New Traders: Nourish, Kilkenny

Cafe brings Italian flourish to Marble City

Paola Ambu: “[My partner] Michael and I are both the hardest critics of our food, and if it’s not good enough for us, it’s not good enough.” Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

Paola Ambu: “[My partner] Michael and I are both the hardest critics of our food, and if it’s not good enough for us, it’s not good enough.” Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

 

Paola Ambu first came to Ireland in 2007, decided to settle here properly in 2010, and with her partner Michael Keyes opened Nourish, a cafe near the centre of Kilkenny city, in 2012.

Four years on, the business is flourishing. She and Michael, who now live in the countryside outside the city, open the cafe from 9am to 6pm, six days a week – and she says she’s found contentment in Ireland.

“I feel complete – it’s something I learned in Ireland. I’m enjoying the moment, carpe diem, who knows what will happen tomorrow? In Italy, it’s always about looking after things for the future – but the future is now.”

Nourish is a small cafe with a loyal local customer base, where food is made fresh on the premises. It has expanded since it started: it was a takeaway when they took it over, and has gone from having five tables to nine, and employs seven people, one of them a chef. “I’ve learned about cooking – I’m a wild card – to cover anything that’s needed.”

Can-do attitude

From Lecco, a city 50km from Milan, not far from Lake Como in northern Italy, she’s the daughter of a builder, one of four sisters who grew up with the mentality “I have to work”.

“Although my mother had married at 17, and my dad looked after her, he treated us as if we were sons, always drove us. It gave us self-confidence.”

At 17 she started working in a laundrette chain and at 19 bought one of the laundrettes when her boss put it up for sale.

For the next 15 years, the laundrette – where she employed two people – was her life. “Then I felt the need of a change. I had never travelled, came here on a cycling holiday – and fell in love with Ireland.”

Mood to travel

“I didn’t speak any English and it was a challenge: I stayed with a family in Rathfarnham for a year and I worked as a housekeeper. I was happy – I was 36 and felt younger than I had in my 20s.”

A year later, she met Michael, who’s from Ballybrack in south Dublin. The couple have been together since.

Paola was still in the mood to travel and it was a few years before they settled in Kilkenny. For a year or so they lived and worked in Australia, then came back to Ireland where “we had to start from scratch”.

They lived in Kerry for a while, then moved to Kilkenny.

“Michael had a friend there, and it would be easy to commute to Dublin if we had to.

“We came here with no job, and we’ve been very lucky. After two weeks, I found a job in this cafe. It was a well-known business, a takeaway that had been open for seven to eight years. After six months, the owner decided to sell the place.

Long negotiations

“We don’t go too fancy: we’re a traditional, relaxed coffee shop.”

Their coffee is the real thing – they found an Italian coffee supplier based in Kilkenny.

Paola is lively and personable, and it’s not hard to see how she attracts customers: “I suppose it’s my being my Italian . . . although Michael says Italian people are so noisy.”

She’s learned about running a restaurant by doing: “If I don’t know how to do something, I don’t ask, I look; if I see a professional chef chopping in a different way, I learn . . . Michael and I are both the hardest critics of our food, and if it’s not good enough for us, it’s not good enough.”

The couple come to work at 7am every day: “I do the baking, he does the cleaning – the outside has to be spotless all the time. He looks after the trouble, I look after the joy.”

Now, they’re part of Kilkenny life. “Kilkenny people are very, very good, they accepted us – we’re definitely blessed to be chosen as a cafe by a lot of local people.”

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