Joe McNamee visits Paul McDonald and Helen Noonan at Bastion, as they enjoy their first Christmas with a Michelin star
When Ballymaloe House first earned a Michelin star back in the 1970s, Myrtle Allen years later recalled it merely meriting a mention on page seven of the Irish Times; in 2019, the latest Irish haul of 18 stars was splashed all over the front pages of the newspapers and dominated news bulletins on radio and TV while social media did what social media does best and entirely lost the run of itself, running naked through town with its head on fire.
But, amidst the post-awards brouhaha and the feting of these new culinary kings, one restaurant appeared to barely trouble the radar, the award of its very first star prompting more than a few around the country to ask: “Bastion? Where’s that?” Glaswegian Paul McDonald is chef/proprietor of Bastion, in Kinsale, along with his partner, Limerick-woman Helen Noonan, who runs front of house.
“We’re not shouty or outgoing people,” says Paul, “neither of us is very confident in putting ourselves out there. We’re confident in the cooking and the restaurant but I feel very uncomfortable going out telling people how great I am. Lots of people can do that and it is good for business but I don’t wear that ‘jacket’. There was no talk about us before it, because no one assumed we were going to get a star. We’d never had a Dublin-based critic down here and in fact the first reviews we got from a national newspaper outside the Irish Examiner, the first outside of Cork, was when Lucinda O’Sullivan reviewed us — and that was the week after we got the star. It was nice to be able to show there is life outside Dublin.”
Paul began working in kitchens, aged 14, in his native Glasgow. “My first job was in a pizzeria, working until five in the morning, dealing with the drunk crowd, but the pizzas were brilliant and led me on to my first proper kitchen, wearing whites, working for a proper head chef. I was on pots and stuff at first, then helping out on a section, then running a section.” When he was almost 16, Paul began formal culinary training, completing four years of course work in just 11 months, beginning a formidable career in Britain and Ireland. Somewhere along the way, he wound up as head chef at Adare Manor in the 2000s. He now admits he was never sure about that particular post, but he was very sure about the young woman working in the hotel’s golf office.
“I grew up in Limerick,” says Helen, “when I was 14, my father took a notion and bought a pub in Foynes, in Co Limerick, and I worked there through school. I went travelling after and when I came back started in Adare Manor. I was supposed to head off again, to Boston, but I met Paul and that all went by the wayside —it all changes when you fall in love!”
Now firmly an item, the young couple took a plunge off the deep end and opened The Mews restaurant in Baltimore, in West Cork, in 2010. “It was a good learning curve,” says Paul, “we learned a lot. Baltimore is a great place to live but it’s quiet, very, very quiet! There’s only so many times you can read the paper or walk the dog during downtime. It’s a great place to live if you’re 60!” They packed it in to go travelling, to Australia, in particular. Upon returning, Paul began working as head chef in Galway’s G Hotel while Helen worked in a nearby oil company.
“The recession was still biting,” says Paul, “I was working insane hours, 90 hours a week, I was ten and a half stone.”
“My sister thought he was dying,” laughs Helen, “his face was grey. I was working 9 to 5. It was like ships passing in the night for a year, we didn’t see each other at all.”
“It was hard, especially on Helen,” recalls Paul, “so I organised what was basically a ‘Save the Relationship Tour’. I took three days off, not having had more than one day off for a whole year, and the plan was to come to Kinsale for a night, then go to Baltimore and see how the old restaurant was doing, then on to Kerry to go horse riding — because Helen likes that — up to Limerick to Foynes to meet her mum and dad and, I thought, [guffawing with laugher], that’ll bank another six months work!
“We got as far as [Kinsale] and —because we’d had The Mews before and didn’t do badly, made some money, we always had it in our heads that we’d do it again some day — this place was empty. There was no ‘For Sale’ sign but we looked in the window and liked what we saw. We tapped on the auctioneer’s window next door but there was no answer. We looked around but found no one and were sitting in the car in the car park getting ready to go on to Baltimore when and I said, ‘we’ll give that one more go’, got out of the car and back up, your woman was next door and brought us in to see it. We came in, looked at each other and said, ‘that’s it, yeah, we’ll take it!’. She was stunned. We never made it to Baltimore, never went horse riding, never made it to Foynes. We worked out our month’s notice in Galway and then moved down. I had a small inheritance and we put it all in and did all work on turning it into a restaurant ourselves.”
“I always look back and wonder how we are still here,” says Helen, “I was very green behind the ears, I had NO experience, the food saved us, no doubt about that, I wasn’t good enough at the time. You get better. As Paul says, I notice things now, but the food definitely saved us, people wanted to be here for that, so even if the service was a bit slow, they were prepared to put up with that at the start.”
That was five years ago. This year, they redoubled their efforts and the first inkling of the Michelin Star came via an email inviting
them to attend the Michelin Star revelation ceremony in England.
“Paul was down helping a neighbour fit his kitchen and I went down with the email and said, ‘you need to look at your emails,’ and he said, ‘not now, can’t you see I’m busy,’ and I said, ‘you really need to look at your emails’. I didn’t want to actually tell him, I wanted him to read it. ‘OK fine,’ I said, ‘it’s not good, it’s bad news’, to make him read it. His face, it was a picture, 20 years of slogging … he’s been at this since he’s 14, 15. There was a lot of emotion.”
They didn’t say anything to anyone before the awards ceremony in England but got a great reception from their Irish fellow chefs and restaurateurs once they arrived. The homecoming in Kinsale was equally welcoming.
“It was really, really nice,” says Paul, “they were delighted for us, since we came here, we’ve kept our heads down and worked away, it wasn’t out of any elitism or anything like that, it’s who we are, it was just concentrating on work and the restaurant. The impact on the business has kept us here. We put everything into making this year work and if we hadn’t got the star, we wouldn’t be here now.”
Other than 48 hours in England to attend the awards, the couple haven’t had a day off since January but so they’re looking forward to catching their breath over Christmas. “I managed to convince Paul to close for an extra day,” grins Helen.
“I hate closing,” he laughs, “We don’t know yet what we’re going to do. We were thinking of going away but it’s an expensive time of year to travel.”
“When we go to my family,” says Helen, “Paul gets abandoned in the kitchen, we’re all useless in the kitchen and my mum will say, ‘ah, leave Paul look after that’.“Or maybe we’ll foster a dog for Christmas — our own dog passed away about three months ago and I miss her something awful so the shelters down in West Cork are packed and it might be nice to take in a dog over the Christmas, just stay at home and relax.”
“Knowing us,” chuckles Paul, “we’ll book nothing, stay at home with two packets of fish fingers in the kitchen — and that would be fine too!”