Why Seamus O'Connell is shutting down The Ivory Tower

Left: Seamus O’Connell, owner and head chef of The Ivory Tower Restaurant, looks out over Cork’s Oliver Plunkett Street as he sits in his ‘wild card’ restaurant. Pictures: Jim Coughlan.

Chef and restauranteur Seamus O’Connell is about to close his iconic Cork restaurant. He looks back on 25 years at the helm of The Ivory Tower – and reveals his new plans to Ellie O’Byrne.

Seamus O’Connell is gazing out the first-floor window of his restaurant.

Around him, the orange-washed walls and hardwood dressers are bedecked with a bewildering assortment of curiosities: African artworks, a book on taxidermy, a Victorian pith helmet. It’s mid-morning.

There are still dregs in wineglasses on the tables from last night’s service.

At his elbow lies a 25-year-old handwritten menu, a memory of the first meals served here in the Ivory Tower, the Cork eatery which, as O’Connell’s brainchild, has been the stuff of high accolade and occasional controversy for a quarter century.

In just weeks, O’Connell will shut the Ivory Tower and move on to pastures new, with a fresh restaurant venture in Kerry. But first, there’s time for a little contemplation.

And the chef is in a reflective mood. Last summer, nearing his 50th birthday, he met his biological mother for the first time.

Raised by adoptive parents, still both alive but now in their nineties, in the US state of Arizona, he’d long since given up any hope of tracing his birth mother.

“My kids bought me a DNA test for Christmas,” he says. “The next thing, I got an email from this guy in Texas saying we were related.

"I thought it was a hoax, but by my birthday last May, I was going to meet my mother for the first time, in the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia.”

His mother, he discovered, had been the daughter of an Air force Colonel based in the Arizona desert. After a fling as an exchange student in Germany, she gave her baby up for adoption.

It must have been a life-changing experience? “Oh yes, of course.” He smiles.

“I mean, I didn’t get dinner. I was really looking forward to my new mum cooking me dinner, but not a bean. So I cooked for her.”

After this reunion, O’Connell says he got to thinking about his reasons for moving to Ireland in the first place.

After a stint in New York, working in restaurants like Le Bernardin and La Reserve, he first arrived on Irish shores in the mid-80s and fell in love with West Cork.

Following time in France honing his craft in three Michelin-starred restaurants La Tour Rose and Alain Chapel, whose eponymous owner was a founder of the Nouvelle Cuisine movement, he returned to Ireland, working in Kinsale and then Lettercollum House in Timoleague before the birth of his first child led to him moving to Cork City in 1988 by necessity rather than by choice.

“I remembered why I left America and what I wanted when I came to Ireland and I started thinking: ‘What am I doing living in Cork city?’ I could have lived in New York or Paris if I was looking for city life.”

He came to Ireland, he says, for the countryside: “My ideal was self-sufficient and hippyish. I wanted to grow everything myself.” The Ivory Tower, born out of a combination of necessity and youthful drive, emerged as an inspiring game-changer on the Cork restaurant scene.

A glance at that first menu from winter 1993 reveals starters like crab quenelle and conger eel sausages and prune stuffed with wild duck mousse, while mains included pheasant braised with chestnuts and ceps, and a grilled shark with salsa and guacamole, possibly an early progenitor of what would emerge as one of O’Connell’s typically quirky signature dishes, Blackened Shark with Banana Ketchup, which was lapped up by boom-time restaurant-goers keen to prove their sophisticated palettes.

They were heady days on the Cork food scene. O’Connell and fellow former Quay Co-op chef Denis Cotter, who had opened his ground-breaking vegetarian Café Paradiso the same year, were young chefs whose innovative cooking drew international attention to the second city.

For a time, it seemed O’Connell could do no wrong. His blonde good looks and macho leather apron made him a good fit for TV; he landed an RTÉ cookery series, Soulfood, which cemented his image as an intuitive breath of fresh air in the somewhat stultified world of Irish cuisine.

“TV was good for business, but I didn’t like the business it brought,” O’Connell says. “We were full for two sittings each night, but everyone wanted well-done steaks and bottles of Bordeaux. I didn’t enjoy cooking for them at all; it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing.”

In the meantime, O’Connell had become a family man in typically unconventional fashion; he has five children by three different partners.

