Women stir it up in west Cork’s kitchens

Running a food business is a dream come true for these women, but it involves a lot of hard work and dedication

 

Family values, a culture of collaboration, respect and sense of community are the common denominators in these five west Cork kitchens run by remarkable women chefs in Bantry, Skibbereen and Baltimore. They share stories of how their careers started and developed and their hopes for the bright-looking future of Irish food. If you are headed there this summer, be sure to sample the delicious serenity of their restaurants and the wholesome food they cook with so much love, care and pleasure.

Tessa Perry, Glebe Gardens, Baltimore

Tessa Perry is the eldest of Jean and Peter Perry’s four daughters, and together they run the gardens, restaurant, bakery and wine bar of the Glebe in Baltimore, west Cork.

Jean and Peter used to be successful organic market gardeners based near Bristol. They had started producing their own food “to feed their kids” and those kids became very much a part of what soon turned into a flourishing business.

As a child, Tessa remembers setting up a stall to sell garden produce at the end of their lane, before her parents decided the business had grown so much they weren’t enjoying their family life and decided to “up sticks and leave”.

New Zealand had filled its immigration quotas and so the Perrys set their sights on Ireland, originally plumping for Kerry before an estate agent begged them to have one last look at what was to become their home in remote Baltimore.

Tessa remembers she and her sisters, as they said a reluctant farewell to their English friends and social life, asking her parents, “What the hell have you done to us?”

Jean and Peter had sworn they would never get into the organic gardening business again. But after a few years in west Cork “partying”, they realised they would have to use the Glebe to generate revenue in some way. Twelve years ago they opened the gardens to visitors and began a tiny tea shop serving breakfasts, tea and cakes.

Their first August bank holiday was also Regatta day in Baltimore, but they thought it would be a quiet one.

“We did 70 breakfasts with our kettle and four electric rings. It wasn’t much fun but it was crazy. I fondly remember people all over the grass, chickens running around – it was quaint to say the least.”

A year of “bumbling along” later, the Perrys decided to take the plunge and built a 40-seat restaurant and cafe in a former milking shed, cooking only with home-grown and local produce.

After a few more years of travel and working on and off in the business, Tessa and sisters JoJo and Keziah decided the Glebe was where they wanted to live, work and bring up their families, and they came home for good. Chef Gillian Hegarty, who had worked at the River Café in London and Café Paradiso in Cork, joined the team and over a couple of years taught Tessa so much she was able to take on the restaurant herself when Hegarty moved on.

“Gillian was so passionate about food and had matchless energy. I never thought I would have to do it myself, but unknowingly she taught me how to manage the restaurant simply by observing her. She made fantastic pasta – though I was never allowed to touch it – and taught me how to cook fish and use herbs properly.”

Last year Glebe Gardens was named the Irish Times Best Café/Teashop in Ireland and this year their crowdfunded bakery opened.

Tessa is philosophical about awards and also what she describes as a “food industry full of one-upmanship” with a “competitive side which is ultimately damaging”.

She describes their restaurant as “a conversation between the garden, the kitchen, our team and the customers”, and with six women in the Glebe’s kitchen, alongside the four Perry daughters, says an excess of ego is never the problem it can be in many male-dominated kitchens.

“Male chefs come to visit us, and just can’t help giving us unsolicited advice, explaining to us how to do things. I would never dream of doing that to any other chef.

“In our kitchen, ego never gets in the way. The team will have no problem saying, ‘Tessa, that’s not great’. And I think because we are women we are modest enough to have that. Plus, it’s an exciting way to cook. We are all very polite, say thank you and sorry. We just want to create really good food.”

Trish Messom, Sarah & Grace O’Shea, The Stuffed Olive, Bantry

Conversation with “Irish twins”, Grace and Sarah O’Shea is lively, as they talk passionately about their work, regularly finishing each other’s sentences, in their bustling Bantry cafe, The Stuffed Olive.

Another set of sisters carrying on their mother’s cooking, they describe how “Mom” Trish Messom started the hugely popular Bantry institution with fellow cook Margie Kelly after spending many years catering from her tiny Reenrour kitchen and working in restaurants in town.

Messom’s love of food came from watching her own mother and grandmother cook and bake every day.

For Grace and Sarah growing up, eating well at home was as normal as it had been for generations in their family, unlike other children they knew.

Now the three women run the business together. Sarah looks after accounts and front of house, Grace bakes oat, soda and spelt bread and cakes through the night and Trish arrives early to make the salads and specials for the day.

It’s a tightly-run machine that works smoothly. Grace, who is also an amateur make-up artist, loves the peace and quiet of the midnight to 9am shift.

“Mom” Trish (all 14 staff members call her Mom) is still the most creative team member. She is a fan of the Ottolenghi and Honey & Co cookbooks, from which she draws much inspiration for the cafe’s popular salads and lavish cakes.

