winning a Michelin star became a real target.
“The chefs committed such an amount of time and effort to it.”
“They could earn twice as much elsewhere but they really believed in the place they were in, the ingredients being the best in the world. The ethos keeps everyone motivated towards the goal of winning a star and putting across the type of food we’d want to.”
The head chef Ahmet Dede, who previously worked at Dublin Michelin star restaurants The Green House and Chapter One, set about creating a menu out of locally produced and foraged ingredients.
“It’s land and sea. 100pc of our ingredients come from West Cork - all produced by organic suppliers, if not organic certified then organic ethos. We concentrate heavily on seafood, we try to support and promote it as much as we can. We’re also about exceptional meat, dairy, and vegetables.”
“We offer vegan and vegetarian tasting menus to those that want them. In summer in West Cork I could easily be vegetarian. People in West Cork are in self-sustaining lifestyles that care very much about what they might eat and grow for themselves.”
“If you stick to your vision and don’t compromise then you reap the rewards and the first step is the Michelin star. We knew what we were doing. We wanted to be one of the best restaurants in the country.”
“Obviously [winning the star] has a huge effect. We’re slightly different to the other restaurants that got a Michelin star in Cork in that we’re seasonal and we close at the end of this month. It’s booked out until the end of the month.”
Bookings for Mews won’t reopen again until next February and March. The restaurant will open its doors again, as per usual, in April.
“Something like this brings an unprecedented amount of queries and interest. I would imagine when we open back in the spring we’ll be busier than we’d normally be.”
“Baltimore is quite isolated and has a short tourist season and we’ve somewhat struggled to fill the restaurant outside of July and August. Nothing could be better (than a Michelin star) in terms of attracting people to the area and to eat at the restaurant outside of those very few busy weeks.”
“It puts us a little bit less dependent on just a few weeks of summer.”
“We’ll take a little break because everyone is absolutely exhausted, and we’ll take stock.”