When ten of Cork’s best restaurants team up to present an al fresco dinner to 420 paying guests on the South Mall, can too many cooks spoil the broth? Ellie O’Byrne found out at Cork’s annual Long Table dinner.
One street, ten city restaurants and 420 guests – welcome to Cork’s Long Table dinner. Ellie O’Byrne went behind the scenes last weekend to see just how organisers pulled off the meal of the year
Feast of the festival
Clinking wine glasses and contented chatter fill the summer evening air at The Long Table on Cork’s South Mall, where 420 lucky diners are treated to a feast featuring the best of Co Cork’s midsummer seasonal produce.
Behind the scenes, the devil really is in the detail: to pull off a dining event this large is a massive organisational and logistical feat and much of the work is done weeks, even months, before the first diner is seated or the first glass of bubbly is poured.
Claire Nash is the owner of Nash 19, one of 10 restaurants to collaborate on this year’s Long Table, each playing to their own strengths to work together to produce the five-course dinner.
Claire and her fellow restauranteurs from Ali’s Kitchen, Dockland, House Café, Electric, The Farmgate Café, The Imperial Hotel, Isaac’s Restaurant, Jacob’s On The Mall and The Oyster Tavern began meeting to discuss their menu in February, she says.
From freshly-shucked oysters and a gazpacho to wild salmon, Irish lamb and, of course, strawberries, the resulting menu underscores the county’s reputation as Ireland’s food-producing capital, with a stunning array of produce grown on the city’s doorstep.
But when provenance is everything, sourcing ingredients is a large part of the planning. Claire hunted high and low for the perfect Irish spud, before deciding to serve Ballycotton British Queens; she then proceeded to cook them 13 days in a row to establish their bursting point, so that they could be served slathered with Glenilen butter from Drimoleague and Achill Island sea salt.
But the level of attention doesn’t stop there; to ensure everything would be at its’ freshest, Claire also insisted that her precious spuds stay in the ground until the very last minute.
“The potatoes were dug on Saturday and delivered to us in Nash and then they were tumble-washed in Waterfall Farms,” Claire says.
She produces a detailed battle plan that runs to five pages long, with minutiae down to oyster shells to present the Achill sea salt in, to the location of the scissors and water spray for live pea-shoots for a garnish, with a direction to chefs to “keep spritzed and happy”.
“Anything that looks effortless requires this amount of planning and detail,” she says. “The food choices came first, and then we paired the wine, an amazing white Burgundy and a French Pinot Noir. After that came the detail.”
With each restaurant having its own unique strengths and character, is it possible for too many cooks to spoil the broth? Claire smiles.
“To be involved, you have to leave your ego at the door. What we’re doing is a real collaboration of what we all do best. It’s not about Nash of Jacob’s or Isaac’s or any one restaurant and that’s what’s absolutely special, to work with these people, we’re coming out as a group for this. In past years, it’s been really unifying for the restaurants involved.”
While the menu does not credit individual restaurants, tasks from each course are delegated to the restaurants’ chefs; the lamb is being cooked in the kitchens of The Imperial, the closest to the table itself. Vegetarian diners have been catered for more than amply, with a delicious menu drawn up specifically by Trisha Lewis, head chef at Jacobs On The Mall. 420 oysters for the amuse bouche are being shucked in the Electric, with 20 staff carrying down trays of the fresh shellfish to the serving stations.
Cold courses allow for advance preparation but come with their own challenge in the heat wave, and Nash 19’s kitchen, which backs onto a laneway next to the Mall, has been used as a cold holding station, and cool boxes put into use to bring chilled elements of the meal to each of four serving stations punctuating the street.
The weather also presents a challenge to the service team, who Claire describes as the “créme-de-la-créme of Cork servers: all the restaurants are joking about poaching the staff off each other because they’re so fantastic.”
The 50 servers have required sun block and plenty of access to water to work in the heat. And what a feat of choreography the serving is. While diners are treated to calm and friendly service, the speed and bustle of the work at the serving stations is impressive. Serving 420 in one sitting is no mean feat.
The table is split into four and each section is headed up by two restauranteurs. Each section has a team leader, equipped with a radio communications headset to co-ordinate the courses.
It’s been a labour of love for each restaurant, reflected in their decision to pay tribute to recently deceased Ballymaloe food matriarch Myrtle Allen on their menu.
At the end of the evening, as the shadows lengthen, all the hard-working staff gather for a victory lap of the table, to riotous applause from replete and happy diners.