Sarah, alongside doing her day job, has just completed UCC’s food science and technology course and explains how the cafe’s offering has changed since opening its former premises just along the street.

For a long time customers would ask for ham sandwiches on white pan bread with tea or a Coke. As tastes changed and the penny dropped that it was not that kind of cafe, the notion of what is healthy has evolved too, says Sarah. Now she no longer serves sugar-packed smoothies and their excellent coffee is considered a public service for neighbouring businesses.

That close interaction with other Bantry traders is important to them, and Sarah describes how friendly bartering keeps them in fresh fish and bacon and their butcher and fishmonger in scones and soda bread.

At this year’s Street Feast on Wolfe Tone Square, the teams from Organico and The Stuffed Olive were at the heart of the party, organising the food and joining in with the fun and dancing.

Rachel and Hannah Dare, Organico, Bantry

In 2014, sisters Rachel and Hannah Dare expanded the Bantry organic health shop and cafe their parents Caroline and Alan had started in 1992, creating a brand new bakery and a big, friendly, open space on two levels. Ground-to-ceiling windows, reclaimed industrial fittings, high walls filled with work by local artists, comfy sofas and loads of child friendly space keep faithful clientele happy.

Next door to the cafe, the grocery gives off a bright and delicious freshness, embodied by the owners themselves. If you ever wanted to “get the glow”, you might ask the gorgeously healthy-looking Dare sisters what their secret is. That is, if they have any secrets, apart from being reared on the home-grown meat, dairy and vegetables from their parents’ west Cork organic farm.

On an Irish summer’s day, no matter the weather outside, you can be sure to find sunshine in the glorious organic fruit and vegetables spilling over tables and shelves in Organico.

The Dares source everything they can locally and, thanks to west Cork’s micro climate, fertile soil and a multitude of skilled and experienced vegetable gardeners, they are spoiled for choice when it comes to salads, herbs, soft fruit, tomatoes, courgettes, root vegetables and greens.

But Rachel and Hannah wanted their store to be ethical, inspiring and convenient. They were keen to make it somewhere customers could come to do an entire shop, where you could pick up your washing powder, skincare, baby bottle brush and biodegradable bin liners alongside stellar west Cork artisan cheeses, charcuterie and organic Spanish figs.

Rachel trained at Ballymaloe and runs the kitchen. She follows the school’s belief in using quality ingredients, to create dishes for the mostly vegetarian menu. She is excited by the growing interest in cooking with little or no meat (for the cafe’s sprinkling of meat, they now rear their own pigs for sausages and bacon) and remembers thinking when she started, “it’s too easy to just put cheese on everything”. Now, with demand from more engaged and enlightened consumers, she says, “we are only just breaking the surface of where you can go with veggie food”.

As the business grows, Rachel is trying to free herself more from operations. For the moment, it is big sister Hannah, who studied English and sociology at University College Cork, who concentrates most on the business strategy, citing the influence of their late parents as key in Organico’s identity and success. The thinking behind the food offering in the cafe and the store is largely inspired by “mum’s cooking” and what they grew up with. Both young women worked in the business from when they were teenagers, never really considering a future very far from it.

Rachel calls inheriting the business as a young woman, “an opportunity to learn the hard way”. Now that they have nearly 20 employees and following the big expansion of the bakery and cafe in 2014 (completed in four weeks), they know that constant reviewing and tightening of systems is vital. Advice from West Cork Local Enterprise Office mentor James Burke, experienced new team members and other chefs in the region, notably Carmel Somers of Good Things Café in Skibbereen, is eagerly taken on board.

“Chefs and producers in west Cork really root for each other,” says Hannah. “There’s an understanding that if someone does well, it helps everyone else.”

Now with a mature and thriving business concept and a functioning space still full of potential, the Dare sisters hope to develop Organico’s community role even further.

Already closely involved with west Cork literary, art and music festivals, they would like to see more cookery events happening upstairs in the cafe.

“Not just the usual chefs cookery demos,” says Hannah, “but people and producers sharing their recipes and knowledge, and getting new conversations going around our food and food culture.”

Sinéad Desmond, Manning’s Food Emporium, Ballylickey

Softly-spoken west Cork native Sinéad Desmond says she is now “in heaven” working in Manning’s Emporium kitchen overlooking Bantry Bay in Ballylickey. With an impressive set of qualifications including a Ballymaloe Cookery School diploma – and almost 20 years in the business, the chef’s CV is a rich one.

She has cooked in kitchens all over the world. On a Caribbean-based racing yacht she had a ball, buying and cooking luxury produce. “There was no limit on my budget,” she says. “It was only the best. I once got told off for putting Prosecco instead of Champagne in the cocktails.” She taught the Ballymaloe philosophy – “a homely approach from people who know quality” – to Mexican students in Washington and Philadelphia. At Quay Co-Op Cork she designed a range of vegetarian dishes for retail production. She was also chef at the Crawford Gallery in Cork.

