Cork County on the Rise: ‘Cork doesn’t rest on its laurels. We are brimming with talent’

Cork County on the Rise: ‘Cork doesn’t rest on its laurels. We are brimming with talent’
Kevin Aherne Sage Restaurant, Midleton, Co. Cork. Picture: Clare Keogh

It’s a very exciting time for food in Cork, but just how far can we go? asks Kevin Aherne

OK, LET’S face it, for the past 10 years, Cork and food has been like the pint of Beamish sitting on the bar settling.

That creamy goodness rising to the top. We wait in anticipation. We know how amazing it’s going to be. We sit back, wait, and settle down — good things and all that. Be patient and know when the time is. The time is now. We have arrived or so we are told.

I’ve heard the term food renaissance being used to state where Irish food is at the moment. I may have even used it myself. Nonsense, naivety. We are post-renaissance. It has happened. Did you miss it?

It began many years back when a new era of food producers started turning out some of the finest produce we have seen — comparable to the best from the so called top food producing countries in the world.

I’d only be hazarding a guess to pinpoint when the real movement came about. Saying that, it was way before my time or the time of my culinary compatriots across the land.

Before Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Long before us mere chefs were waxing lyrical as we leave the demo stage. Long before food writers North and South were giving their quarter column mention to small yield producers. Did you miss it?

Just look at where we are. What we are producing from the ground — from the people. Across the board, we are producing benchmark quality. We are not realising. We have realised. Cork doesn’t rest on its potential. We are not trying to fulfil, we are brimming with talent.

Now is the time to harness, encourage, promote and showcase what we have to offer. It’s now time to work together as a collective. No individual lime lights. We need to stand behind the food and drink sector and promote each other.

It’s a key factor in the success of building foundations. The chain of relationships needs to work in both directions — ground up and top down. If we want to be known as a global food destination we need to band together and promote each other.

Apologies in advance but I’m going to reference Shrek. The food and drinks scene in Cork and Ireland is a bit like an onion. Layers is what I’m getting at. The individual shell which creates the onion are none the same but each when put together creates the finished product.

If one shell spoils, or if there is a lack of protection, the onion will go bad. There’s a relationship between each of the shells and a focus to protect and look after each other. A platform to build upon and grow together. Growth is important but unless we address our issues before we move forwards we won’t have the capacity to grow.

I’m not going to go into food capitals of Ireland because, to be perfectly honest, I think each county is its own star. Each producing fantastic produce. A credit to all. There are producers, chefs and growers all around this island championing their regions and localities. It’s an inspiring time.

And Cork’s place in that is as a food production hub. Over one third of the country’s produce is produced in County Cork. However we are not about quantity but quality, which we have in abundance. Some of the best, not just on this island, but on a global scale.

We have benchmark producers plating up nature’s larder to the highest of standards.

But unless we take steps to protect our producers we may end up with a bad onion. Our platform, let’s not forget, is those who are raising our livestock, growing our grains, producing our cheese.

Unless our roots are strongly grounded, respected and tended to there is no point thinking about the fruits. No point them labouring in vain.

Will Flanagan (performance artist) at the Food Market 2019 announcement. Pic: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Will Flanagan (performance artist) at the Food Market 2019 announcement. Pic: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

OK — DEEP breath. Class restaurants across the board, world class in some cases, a pub culture like no other, unique cafes, food markets, farmers markets, bakeries, chocolatiers, a whiskey mecca, gin distillers, craft beer and cider brewers, cookery schools, destination hotels & B&Bs, food tours, brewery tours, foraging trips and world class fishing.

This is where we are. Did I mention how good the chefs are? Well only as good as what’s being produced for them. Most of us, chefs/ restauranteurs, stem off the back of this quality. Another onion layer.

I could go on here about the challenge of being both a chef and restauranteur — rising running costs, saturation, no chefs (which is a layer of its own). I have to say I’m tired of hearing growth of infrastructure to withstand growth.

Do you know why we don’t have enough chefs? Well there are lots of reasons but one of the main ones is that they are not paid to their value. Most not even close. Some are actually over paid for the experience, training and quality they have. Reason being is that most restaurants, bars and cafes can’t afford the outlay.

Staff costs in hospitality are the highest to running the business. Pay people what their value is — fair no? Yes fair. Unfair is when you pay value then the Vat rate goes back up. Halting growth for most. We all had to react here. I’m going to glide over this particular layer.

Negativity aside. We are in a good place. Correction we are in a stellar place — Cork and Ireland. We are located in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Hosted by sincerity and warmth.

But just how far can we go? What’s in the post? You don’t have to close your eyes to think about it. Keep them open. Look around. Drink it in. You and I are lucky to be enjoying the renaissance after party.

Let’s get the word out. Send out the invites. We are fortunate to be at a very special time for Cork and Irish food. It excites me to think just how far we have come and how far we can take it. Along the way there will be challenges as there are in any business and life itself. It’s how we react to those challenges that will define our food community.

Now take a step back, take it in and remember food and drink is there to be enjoyed. That’s what it’s all about. I’m about to head out - I’m off to the after party I’ll see you there. It’s your round. Mine’s a Beamish and a pack of cheese and onion.

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