What Aimsir did next: Two Michelin-starred restaurant opens its own farm

There’s a chandelier, a dining table and some of those spindly gold chairs beloved of wedding planners in one of the four polytunnels in the garden at Cliff at Lyons, the hotel in Co Kildare that is home to two restaurants, including the Michelin two-star Aimsir.

They are not just another decorative flourish in the quest for perfection that pervades the estate. “Come into our office,” says Tom Downes, who was the first member of the kitchen team that Aimsir head chef Jordan Bailey hired. The 27-year-old arrived at Cliff at Lyons in the autumn of 2018, coming from the kitchen at Michelin three-star Maaemo in Oslo, where Bailey had been head chef.

Downes is no longer pulling on pristine chef’s whites to go to work; his uniform now is more casual, and instead of joining the team in the kitchen, his work colleague is his girlfriend, Stina Hjalmarsson. She is also a chef and they met while both were working at Maaemo.

But now, they are fulltime gardeners and soon-to-be farmers, and the driving force behind Jordan Bailey’s plans to create a much expanded garden and small farm at the property.

Visitors to Cliff at Lyons will already be familiar with the pretty raised beds and fruit trees clustered around the entrance to Aimsir. Seeing chefs clipping herbs and flowers with tiny scissors here, just prior to service, is part of the show.

But walk towards the hotel’s bedrooms and beyond, and a completely new vista is being created. As well as the four well stocked polytunnels, work is underway here on an almost two acre field, to create an extensive and ambitious vegetable and flower garden and orchard. There is a clocktower in the middle of the plot, and original estate walls partially enclosing it. A piggery, hen house and beehives are also part of the plan.

“I’ve been talking about this from day one,” Bailey says. The inspiration for the garden comes from Henne Kirkeby Kro in southern Denmark, where Bailey’s wife Majken, now general manager at Aimsir and operations manager for Cliff at Lyons, was working when they met for the first time.

Part of the Aimsir and Cliff at Lyons experience, once the project is completed, will be to visit the gardens before dining at either the Michelin-starred restaurant or at The Mill restaurant, where Sean Smith is head chef. This is where Downes and Hjalmarsson will reign, and what that fancy chandelier, table and chairs are for.

Guests can take a guided tour of the gardens to see where part of the meal they are about to order was grown, where the flowers in their guest rooms came from, and where parts of their breakfast were produced. They’ll get to clip herbs and aromatics to brew their own tea. Downes says he is looking forward to connecting with the diners in this way. “I do miss the kitchen in its own way, I think just the buzz of it. I love going to tables and explaining [dishes], I love that side of things.”

‘The things we have chosen to grow is stuff that I can’t really get from anywhere else, like all the different currents and berries, it’s so hard to find all that stuff.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
‘The things we have chosen to grow is stuff that I can’t really get from anywhere else, like all the different currents and berries, it’s so hard to find all that stuff.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Both Downes and Hjalmarsson, who is from Gothenberg in Sweden, are relative newcomers to horticulture, at least on this scale. “My family has always been very interested in growing their own vegetables. We have a house in the countryside, where my grandparents used to grow a lot of vegetables. My father is also very good at growing,” Hjalmarsson says.

Downes spent successive lockdowns working on an organic farm in Norway, and later reading up and watching YouTube videos on how to grow the crops he knew Cliff at Lyons would need.

If they have any questions, “I ask my family,” Hjalmarsson says, “and you have your garden crush,” she says to Downes, referring to Richard Perkins, a global expert on regenerative and sustainable farming.

Though they no longer work kitchen hours, the couple have put in a lot of hard graft to bring the garden to where it is now. “We’ve put a lot of time into it, especially at the start. It felt like my little baby, like at the weekend, if it was hot, I’d think, we need to go water the seedlings. I think I still carry the ways of the kitchen - I want it to look nice,” Downes says.

Work on gardens began in March, and despite delays getting seeds and compost, due to a pandemic fuelled upswing in cultivation, and the cold May weather, just three months on there is lots of produce already growing and ripening. “I have designed the new menu all around this and what’s going to be available,” Bailey says. “That’s how I have always worked with suppliers, they tell me what they have.”

Both Downes and Hjalmarsson, who is from Gothenberg in Sweden, are relative newcomers to horticulture. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Both Downes and Hjalmarsson, who is from Gothenberg in Sweden, are relative newcomers to horticulture. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Despite the size of the plot they are now cultivating, Bailey has no plans to become 100 per cent self-sufficient and will continue to support specialist Irish suppliers. “The things we have chosen to grow is stuff that I can’t really get from anywhere else, like all the different currents and berries, it’s so hard to find all that stuff.”

Downes and Hjalmarsson both see their future in the great outdoors rather than the kitchen, and are hopeful that the career change will go well for them. “It’s our first - we’ve only been gardeners since March - so for both of us it’s important that it goes well. We want to be able to come to Jordan in the kitchen and say ‘we have the things that you wanted, and for next week we will have the things that you asked for’,” Hjalmarsson says.

Being out of the fast-paced environment of the kitchen is something she says happens only occasionally, “mostly because I miss how it is to be in the kitchen if you have a great team. A good service - there’s nothing that beats it.”

“But it’s very fulfilling and enjoyable to see that we actually could grow things. We had no clue. We said to Jordan when he asked us to come, we can’t promise you anything [will grow] , but we can promise you that we will try our hardest.”