Through the keyhole: Inside Rachel Allen’s new restaurant in Cork

In a matter of days Rachel Allen will open her first restaurant. She gives Marjorie Brennan the grand tour.
Through the keyhole: Inside Rachel Allen’s new restaurant in Cork

AS A chef, teacher, writer, broadcaster, wife and mother of three, Rachel Allen is adept at the art of plate-spinning.

Now she’s adding restaurateur to the rotation, with the imminent opening (March 20) of her own venue in Cork.

We meet just ahead of a site visit, and although it’s not yet time for elevenses, she has already done the school run and recorded voiceovers promoting her sandwich range for O’Brien’s cafés.

When we meet, the restaurant opening is just under a fortnight away and Allen is dealing with construction hiccups (you could now add a thorough knowledge of ducting to her list of accomplishments).

A coffee is in order, even if it’s decaf. Why is she doing this to herself, I joke.

“I always said I’d never do a restaurant,” she laughs.

“But the opportunity came up with this really great building. In a way I’d like to fast-forward the next month, to be open a couple of weeks, but it’s all really exciting.”

While her workload would seem intense to many, Allen says she gets an adrenaline buzz from pushing herself hard.

“I love being busy, I’m always giving out about how mad it is but I think I thrive on it. Every so often I get a bit overwhelmed but Isaac will say ‘hang on a second, breathe, and just think’.”

Isaac is Allen’s husband and a prime mover in the new venture, Rachel’s, which will be housed in the Courthouse Chambers on Washington St.

With her name above the door, does she feel the pressure of people’s expectations?

“It needs to deliver, that’s the most terrifying thing. A big part is making people feel welcome — isn’t that the biggest thing when you walk in somewhere? People want to feel comfortable.”

Even though Allen is one of Ireland’s best-known culinary figures, she looks faintly embarrassed when I ask her if she considers herself a ‘celebrity’ chef.

“I just call myself a cook — a cookery teacher — I know of course that people label me as that [celebrity chef], and in one way that does encapsulate what I do with TV programmes and books, but in a million years I wouldn’t put myself in that category.”

Allen began her culinary career in Ballymaloe, under the tutelage of the legendary Myrtle Allen, and Darina Allen, Isaac’s mother.

The family involvement continues with the restaurant, where eldest son Josh, 14, who has been working on the farm in Ballymaloe, will be pitching in.

Daughter Scarlett is also eager to get involved: “She’s only eight but she has told her friends she’ll be waitressing.”

Allen’s overseeing every element of the restaurant, from milk jugs to the art that will adorn the walls.

“Design has always been a big thing for me — I know what I like. Luke [Hickson] and Pat [O’Toole] of PLM Architects in Cork have been absolutely brilliant, they really get what I want.

"I don’t want it to look over-designed or too trendy — I love industrial chic but you need to say ‘hold on a second, what will it look like in two years’ time?’ I can see this really beautiful space and I’m really excited about a couple of pieces of art we have.

"The first one we got was a very large pitchfork which was on exhibition in the grounds of Ballymaloe last summer. We’re using Kerry tweed on the seat covers, which is another local element.

"There will also be a seasonal art installation from some really great Irish artists.”

Of course, while design is now a big consideration in any restaurant, the most important element will be the food.

“It’s really produce-led, that’s been the biggest thing. All the vegetables, or as many as we can, will come from the cookery school. There’s a big wood-burning oven, so a lot of the meat, fish and some of the breads will be cooked in there.

"The food will also be heavily seasonal — I want people to feel good after eating it.”

Allen has worked closely on the menu with head chef Anne Zagar, who also trained at Ballymaloe.

Zagar honed her culinary skills at the hugely popular café at The Pavilion garden centre in Cork. She and Allen are singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to local produce.

“When the produce is of such high quality, you don’t have to do that much with it,” says Zagar.

“A tweak with sea salt, some good quality olive oil, heat from the right place, and that’s all you need to do to it.

“When customers taste pork we don’t want them to taste loads of apple, mustard or honey — we want them to taste pork that was walking around 30 miles away.

"It’s about building a relationship with the producers; I’d hope to have six phonecalls a day with people saying ‘I have 20kg of this’, and if I take it, that they offer something very different the next day.

"That’s the reality of mother nature, we don’t want to force anything. If the turbot doesn’t get caught, then we can’t serve it.”

While the main restaurant will have about 90 covers, in keeping with the trend for more informal, relaxed dining options, there will also be a bar area featuring a ‘small bites’ menu.

“We have a full bar licence, and we’ll also have a piano, which should bring some late night,” says Allen. She believes Rachel’s will fit in well with the burgeoning Cork food scene.

“A lot of our friends are in the restaurant business in Cork and they all have their own identities. They have been really supportive.”

Key to the success of any enterprise is the ability to delegate and Allen pays tribute to the team behind the restaurant.

“We’re so lucky with our key people and I can tell what they’re thinking, just from a quick look.”

In terms of keeping up her teaching, writing and broadcasting commitments, though, Allen is taking it one day at a time.

“I do my writing at home, and I will continue teaching at the cookery school. The travelling happens in spurts so I will just find a balance. Interview me again in six months and ask me about the reality,” she laughs.

IN THE meantime though, relaxation time is in short supply. She tells me how the only time she has switched off her phone is on a recent trip to the cinema with friends to see Fifty Shades Darker.

Her Instagram account also features the occasional shot of her doing pilates, a slightly more sedate stress-buster. Not surprisingly, given the demands on her time, she is not a big user of social media.

“I’m really bad. I do a bit of Instagram, a bit of Twitter, but not very much. It’s a complete distraction. I was testing recipes yesterday morning because I’m writing a book, which is getting done slowly.

"I meant to take a photograph of what I was making, and then tweet it, but I forgot and by the time I got back to the cookery school it had all been eaten, so I couldn’t do much with it.”

With that, we’re off to have a look at how the restaurant fit-out is progressing.

I’m so used to seeing the television version of Allen working in gleaming kitchens straight out of an interior magazine that it’s a bit surreal to see her walking around the bustle and chaos of a construction site.

However, she looks right at home, and doesn’t seem the slightest bit fazed at the amount of work left to be done.

She points out the marble-backed bar area and there is great excitement that the wood-burning oven has been installed.

While the vision for the restaurant is very much Allen’s, she does point to London’s iconic River Café as a source of inspiration — not only in terms of the oven as focal point but also its conviviality and buzz.

When Zagar greets the site foreman and says she has been having dreams about him, it brings home how much the project has taken over their lives.

Allen looks concerned that some of the paintwork is scuffed and just as she gives herself a verbal reminder to raise it with the design team, she remembers that she needs to buy her daughter a new gumshield.

All in a day’s work for a chef, writer, broadcaster, mum — and restaurateur.

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