Executive chef Tony O’Donnell proves his dedication to Powerscourt Hotel every day on a round-trip commute that covers 160kms from his home in Meath to his Wicklow kitchen.
It’s a remarkable distance but he’s genuinely happy to do it. His arrival in the hotel is a logical step, he says, in a career that has seen him work in some of the biggest and best hotels and restaurant kitchens in the country, including the Shelbourne and the Burlington, (now the Doubletree) in Dublin.
He earned his first head chef position at 21, an enviable feat that encouraged his ambition to keep climbing. It’s not his first five-star hotel but he did come here for a reason – he wants to work closely with clients, hear their requests first-hand and help them conjure the very best event that they can. Not all hotels can offer the opportunities for one-on-one relationships that Powerscourt Hotel does, he explains, and it motivates him. He enjoys working directly with the events manager and the wedding planner, to really be part of the guest’s Powerscourt experience.
The chef’s table here is a luxurious banquet table in the middle of his kitchen and every bridal couple get to visit for a tasting menu. They’re often surprised, first that they get to go so deep into the kitchen but also by it’s sheer size and comfort. Parents and friends are welcome to join them and work with Tony and his team to create the perfect meal for their guests. It’s a highlight of the preparation for most and Tony welcomes the chance to guide guests through their choices, helping them to understand the pace and standard that a five-star meal provides.
Every time we touch a plate, he explains, it slows things down. So if we add an extra garnish we have to do that perfectly on every plate. For a large party, that has the potential to multiply across the service so Tony likes to help the couple manage this – to deliver the very highest standard of meal with their full understanding of the process.
People understand food much more these days, he says. They enjoy the experience of working on their menu and that’s something we can offer at the five-star level. It’s not just a choice of food but the guest’s involvement in the planning and preparation of serving of it. We really strive to create the vision our guests want.
His kitchen is a calm place, very different from the movie idea of a large busy kitchen. He likes to save his energy for when it really matters, he says laughing.
The award-winning Sika restaurant offers a seasonal menu with the very best of Irish produce and this translates easily into the banquet hall, creating challenges of scale that Tony clearly likes to overcome.
The Secret Garden is a part of Powerscourt Hotel that Tony particularly enjoys. It’s a beautiful outdoor venue hidden within the building itself and he often gets to be creative about its use. He also manages the dining at nearby Powerscourt House, where guests often choose to have their wedding. The original house opened in 1741 and it offers a wonderfully atmospheric and meaningful venue, as an alternative to the hotel.
Tony is aware that there’s a cost to working in his industry – the long unsociable hours that keep you absent from family get-togethers and events, but he knows there’s no other way around it. If you want to deliver the five-star standard you simply have to do the work. It’s that simple sometimes, he says. I suspect he’s being quite modest.