Bird of Paradise - a fascinating house in Meath
Jeni Glasgow left Dublin in her 20s, because she felt it was too 'parochial'. Now she's back, happily running a restaurant in a small town and living in the countryside.
Jeni Glasgow's fascinating house in County Meath is full of interesting objects; there are collections of glass, collections of heads, and pieces from the Far East, but most intriguing of all are the many birds, which come in all sorts of guises.
There are paintings of birds, there are wooden and ceramic birds, but what predominates are stuffed, real birds in glass domes, which abound throughout the house. "I've a little bit of a bent for all things dead and stuffed," the petite thirtysomething says with a laugh, adding, "I love birds - I think I got it from my father. He knew all the garden birds and taught me. He rescued an injured hawk once. I've always been fascinated by birds."
A psychologist would probably have a field day with Jeni's obsession with ornithology - particularly birds trapped in domes - and find parallels between them and the fact that, as she says herself, she "ran away" - flew? - to New York in 1995. She was in her mid 20s, and had had a varied career which took in a stint at art college, some modeling for photographic legend Mike Bunn, fashion styling, public relations, publishing, and even running market stalls. "I was the good only child, then all hell broke loose," she notes of her career, in which she flitted from one job to another before heading off.
Whatever the deep-seated reason behind it, heading Stateside was a good decision, and not only paved the way for her current career as a restaurateur, but New York was also where she met her husband/business partner Reuven Diaz. "The minute I arrived in New York, I felt more at home than I had ever felt at home," Jeni insists. " I had always struggled with the smallness of Dublin; that parochial feeling. In New York, you don't feel that."
She got work with a very high-end catering/event management company called Cafiero Lussier, and cut her teeth organizing posh dinner and supper parties for a client list that included Christy Turlington and Debbie Harry. The parties were held in the celebrities' own homes. The celebs were, she says, as you'd expect of people with vast amounts of money, very demanding, but the work was a fantastic apprenticeship for a future career as a restaurateur.
"No-one in New York had just one job and I also worked for a milliner who told me she needed me to 'fight her fires'," Jeni notes with a laugh.
After five years in Manhattan, she met Reuven, who is half Japanese, half Filipino, and had been raised in a variety of countries - South Africa, Thailand, Japan, the Philippines and the States - as his father worked with Unicef. Serendipitously, they met in a restaurant. "It was in January 1999, at a mutual friend's birthday party in a great restaurant, Grange Hall in the West Village. Sadly, it's no longer there," Jeni says.
They got on famously, but as in all the best love stories, the path of true romance didn't run smoothly; at the end of the night, Jeni told Reuven she was going on a road trip with a friend to Los Angeles. They exchanged business cards, but she promptly lost his. A few days after she arrived in LA, she got a delivery of an amazing bunch of flowers from Reuven and she couldn't even thank him. It was six weeks before she found his card and they finally met. Reuven didn't waste any more time; shortly afterwards, he whisked her off to Cape May, produced a ring and proposed. The proposal itself is tinged with bittersweet memories; Jeni came home to see her parents and, while she was here, her father received a formal letter from Reuven, asking for Jeni's hand. He replied, but sadly by the time Reuven received the reply from Jeni's dad, her father had died from a pre-existing heart condition. Fortunately, he had given the pair his blessing and they married at the end of that year.
The couple continued to work in the States; Jeni at the event management company and Reuven as a high-end contemporary-furniture designer, but by the end of 2001, New York had begun to lose some of its gloss.
"It was a combination of things - the thought of my mother, Mo, on her own, as I'm an only child, and also 9/11 had happened," Jeni explains. "Things had changed, the feeling was different."
Jeni and Reuven decided to up sticks and come back. Reuven, who had always been a keen cook, got work as a chef and the couple made regular trips across Europe with Mo, looking at old, decrepit properties, hoping to find one with the potential to be transformed into a guesthouse/restaurant. Nothing presented itself as the ideal property and Jeni found herself saying to Reuven, "'Maybe we should knuckle down and find something closer to home'. And you know what? Even making that decision was a relief," she explains.
To start with, finding something more local was easier said than done. They bought an old Citroen van and toyed with stationing it in a courtyard on the fort in Drogheda and starting a food business out of it. However, before that plan could be fully developed, Reuven who was at that stage cheffing in The Waterside in Termonfeckin, got an interesting phone call. It was from a property developer who said he had a lovely property in Drogheda, and would Reuven be interested in taking it over? There was one seeming disadvantage; it was situated in the middle of a housing estate. "I know a lot of people say 'location, location, location'. Like them, I would have pooh-poohed it, but Reuven said 'let's give it a whirl'," Jeni says, giving credit where it's due. Reuven's instincts were right; the restaurant, Eastern Seaboard, took off immediately.