After a stint in Arundel’s on the Sheep’s Head peninsula, Sinéad was brought into Manning’s to assist Frank Wieler, son of Fred and Janny Wieler, former owners of Hagal Healing Farm near Bantry, whose way of life she describes as “a big inspiration to me for food”.

At the beginning of this year she took on the Manning’s kitchen alone. For her, Manning’s is “a dream come true” thanks to the quality of the produce Val Manning, his niece Laura and her husband Andrew Heath continue to select for the much-loved family shop and delicatessen.

“I get to use the very best produce in Cork. Most of what we sell is produced within a 30-mile radius. You just highlight the produce, not doing too much to it. Having grown up around the corner, it’s great to come back, have a look and say, yep, this will do.”

But it is the calm, respectful atmosphere she finds most motivating. “A couple of years ago, when I was working in Cork, stressed out of my head doing 90 hours a week, if you’d have said I would be working like this, I would have laughed in your face. Now I live two minutes from work, have my own hens, grow my own vegetables.

“The seasonality of west Cork business gives me and my partner, who is a musician like me, time to focus on creative things come the grey miserable days of November.”

Sinéad describes the atmosphere at work. “The people I am working for are the hardest-working I have seen in all my career so far. When I see them working so hard, it makes it easier for me. They [Laura and Andrew] have two 16-month babies but are never, ever cranky. They say thank you to their staff every single day. That means so much. Especially when you have spent years working for crazy chefs who squeeze the best out of you; you soon realise how lucky you are.”

Sinéad tells an all-too-common story of the bullying and humiliation she has seen and experienced herself in many kitchens. “There is a lack of respect for women, and women head chefs can be just as nasty as men sometimes. Knocking the ego out of kitchens is hard but we’re making food, not going to war.

“Here, high stress levels are simply not tolerated. There is no room for nonsense. For 20 years I felt like I was giving my life away, like I was underground, and it’s very hard not to resent the career you have picked. In the end, we all create our own environment, just as we do in our families, and to enjoy coming to work is such a blessing.”

Carmel Somers, The Good Things Café, Skibbereen

Renowned chef and teacher Carmel Somers has just moved her west Cork institution, The Good Things Café, from pretty, sleepy Durrus at the gateway of the Mizen and Sheep’s Head peninsulas, inland to the heart of the bustling market town of Skibbereen. I ask her what the move has been like, what challenges she faces and what is different this time round.

“It feels like I’m re-establishing myself again. It feels like the first year we opened. People come in, look at the menu, some are surprised, some are delighted and they leave or stay. Our regular customers know what to expect, of course. We opened in 2003, so I suppose I have a bit more sense now.”

She pauses and laughs. “Gosh, that was a long time ago, I should have a lot more sense. Now I am very definite about what I want and I have a very efficient kitchen. Back then, I opened and did everything. I didn’t understand just how seasonal business was here in the first year. Setting up cookery classes was a way of getting round that. In west Cork business had become even more seasonal but in Skibbereen from now until Christmas I’m told it’s really good – and my classes are already nearly full. I’m reaching new clients in places like Clonakilty I wouldn’t have had before.”

How has her range and access to local produce been affected? “I have more. Skibbereen market is just around the corner and my butcher is just next door.”

Many of the other women chefs interviewed here mentioned Carmel’s collaborative attitude. She says she started meetings with them all last year after being inspired by local hairdresser Wayne Lloyd’s getting together with other salons (theoretically competitors) to “put their cards on the table” and learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Good Things is also a family business and Carmel’s three daughters, while pursuing their studies and without any pressure from their mother, have always worked summers and after school in the restaurant.

Middle daughter Ellen (19) is hoping to go to Durham University to study psychology. “[The restaurant] has always been a part of my life. When I’d go away I’d always be happy to come home and go see how everyone was in the kitchen.”

Ellen says Jill (17), her younger sister, is the most creative and interested in food of the three – like their mother. “I’m the checklist person. I like making rules not obeying them.”

“A control freak,” says her mother, smiling. “I think at times it was a tough way to be brought up because they couldn’t say no and then it becomes all-consuming. As I’m on my own, they are protective of me and of the business.”

At the same time, Carmel believes being a single mother bringing up daughters in a restaurant has many advantages.

“I’m always telling them how lucky they are to eat well, drink well and meet lovely people – our customers and colleagues. In this business, you learn to socialise. And I always say that if you can work in a restaurant, you can work anywhere.”

As for the multitasking between job and home, which is still a reality for so many working mothers, Carmel says, “I would always say I needed to know where the children’s socks were and that the cold room was tidy and sorted. Then I could cook.”

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