Cafe Paradiso: Three decades of the legendary Leeside veggie restaurant

Celebrating 30 years in business with a new cookbook, Cork's Paradiso has become a much-loved food institution. Chef-patron Denis Cotter talks about how vegetarianism gave him his niche in the restaurant world
Cafe Paradiso: Three decades of the legendary Leeside veggie restaurant

Denis Cotter, owner and executive chef of Paradiso in Cork

Becoming a vegetarian in the 1980s shaped Denis Cotter’s life. It introduced him to a world of food and cooking, leading him to open Paradiso in Cork, Ireland’s most renowned vegetarian restaurant. Earlier this month, Cotter launched his latest book Paradiso: Recipes & Reflections, a thoughtful record of the evolution of an establishment that has concentrated on delicious, vegetable-focused food for the last 30 years.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

“I became a vegetarian when I was living in Dublin in the early ’80s,” says the Macroom-born Cotter. “It was just part of the left-field culture at the time. There was a post-punk alternative scene that incorporated a lot of anti-nuclear, anti-establishment thinking that included vegetarianism and concern for animals and the environment. We took on bits of all of those things. Some people took on more than others. For me, that one [vegetarianism] stuck and it seemed to fit me.”

At the time, Cotter was working in a shirt-and-tie establishment job: he was a junior inspector in the internal audit department of a bank. He lived in Dublin but was on the road most of the time, working in towns from Kiltimagh to Coleraine and staying in guest houses and hotels around the country.

During the week, it wasn’t easy to be vegetarian — “I would often eat fish out of necessity” — but back in Dublin at weekends, he was able to explore its vegetarian food scene.

“There were good restaurants and shops and you could buy anything you wanted.”

This was the era when popular wholefood restaurants Blazing Salads and Cornucopia, which are still thriving, were established by vegetarian pioneers. One of Cotter’s favourite spots was Bananas Natural Foods Restaurant, a self-service vegetarian spot on Upper Stephens Street that opened in 1982.

“It was legendary and very influential,” says Cotter. “[Bananas] was a really cool mix of health food and creative veggie cooking.”

When he wasn’t eating out, he was experimenting in his kitchen.

“Because I was a vegetarian, I had to learn to cook and I couldn’t cook by doing what other people in the shared house were doing. I had to learn my own way of cooking and I came to really enjoy it, the whole process of playing around with food, from shopping to preparing to trying different foods together. In the same way as being a vegetarian fitted me, so did cooking.”

“It was a very weird life,” says Cotter. “On the road [for the bank] and in the office during the day, I had a certain set of clothes. Back in Dublin, I was a different person, I dressed differently and lived with different people.”

Chef-Patron Denis Cotter at Cafe Paradiso, Cork. Picture: Miki Barlok
Chef-Patron Denis Cotter at Cafe Paradiso, Cork. Picture: Miki Barlok


He decided to leave the bank and explore his options.

“I wanted to do something that I felt passionate about but didn’t know what that was. Somewhere along the way, from eating out in restaurants and learning to cook for myself, I thought, ‘I’m a vegetarian, I love to cook. I want to get into the restaurant business.’”

At 25, with no professional cooking experience, he headed off to London, quickly acquiring a bedsit and job in the legendary vegetarian restaurant, Cranks.

“I started with clearing tables and serving at the counter then I got into the kitchen.”

Employing a mainly transient work staff of young people from Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, there was room for rapid progression at Cranks.

“Six months later, I was running the kitchen, which was a very tight, well-organised system and that stood to me for a long time.”

The food Cotter was turning out was what he calls standard vegetarian fare of the time: “traybakes, rice dishes, salads and quiches. It was dairy and egg-heavy. Lots of vegetables, freshly prepared. It was good, rich, fresh food, very satisfying.”

After a year and a half in Cranks, Cotter spent time in New Zealand, which he credits with introducing him to seasonality.

“It was the first time I came across seasonal eating. In New Zealand at the time, they didn’t really import food. Eating seasonally was part of the culture and it was instinctive. That was just what you did. It wasn’t an intellectual exercise.”

During his time in New Zealand, he honed his kitchen skills: “what I was doing there was a whole pile of domestic cooking and ‘eating’ cookbooks. I had dinner parties all the time, learning and practising — I didn’t know for what, but I had the compulsion to do as much cooking as possible and to get good at it.”

