Two cafes behind Ireland's food revolution

The Fumbally and Foodgame are nurturing the next generation of food businesses

It’s no accident that the giant letters that should spell out Fumbally, above the stoves in the Dublin 8 cafe of that name, are often rearranged to read Fambully. It was La Bum Fly the day I visited recently, and All My Buf when our photographer called in, but the family moniker suits it best.

A stream of culinary and hospitality talent has passed through this convivial spot, where crates of vegetables, cookbooks and bottles of olive oil line one wall, in a haphazard but artful display, and a Please Share Your Tables sign hangs on a pillar by the mismatched wooden tables and chairs.

But although many of the chefs, servers and managers who have worked there have moved on and started their own food businesses, they are still part of the Fumbally family, along with those who can’t quite bear to tear themselves away.

The loyalty that this special place engenders is largely down to its owners, Aisling Rogerson, a Trinity College languages and sociology graduate from Dublin, and Luca D’Alfonso, a half-Italian, half-Brazilian import from Tuscany, who came to Ireland 15 years ago and never left. “I came over to learn the language that I haven’t learned yet. That’s why I’m still here,” he says wryly.


Some of the most creative minds in Irish food have worked at The Fumbally, and it continues to attract top-notch talent. The chef and culinary-events creator Katie Sanderson says: “The Fumbally was this beautiful turning point in my career. The way Ash and Luca set it up, it gives you space to be free, experiment, try new things.

“I met Jasper, my partner, on my first day working in the kitchen. We plotted up the foundations of the Dillisk Project, the small restaurant we started in a old boat shed in Connemara,while working in The Fumbally.

I go away and pick new bits up and try new things, but the Fumbally is somewhere that always calls me back

I feel like I’ve never really left. I go away and pick new bits up and try new things, but The Fumbally is somewhere that always calls me back.”

The cafe, a vibrant, eclectic space, is open for breakfast and lunch, serving healthy, wholesome food that has a strong personality, and dinner once a week, on Wednesdays, when anything goes. The menus are created by the team of five chefs, and the entire business is a collaborative venture, where opinions are sought and valued.

"We've always been super supportive of our staff. We try to make sure that we're doing the best that we can in The Fumbally to provide for what they want from a career," Rogerson says, emphasising that the philosophy goes for those who stay as well as for those who move on and set up their own businesses.
"It's very important for us to convey how much they mean to us, the people who don't go off and open their own thing. We are 100 per cent fully supportive of those who do, but we are also so appreciative of the people who stay and help us to build the community even further."

Rogerson and D’Alfonso originally met at Rogerson’s sister’s wedding, discovered a shared interest in getting involved in the food business, and hatched a plan to open a falafel shop.

Rogerson ditched a “God-awful marketing job”, and D’Alfonso, who had been working at the Amnesty International cafe in Temple Bar in Dublin, after a spell behind the deep-fat fryer at Tommy’s fish-and-chip shop in Cootehill, Co Cavan, also found himself at a loose end when the cafe closed.

But the falafel shop had to wait. For five years they honed their catering skills on the festival circuit while also running the cafe at Dublin Food Co-Op. “We just launched into doing the festivals together and had loads of fun. Just with a big gang of mates, driving around in our vans, all around Ireland for the summers . . . and every penny that we earned, we used to go travelling, to get inspiration,” Rogerson says.

We would go to New York, Barcelona, Sicily, Amsterdam, London. We brought back loads of ideas, and it was those ideas that formed the Fumbally

“The two of us went off every year for five years; we would go to New York, Barcelona, Sicily, Amsterdam, London. We brought back loads of ideas, and it was those ideas that formed The Fumbally.”

The duo’s partnership has always been a business, not romantic, one. “There’s no way we’d still be together if we were in a relationship,” Rogerson says as D’Alfonso laughs. There’s no doubting the closeness of the relationship, though, and they tend to finish each other’s sentences in the way that those who spend a lot of time together tend to do, without even noticing.

A shared vision of what they want to achieve at The Fumbally is the glue in their relationship. “We want to build a community of people who care about the food they’re eating, who want to come back because they enjoy the space. Somewhere you can meet people and where things can happen. There are lots of people in the creative realms – artists, musicians – who come and spend hours in here, because it is free seating and we never ask anyone to move on from a table,” Rogerson says.

