The women rewriting the Michelin restaurant narrative at the Cliff House

In a profession dominated by men, Róisín O'Connor and Alexandra Raitaneva are breaking boundaries

It's not unheard of to have an Irish woman running the kitchen at a Michelin-starred restaurant, but it is very rare. The late Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe House shattered that particular glass ceiling back in 1975. Then Danni Barry earned a star for Eipic in Belfast in 2016. And in the very top echelons, Antrim-born Clare Smyth currently has three stars, for her restaurant, Core, in London.

This week, a young Kerry woman, Róisín O’Connor, joined that elite corps when she took over as head chef at the Cliff House hotel in Ardmore, becoming the only woman chef in Ireland currently in charge of a kitchen with a Michelin star. Front of house at the restaurant, which has maintained its star since 2010, is run by Alexandra Raitaneva, who is also the head sommelier. O’Connor is 30 and Raitaneva is 24. In a profession dominated by men, these two young women are breaking boundaries and rewriting the narrative.

This is their story. And it is only just beginning.

Roisin O’Connor, head chef

"I said, okay, let me think about it. But I knew straight away, I was going to jump at the opportunity." When the House restaurant's head chef, Ian Doyle, recently decided to move on, Roisin O'Connor was offered the chance to step up, and she didn't hesitate. Despite her youth, she has banked more than a decade of experience in kitchens in France, London and Ireland, most recently at Aimsir in Co Kildare, where she was part of the launch team, before joining the Cliff House in Co Waterford as senior sous chef.


This week, a new nine-course menu, entirely of her own creation, is being served at the restaurant: it’s the equivalent of a composer unleashing a completely new symphony on a packed, and expectant, concert hall.

But the prospect of being the only woman in charge of a Michelin-starred kitchen in Ireland does not seem to faze her. “When you put it like that, it’s very daunting. But when I kind of take a step back and look at it nice and calmly, I’m just really excited. I cannot wait. I’m absolutely buzzing to get going, to be completely honest.”

'I used to wake up in the middle of the night feeling like I couldn't breathe. It was the stress of it all, I think. In that kind of high pressure level, you never feel like enough is enough'

The farmer’s daughter, an only child, from Asdee in north Kerry, is more than ready for the challenge, having worked her way up through the ranks. When she was just 17, and a first year student at Shannon College of Hotel Management, she left Ireland to do a year’s work experience at a Four Seasons hotel in Provence, and didn’t go home. “I got to do a little bit of everything, but predominantly the kitchen, and as soon as I went in there, I was like, that’s me, done.” Offered the chance to stay on, she tore up her return ticket. “There’s no better experience than learning on the job, so I stayed and never looked back. I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” she says.

In France, where she also worked in the kitchen of a five-star hotel in Courchevel in the French Alps, and then back on the Cote d’Azur, at Château Saint Martin in Vence, the groundwork for how O’Connor would deal with gender imbalance in kitchens later in her career was laid. “My experience as a woman in a male-dominated industry has been overall quite positive. In France, I worked with an equal mix of male and females, so to start my career in a gender equal environment made it easier, more normal for me going forward. Being a female chef I never felt hindered me from going for higher roles or jobs.”

A move to London came next, but like many who swim in that pond as a chef, she came close to sinking. "I always had my heart and eyes set on London as the next step," she says. After 2½ years at one-star Pétrus in Knightsbridge, part of the Gordon Ramsay group, she moved up the ladder to Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, the group's three-star flagship on Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea, having been invited to do a trial shift by Clare Smyth, then a key member of the Ramsay team, and offered a position in the kitchen.

“That was insane. Absolute insanity. I mean, both places were quite tough, in different aspects. I suppose you have to learn a lot of self discipline, you know, crazy hours, everything perfect, all the time.”

Then it all started to come undone. “I just began to struggle. I wasn’t looking after myself, with the demands of work. I got to a stage where I knew I was just going to hit the deck. I’d be walking home from work at two o’clock in the morning, and I’d feel drunk. I’d be like, woah…

“I used to wake up in the middle of the night feeling like I couldn’t breathe. It was the stress of it all, I think. In that kind of high pressure level, you never feel like enough is enough. You’re constantly going, and you don’t have time to eat, you don’t have time to get enough sleep. I was there less than a year – about six, eight months, I think. And just gradually, over the last couple of months, I knew I needed to take a step back and re-evaluate.”

The pull of home, the family farm on the shore of the Shannon estuary in north Kerry, and her parents Jim and Noreen, brought O’Connor back to Ireland. “I took a couple of months off and was asking myself if I still wanted to work in the kitchen. I had kind of lost a little bit of the grá for it because it had worn me down so much. But I said I’d give it one more shot. So I booked everywhere for [job] trials. I went to Dromoland, I went to Ashford Castle. I went to Aghadoe Heights, I went to The Europe. I came here too actually, funnily enough. All the jobs were fine, but nothing popped out at me at that time.”

It took a chance meeting with chef and restaurant proprietor Neven Maguire to lure her back into the industry, to his MacNean House kitchen in Blacklion, Co Cavan. "Everybody was pushing on, the work was at a good standard, but the atmosphere was really enjoyable. There was a little bit of music playing in the kitchen, the chefs were laughing with each other, there were jokes. Even with me walking in, brand new, they made me feel comfortable straight away. There was no who's yer one, the side-eye glances and a bit of judgment, which you can get in kitchens."

'Once we see out this year, getting our feet under ourselves in a sturdy manner, it's about pushing it to the next level and seeing what we can do'

O'Connor's ambition took her next to Aimsir in Co Kildare, drawn in by the restaurant's plan to use only Irish indigenous ingredients. "I was like, this is mad, you know, just Irish ingredients. How is this going to work? I knew it was going to be something really new and exciting. So, I threw my name in the hat and hoped for the best. And it worked out." With two Michelin stars in the bag for the team there under head chef Jordan Bailey and restaurant manager Majken Bech Bailey, O'Connor felt it was time to move on again, staying with the Cliff group but moving to Ardmore, a familiar part of the world to her.

