Chad Byrne, executive chef at Killarney's Brehon Hotel, has mentored young chefs with an exuberance that has impressed everyone in the industry. Never one to sit on his hands, he is now converting a horsebox into a mobile kitchen.
"The Monday before lockdown, I was hosting the Kerry v Cork semi-final of the County Cooking Championships in front of 100 people at The Brehon Hotel. Kerry won, and great fun and food was had. Little did I know it'd be my final week working fully until just before Christmas."
During this down time, Chad says it was great to work with Meals on Wheels in Kerry, with Paddy Kevane and Junior Locke doing an amazing job running it for St Vincent de Paul. He also set up ChefvChef, an Instagram account that ran for weeks, pitting chefs against one another and highlighting artisan Irish produce.
He's had a longstanding relationship with Ability@Work Cork, a dedicated supported employment service for young people with intellectual disabilities, inviting students to help at the Chef Collab (which pairs apprentice chefs with established chefs as mentors) and CCC events, and including their families for a good night out. So he started an Insta online class, @abilitytocookireland, cooking along each week with a different student from the programme. He still continues this every Monday.
"This has been a great source of fun and, quite frankly, good for the soul, too."
Chad is also now converting a horsebox into a mobile kitchen to do great casual food. However, with funds diminishing faster than envisaged, he nervously crowdfunded the project.
"I did a video offering Zoom classes, gift vouchers, putting people's names on menus, anything to raise the capital. It smashed its target in less than 12 hours. Now the Hungry Donkey is alive and will be ready by spring. I can't wait to cook some seriously scrummy bangers."
The French Connection
Armelle Siomboing and her husband, Kenny Rorie, have since 2010 been running their popular Armelle's Kitchen in Kilcullen, Co Kildare, which grew from a micro-business selling cakes from their home to a larger premises in 2017.
"Our business was completely based on sweet treats - French pastries, macarons and cakes for weddings and special occasions. We had a very healthy business," says Kenny.
With the first lockdown, they lost 75pc of their turnover overnight.
"We had a business to save and knew we had to change what we were offering. Our sweet treats wouldn't be enough to keep the business going."
They started doing quiches and savoury crepes (ficelles picarde), a specialty from Armelle's home area of Picardy in the north of France. These quickly became popular, so they added more dishes. Their new service turned out to be a great help to local people who were isolating.
"The savoury side has kept on building, and the support has been unbelievable. It hasn't been easy because it's only the two of us working long hours, but it was our busiest Christmas yet, and having to fight for our business is what has kept us going.
"We obviously can't wait to see our families once we're allowed, but we started 2021 with a lot of hope, we've saved our business and have the peace of mind to know that we will continue doing meals and pastries for many years to come."
Johnnie and Maria Begley's delightful Connemara Greenway Cafe, located in Oughterard village between Galway and Clifden, is a beloved stop-off for people heading West and for locals who know where the good food is.
They told me how Covid has affected them.
"Little did we think, when we were honoured to win Best Cafe in Ireland at the Irish Restaurant Awards 2019, that only one year later we would be looking for a way to reopen safely," says Johnnie.
"Normally our dining room is buzzing every evening with people eating, drinking and enjoying good company and chat. In order to reopen at the end of July we took out half our seats and tables downstairs, but expanded into another floor to allow comfortable safe dining."
In early October, with restrictions in effect, they began offering a full takeaway lunch and dinner menu and found great local support.
"We normally close in January and February. But we have been busy planning for our reopening in the near-future and looking at new ideas and opportunities. We've had time to plant our own seeds for salad leaves, tomatoes, kale, and even Padron peppers.
"The provenance of our produce is extremely important to us. We are truly blessed to have wonderful producers here in our beautiful village where fresh fish, meat and cheeses are all available daily. This has made it a little easier when it comes to these unpredictable times.
"We must remain positive. Things will get better. We miss the visitors but we're delighted to have such wonderful loyal customers and staff. Roll on the good times once more - fingers crossed!"
Tricia and Marty Kelly, of the fabulous Mulroy Woods Hotel, on the Wild Atlantic Way at Milford on Donegal's Fanad Peninsula, haven't wasted their down time and look forward to relaunching their four-star hotel.
"We were one of the first hotels in Donegal to make the difficult decision to close in the first wave in March 2020. We decided to hibernate until it was once again safe to reopen, and still remain closed due to the evolving circumstances," says Tricia.
They had invested heavily in the refurbishment of their banqueting suite, which launched in 2020, and were expecting a bumper year. However, with restrictions in place they were unable to offer couples the 'dream days' that they're known for.
"People were afraid and cautious, not willing to travel, and rightly so. Given our rural location, not being convenient for the essential worker, plus no international travellers, it just didn't make sense to open. We've renovated and upgraded the hotel bedrooms and public areas and, working closely with Fáilte Ireland, we were awarded four-star status in December, which we are proud to have achieved.
"Now our focus is on reawakening Mulroy Woods as a four-star property with our trusted team on board and our local suppliers back with us, plus new offerings and food menus to excite our guests.
"It has been a very tough year for us all. However, it has afforded us the opportunity to reflect and repurpose our goals, to regroup and train, with the dream of coming back stronger together.
"We look forward to sharing that dream with our guests very soon and delivering on a warm Donegal welcome and exceptional service."