First encounters


In conversation with FRANCES O'ROURKE


is an award-winning chef who owns and runs Dunbrody Country House Hotel and Cookery School in Co Wexford with his wife Catherine. He has written three books

We met in Blinkers nightclub in Leopardstown. Catherine probably didn’t tell you she was wearing a yellow jumpsuit and legwarmers. I lived in Malahide but owned a car, a 1966 Mini 1000. I was in the College of Catering and working in Coffers restaurant at the time. I was 18: on our first date we went to a pub and there were signs everywhere saying “over 21s”; I was terrified I’d be refused. We went out for over a year at that point, then split up. But every girl I went out with after Catherine, I compared to her.

Every time I came back to Ireland, we kept bumping into each other. I sent her 21 roses for her 21st birthday, and I had her parents on my side. I had asked her to marry me when I was 18. I knew Catherine was the one for me; I think Catherine knew it as well but she was in denial.

Then I went to work in Canada, was there for seven-and-a-half years. I was working in Calgary and bumped into Catherine when I came back on holiday. I invited her to Canada for a skiing holiday, then we went to Seattle and San Francisco; I asked her to marry me and we got engaged on that holiday.

I worked in a five-star Fairmont hotel in Calgary: I loved my job, loved Canada, loved the outdoor world. I said I’d only move back if I could be executive chef in the Shelbourne, or own my own country house. And then the Shelbourne advertised the executive chef position. I’ll never forget walking into the bar of the hotel in Calgary where Catherine was working and saying “By the way, we’re going home.”

I’d always had a romantic idea about owning a country house. Catherine didn’t really want to go to the country at the beginning. Then I saw Dunbrody House in an estate agents’ window: it’s great and our three children have a great life there.

I never went after becoming a celebrity chef: Dunbrody House got a lot of press and one day a film crew for a travel show asked me to do a cooking section – and later I was offered a regular slot. In hindsight, it was the best thing I ever did, because it made us adaptable when the recession came.

Catherine and I make a great team: we have defined roles and in the workplace we talk as colleagues, not as husband and wife. And she’s a genius in terms of marketing.

I cook at Christmas: too many people get stressed but I can cook and talk and laugh at the same time.


was European sales manager for C&D Foods and worked for the Boyne Valley Group before she and her husband Kevin opened Dunbrody Country House Hotel in Wexford in 1997. They live in a house on the grounds of the hotel with their three children

I’m originally from Dalkey and met Kevin at a nightclub in Leopardstown – it was called Blinkers then. I was 18 and had just started a course in language and international marketing in DCU. He called the next week, we met under Clery’s clock . . . but eventually it fizzled out when we both went off travelling. We lost contact, but whenever he was home, we’d run into each other.

I was living in Longford but travelling abroad two days a week. Then Kevin invited me to Calgary for a holiday: I was looking for a change so I went to Canada, and got a job in the same hotel Kevin was working in. He would happily have stayed, and Calgary is a fabulous place to live. But I wasn’t too big into the cold, cold weather and when you live beside the sea, it’s hard to be a long way away from it.

We got engaged out there, and married in Dalkey. We were in the airport on our way to Portugal for our honeymoon when I opened the paper and there was an ad – the Shelbourne was looking for an executive chef. Kevin had always said that he would only come home for the job of executive chef there or at Dromoland. He got an interview: we arrived home from Portugal, my mother was at the airport with his suit and shoes and he went straight into the Shelbourne. We had to fly back to Canada, but he was offered the job. We were married in August 1994 and were back home by October.

I had started working for the Boyne Valley group but we were looking out for a country house hotel; we’d seen 12 or 15 properties when we came across this place in Arthurstown, Co Wexford. As soon as we walked in, we knew this was the place. We bought it in 1996 and opened it in 1997 with a friend’s wedding.

There’s a lot going on in Dunbrody and we divide the responsibilities: I look after front of house, sales and marketing and interior design. Kevin does a huge amount of work outside the hotel, but he’s always here at weekends. It’s a nice place to bring up kids.

Kevin’s easygoing but if he gets something between his teeth, he won’t let it go – he’s a perfectionist. But he’s not one of these loud temperamental chefs.

We close the hotel after dinner on December 22nd and re-open on the 27th with a wedding. It’s like having a house party in Downton Abbey. We spend Christmas at home in Dunbrody with the children and our families.

Of course Kevin does all the cooking, he hates other people faffing around the kitchen. But I did make a Christmas cake.

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