Marek Sulg arrived in Ireland with 3 words of English. 17 years on, he is head chef at an award-winning hotel, writes Esther N McCarthy.
I’m being led through the lobby of one of the most luxurious resorts in Ireland, through a labyrinth of corridors and swing doors until I arrive at epicentre of it all, the kitchen.
Recently voted one of the world’s leading properties in the 2017 Condé Nast Traveler Magazine’s Reader’s Choice Awards, Powerscourt Hotel is at the top of its game.
Part of their success is down to the award-winning Sika restaurant, and I’m here to have a coffee with the recently appointed head chef, Marek Sulg.
As we sit at the Chef’s Table, Sulg goes and gets the coffee himself and produces a trio of desserts with a flourish and a smile for me to try from the pâtissier’s station. Smooth move, Sulg, you’ve discovered my one weakness — food of any description.
Set up on a platform, seating in a U-shaped around a large wooden table, the Chef’s Table is a concept originally dreamed up by Gordon Ramsey when it was one of his signature restaurants, back in the hotel’s Ritz-Carlton days. It rebranded itself in October 2013 and is now part of the Autograph collection.
The table is smack in the middle of the busy kitchen and is now used to present wedding parties with tasters of the menu or if someone has a special occasion they can book the table and get a little taste of everything from the kitchen.
Marek Sulg is a relaxed, soft-spoken guy, dark-haired with a shy smile, the opposite of Gordon Ramsey’s shouty, sweary, frenetic persona. You can’t imagine Marek screaming at minions to get the foie gras right.
Marek arrived in Ireland when he was 21 years old, from his native Estonia on the urging of his best friend’s mother. He had just three words of English. “I could say thank you and I remember getting the words bird and bridge mixed up - I still get slagged over that one.”
Marek was driven straight from Dublin airport to Slieve Russell Hotel, it was only supposed to be for six months, but 17 years later, he’s still here. The Irish hospitality and generosity of spirit helped him through those first difficult months. “It was very tough because of the language barrier but the people I worked with were really good, they helped me along. There were no other Estonians so I had no choice, I had to learn English. It was awkward at first,” he recalls smiling, “you’re told go for the cauliflower and you don’t have a clue what cauliflower is!”
Marek kept a notebook and wrote new words in it every day in a bid to master the language. This tenacity and determination has served him well, he’s worked his way through a variety of hospitality jobs and after two-and-a-half years at Powerscourt, he took over the head chef role seven months ago and he is now exactly where he wants to be. He manages a team of six for Sika with a separate pastry department of three.
“This kitchen has always been very very strong, I want to carry on that tradition but I like to add little quirky aspects, but still keep it classic. I want people to eat our food to bring away memories, happy memories.”
Marek likes to introduce curing into the kitchen, one of his signature dishes is cured salmon.
“Estonia is so close to Scandinavia, we do a lot of curing at home, so that would be my baby here,” he explains.
Marek believes the secret to the kitchen’s success (Sika won Best Hotel Restaurant in Wicklow and Best Wine Experience in Wicklow at the Leinster finals of the Irish Restaurant Awards this year) is communication and teamwork. “I’m really open to other ideas, I’m not stubborn, the chefs are all involved in what we’re doing here, they come up with their own ideas, if we’re happy we will put it on the menu, we’re very, very open. The team here are not just doing what they’re told.”
The ethos in the kitchen is all about the best local produce and working within the seasons, using artisan producers and craft suppliers, the chefs make magic with the best of ingredients. “Ireland has everything, the sea and the meat, I don’t think the Irish realise how excellent the meat quality is here, the beef and lamb especially, it’s brilliant, that’s what attracts me most,” says Marek, who’s favourite dish would be lamb, chargrilled. “A very simple flavour with simple seasoning.” He likes it medium to medium rare.
As Marek poses for the photographer in the kitchen the other chefs are calling out comments involving boy bands and who’s the best looking, it illustrates the relationship they all share.
Speaking of relationships, Powerscourt also played a big part in his personal life. He recently proposed to his partner of 17 years in the gardens of the hotel. They met in Slieve Russell and started dating soon after that, and they have two daughters, Freya, 6, and four-year-old Lela. Their favourite dish is pancakes and they help daddy with the recipe. “They help me they crack the eggs, they mix, they’re engaged, they enjoy that a lot.”
As we wrap up, I ask him who his ideal dinner party guests would be. “Jonathan Ross, Jeremy Clarkson and James Corden.” And what would he serve? “Everything.”
As we wrap up, I realise Marek was such an engaging interveiwee, I forgot to eat the desserts.
Now that’s a real magic trick.
Marek’s Duck Cure
2 duck breast trimmed and seared.
50g of brown sugar
75g of sea salt
10g coriander seeds
Mix all ingredients together and cover duck for 4 hours. Then wash off the cure and pan fry for your liking.
Port Jus (Duck sauce)
1 duck bones and trimmings
4 cloves of garlic
Thyme sprig and 1 bayleaf
100ml red wine
500ml chicken stock
Roast the bones first in the oven. Start of with hot pot, sweat the shallots, garlic, thyme, bayleaf. Add then port and red wine, reduce by half. Then goes in your roasted bones with trimmings and chicken stock. Let it reduce down again once you are happy with the sauce consistency. Pass it through a fine strainer.
Carrot and Cumin Puree
200g of peeled and chopped carrots
200ml fresh carrot juice
Salt for seasoning
Sweat the carrots with butter and cumin, make sure you don’t get any darker colour on it, add carrot juice and let it slowly simmer away, approximately 25min. Once they are fully cooked transfer to food blender and blend it to fine puree.
Golden beetroot 5 each (Thinly sliced)
50g of fresh ginger
2 orange zest peels
Spices such as mustard seeds, coriander seeds, peppercorns, cloves.
Vegetable starter culture
Toss together sliced beets, ginger, orange and spices. Layer the beets in the glass jar. Add dissolved vegetable starter culture with filtered water to the beets. Weight the beets down if necessary so they can ferment in room temperature for 5-7 days, before transferring to the refrigerator.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved