Neven Maguire’s women: ‘This place wouldn’t be a success without them’
Carmel McGirr heads a chef team of 16 at MacNean House – and just four are men
Neven Maguire with head chef Carmel McGirr (right) and the rest of the team at MacNean House in Blacklion, Co Cavan. Photograph: Alan Betson
Take a look at the photograph above, and you may think there is something unusual about it. You would be absolutely correct. There are more than twice as many men as women working as professional chefs in Ireland. But there’s a corner of the country that bucks that trend, and where women definitely rule the roost and the kitchen.
Carmel McGirr was recently appointed by Neven Maguire as head chef at his MacNean House and Restaurant in Blacklion, Co Cavan. After almost 11 years in that kitchen, the local woman from Tempo in Co Fermanagh, now heads a chef team of 12 women .... and just four men.
Out front, in the 45-seat dining room, Bláithín McCabe is general manager and sommelier. McGirr and McCabe are “two diamonds”, their boss tells me.
“The two of them are leaders, they’re grafters, and this place wouldn’t be a success without them, it’s as simple as that,” he says.
McCabe, who studied to be a chef before moving front of house and completing a hospitality management degree, has been at MacNean House for 12 years. “I’m part of the furniture at this stage,” she says.
She has also worked at L’Ecrivain in Dublin, and the two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles in Scotland.
Working behind the scenes is the woman Maguire calls his “guardian angel”, office manager and PA Andrea Doherty. There too, for three days a week, you’ll find the person Maguire refers to as his “rock”. Amelda, his wife of 11 years, does the accounts for the business and is responsible for the interior design of the restaurant and its 19 bedrooms, as well as being mother to six-year-old twins Connor and Lucia.
Matriarchy is nothing new to this thriving business on the Cavan/Fermanagh border. Maguire’s late mother Vera was the head chef when MacNean Bistro, as it was then called, reopened for business in 1989, having closed down in the 1970s when a car bomb on the street decimated the premises.
A car accident claimed the life of her husband Joe in 1999, leaving Vera Maguire in charge of a struggling business and a family of nine children. “It was tough. We opened for lunch every day and dinner too. We might do five [covers], we might do 20. It was so inconsistent,” Neven Maguire says.
“I’ve seen so many changes in this kitchen,” McGirr, the newly appointed head chef says, looking around the industrial steel-clad workspace where chefs are preparing lunch for almost 100 diners, who have booked weeks, months or perhaps even years in advance.
“It used to be the family kitchen. So you could have maybe five chefs working, and the family would be coming in, getting their food. Neven’s whole family lived upstairs.”
There are further changes afoot at the landmark premises that lines the main street of Blacklion. When I arrive on a recent Sunday, a family group, fizzing with expectation, are taking photographs outside the smart row of buildings that house the restaurant, the bar and lounge, with bedrooms above, and a recent addition, the cookery school.
Work has begun on an extension, which will enlarge the kitchen area, and add another five tables to the dining space. The business will close for a month next January to complete the project.
“We’ve 65 people employed now,” Maguire says. The gender balance in the kitchen has been arrived at organically, he insists. “We’ve always had a really good mixture, but this is the most [women chefs] I’ve ever had.
“I’ve always worked with women in the kitchen, and I’ve always believed that they bring calmness. There’s something unique about the team that we have now that is very unusual – there’s definitely a togetherness. It’s always been a close kitchen. We treat them like family, I learned that from my mum and dad.”
McGirr, however, dismisses my queries about gender balance in the kitchen with a no-nonsense response. “To me it doesn’t make a difference. You’re there to do a job, and it’s the same job at the end of the day. I’m used to being in a kitchen and being the only girl.”
So, there’s no difference at all?
“Well, it can be a bit chattier, an odd time. There’s a good buzz. They’re a great young team, they get on well, and they have the craic.”
McGirr met Maguire when he was teaching at Fermanagh College, and apart from a 4½–year spell working with Lorcan Cribben at Bang in Dublin, she has spent the majority of her career with him.
She is a quiet, softly-spoken person, but watching her in action, orchestrating a hectic, double-sitting Sunday lunch service, it is clear that she has no need to raise her voice to be heard. Hers is one of the most effective kitchen teams I’ve had the pleasure to observe.
The second lunch sitting gets under way at 3.30pm. At 4.06pm there are 16 empty main course plates under lights at the pass, ready for the first wave of orders – nine beef, five pork and two fish. Even at lunch these are not simple dishes, there are purees, gels, powders, foams, micro herbs and garnishes galore in addition to the proteins.
By 4.12pm the first six plates are gone, and two minutes later the double-decker pass area is clear once again – that’s 16 complex main courses plated and despatched in eight minutes. The choreography is as tight as a well rehearsed dance troupe.
Fifteen minutes into the first service, chef de partie Roisin O’Connor (26) has 18 rib-eye steaks on order in the meat section. Most requests are for well done. Cooking a steak well done, and keeping it edible, is harder than it sounds. A customer wants raw garlic with his steak, so Isobel Farrelly is slicing raw garlic, lots of it, on a mandoline.
O’Connor is, according to Neven Maguire, “one of the most consistent meat chefs I’ve ever had”. Before arriving in Blacklion 18 months ago, she worked in London for three years – at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and at Petrus, where for a time she was the only female in the kitchen.
Her counterpart on the fish section, Kate Madden (21), is from Clones in Co Monaghan. She says she “walked out of school and walked in here” – choosing a chef apprenticeship over studying science at college. She’s a former pony showjumper and modern pentathlon competitor who reached European championships level.
Sous chef Olivia Raftery is McGirr’s number two, shadowing, anticipating and oiling the wheels of motion. At one stage during lunch she is working with no fewer than nine pans and one frying pan. Having left UCD with a degree in English and geography and no idea what she wanted to do, the Castlerea native completed the Ballymaloe cookery school 12-week course, and she has worked at MacNean House for seven years.
While the steaks are flying out the door, and the fish is proving a harder sell, there is no doubt what the dessert order of the day is. Head pastry chef Stephen McFarland is stacking up a mountain of plates topped with chocolate domes. They are filled with chocolate mousse and chocolate brownie, white chocolate powder, and mini Maltesers, and are destined to have hot chocolate sauce poured over them.
McFarland (27) has been at MacNean for seven years. He was headhunted to become head pastry chef at one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants in Dubai, but after eight months in the dessert the lakelands lured him home. “They’re like my sisters, we all get on so well” he says of his female colleagues.
McFarland is engaged to Claire Beasley, who is Neven Maguire’s “right-hand woman” in the cookery school, works in the kitchen, and also brings her multimedia degree skills to bear on his many cookbooks, recipe testing and cooking for photo-shoots.
As these resumés show, this is a kitchen that is boiling over with talent and creativity, and the team is encouraged to bring both to the table. Perhaps that’s MacNean House’s point of difference.
Bláithín McCabe, talking about her two-Michelin-star experience, says that she is “respectful of what they do at that level, it’s very intense and sometimes it can take away from your personality. You almost have to put away your personality when you go in to work.”
Her MacNean front-of-house staff, also mostly female, and the team in the kitchen, suffer from no such restrictions. “If someone has a warmth about them and has sincerity about them, I can always teach them food service skills. You can’t teach someone to have a personality or to smile,” she says, smiling.