Richard Corrigan: 'Food has given me a fabulous life, a life you can only dream of'
Having established three fine dining London restaurants, earned a Michelin star and cooked for the Queen of England, Richard Corrigan has now pumped his life savings into restoring the Cavan estate where he wed 24 years ago. Carolyne Dunne joined him for the grand tour. Photographs by Mark Condren
Richard Corrigan is giving me the guided tour of Virginia Park Lodge, overlooking Lough Ramor in Co Cavan. He bought the estate in 2013, after scouring the country for a suitable property, and is now dedicating himself to its restoration. "I didn't want just a house, a venue for weddings and private functions," says Corrigan, "although it is that too. I wanted somewhere with a garden and farm, somewhere I could start a school.
"Here, I just look around and I see food. I see the lake, food, I see the gardens, food. In the autumn, we'll have a few pheasants and other game birds for rough shooting. That's the way it should be: cooking from nature as we go along and letting it replenish itself. It's the way I was brought up, and what I came back to - it's just a bigger cottage than the one I grew up in."
He clearly relishes the irony of returning as owner to the place he celebrated his wedding to his wife, Maria, back in 1991, when the Lodge was operated as a country hotel that was starting to look a little scruf------------
ate always had a fabulous reputation for good food. It was the Kelly's of its time, full of English eccentrics who'd come for hunting with the Ballymacad in Oldcastle. The hotel hired good chefs from the Hibernian in Dublin, not country bumpkins. Even when the fabric of the place was starting to feel unloved, the reputation for good food continued. Elsewhere, you'd have got turkey and ham, but we had seafood salad and shoulder of lamb with sweetbreads and kidneys. I made sure they didn't mention those on the menu, though. 'If anyone asks,' I said, 'just tell them it's stuffing.'"
Even though Corrigan is spending a lot of time in Cavan these days, the family home remains in Muswell Hill, London. His wife Maria ("she's an amazing lady, I'm a lucky man") works in family therapy and has a masters in law.
The couple's three children are all in education - his son, Richard, in the Les Roches School of Hotel Management in Switzerland; his daughter, Jess, at university in the UK ("she might end up in the HR side of the business, she has an aptitude for that"); and his youngest son, Robbie, at boarding school in Ireland.
Since his wedding, almost 25 years ago, Corrigan has gone on to become one of the best-known Irish chefs in the world, winning his first Michelin star at Stephen Bull in Fulham in 1994. His London restaurants, Corrigan's of Mayfair, Bentley's on Swallow Street, Piccadilly, and Bentley's Sea Grill in Harrods, are favoured by the great and the good. At Corrigan's, where the menu focuses on grass-fed and wild animals, his regular customers include Tom Ford, who "lives around the corner with his partner and loves his food, he's a regular punter".
Corrigan wins competitions (he was triumphant in the Great British Menu three times), although he says that he is "too old [at 51] to be talking about award-winning dishes". He is a celebrity chef who regularly appears on television. He has even cooked for Queen Elizabeth.
And now he has been honoured as a Taste Icon, the award presented to him at a lunch in Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, where Michelin-starred chefs including Kevin Thornton, Derry Clarke and Ross Lewis turned out to celebrate with their friend and peer. Four years ago, the award went to Myrtle Allen, to whom every good thing happening in the world of Irish food and artisan produce can be traced back. Corrigan is in good company.
A few years back, he had a foray into the Dublin restaurant scene, when he opened an outpost of fish restaurant, Bentley's, on St Stephen's Green, in the premises now occupied by the Cliff Townhouse. He says that he is considering a return to the fray, but that if he does re-enter the Dublin market, it will be with a vegetable-focused restaurant, which may come as a surprise to those who associate the chef with muscular meat- and fish-driven dishes.
But Corrigan's personal style has evolved over the years and, while he is not a slave to trends, he acknowledges the influence of Alain Passard of L'Arpege in Paris, who is at the vanguard of a movement that has brought vegetables to the forefront of modern cuisine, with animal products used as garnish, in a reversal of the old order. Passard produces all the vegetables and most of the fruit for his restaurant on his own farms, in the way that Corrigan aspires to in Cavan. "Passard is the new supermodel in town," says Corrigan. "There's no doubt about it; a ground-breaking chef. He has set something alight in France with a different way of doing things."
