Ballyfin, a Regency mansion at the foot of the Slieve Bloom mountains near Mountrath in Co Laois, was built for the aristocratic Coote family in the 1820s. Now the luxury hotel, where Kim and Kanye honeymooned and George Clooney and Amal also visited, is home to a hospitality family – key staff members general manager Peter White, deputy general manager Claire Randall and executive head chef Richard Picard-Edwards are all alumni of Lucknam Park Hotel, a five-star country house hotel near Bath in the UK.
White has been in situ since the spring of 2021 and Randall and Picard-Edwards joined the team in April of this year. It’s not Picard-Edwards’s first visit to the property, which opened as a hotel in 2011 following a nine-year restoration which saw its complete transformation from a boys’ boarding school to a picture-perfect, 20-bedroom luxury retreat. He visited eight years ago, when the kitchen was in the hands of another UK-born chef and Lucknam Park graduate, Mike Tweedie, now leading the kitchen team in the Michelin-starred Oak Room restaurant at Adare Manor in Co Limerick.
“I was the head chef in the restaurant and he was the junior sous,” says Picard-Edwards. “Peter and Claire were both at Lucknam when I was there, and Peter approached me and asked if I’d be interested in coming here. I jumped at the chance; I knew what the property offered.”
The hotel’s eight acres of walled kitchen gardens, looked after by head gardener Kayleigh Keenan, proved to be a key attraction for the chef. “It controls our menu to a degree; everything is seasonal and it can change daily,” he says.
But to meet the expectations of the hotel’s clientele, produce from further afield is also used. “I’m a believer in, if it’s local and it’s absolutely incredible we should be using it,” says Picard-Edwards. “But I don’t think we should use it just because it’s local – it’s got to be amazing.”
For his beef, the chef has had to look a little further afield, to Higgins butchers in Sutton, Co Dublin, and the seafood is supplied by Sustainable Seafood Ireland. “I want the best and I’m hoping it’s down the road,” he says. “It’s a luxury property and I want the food to match it.”
Ballyfin is open seven days a week and, according to Picard-Edwards, the restaurant is busy throughout, serving an average of 28-30 guests a night, more at the weekend. It is not necessary to be a resident to book for dinner, although reservations are required and there is more availability outside of Friday and Saturday evenings for the €110 a la carte or €125 tasting menu.
Picard-Edwards has been joined in the kitchen by Kilkenny chef Tom Comerford. “He runs my breakfast and lunch service,” says Picard-Edwards. “Bringing him on board has been a massive help – I can concentrate on dinner service.”
Lunch at Ballyfin – part of the full-board experience most guests opt for, at daily rates ranging from north of €1,200 for a double room – is served in the Turner conservatory. Dinner, after a complimentary aperitif in one of the hotel’s sumptuous reception rooms, is served at capacious tables in the State Dining Room or the Van Der Hagen Room, overlooking the formal gardens. Food and beverage director Damien Marique, and sommelier Gary Butterfield, from Limerick, are also new to the team, having joined the staff earlier this year.
At dinner, guests can choose between a la carte or a tasting menu, both with the fine-dining bells and whistles of a series of snacks, bread course and petits fours, along with a cheese trolley. The menu is concise, with the only choice required on the a la carte being between meat or fish, but each plate is a masterfully composed symphony of flavours and textures.
“My food is classical because the food’s got to fit the environment first of all – but I would like to think it’s still exciting, and I do like complex food,” says Picard-Edwards.
He commutes regularly via Bristol and was previously head chef at the Mandarin Oriental Bittescombe Lodge.
So does the new recruit harbour Michelin ambitions for Ballyfin? “Absolutely. Absolutely,” he says with conviction. “First and foremost, the guests have got to enjoy the food and the food has got to fit the property. But yeah, I would love to have a Michelin star again.”