‘What amazed me most about moving to Ireland is the way everyone seems interconnected’
The first in a new monthly column by Russ Parsons, former food editor of the Los Angeles Times, who is currently living in Waterford
Russ Parsons: ‘I suppose it’s only natural that the webs of friendship, or at least acquaintance, in Ireland would be tighter than in the US.’
We haven’t met, but I’m almost convinced that we will. And probably soon.
One of the things that has amazed me most about moving to Ireland is the way everyone seems to be interconnected. When I meet someone at the park or at the pub, almost inevitably it seems that they know someone I already know.
In fact, that kind of pleasant surprise is what led to my most recent dinner guest. But more about that in a minute.
I suppose it’s only natural that the webs of friendship, or at least acquaintance, in Ireland would be tighter than in the US. The county where I live in Southern California has a population of more than 8 million – almost twice the entire Republic of Ireland. With that many people, it’s hard to establish any kind of intimacy.
There are many possible nodes in these webs of connections – family, church, business, sports. For a blow-in like me, the most easily accessible is the most democratic – the pub. I inherited my local, Phil Grimes Pub in Waterford, from my daughter and son-in-law who moved to Ireland a couple of years before me.
It’s a grand place, with an international selection of beers on tap and a nice line in Irish whiskeys. But as with most great pubs, the real draw is the people.
I’d stopped in occasionally on previous visits, but not nearly enough to become a regular. So I was surprised when I walked in last summer and the owner, Tom Ryan, greeted me as if I had been in only the week before.
When he introduced me around, everyone seemed to know my daughter and son-in-law. “Ah yeah, Sarah and Mike are grand.” It kind of made me wonder how much time the kids had been spending there before the babies started coming.
Make one friend in Ireland and you’ve made five or 10 more, it seems
And then someone mentioned that they knew where we were staying. “You’re in Cleo’s place on Poleberry, right?” Another said: “Brilliant. Such a lovely neighbourhood.”
It turned out that two people at the bar had grown up a couple of doors down.
I quickly was invited to join a regular Tuesday night group of gentlemen of my vintage for chats and craic, which became one of the highlights of my week.
Make one friend in Ireland and you’ve made five or 10 more, it seems.
Without being able to stop in to Philly’s for the past five months, I’ve been living on the interest of those connections I made back in the “before days.” Which brings me in a roundabout way to that dinner.
One night a friend from the pub texted me that her best friend since crèche is now a chef in New York and was coming to town for a visit after a couple weeks of self-quarantining in Dublin. And she had been working on a cookbook. Would I like to meet her? Maybe I had heard of the restaurant, Per Se?
Well, in fact, the owner of that restaurant, Thomas Keller, has been a good friend and colleague for more than 20 years. He had written fine cooking columns for me back in my editing days and I had celebrated my 50th and 60th birthdays at Per Se with memorable meals.
And the topper – I had been part of the team working with him on that same cookbook before I moved to Ireland.
One thing I’ve learned in 35 years writing about food is that I’m never going to impress a chef with my stunning technique
Dinner, obviously, was a must. But what do you cook for someone who works at a restaurant of that calibre? Per Se has had three Michelin stars since it opened 15 years ago. And my friend has another three-star restaurant, The French Laundry, in the Napa Valley that just celebrated its 25th anniversary and for a time regularly topped lists of the best restaurants in the world.
One thing I’ve learned in 35 years writing about food is that I’m never going to impress a chef (or anyone else for that matter) with my stunning technique. Unless you’ve spent the last decade putting in 10-12 hour days on the kitchen line, you probably won’t either.
But another thing I’ve learned has been that what most good cooks really want on their nights off is simple, delicious food that has been thoughtfully prepared.
So we started with Burren cold-smoked salmon served on slices of soda bread spread thick with Irish butter and sprinkled with finely diced red onion for sharpness. Perfect with Champagne.
The main course was a simple roast chicken, accompanied by chunks of carrots glazed with honey, thyme and lemon zest, and a big bowl of steamed new potatoes, Queens, tossed in the pan with enough butter to lightly coat, coarse salt and fresh mint.
Dessert was a sweet-tart gratin of Wexford strawberries and rhubarb baked under a crumbly crisp topping.
We sat on the back porch and ate and talked and laughed. My New York visitor came back for heaping seconds on the potatoes. You can take the girl out of Ireland but you can’t take Ireland out of the girl.
And when it was all over, I had made yet another friend thanks to Phil Grimes pub.