The evening before our interview, Corrigan produced an exquisite dinner. Eight of us ate in the grand Marquis' dining room at Virginia Park Lodge. He prepared the meal single-handedly, without fuss or assistance in the kitchen. There was a simple soup of vegetables simmered with garlic in a vegetable broth, with shredded basil added at the last minute. A lobster salad, with homemade mayonnaise and harissa. Thinly sliced Hereford beef, floury roast potatoes, the last of the purple sprouting broccoli ("it's better than asparagus", says Corrigan), a garden salad. Gariguette strawberries and slices of alfonso mango, all washed down with a few serious magnums; Corrigan is nothing if not a generous host. The meal was an elegant explanation of what Corrigan's ambition at Virginia Park is all about, with all the vegetables grown on site.
"Nuances change," he says, "and if I have great ingredients I don't need to show off. I realise now that great food means fewer, lighter, courses, with a lovely wine, followed by a bit of cheese. The more I read, the simpler I think things are going to get. Simplicity comes with maturity."
Virginia Park Lodge was originally built as a hunting lodge for the first Earl of Bective, Thomas Taylour, Lord Headfort, one of Ireland's richest men. Located 20 miles away from his principal residence, Headfort House, in Kells, the lodge was intended as a cottage-style home from home, informal in layout but still lavishly decorated with the finest silver, china, and furniture. "It's not a grand house," says Corrigan, "but there are grand rooms inside. It was always meant to look like that: let's play happy families for the summer."
The second Earl added to the property and imported exotic shrubs and trees from China, Japan and elsewhere to create the parkland that surrounds the lodge. Geoffrey Thomas Taylour, the 4th Marquess of Headfort (the family considered its titles interchangeable), scandalised Edwardian society with his marriage to Miss Rosie Boote, a music hall star who had attended the Ursuline convent in Thurles, the school credited with having turned her out as a well-educated young lady equipped to take her place even in the highest society.
Rose was much acclaimed as one of the glamorous Gaiety Girls, considered polite, educated, well-behaved young women, unlike the corseted actresses from London's earlier musical burlesque shows. The couple married in 1901, not without the resistance of high society and family members, who later came around, charmed by the Marchioness' beauty and personality. Rosie was painted by Sir William Orpen, wearing a cocktail dress, fur and diamond earrings.
"It was supposed to be a five-year project," explains Corrigan as we sit on the terrace overlooking the lake, "but the madness got hold of me. I don't have the patience for a five-year project! How are you going to keep a team going over five years? I realised pretty quickly that if I didn't get my arse down here sharpish then the project would never get finished and a 'for sale' sign might go up again. You go in with all the enthusiasm in the world and then you run out of money. It's a very easy thing to do. If you give your money to someone else to spend they'll never have the same respect for it that you do. So I decided to take charge myself."
Corrigan says he is undaunted by the scale of the project, which involves the restoration and decoration of the house ("we went for a Merrion in the countryside feel," he says), the planting of the gardens and farm, the running of a business hosting weddings and private functions in a dedicated pavilion (every weekend for the next year, bar one, is already booked out), the staging of pop-up dinners (Snails, Beef and Magnums is one) and afternoon teas in the house, plus the development of a cookery school.
"I build my restaurants myself. I don't just walk in as head chef and start cooking. I supervised the building of Bentley's, and Corrigan's. I am always the one there kicking the builders out. I don't mind the project part of it; it becomes very personal when chefs build it themselves, you have a healthier respect for everything around you and you have a total understanding how everything works and what the issues are."
One of the principal attractions of the Lodge for Corrigan is the land, now gearing up for peak growing season under the direction of his young gardener, Sarah Noonan. The garden supplies produce to his London restaurants, with a van leaving Virginia early each Wednesday morning bound for the ferry and on to London, where it arrives that afternoon. "All the stuff that comes into London is over a week old," says Corrigan, gloating ever so slightly. "This is so fresh! Having your own gardens, there's no replacement for that. How can you cook without beautiful ingredients?"
"The chefs fight over who gets what," says Noonan. "When the van went to Corrigan's first, they would rob everything that was meant for Bentley's. And when it went to Bentley's first, they would rob what was meant for Corrigan's. Now we have to label the boxes so everyone's clear as to who gets what, they get an email telling them what's on the way."
As well as all the salad leaves, potatoes and vegetables, there are three types of rhubarb. Wild strawberries, currants, damsons, tayberries, gooseberries and blueberries have all been planted, with asparagus beds underway.