As well as the cafe, the pair run Fumbally Stables, a creative hub in an adjoining building they have bought (they rent the cafe space), where they run events, and classes in everything from vinegar-making to yoga, and where their development kitchen is located.

“We found that The Fumbally was taking most of our time and we weren’t learning any more. We were just working and creating amazing dishes and improving our skills, but we had stopped learning,” D’Alfonso says. “There is so much to learn in this food world. And we needed a space for it.”

The additional space has also been used by Fumbally alumni, to run classes, pop-ups and events, keeping it in the family yet again.

But even in the closest families there will be those who want to stretch their wings, so how do Rogerson and D’Alfonso feel when they see people who have worked with them leave to set up on their own?

Everybody has a kind of growing curve, and some want to go, some want to stay, some want to share their time

“Ah, that’s brilliant,” D’Alfonso says. “It’s great to help them in any way we can. Everybody has a kind of growing curve, and some want to go, some want to stay, some want to share their time.”

Rogerson adds: “While we might be the conductors of the orchestra here, they’re the ones playing the music. They’re the ones who have the talent to bring it, and they’ve brought us so much. And we don’t want to come across as being this place that, you know, sets people up and then sends them off . . .”

D’Alfonso takes up the narrative, as so often happens between the pair. “And they compose the music as well. Those people have made The Fumbally what it is. They developed it with us. They gave us so much – probably more than we could give them back. That is our message.”


Scéal Bakery

The alphabet dictated that Shane Palmer and Charlotte Leonard Kane, who run Scéal Bakery, in Glasnevin in Dublin, were assigned places next to one another on the first day of their BA in culinary arts, at Dublin Institute of Technology in 2010 "and we haven't left each other's side since", they say. 
The couple worked together at Rustic Stone and Fade Street Social, Dylan McGrath's Dublin restaurants, during their four years at college, and completed placements in the UK – Leonard Kane at Petersham Nurseries, on the edge of London, and Palmer at River Cottage HQ, in Dorset.

They are also Fumbally alumni: Palmer worked there during his final year of college and again more recently; Leonard Kane has been involved in events at Fumbally Stables.

Last year a quest to learn how to make great bread and pastries led them to San Francisco, where they spent a year immersed in the city's sourdough culture. 
They set up Scéal Bakery in January, in a compact prefab next to the commercial garden at Elmhurst Cottage Farm, in Glasnevin, and now supply breads and pastries to markets – Dublin Fusion, at Dublin Food Co-Op on the second Sunday of the month, and Dublin Flea Market on the last Sunday of the month – as well as the cafes Proper Order, in Smithfield, and Fia, in Rathgar.

Palmer makes the sourdough breads, a labour of love that can be a three-day process, and Leonard Kane makes the laminated pastries, a breakfast selection of croissants, pains au chocolat, Danishes, cruffins (croissant-muffin combinations) and morning buns (a cinnamon-roll hybrid they learned in San Francisco). 
Those jobs in the UK, just before they tackled their final year, changed them fundamentally as chefs, they both say.

“It transformed the way I looked at food; they have a walled garden, and they use seasonal ingredients,” Leonard Kane says of her time at the Michelin-starred restaurant set in a greenhouse on a working market garden next to the River Thames.

River Cottage were baking fresh bread every day and teaching foraging courses, and all the stuff that I grew up with as a kid in Laois but had forgotten about

Palmer was in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage HQ at same time. “They were baking fresh bread every day and teaching foraging courses, and all the stuff that I grew up with as a kid in Laois but had forgotten about, and it brought it all back to me.

“I realised that the kind of cooking we were doing in Dublin was just dressing up fancy ingredients and overseasoning things, and it wasn’t true to what I wanted to do,” he says.

“When we both came back after those experiences we couldn’t settle anywhere. There wasn’t anything that attractive to us until we had lunch in The Fumbally,” Palmer says.

For them, too, The Fumbally has been pivotal in their careers. Plans are being hatched to make their bread and pastries available to buy there, and Palmer does a monthly sourdough class at the Stables.

