Viva la revolucion! Let food grower be the head chef
Driven by a passion for the freshest ingredients, restaurants and hotels are linking land to plate by cultivating their own produce
REGULAR readers of this column will know that we've been talking a lot in GIY about restaurants and hotels that are going one step further for their customers, linking land to plate in a very real sense by growing their own food.
I think we're seeing the stirrings of a revolution that might eventually lead to a point where, driven by a passion for the freshest and tastiest ingredients, restaurants and cafes will become food producers in their own right. And who knows, perhaps eventually the food grower will become as valued a member of the kitchen team as the head chef.
It's perhaps fitting that this should be the case in the same year that RTE aired a documentary about Myrtle Allen at Ballymaloe House, where, under her stewardship, they have been literally walking the walk on this issue since 1964.
At Ballymaloe, the produce literally came first. Myrtle's husband Ivan was first and foremost a vegetable grower, and she admitted in the documentary that she couldn't cook at all early in their marriage. Having taught herself how to do so, she eventually opened her famous restaurant at Ballymaloe House, with whatever vegetables were in season from Ivan's farm taking centre stage on the menu. Just how incredibly groundbreaking this was is shown by the fact that the mainstream is only now starting to catch up with her almost 50 years later.
Undoubtedly the cookery school that her daughter-in-law Darina established nearby has had a tremendous influence in this regard, sending chefs out around the world that have a deep understanding of where food comes from and a love of the freshest, seasonal ingredients. Famously, the first day of the intensive Ballymaloe cookery course involves the trainee chefs being sent to see the compost heap and sow seeds. It need not be said that this isn't exactly the norm in other catering colleges – but, it just might be in the future.
If Ballymaloe was at the vanguard, others are now embracing the idea that homegrown might indeed be the tastiest/freshest food for chefs to work with and for customers to enjoy. At the Cliff House in Waterford, Michelin star chef Martijn Kajuiter originally sourced vegetables from St Raphael's Centre in Youghal before starting to grow his own as well on the grounds of their beautiful hotel overlooking the bay in Ardmore.
On the west bank of the river Moy in Co Mayo, Mount Falcon chef Philippe Farineau is putting homegrown food at the centre of their offering, hiring a head gardener to feed his kitchen with the best of seasonal veg from their garden.
Homegrown food is also making its way on to the menu in casual dining restaurants, cafes and gastro pubs. I wrote here some weeks back about Harry's restaurant in Inishowen, where owner Donal Doherty has taken the unusual step of hiring a grower, Dermot Carey, and setting him the challenge of making the restaurant 100pc self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables.
Interestingly, Harry's is one of a number of restaurants, pubs and cafes making their premises available to GIY groups, bringing local food growers together in their premises and therefore harnessing the passion and knowledge for homegrown food in their community. Others doing the same include the award-winning Oarsman gastropub in Carrick-on-Shannon and Gleeson's Townhouse in Roscommon.
This week, we were delighted to sponsor a brand new GIY award at the 2013 Good Food Ireland Awards. The shortlist included the aforementioned Ballymaloe Cookery School, as well as two other fine country houses that grow their own, Ballyvolane House in north Cork and Rathmullan House in Donegal. At Ballyvolane, owner Justin Green's father Jeremy grows a huge amount of vegetables throughout the year in their vast walled garden.
For me, it was exciting that the shortlist also included restaurants in towns and cities that don't (on the face of it) have much space for food growing, including Cafe Rua in Castlebar, The Yard in Wexford and Restaurant Forty One at Residence on St Stephen's Green. Needless to say, it requires some creativity from the owners or chefs to acquire homegrown food in these circumstances – in these examples, the chefs are growing literally in their own homes, and bringing the produce to their restaurants.
That the winner of the award (PJ and Dee Betuci's wonderful Italian restaurant Toscana on Dublin's Dame Street) is a city centre restaurant in Dublin is indeed a sign of how far we've come. PJ is a passionate Italian chef, but he has the tell-tale calluses on his hands from many hours spent in the veg patch at his home in Co Wicklow.
Pasta for the restaurant is made from fresh eggs from their own hens, while regulars are often sent home with a present of a little bag of fresh salad leaves.
Restaurant waste is brought back to Wicklow to close the circle of soil fertility, while PJ has been known to stop his car on the way to work to climb a cherry tree in search of ingredients for that night's dessert. There's an authenticity then to the tagline on their menus: "Our Passion is Growing". Ours too! Viva la revolucion!
Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY