The World Restaurant Awards celebrated two Irish restaurants, both of them from Cork: Paradiso for its locally sourced ingredients, and Ballymaloe for its iconic dessert trolley. Joe McNamee meets the makers
Frankly, there are times when a body might wonder if the modern hospitality world is more concerned with putting awards up on the mantlepiece rather than good food in the belly, the culinary calendar now busting at the seams with whatever constitutes this week’s latest gourmet glamour parade — and I write this as someone who has actively participated in the food awards process in the past and most probably will do so again in the future.
Certainly, those administrated and delivered with integrity have their merits: acknowledging and encouraging achievement, fostering deserved recognition and aiding the public in making dining decisions that can have a profound impact on the businesses of deserving chefs, restaurants and producers and benefiting the hospitality sector as a whole.
But, equally, there have been more than a few individuals who have lost sight of what they originally set out to do in their subsequent blind pursuit of culinary stardom. Worst still are those awards born out of greed, whereby unscrupulous hucksters identify the ‘gold’ to be prospected from the Western world’s current lifestyle obsession with all things food, accordingly, bilking money from the gullible or naively innocent through ‘promotional costs’ or dishing out spurious gongs to the undeserving.
And so, the intial inclination on first hearing of the new ‘World Restaurant Awards’, is to shrug and move on, deeming it some tawdry facsimile of the illustrious World’s 50 Best Restaurants, until you realise that it is co-founded by Andrea Petrini and Joe Warwick.
Petrini, a 58-year-old Italian domiciled in France for over 30 years, is one of the most influential food critics in the world, chair of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards and, incidentally, a long time champion of Irish food and hospitality since his first visits to Ireland in the 80s, while London-based Warwick is one of the co-founders of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and author of the hugely popular volumes,
Where Chefs Eat.
Employing a worldwide network of 100 judges, the WRA differs from the World’s 50 Best’s straightforward grading of restaurants in numerical order, from one to 50, by instead awarding in various categories, divided into two overall sections, ‘Big Plates’ and ‘Small Plates’. From 18 overall, there were two Irish winners, both from Cork: Paradiso restaurant, with Gort na Nain Farm, and Ballymaloe House.
The 12 Big Plates categories are ‘conceived to champion excellence and integrity while trying to better promote the diversity of the world’s restaurant community,’ and cover areas such as atmosphere, ethical cooking and particular dishes, along with restaurant of the year (Wolfgat, in South Africa, also awarded for Best Off-Map Destination) and Paradiso and Gort na Nain farm, in Nohoval, Kinsale, won Collaboration of the Year category, which rewards restaurants for their work with their suppliers.
With categories such as Best Tattoo-free Chef, Best Tweezer-Free Kitchen and Best Red-Wine Serving Restaurant, the six Small Plates section appears rather more whimsical and the organisers indeed acknowledge it is very much tongue in cheek but at the same time is attempting to ‘subvert current gastronomic fashion and also make a point of championing tradition, both culinary and literary.’
It was in this grouping that Ballymaloe House won their award, for Trolley of the Year, because, the judges noted, ‘tableside service should always be in fashion’.
“The Big Plates is easy to understand, all the categories, ‘best restaurant’, ‘new arrival of the year’,” says Andrea Petrini, “‘enduring classic’, for a restaurant running for more than 50 years. We are trying to cover all sorts of restaurants, trying to spread out the most proper and honest picture of how diverse and rich the restaurant could and should be and of course we would like them to be more accessible, less reserved for the usual fine dining, expensive, white male-run restaurants which has been the norm, the rule, the code, for 100 years. We wanted to express something that was a bit more democratic and you can also do that with the big awards.
“The ‘Small Plates’ section is funny at first sight, a little bit ironic, but look closely and you see they are serious. Tattoo-free chef? You start thinking, when did the passion really start, when did chefs start to consider they had to have tattoos before even entering culinary school to fit this macho new look of the chef? The answer to to this is the chef who doesn’t follow trends, the chef who doesn’t look like all the other chefs with tattoos, the chef who thinks differently.
“Best Tweezer-free? Again, it’s ironic. Traditionally chefs went around with a spoon in their apron and probably a knife in their back pocket. When did it start to happen that all the chefs have a tweezer stuck in their jacket? Chefs have been losing the manual touch in their cooking, that craftsmanship. Chefs used to have burned hands all the time from touching the hot food and pots. Now with tweezers, it is a much more clinical cuisine, carefully building up all these dramatic layers of herbs and micro-greens and flowers. This award celebrates those who still care about food cooked a la minute. So, yes, they may sound whimsical but they are serious awards, it is a little comment on our society.”