He lived “above the shop” at the Ivory Tower with his three youngest and their mother, now his ex-partner, during the restaurant’s hey-day.

This building, then, has been home as well as work, and houses important memories.

“We’ve had some great visitors,” O’Connell says, glancing around at the empty tables. “I remember Gil Scott Heron sitting here with my son on his lap. The musicians were a highlight.

"There was a guy running a world music label from Cork and we had a relationship where he’d bring them here when they were in Ireland on tour.”

When ill-fated US TV chef Anthony Bourdain came to town, he filmed at the Ivory Tower with O’Connell.

Other business ventures included Pi, a pizza restaurant, and hip Japanese pop-up The Yumi Yuki Club above The Triskel arts centre.

Winning Chef of the Year at the annual Irish Restaurant Awards in 2004 was recognition from respected fellow chefs, and a coup made all the sweeter for the fact that he had never joined the organising body, the Restaurant Association of Ireland (RAI). “That felt pretty good,” he says with a mischievous glint.

O’Connell is a mercurial creative genius or the possessor of a streak of aggression and arrogance, or a little of both, depending on who you talk to.

Running a restaurant in a dilapidated protected building with a tiny galley kitchen, and with his decidedly anti-authoritarian streak, it was almost inevitable that he would have a polarising impact.

He says:

The Ivory Tower has always been a bit of a wild card, where we don’t pander to what the public wants as much as we should

“But that’s always been the most fun: people hear about the Ivory Tower and they think it’s going to be this grand dining room.

"They walk in here and say: ‘Is this it?!’ It’s funny to get their perceptions of it.”

The fun wore off when he found himself facing a closure order by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) in 2011 for breaches of food safety regulations.

Defying the closure order, O’Connell kept serving until he was hauled before the High Court, forcing the restaurant’s closure until he complied with the required, and disputed, food safety measures.

“I closed for a week after speaking out and raising a few hackles,” he says. “They have the power, I don’t, so I had to appease them.” He admits to being “a bit cocky” in the press about the affair, which marked a turning point in his restaurant’s fortunes.

“After the FSAI, it seemed everyone was taking a pot shot at me,” he says.

“We got shut down by the fire officer too. I thought, ‘f**k this’. I put the building up for sale and considered moving back to America.

"I had years of terrible business in the recession. I couldn’t afford staff. It was just grim, but I still had five kids in Cork.”

The hit to a restaurant’s reputation from an FSAI closure is severe. “We never recovered,” O’Connell says.

“Nearly 10 years later, it’s on the front page of my Google search results. I’ve asked them to remove it because it’s not relevant and they’ve refused, even though the FSAI and I have an OK relationship now.”

Having downsized, O’Connell faced a huge tax bill, for which he unsuccessfully tried to negotiate gradual repayments.

Disaster struck when bailiffs arrived in the middle of a dinner service and began seizing tableware, furnishings and even the wine in front of astonished diners.

He can laugh now, but he shakes his head too, at the memory: “I was pulling my hair out. My girlfriend, who was waiting tables, ran upstairs and got the TV and tried to hide it on the balcony. I had to buy everything back.”

The dictionary definition of an Ivory Tower is a “state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world”.

A self-fulfilling prophecy? O’Connell is reticent on the notion of regrets. Has he been too hot-headed?

“I prefer to think I’m smouldery,” he jokes, and then, “no, I probably would have made the same decisions.”

O’Connell’s new venture is Malarkey, a 90-seat restaurant in Killarney town centre in the former Chapter 40 restaurant.

The menu, he says, is “Irish for the Americans and fusion for the Irish”, a nod to the Kerry town’s place as a tourist haven.

The food has innovative flair, but is slightly scaled back from the heights of the Ivory Tower’s whimsy — easier to replicate and manage.

O’Connell says he’s looking forward to climbing down from his culinary Ivory Tower and engaging the practicalities of a designed-for-purpose kitchen at Malarkey.

And he won’t be sorry to leave Cork City centre’s noise pollution behind either.

The thing he’ll miss the most? The English Market, the jewel in the crown of Cork’s food culture, just metres from the Ivory Tower.

“It led me to be able to design a type of cooking that was completely spontaneous,” he says.

“I could walk around the corner and buy produce. That’s the thing that has defined this restaurant, more than anything else.”

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