Paradiso: Recipes & Reflections
Paradiso: Recipes & Reflections


Cotter’s interest in seasonal cooking made Paradiso stand out from the start. It’s hard to remember now, but when the restaurant — known for many years as Café Paradiso — opened in 1993, seasonality and vegetables weren’t a priority. In his 2003 book, Par adiso Seasons, Cotter wrote, “The menu responds to the ebb and flow of the vegetables through the year.”

It has always been so, as he moved from sourcing from growers to collaborating with them. This close chef-farmer partnership was celebrated on the international stage in 2019 when Paradiso and Ultan Walsh of Gort Na Nain won the prestigious Big Plate Collaboration of the Year award at the World Restaurant Awards in Paris.

The cooking at Paradiso was also a deliberate step away from the vegetarian food that Cotter had made at establishments like Cranks and during his four-year tenure in Cork’s Quay Co-Op.

He actively avoided pulses and brown rice and concentrated on showcasing vegetables in season. This sophisticated, imaginative cooking, combined with creative flavour combinations have stood the test of time.

Although Paradiso has long transcended its roots to become a much-loved food institution, Cotter thinks that vegetarianism gave him his niche in the restaurant world.

“I don’t think it would have been possible if I hadn’t been a vegetarian. I wouldn’t have taken the time to train properly. I wouldn’t have had anything unique. Now people talk about USP. I wasn’t conscious of that at the time, but it did give me an edge.”

It’s not easy to maintain that edge over three decades, but Paradiso has done so, quietly putting out plate after plate of memorable, delicious vegetable-based food.

“I knew I could open a restaurant, because I was only trying to open my restaurant,” says Cotter. “When you create something unique, you’re the only expert.”

  • Paradiso by Denis Cotter, €39, is available at and at Paradiso

Denis Cotter's beetroot risotto, orange, hazelnut crumb, Knockalara sheep’s cheese

Like all of our risotto, the base of this one is vegan and it can be finished with butter, as here, or with vegan butter or olive oil. The Knockalara cheese brings a lovely creamy tang but can be omitted or replaced with a soft vegan cheese.

Denis Cotter's beetroot risotto, orange, hazelnut crumb, Knockalara sheep’s cheese



Preparation Time

40 mins

Cooking Time

20 mins

Total Time

60 mins






  • 50g skinned hazelnuts

  • 50g breadcrumbs

  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil 100mls olive oil

  • 20mls orange juice

  • 30mls lemon juice

  • zest of 1 orange

  • 500g beetroot, roasted and peeled

  • 1.5 litres vegetable stock

  • 2 shallots, finely chopped

  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

  • 300g risotto rice, such as Carnaroli

  • 125mls red wine

  • 100mls olive oil

  • 50g butter

  • 100g Knockalara fresh sheep’s cheese, coarsely crumbled


  1. Preheat the oven to 100C.

  2. Place the hazelnuts on a tray and toast in the oven for 15-20 mins, until lightly browned. Chop the nuts coarsely by crushing with the flat of a wide knife or a rolling pin.

  3. Place a frying pan on medium heat, add the oil and then the breadcrumbs. Toast until golden brown, stirring frequently. When the crumbs are crisp, add the nuts and thyme and toss everything together in the pan for a few seconds. Remove from the heat and season with salt. Blend the olive oil and citrus together with a hand blender to get a thick pouring consistency. Season with salt.

  4. Chop the roasted beetroot and blitz it in a food processor to get a very finely chopped finish. Keep the stock warm in a pot over low heat. Heat a little olive oil in a pan and cook the shallot and garlic over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the rice and toast it, stirring often for 7-8 minutes. Add the red wine and simmer for a few minutes until it has been absorbed. Now add a ladle or two of stock and simmer, stirring, until it has been absorbed. Repeat with more stock a number of times, stirring often, until the rice is just tender, approx. 20 minutes. Check rice grains often in the latter stages.

  5. Stir in the finely chopped beetroot and the olive oil and butter. Season well with salt and black pepper, remove from the heat and serve immediately. Serve the risotto in shallow bowls with some orange sauce and some Knockalara sheep’s cheese and hazelnut crumb sprinkled over.

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