“My mam grew up here, in Old Parish, which is about 7km from Ardmore. So we spent all our summers here and I learned to swim here.” She has aunts and uncles living locally too, and for now, the neighbouring town of Youghal is home. “I really like, any chance I can get, to be outside. I’d be swimming, doing the cliff walk and mountain hiking. And I absolutely love going home to do the turf and the lambing season. There’s no end to the list of jobs, but I love keeping active.”

But first, there’s important kitchen work to be done. She is excited about her new menu, which she describes as seasonal and simple, using good local cultivated and wild ingredients, when they’re at their best. “The relationship between the chefs and local suppliers and producers is very special here and is something I am looking forward to maintaining and building on, using the best that we can get, from as close as we can get it.” The nine-course launch menu includes snacks, bread course, crab, asparagus, halibut, beef, pre-dessert, dessert, and petit fours.

O’Connor says she has two goals she’d like to achieve in the coming months. The first “is to have a great, successful summer, and build a team that get on with each other, with similar interests, can socialise outside of work and get the work done inside”. The second goal “is keeping the star for this year, that is extremely important to me”. But the ambition doesn’t stop there. “Once we see out this year, getting our feet under ourselves in a sturdy manner, it’s about pushing it to the next level and seeing what we can do. Can we reach for the stars? There’s no end to the steps on the ladder, I hope.”

Alexandra Raitaneva, restaurant manager and head sommelier

Alexandra Raitaneva, restaurant manager and head sommelier, greets guests in a charming accent, picked up since arriving in Ardmore from Helsinki almost two years ago. Her pitch perfect ear for language means she sounds like she has been living locally all her life. “I speak Finnish and Swedish, and so growing up bilingual, I think I pick up languages quite easily and quickly. And I don’t actually hear the Irish accent myself, but guests often comment on it,” she says.

Despite her proficiency with language, some things were lost in translation though, when Raitaneva first arrived in Ireland. “People would ask me, ‘How are you?’ And I would start answering the question, and they’d walk away. I found it so confusing. Now I know it’s just your way of saying hello.”

The 24 year old was previously general manager at Ora, one of Helsinki’s top restaurants, having worked her way up the ranks since joining as a college intern. But front of house wasn’t her first love. At the age of seven she decided she wanted to be a chef, heavily influenced by her dad, Frank, who has been a sommelier and a restaurateur. Later, having graduated from culinary college, she added a front of house qualification, and continues to expand her knowledge through ongoing wine studies.

“I worked very hard, to put it lightly,” is how she explains her meteoric rise to become general manager of Ora, a Michelin one-star, by the age of 22. “I knew that the next step for me in my career would be to move abroad,” and an Irish chef she worked with in Helsinki pointed her in the direction of the Cliff House. “Everything happened quite fast,” she says, and after a two-week quarantine she became part of the team that reopened the hotel post lockdown in July 2020, joining the House restaurant as head sommelier.

Under her influence, natural and biodynamic wines have become a feature of the restaurant’s wine list. “I want to break some boundaries and I want to create something very interesting. My dad was into his big reds, classic wines, and that’s what I what I grew up with. Then when I got into hospitality myself, I fell in love with natural wine, the funkier the better.”

But for the restaurant list, she seeks out wines that are “very classic in how they are produced and how they taste. I don’t pick and choose on the criteria that it has to be natural or biodynamic. On the wine pairing, for example, I have eight wines and at least half of them would usually be natural, some in a more obvious way and some in a way that you wouldn’t think you’re drinking a natural wine, because it is so classic.”

'I find our personalities flow together quite well, we have a very similar view on what it is that we want to do, and the level that we want to do things at'

She and head chef Roisin O’Connor are working closely on beverage pairings for the new tasting menu, and they may not all be wines. “I want to break some rules when I’m doing the pairings,” Raitaneva says. In the past she has matched Bertha’s Revenge gin and tomato water with a langoustine dish, and a mushroom course with a vintage cider from Stonewell. “It’s made from two apple varieties, treated like a wine in the sense that it’s aged in oak barrels.”

A starter course on the new tasting menu features Copper Coast brown crab with lightly pickled kohlrabi, crispy sea lettuce, three cornered leek flowers, pea shoots and gorse flowers, and gorse broth split with tarragon oil. It’s a thing of great beauty, as well as pure and distinct flavours. So what does she have in mind to pair with it? “The crab will need a touch of residual sugar in the wine,” she says, and she has chosen a German wine. “It’s a Pinot Blanc, obviously the Germans would call it a Weisser Burgunder. It’s quite light in flavour, but both crab and the gorse are quite delicate, so I definitely don’t want to overpower them in any way.” The pairing is clever, and elevates both the food and the wine.

One of the changes the pair intend to bring to the restaurant is more integration between front of house and the kitchen. “It’s one of the main things we’ve discussed, the team spirit and us working as one big team. It won’t be kitchen and front of house per se, it’s going to be the House restaurant as a whole, where we can flow into the kitchen, and they can flow into the dining room, in a very kind of seamless way.

“There’s a bit more action going to happen at the tables, so some plates will be finished off in the dining room, by chefs and by front of house staff. I want the service to be elegant, but very comfortable at the same time.”

Raitaneva and O’Connor live “one street down from each other” in Youghal and are friends as well as colleagues. “I find our personalities flow together quite well, we have a very similar view on what it is that we want to do, and the level that we want to do things at.” And what level is that? “The best, to the best of our abilities, and to build a team that works to those same standards as well.”