Local produce and passionate cooking form heart of Irish restaurant industry

Ahead of the finals of the 2018 Irish Restaurant Awards we ask some regional winners just what makes their food a success

Restaurants Association of Ireland

The Irish Restaurant Awards, run by the Restaurants Association of Ireland, celebrates the “best in class” of the industry. Photograph: iStock


The Irish restaurant industry has never been brighter. Menus across the island are proudly showing off their own local treasures like fresh mackerel, sweet, zingy rhubarb, soft and creamy goat’s cheese and salt marsh lamb that melts in the mouth. This is no accident. Chefs, food producers, restaurant managers and the many people involved in the restaurant industry have been working together tirelessly to promote the exceptional local produce we have on our doorstep, cook it with respect and skill, and serve it in a way that makes for a memorable customer experience.

Next month’s Irish Restaurant Awards, run by the Restaurants Association of Ireland, celebrates the “best in class” of the industry, and the passion and dedication they have shown in providing fantastic food experiences throughout Ireland. This will be the 10th annual awards and after the regional finals the all-ireland final is in Dublin on May 14th where over 1000 guests will be treated to a five-course gala dinner cooked by five previous winners.

The CottageJamestown, County Leitrim

Chef Shamzuri Hanifa who runs The Cottage in Jamestown, County Leitrim, won Best Chef in the county in the Connaught regional awards. He believes that providing a positive customer experience, consistently, is what makes a restaurant stand out.

We are always trying to make it better. You have to think outside the box

“It’s a team effort. From when you answer a customer’s first phone call until they leave. I always communicate with my manager about anything the team notice that we could improve on. One day he told me that a lot of people come in having forgotten their reading glasses. So we got a selection of reading glasses for customers.”

“We are always trying to make it better. You have to think outside the box and that, “it’s not about us,” it’s the customer service and the overall experience that they come away with that is very important. You can’t beat the feeling of seeing a customer smile and say they will be back when they leave the restaurant,” said Hanifa.

Putting Donegal on the food map

Sometimes it takes just one person to move things forward for a region’s food scene. At the recent book launch of Donegal chef Brian McDermott’s new cookbook, Donegal Table, John and Sally McKenna of Bridgestone Guides said, “Brian McDermott is to Donegal and the north west, what Darina Allen is to Cork.”

Almost 500 people turned up on the wildly beautiful Inishowen peninsula on a Wednesday night for the launch. This turnout is testament to the passion and tireless work over many years McDermott has done to promote and support his native county’s produce, producers and restaurants.

It is fitting, then, that McDermott won “Local Food Hero” at the recent Ulster regional Irish Restaurant Awards, which is the only province-wide award. This award recognises someone “who promotes food culture in their locality and inspires people to get involved with food.”

We are producing damn good produce and I want to shout about it

“When I won the award I thought, “Yes, people are finally seeing what we are doing.” But it’s not my award. I very much want to use the word “we,” I am just the voice that is championing Donegal and supporting it. It is a collective award for the small food producers, chefs and restaurateurs to celebrate,” said McDermott.

For many years, McDermott felt that it was a hard sell to try and encourage people to visit Donegal for its food.

“I joke about this regularly, but when you say you’re from Donegal people say, “Do you know Daniel O’Donnell?” or, “Do you know Michael Murphy?” It’s never, “Oh, you do a great dish up there.” As I travelled to food festivals, I saw people’s perception of Donegal as this light-hearted, fun, easy way of life. I took that and flipped it to say, “well, that is what gives us good produce; because of the people behind it, the growers. Yes, there is an easy way of life, but we are producing damn good produce and I want to shout about it.”

He admits it was a “lonely journey” but things started to gain momentum with the support of the Local Enterprise Office and their launch of “Donegal Food Coast” and his involvement in a Food Innovation Centre in Derry that helps start-up food companies in Donegal and Derry get their product to market. 

McDermott believes there has been a massive shift in Donegal when it comes to promoting local producers, and he is keen to try and get more people to visit for its food, as well as its beauty.

“The problem was that you just didn’t know about how good Donegal’s food produce is. I do think that is down to the modesty of us, as people, from Donegal. We never shout it. I think what people can expect from their food experience in Donegal is honesty, friendliness and a great food experience.”

Farmgate Restaurant and Country Store, Midleton, County Cork

Respect, both given and gotten, in the workplace is essential in making any business hum and elevates it to a place that people are happy to be in; both staff and customers. Sally O’Brien from the renowned Farmgate Restaurant and Country Store in Midleton, County Cork won “Best Restaurant Manager in Cork” at the Munster regional awards.

The business was started by O’Brien’s mother in 1983 and she took over in 2005. She has carried through her mother’s ethos of ensuring all staff having a work life balance and the premises is closed on both Sundays and Mondays so staff have two days off in a row.

Your business is nothing without your team and I am incredibly lucky

It also closes from Christmas Eve for a full week. Farmgate has a very low turnover of staff and many have been there for 20 years or more.

“What, maybe, sets Farmgate apart, is our team. I’m very much aware that, while this is their job, they have other things going on and I would be very respectful of that. They are very highly regarded and they know that. Your business is nothing without your team and I am incredibly lucky.”

While the documented chef shortage has been a cause of concern in the restaurant industry, Harifa believes the future is positive.

“I love what I’m doing. It’s a rewarding industry and a great one to be in, especially now that food tourism in Ireland is huge. We have to show the rest of the world that this what we do, and what we believe in: a good team, good producers, good customer service and good chefs who can deliver to the next level. I think customers are now judging restaurants on “who are you supporting?” “Is it fresh?” “Seasonal?” “Sustainable? This is the direction that it is going, and it’s great.”

How the Irish Restaurant Awards works

In the run up to the all-ireland final there have been regional awards in each of the four provinces. The process begins with a nomination from the public across a range of categories like “Best Chef,” “Best Café,” “Best Casual Dining,” etc. These are hosted by The Irish Times, then independently audited and a panel of experts from across the country choose their top picks in each category. These are combined with the public votes to decide the winners in each county, region and Dublin shortlist for the year.

The next stage is the Regional Awards where the Irish Restaurant Awards team travels around the country to the four provinces to award regional and county winners. The winners then receive a mystery guest inspection and this result accounts for 40 per cent of the final score in choosing the winners in each category. Then the panel of experts choose their top restaurants (which accounts for the other 60 per cent) to reveal the overall winners.

For more information about the Irish Restaurant Awards visit irishrestaurantawards.com