Elmhurst Cottage Farm

In a hidden corner of Glasnevin, in north Dublin, is a little bit of heaven where fields of barley, oats and potatoes grow, and the hum of city traffic is replaced by birdsong. At the edge of this urban oasis is Elmhurst Cottage Farm, a pretty house on a one-acre plot with three polytunnels, an orchard, hen runs, vegetable beds and fruit bushes.

Since January, it has been home to Rossa Cassidy, his wife, Nadja Friemuth-Cassidy and their children, six-year-old Mia and two-year-old Samir. Before taking over the farm, Cassidy, who is from Harold’s Cross, was the manager at The Fumbally.

Now the couple are clearing, planting and readying their plot for the growing season, with the aim of selling produce at markets, supplying independent cafes, and setting up a veg, eggs and bread-basket scheme along with Scéal Bakery, which is also located on the farm.

“For the first year, we’re just letting the land do its thing and seeing what’s there,” Cassidy says. They took over the plot from friends who had spent eight years there before moving to Japan.

“We have loads of plans and loads of things we want to do, but for the first year we’re seeing what the land is giving us. There are 40 apple trees on this little space and 10 pears on the back wall. We’re growing loads of sage and rosemary and chives, and we’ve planted potatoes, strawberries, onions and garlic chives, and we’re starting our tomatoes and aubergines and all that sort of thing now.”

The farm is not certified organic, “but we’re doing everything 100 per cent naturally”, Cassidy says. That includes pest control, some of which is in the hands, or beaks, of two handsome Indian runner ducks. “They’re used on vineyards, where they go and collect slugs and slug eggs. Those guys, and hopefully their babies, will help us with our slugs.”

The farm is not yet open for business – and both it and the bakery are on private land, so they’re not open to the public – but they hope to have crops ready to sell at markets this summer. And they are already supplying some produce to the Fumbally.

‘I got tired of designing cafes for other people’

Laura Caulwell, who is about to leave the Fumbally, talks about her experience there

“I’m from Dublin, and worked in the design industry for seven years after college. I’d always been into food, and I finally got tired of designing cafes and menus for other people and decided it was time to do something about opening my own.

“I quit my job and signed up to a three-month course at Ballymaloe. Within a week of finishing, I was on a trial at The Fumbally, terrified of a real-world kitchen. Luca still jokes about the seven-hour soup I made on my first day.

“I’ve worked at The Fumbally for over two years, and it has been life changing. The environment is warm and nurturing. I’ve changed and developed both as a cook and as a person in the time I’ve been here. At The Fumbally you’re surrounded by passionate, open-minded and encouraging people from all sorts of backgrounds, so it’s a melting pot of creativity.

It took me quite a while to open up properly and get comfortable with such confident, happy folk, but once I did I realised that I had become one of them

"It took me quite a while to open up properly and get comfortable with such confident, happy folk, but once I did I realised that I had become one of them. 
"There's no hierarchy within The Fumbally kitchen. We are currently five chefs, with different levels of experience but with completely equal levels of responsibility. It's an amazing team to be a part of.

“I’m so glad that The Fumbally took me on, as I wouldn’t be who I am now. And I wouldn’t be embarking on my next adventure. Storyboard is the project of Jamie Griffin, whose background is in coffee. He’s taking me on as the cook for his new cafe in Islandbridge, opening in July.

“Ash and Luca have been the most fabulous bosses, colleagues, role models and friends imaginable. I feel like I’m breaking my own heart by leaving The Fumbally, but we all have to grow up and fly the nest at some point. And nobody ever really leaves.”


The Fumbally isn't the only Dublin food business that acts like a magnet for a certain type of creative and ambitious young person looking for a career in food.
Ross Staunton was living in Sydney, and back home in Dublin on holidays, when he spotted a premises to let on South Lotts Road, in Ringsend. A plan was hatched, and on September 26th, 2010, he opened the doors of Foodgame, his coffee house.

Setting out to re-create the type of community cafe that he had enjoyed working in when he was in Australia, Staunton has made Foodgame a place where the barista knows your name as well as your order, and the food is all about finding good ingredients and then cooking them, right in front of the customer.