Their aim was to create a really good 'neighbourhood restaurant', based on all the great restaurants they'd eaten in in the US, using local produce where possible. They've obviously achieved it, as people from far and wide have become regulars. Jeni describes the menu as American bistro, and they've become famous for their steak salads, chicken wings -"we do them lollipop style," says Jeni - and seasonal specials. Reuven cooks, while Jeni is front-of-house and, to her great pleasure, other amazing things have taken off, quite apart from the menu.
"It's not simply about running a restaurant. It's about the layers," she says. "Like, last week I was asked to do the flowers at a wedding, because the couple liked the flower arrangements in the restaurant so much. We do a great cheese board and lately we've been asked to supply cheese boards to weddings. I feel like we're playing, having fun, trying new things, seeing if they'll work."
Three years ago, they got the idea of opening a bakery next door and already it has a fanatical following for its American-style baked goods. A baker friend of theirs from New York, Craig Thomson, came over and taught the staff his repertoire, which includes brownies, Boston cream pie, banana bread, and carrot and olive oil cake.
"They come to the restaurant for a meal and then head to the bakery for coffee and cake," Jeni explains. "It's been so nice to have the bakery as another chapter in the story."
The bakery is called The Brown Hound bakery, after their much loved and very lovable, if excitable, chocolate Labrador, Ozzie. Jeni, Reuven and their two sons Finlay (12) and Saul (10) are very much into their dog; there's even a Groucho Marx quote written on the wall of the reading room of their house acknowledging the value of both books and dogs - "outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend/Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read".
Ozzie, a four-year-old rescue dog has the full run of the house, which the family have lived in for the last five years; they rented it for the first four, and got to buy it last year. Delightfully, it's literally across the yard from Jeni's childhood home, where Mo still lives.
"We moved here when I was 11," Jeni recalls. "I remember the day we came to view our house. It was a cold, bleak winter's day, the house was derelict and the doors were swinging open, and I remember my mother saying, 'Eric, I love it, I want it'."
Mo's home is one of four adjoining stone buildings dating from the early 19th Century, which surround a courtyard that is dominated by a clock tower. The owners of one of the other houses decided to move to Portugal five years ago and they put their house on the market; there were no buyers, so they allowed Jeni and Reuven to rent. Last year - by which time, the price had dropped considerably - the couple were able to afford to buy. They're thrilled to be so near to Mo - the boys adore her and treat her house as a second home.
"She's amazing; she has relentless energy, we wouldn't be what we are without her" Jeni says with feeling.
The stone buildings, which date from the 1700s, consist of two storeys; the lower floors were used as stables, while the upper floors were the living quarters for the servants of the nearby big house. Jeni and Reuban haven't done anything yet with the upper floor, or the clock tower, which is part of their property; at the moment, they have ample space on the ground floor. They have a kitchen, bathroom, three bedrooms, an office/guestroom, the reading room and a very large living room.
Jeni's bedroom is very sparsely furnished, and that's deliberate. "The rest of my life is so crazy, the bedroom needs minimal furniture, for complete relaxation," she says.
However, the same cannot be said of the rest of the house, which is decorated with a wealth of interesting furniture, textiles and textures, all against a backdrop of mainly grey walls. "I'm a big fan of grey," she notes.
She's also a fan of skips - "I never pass a skip without checking it out," she says - salvage yards and, surprisingly, TK Maxx. "It's like the modern-day flea-market," she says, pointing out mirrors and baskets she has bought there.
Friends have also given her pieces - the kitchen is home to a huge collection of heads. "They were a 40th-birthday gift from my friend Deirdre Macken, of Se Si. I had admired them in her house, and she arrived with them all packaged up. I treasure them."
There's a lot of wit and humour in her decor, like the Marx quote. She also has a slightly abstract sculpture of a horse in her hall - her explanation for its presence? "A lot of my neighbours here in Meath have horses, so I say I'm keeping up with the Joneses with my horse, only he doesn't require food, exercise or vet bills," Jeni says with a laugh.
And then there are her birds, mostly contained in glass domes. But an interesting development is about to take place; she plans to remove all the domes.
Could this too be a metaphor for Jeni's current state of mind? Once so anxious to get away, yet now that she's free to live wherever she pleases, she's happy to be back in the very place she ran away from?
"Mum and I often talk about it - how she and Dad used to say 'Jeni's gone, she'll never come back.' The irony of it - here I am, back with family, children, and glad to be."
Eastern Seaboard Bar & Grill and Brown Hound Bakery, 1 and 2 Bryanstown Centre, Drogheda, Co Louth, tel: (041) 980-2570/(041) 893-3792, or see glasgow-diaz.com