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Cooking the books

THE first rule of the cook-book club? Book early! Maia Dunphy discovers a new foodie phenomenon which brings gourmets face to face with the top chefs, their words and their culinary wisdom .

Last Monday night I witnessed something that has become as rare a thing in Dublin as noisy, crane-filled building sites, waiting lists at car showrooms and people queuing around the corner to buy a limited-edition handbag for five grand.

I saw a packed restaurant. Full to capacity, bustling and buzzing on a Monday night

But this was no typical evening out, this was my very first experience of The Cookbook Club. Yes, exactly what you're thinking -- like a book club, only with cookery books, and you get to eat, too.

Like all good ideas, this one is ingeniously simple; on the first Monday of each month, the club meets in a swanky Dublin eatery, and a celebrity chef hands over one of their cookbooks to the restaurant's head chef from which to put together a three-course menu.

For €35 (not including drinks), diners can enjoy a choice of three starters, main courses and desserts, plus a meet and greet with the celebrity chef and the opportunity to ask the questions you usually shout at the television during cookery programmes.

Last Monday, in the plush surroundings of the Verre en Vers restaurant at the Radisson Blu hotel in Dublin's Golden Lane, Derry Clarke of the Michelin-starred l'Ecrivain restaurant, and myriad TV shows, was the special of the day.


The Cookbook Club is the brainchild of Elaine Walsh, a writer who swapped the cobbles of Carrigstown (she was a scriptwriter on Fair City if that's too cryptic) for a new life as an entrepreneur, and this -- which she tells me is just one of her many new business ideas -- is destined for great things.

Elaine has an extraordinary enthusiasm for life, and her love of food combined with a passion for storytelling, socialising (and a healthy dose of gossip) has resulted in the Cookbook Club.

"I did all this without any grants or start-up loans or savings. I wanted to have my own business. I'm neither a restaurateur, a chef or even a brilliant home cook, nor am I trying to be. I've literally come out of nowhere because of my passion for cookbooks and the Irish chef authors who are the ambassadors of this Irish cuisine food revolution."

The event begins with an introduction by Elaine, who then hands over to the chef du jour. Derry Clarke (whose Michelin-starred food would usually set you back more for one course than we paid for three) proceeded to give us a few words about the book and the menu chosen from it. Then, as we ate, he worked the room in his inimitable style, coming around to every table to chat to all 100 diners and answer any questions anyone had (but he still wasn't able to explain to me why nothing I cook ever looks like the photos in the books).

There appeared to be several 'regulars' who Elaine welcomed by name, and by the end of the night, the atmosphere was not unlike a wedding, (a good wedding mind -- one of the ones where everyone mingles, swaps seats and chats. Not one of the bad ones where everyone fights over the first taxi home).

Since its inception in September 2010, such gastro-luminaries as Darina Allen, Paul Flynn, Catherine Fulvio, Clodagh McKenna, Kevin Dundon, and Donal Skehan (I'm surprised his mum let him stay up that late), to name but a few, have taken part in the club.


Despite the number of people all being served simultaneously, the food on Monday was impressive; starters ranged from soup to beef carpaccio to a prawn and lobster medley, and mains from pork belly to seabass to gnocchi. Three impressive dessert choices finished the menu off perfectly (for those of us who could finish it all). There was no hint that anything was rushed or mass-produced -- which is another brilliant aspect of the idea; with the chef behind the recipes present all night, the kitchen are loathe to let anything out on a plate that doesn't look like it should. Which is good for everyone, but especially the diners.

The astonishing social aspect of The Cookbook Club was something I hadn't expected. It has been filling many social and food column inches, but it really did feel entirely different to a typical restaurant experience.

Diners are seated in groups, so, even if you were alone, you wouldn't be for long and Elaine takes great pride in matching up guests on suitable tables; it seems to be as much about the company and conversation as it is about the food.

After dinner, we all spilled out into the hotel bar, people who were strangers a few hours ago were swapping numbers and buying drinks for each other.

I spoke to two groups of young mums, who make The Cookbook Club their monthly catch-up night out, and even heard a whisper that there have been a few hook-ups at previous evenings. Single foodies out there, take note. I think this could catch on.

www.thecookbook club.ie Check website for confirmation of the April event