I always say to my team to leave their problems at the door. We have to be cheery, no matter what. And I always bang on about it being fun

"I always say to my team to leave their problems at the door. We have to be cheery, no matter what. And I always bang on about it being fun. It's not overly cheffy – casual atmosphere, good ingredients and an emphasis on having fun," he says.
"We tried everything in that opening year: breadmaking classes, cookery demonstrations, pop-up dinner nights, private parties, outside catering . . . If you were paying, we did it."

The determination to succeed paid off, and Foodgame has become a success story with a staff roster that reads like a who's who of young Irish food entrepreneurs.
"I think self-starters are attracted to Foodgame for a number of reasons. It is not your typical cafe, in that our kitchen is in the middle of the cafe, and this allows the chefs to be part of the action, which is crucial," Staunton says.

“We are also in a very vibrant area, both for food and tech, which means it is a cutting-edge area to work in. I actively encourage staff to come up with new recipes and fun marketing ideas, and we implement them, so I suppose this gives them confidence.”

When staff hand in their notice to go it alone I feel two things: genuine excitement and a sense of pride

How does the father of three feel when his protégés tell him they’re moving on? “When staff hand in their notice to go it alone, I feel two things: genuine excitement for them as they head on to their adventure and a sense of pride that they decided to go it alone after learning the ropes at Foodgame. I stay in regular touch with all the crew that have already gone it alone.”

Staunton reckons that about 20 per cent of his staff go on to open their own food businesses, and he reckons he can identify the ones who will do so. “I honestly think I can spot if someone has what it takes within a couple of hours of meeting them. There is a very evident energy, smile and enthusiasm that sets them apart. And they ask questions all the time.”

When Richard Gleeson joined the staff, in 2012, his experience as a chef – he had worked with Skye Gyngell and at the Ottolenghi cafes in London – led to a series of pop-up dinners at the cafe. The Tipperary man then worked as a tutor at Dublin Cookery School, while looking for premises to open his own place in Dublin. But in 2016 his sights turned to his home town of Fethard, where he is now in business at Dooks Fine Foods, which he describes as a delicatessen-style restaurant.

Now nine months in business, Dooks will further expand this year, with evening service planned for the restaurant, as well as cookery demonstrations and catering.

Emilia Rowan, a DIT culinary-arts graduate, worked at Foodgame while pursuing further studies in photography. She says her cooking “flourished there, with the freedom to create daily specials with a focus on fresh Irish produce”. After a spell working as a food stylist on photo shoots in New York, a stint in the kitchen at Fade Street Social, and a culinary adventure in South America, she spotted a gap in the market in Dublin for healthy food in a casual setting.

With her business partner, John Roche, she has opened three Cocu restaurants in three years. “The name is a play on ‘counter culture’, referring to the fact that they serve fast, over-the-counter food, using local, seasonal, healthy ingredients,” she says.

John Downey was a recent graduate of Ballymaloe Cookery School, and had spent a year as a bicycle courier in Melbourne, when he found himself at Foodgame, “sitting at the one table outside, in the sunshine, sipping a flat white, and I was immediately a fan of the place”.

After an interview with the boss – Downey says it was “a laid-back chat covering everything from what I thought about different food destinations in Australia to where I drank coffee in Dublin and what sort of music I listened to” – he got the job, “despite being by far the squarest person ever to interview” for it.

After Foodgame, Downey started the Ramen Asian street food chain in Cork with business partner, Dave Dwyer, and at the beginning of this year he was involved with the team that opened OhMyDonut! in Cork, which has a second branch in the pipeline.

The Foodgame food-business incubation story continues, with the estate agent turned chef Reg White, who left the kitchen at Foodgame to explore the art of Neapolitan pizzamaking at flour + water in San Francisco, hoping to open his own pizza place in Dublin. He’s back in the kitchen at South Lotts Road now, while he looks for the right premises.

We will chop, fillet and carve fresh produce to make healthy vegetarian dishes, and press them into pretty juices

Adam Close, another Ballymaloe and Foodgame graduate, plans to open the Green Hook, “a seasonal cafe, juice bar and vegetable slaughterhouse”, on Charlotte Way, off Harcourt Street, later this summer, when planning permission for alterations is finalised.

The vegetable slaughterhouse will “treat fruits and vegetables as a butcher would meat”, Close says. “We will chop, fillet and carve fresh produce to make healthy vegetarian dishes, and press them into pretty juices.”