Poly-tunnels are crammed with tomatoes and basil, and a nuttery planted with hazelnuts and walnuts is next on the agenda. At its peak, Corrigan reckons that the garden will be supplying his London restaurants with 500-600kg of produce each week. "My brief to Sarah is 'Don't be messing me around with a couple of bushes!'" says Corrigan. "Everything has to be done to scale; there's no point going to London with two punnets; I need quantity. We don't use chemicals, but we're not officially organic, yet. We will be in time. Look at the weeds on the path, that's a good indication that we're not using pesticides."
Corrigan's other plans include a piggery and potager (kitchen garden) to be established next year, and he'll be using trout from Lough Sheelin in Bentley's this summer. He's also setting up a cookery school, in the 90m-long horse barn, which he aims to open in 2018.
"It's not a cookery school for people who are going to work on a yacht or an alpine chalet," says Corrigan. "This is being built for the industry, it's a training school for excellence in hospitality for people who want to make it, and make it in business. Unless you make it in business, you fail. So many chefs have a legacy of not paying their bills, of spending the first diners' money on going out and taking a lease on a Porsche. One young chef in London has just done that. I said to him, 'You stupid fool, you won't be in business in five years' time…'"
The model for the cookery school is, he says, forged on the crucible of his own experience as a frugal farmer-cum-restaurateur. "My experience of running catering businesses successfully, of keeping a great team and keeping everyone motivated, keeping it new, keeping it fresh, leads to this. I want to ensure people come out of here fully equipped, with a questioning mind - not just knowing how to make a perfect poached egg, but understanding that food is ever-evolving, ever-developing, that trends are emerging. I hope they will leave here knowing that risotto is not a main course, that pasta has its place in the right portion size, that we don't need so many big chunks of meat, that thinly sliced beef is just as good. They're also going to come out with an amazing knowledge of wine."
Although the school is intended as a private college, Corrigan is hoping that there will be scholarships available for people who might make fine chefs but have never had the opportunity or encouragement. "I have met some lovely people in my life," he says. "I left school at 14. My local farmer, Frank Joyce, paid me the same as anyone else when I was 12, 13, because I worked harder than everyone else. He was tough but fair. That kind of life experience leaves a legacy in your head. "When I was starting out at Lyndsey House, Richard Goodhew, an old Harrovian, lent me £120,000 to open my restaurant; where would I be without that loan 19 years ago? There are a lot of people out there in their mid-20s who are lost, and maybe this will be an opportunity for them to turn their lives around. The self-made guy? I'm it. I'll pass on that knowledge to other people. I left home at 18 with a rucksack and cracked it. Frankly, I could be retired now in the South of France if I wanted to be, like a lot of chefs. At 45 you start to become useless in the kitchen. It's a youthful game, so you have to evolve into a mentor and teacher or you are redundant."
Corrigan is determined that the school will address the problems that he sees in Irish culinary education. "The graduates of the cooking schools now come out with a large repertoire of theory and no practical skills as such. There's a desperate need for some master culinary training. Historically we did well with Shannon and Cathal Brugha Street, but many of those great teachers have died or retired and I don't think the skills have been passed on to the next generation. Here the students will be able to run out to the potager, pick what's ready, and build menus around what's available. We'll instil a sense of seasonality."
As the development of plans for the school gets underway, Corrigan is hands-on in terms of everything else happening on the estate. "I have to be here because I have put my life's earnings into this project, and not to be here would be rather stupid. It's about trying to make your pound go a lot further than if you were just talking over the phone."
That means that guests at Virginia Park Lodge weddings can expect to find Corrigan, assisted by local chefs and some of his team from London, cooking for them, and may even - as we did - have their orange juice squeezed for by the man himself.
Car: smart or scruffy?
In London I drive a Range Rover, but I soon figured out that didn't go down well here. I've got a battered old Audi estate instead.
Meat: burger or steak?
I don't like the graininess of burgers; it's a texture thing. I'd go for thinly sliced Hereford beef, medium rare.
Family business: pass it on?
My children have a right to earn a living in the business, but not to inherit it.
Flowers: exotic blooms or local blossom?
We spend £60,000 per year on flowers for the London restaurants. We're growing the flowers for London in Cavan in a special poly-tunnel.
Wine: conventional or biodynamic?
At Corrigan's and Bentley's, 70pc of our wines are biodynamic or natural, and we consistently get recognised as having great wine lists.
Oysters: where from?
At Bentley's we use only British and Irish oysters, never French.
Foam in the kitchen: for or against?
When I walk into a kitchen and hear that noise, my heart sinks.
Where's home: Ireland or England?
Ireland is my home, but my business interests are in London. I have the best of both worlds.