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Despite shortage of chefs, Ireland remains a top food destination

‘Pandemic has led to terrific food innovations too, including a rise in upmarket street food’

Cork’s Metropole Hotel adjusted to pandemic restrictions by innovating.

Cork’s Metropole Hotel adjusted to pandemic restrictions by innovating.

 

A huge part of the appeal for anyone booking a break around Ireland is the quality of the food on offer. Unfortunately while there’s no shortage of fabulous produce, chefs are in short supply.


There’s a wide range of activities to enjoy on Ireland’s waterways. Photograph: iStock

After a busy summer for the hospitality industry, Staycations magazine looks at whether the Autumn/WInter season looks set to continue this trend as restrictions ease.

Check out the Staycations magazine in full in Thursday's print edition of The Irish Times, via The Irish Times ePaper, or via The Irish Times special reports digital hub.


It’s a problem that has existed for a number of years, now exacerbated by Covid-19.

Part of the problem is that chefs from overseas returned to their home countries at the start of the pandemic, and haven’t yet come back.

“We are hearing of restaurants closing and menus shortening because of the shortage of chefs. We’re hoping it will all change back because we are blessed in West Cork with great food producers of real authentic quality,” says Des O’Dowd, owner of Inchydoney Island Lodge and Spa.

It’s not a problem for his own kitchen thankfully.

“We have terrific restaurants here but no matter how great your restaurant is, people don’t want to eat in it every night,” he explains. “They want to get out and try little places here and there, whether something more formal, or less casual than your own. They want that variety.”

Irish guests are particularly interested in food. “The level of sophistication in the Irish market is amazing,” says O’Dowd.

The Clifden Station House
The Clifden Station House

Patrick Guinane, sales and marketing manager of the Clifden Stationhouse in Galway agrees. It runs a series of gourmet breaks throughout the autumn, devised around locally and seasonally sourced produce. “Attitudes to food and drink are like night and day compared with what they were 15 years ago. People’s appreciate of good food has grown so much,” says Guinane.

People are eating less but eating better, particularly since Covid. At Breaffy House Resort, for example, dishes featuring indulgent ingredients such as lobster, john dory or turbot sell out every time they appear.

“We now do a huge demand for Sancerre and Seafood, where three or four years ago it would have been steak and a pint,” says general manager Wilson Bird. By contrast, sales of chips are down.

“We’re focusing more now on artisanal food, and local suppliers, like Velvet Cloud, a maker of sheep’s cheese in Claremorris which is now on our menu in a variety of dishes each week,”

The pandemic has led to terrific food innovations too, including a rise in upmarket street food.

Metropole
Metropole
Cork Metropole
Cork Metropole

Cork’s Metropole Hotel went one further, developing a street food market on Harley’s Street. “During restrictions it was a way of keeping people’s jobs,” explains Sandra Murphy, its marketing executive. “We opened Rebel Taco and Bevs and Brews, and other restaurants came on board too, which was magical.” It’s now such a big draw for tourists that the street food market has its own website.

Sister property Cork International Hotel runs special Kinsale Gourmet experience packages, which combine dining experiences both at its hotels and with restaurants in Kinsale. During Covid, the hotels’ mixologists provided weekly online cocktail classes, which also proved a hit.

To augment the food in its Fire and Salt restaurant, Coach House Brassierie and heated outdoor terrace, Johnstown Estate in Meath developed a range of food related packages, from decadent afternoon teas to gourmet picnics.

“We’ve been very fortunate, if you have a good chef you need to take care of them and we’ve maintained our team very well throughout the pandemic,” says general manager Anthony Smiddy.

Guests expect more than a meal. “We’re seeing huge demand for different kinds of dining experiences, such as our indulgent sharing plates of steak and lobster,” says Lyrath Estate’s director of sales and marketing Orla Byrne

“Chefs make sure that service tastes everything on the menu every day, so they can suggest and recommend.”

The estate is the former home of Lady Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe, a noted botanist who travelled the world looking for specimen plants.

“As a result we focus a lot on botanicals at Lyrath too,” says Byrne. “We use ingredients such as wild lavender, mint and thyme in both our cooking and our cocktails. At 5pm you’ll see our chefs and our bartenders out with silver bowls picking herbs. In fact, we moved the chef’s garden into our walled garden and labelled it up, because guests love to see it. It has come on enormously in the last 18 months. In lockdown, even chefs were gardening.”

Guests expect to hear the story of what’s on their plate.

“They love to hear about local producers and are much more conscious of the environment,” says Elaine McInaw, sales and marketing manger of the Abbey and Central Hotels, sister properties in Donegal Town.

“Even younger people have much more of a palate these days, and dining out is experiential, so they want to hear about their food. I think, because of lockdown, everyone was brushing up on their culinary skills.”

That goes for wine too. “We very rarely sell a house wine now. People know what they like and want,” she says.