Ballymaloe House, the country house and restaurant, in East Cork, established in 1964 by the late lamented Myrtle Allen is justly renowned worldwide as a true innovator in modern hospitality, the first by several decades, to establish a fundamental synergy between a professional kitchen and finest local, seasonal produce, an ethos now at the core of many of the world’s very best restaurants.
Yet it was in the Small Plates section that Ballymaloe was acknowledged, winning Trolley of the Year for their simple wooden trolley bearing a deliciously decadent array of desserts made fresh each day, with the judges noting ‘the sight of a trolley trundling majestically towards your table is one of the joys of old-fashioned restaurant service’.
Such a whimsical accolade for such a venerable old stager may appear something of a slight but it is in fact an acknowledgement of Myrtle Allen’s enduring philosophy of remaining true to what is best about tradition, even if it flies in the face of current trends or fashion.
“In the food world,” says Petrini, “Ballymaloe is one of the most historical places, known all over Europe and the rest of the world. I personally went the first time I went to Ireland, in 1989. For me, coming from France, it was an incredible shock to see how this beautiful house in the middle of nowhere could be so caring for such beautiful produce. Yes, there was a French influence on the cooking but using a totally Irish selection of Irish products. For me, it was a discovery of a much more relaxed, earth-based cuisine, the vegetables, the herbs. Back then, it was 20, 30 years ahead of where the food world is now. I personally fell in love with Ballymaloe, then Ireland after that. For a lot of people around the world, Ballymaloe is a fantastic institution.”
“We have been doing the trolley almost forever,” says Fern Allen, Myrtle Allen’s youngest child, “it’s a lovely thing because it is an interaction with the customer; you bring along the trolley and there’s a real ‘wow’ as they see it going around the dining room and you’d be passing tables still on their starters and they’d almost hijack it, wanting it straight away. It is actually a very generous way of serving because the customer doesn’t just have to choose just one dessert, they can have a bit of everything and people see it as a generous thing, it gives a good feeling.”
Once upon a time, trolleys were in all fine dining restaurants, for serving cheeses, desserts, soups and other dishes directly at the table, but as chefs began more and more to plate up in the kitchen, trollies became passé.
While Head Chef Dervilla O’Flynn may run the overall kitchen, it is JR Ryall, head pastry chef, who is in charge of all baking and desserts, and — with fellow pastry chef Anne Healy — is responsible for the daily replenishment of the legendary trolley. Now 31, he has been working at Ballymaloe since he was 15 years old.
“I had done a number of short courses in the cookery school,” says Ryall, “and got to do some work experience there. One day, Darina Allen, Myrtle’s daughter-in-law and founder of the nearby Ballymaloe Cookery School] said she thought I should try working in the kitchen over in Ballymaloe House and arranged it with her brother Rory O’Connell who was head chef at the time.” The evening did not go well and ended with him falling on the floor and upending an entire tray of lettuces.
“I just remember the feeling of embarrassment and by the time I walked out the door I thought, I’m glad I did that, I now know what I don’t want to do! The next day I was in the school and Darina was asking me how I got on and she said,’I bet you had a fantastic time’ — you know the way she can almost put words in your mouth — and I lied and said, yes, I had a fantastic time. She said, ‘brilliant, I’ll send you again’, and picked up the phone in front of me and called Rory to tell him. Literally bit my tongue. I couldn’t tell Darina I had lied to her so I was over the second night in the pastry kitchen. I was doing very simple things, dipping truffles in chocolate, sorting through biscuits, watching what other people were doing but by the end of the shift I realised there was something in Ballymaloe House that I wanted to see more of and I asked could I come back.”
Ryall continued to work part time after returning to school, taking a taxi out to Ballymaloe each Saturday, from nearby Midleton College where he was a boarder, and back
again at the end of each shift. He worked alongside Myrtle Allen each day and then returned for the entire summer holidays during his final two years in school, continuing the pattern while studying natural sciences in Trinity College Dublin. At the end of his third year, Myrtle told him the permanent job as head pastry chef was his if he wanted it after finishing college. Ryall thought long and hard about doing a doctorate after graduation but the pull of Ballymaloe was too strong: “I was always fascinated by Mrs Allen and the idea of coming back to spend at least a solid year with her, that there was so much more to learn. I came back three days after my final exam and that was it, I’ve been here ever since.”
The trolley, as delivered by Ryall, is resolutely unfashionable: there are no vegan alternatives to dairy, no egregious excesses of outré or on trend ingredients and any of the clinical sterility of molecular gastronomy appears to have entirely bypassed Ryall, as it has Ballymaloe. These are simply superb renditions of old school favourites.
“Part of the philosophy I learnt in my first year from Mrs Allen was how important it was that you should resist trends and do what you’re good at. It meant that she could serve food to her guest that she had been serving to her family. I was probably brainwashed but I agreed with it.
“There’s an old fashioned generosity that used to go with eating but doesn’t seem to be there any more. Nowadays, in most restaurants, the chef decides the portions and, if you’re still hungry afterwards, you grab something else on the way home. And that’s partly why so many of our customers like it, you might be having a main course, and you catch a glimpse of the trolley out of the corner of your eye and at that moment you decide to save some space for it, instead of having seconds of mains, you decide you’re going to have seconds of dessert.”
Denis Cotter’s Paradiso, in Cork City, is a restaurant that just happens to serve vegetarian food as opposed to a ‘vegetarian restaurant’ and it’s reputation is truly global, thanks in no small part to Cotter’s ongoing collaboration with Ultan Walsh and Lucy Stewart and the produce they grow on Gort na Nain farm, in Nohoval, Co Cork. Despite sharing the shortlist with some truly spectacular operations, they secured the top spot because they are innovators of longstanding in this regard, rather than mere followers of the comparatively recent locavore trends in dining, with the judges noting that while there were ‘countless [worldwide] examples of close chef-farmer collaborations … [Denis] Cotter and [Ultan] Walsh’s is marked out by its longevity and synergy.’
“Paradiso seems to me to be one of the most interesting places in working for the future,” says Andrea Petrini, “a future with closer and more prolific collaborations between chefs and suppliers. When I go to a restaurant, I want locally sourced, the best you can find, that supports the local farmers, growers and producers and is an expression of the region.”
Paradiso was very firmly established, both nationally and internationally, by the time Ultan Walsh emailed Cotter in 2001 to enquire whether he might be interested in Walsh’s produce. Walsh, a post-doctoral researcher in UCC, had quit his job to grow vegetables on a leased acre of land in Minane Bridge.
“I had other suppliers and there were only so many I could take on board,” says Cotter, “but he did say he was interested in produce that I was interested in, that I couldn’t get or would have to import. I was very hung up on organics at the time, and was having to import poor quality organic stuff so he said he could grow it. We started with simple stuff, a mutual interest in particular vegetables and how to treat them. It gradually changed, quantities were small at the start, but it changed the way we worked from ‘recipe driven’ to ‘produce driven’, a response to produce rather than coming up with a recipe and sourcing the ingredients.”
The first vegetable Walsh sold to Paradiso was globe artichokes, which turned out to be both he and Cotter’s favourite vegetable. Then Cotter’s main growers said they were emigrating to New Zealand and Walsh found himself as the restaurant’s main supplier by the following year.
Within a few years, Walsh and his partner Lucy Stewart acquired a smallholding comprising some ten acres and turned it into a hugely impressive organic farm, that included an award-winning vegetarian B&B and at one stage was producing over 100 different types of vegetable each year. Though that figure is now closer to 60, Gort na Nain continues to produce a whole list of exotic or unusual vegetables to rank alongside the more prosaic staples, growing many of them for the first time ever in Ireland despite a preponderance of ‘experts’ saying it couldn’t be done.
“No other restaurant that we have supplied in the past has any relevance or comparison to what we do with Paradiso,” says Walsh. “Some restaurants — and I won’t mention who they are — would ring you up in February asking whether the tomatoes are ready yet. It’s just wild to me, it shows a total lack of understanding of ingredients, there’s not that real curiousity about ingredients, even in the last couple of years, it’s bizarre, and these are trained chefs.
“There is no other restaurant that has any sort of an influence on what we grow.
“We have a market and that is largely Paradiso.”
We are sitting at the table when two gorgeous dishes featuring Walsh’s asparagus, newly in season only this week, turn up at the table.
If you have only ever tasted the woody, flavourless stalks grown throughout the year in Peru, then flown half way around the world to the shelves of your nearest supermarket, a single tasting of Walsh’s verdant green spears, bearing impossibly exquisite flavours, will be nothing short of an epicurean epiphany.
Delivered with minimal intervention from a canny kitchen that recognises the value of fine produce, they are the perfect encapsulation of that special something that persuaded the WRA judges to decide Paradiso’s collaboration with Gort na Nain farm was quite simply the best in the world.