From the cradle to the kitchen

Mike Corcoran, proprietor, Mike’s BBQ & Catering, Spiller’s Lane, Clonakilty.

When I was growing up in Chicago, evening supper was something that always brought our large family together on a nightly basis. My father was a police officer and worked the night shift for many years when I was young, and like so many others of his generation, he had a second job during the day. Dinner would be the one time where I, the youngest of five kids, could be sure to see Dad, as well as my older brothers.

My grandmother Corcoran was an excellent cook and handled all the holiday meals. She in turn taught my mother, who taught me. The first thing mom taught me to make when I was about ten, was pancakes. On birthdays and holiday mornings mom would make them special by filling them with cherry or blueberry pie filling and sprinkling them with powdered sugar. We would skip the maple syrup on those days!

There were also tried and true Corcoran recipes which I believe came from Ireland, generations earlier. Things like mashed swedes and carrots with parsley sauce were not dishes that many of my friends’ families enjoyed with their Christmas turkeys.

Grandpa only got involved with cooking when it was barbecue. At family gatherings, he would ‘tend the pit’, a converted 50 gallon drum which he used to turn out the most fantastic food.

My earliest food memories are of watching him add cherry limbs to the pit and the incredible smells that emanated from it. When I became old enough to be around fire, he would show me how it was done, giving tips and suggestions. He instilled the love of barbecue in me and from the time I was 14, I’ve only had one job outside the restaurant industry.

Chicago is a very ethnically diverse city and my father — having a strong appreciation of food and an excellent knowledge of the city and it’s neighbourhoods — would treat us on occasions. Going to Little Italy and getting a freshly made Italian ice from a street vendor was a hot summer afternoon thrill. It was about a 6 ounce semi-frozen treat studded with lemons, raspberries or other seasonal fruit. Greektown would be the place for a gyros sandwich on pitta bread with tzaziki sauce, a delicious cucumber dressing. He also had his favourite Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. We lived only a few miles from the Polish neighbourhood and smoked kielbasa from Harczak’s Deli made great sandwiches.

Favourite sweets growing up included the traditional Sunday coffee cake we’d get after mass from the Gladstone Bakery. It would be freshly baked and still warm, sprinkled with walnuts and tiger-striped with a delicious white frosting. Around the Holidays, Grandma used to make fantastic homemade lemon tarts, little flying saucer shaped pastry cups filled with a tangy lemon filling and topped with a dollop of freshly whipped cream. An everyday favourite was Jello, especially lime and raspberry with whatever fruit was in season at the time suspended in the cool gelatin.

Perhaps one of the fondest childhood memories was that of the Good Humor Ice Cream man. May through September, the fleet of Ford Trucks driven by men in crisp white uniforms would trawl the city’s neighbourhoods, bringing delicious frozen treats to young and old. You would hear the bells jingling from about a block away, and that’s how much time you had to plead for 25 cents to try to make it out to the kerb for a Toasted Almond or Strawberry Shortcake ice cream bar before he passed. You always hoped he would be slowed by sales further up the block!

Noel McMeel, head chef, Lough Erne Resort, Enniskillen and Best Chef (Ulster) at Irish Restaurant Awards 2011.

On my family’s farm in Toomebridge, Co Antrim, we were more or less self-sufficient, growing our own food and raising livestock. The influence of this lifestyle infused us with the drive toward sustainability and gratitude for what we had.

My hardworking parents instilled an innate respect for the seasonality of food in my four brothers, my sister and myself. In my parents’ place and time, it was up to you to look after yourselves and your children — no ifs, ands, or buts. You rose early, you worked physically and you reaped the benefits of what you sowed. One element of that hard work was the job of keeping the pantry full. Mind you, the pantries of my grandmother’s days, and in many listed houses of today are cooler than those in standard Irish houses, but the same ideas apply. You may not leave a holiday turkey in the pantry for a day and a night, covered with a pristine white cloth, but you’d be fine to leave your butter out, soft and welcoming, ready to melt in your mouth when delivered atop a freshly baked fruit cake. When I think of what I learned on the farm: how to plant a drill of potatoes or patch of rhubarb, how to pick blackberries, then top and tail them and preserve them, I’m deeply humbled. I was given the gift of life skills and survival skills but also the skills to make surroundings beautiful and comfortable.

Through their planting, gathering and foraging, and their care for the animals, my Mam and Da taught us that nature’s rhythms should dictate the rhythms of our food. Nourishing roasted root vegetables such as beets in winter; tender sweet peas and onions to lift our spirits in spring; ripe berries in summer salads and crisp apples in autumn … the gift of everything in its place and time. When the spoils of the season exceeded our needs, we capitalised on our good fortune and preserved our gifts for later, using age-old techniques to lengthen the life span or our food and to avoid waste.

I’ve had the great fortune and privilege of travelling to train and to learn about exotic foods and fresh techniques from masters outside of my family, but in the end, I’ve always been called back to the ways of the farm, and in the end, back to the farm itself in Ireland.

Michelle Darmody, owner of The Cake Café,Dublin 8 and Irish Examiner food columnist.

My love of food developed from a very young age. I remember standing on a chair eagerly helping my father in the kitchen.

My parents were adept at throwing good dinner parties and I was always there to prep and chop and peel. The morning of a party invariably started with a trip in the car to pick up all the bits and pieces, then back to the kitchen to get down to business. There was coleslaw to make, tomato roses and radish flowers to create, pavlovas to fill and coq au vin to get simmering in the pot. It was the eighties, as you can probably tell from the menu! It is hard to believe that back then you went to the chemist for your olive oil and it came in a little brown bottle and kiwis were very new and exciting.

I remember the first time I saw a star fruit in the shop and I begged my father to buy me one. I took my prize possession home and sliced it just like I had seen in our Robert Carrier magazines and laid it beautifully out on a plate. It was one of my greatest sensory disappointments. Putting that first slice of star fruit on my tongue I expected all the tastes of an exotic far off land to hit me, instead it was like sucking on a slice of watery cucumber.

My first job in catering was at the now extinct Gingerbread House on Paul Street in Cork. I loved it. I was working downstairs filling sandwiches and making coffees but sneaked up to the bakery for a nose around any chance I got. The praline cake was my favourite and also we sold a deliciously rich chocolate cake. I am sure anyone who remembers the Gingerbread House and who has visited The Cake Café can see how that job influenced me greatly. The job continued all through my college years and I became very popular with my peers when I arrived with the leftovers from my shift the evening before.

On leaving art college, I always found myself gravitating towards catering jobs, for the love of food but also for the love of the great social life that usually comes with the job.

On returning to Ireland I set myself up in an art studio, but again the pull of catering lured me away from the canvas. I found myself over time making less art and more food.

Taking the plunge I set up my own business just over five years ago.

Having missed my Mom’s great baking which was part and parcel of life growing up in Cork, I decided to work towards creating a bakery and café where all the cakes were baked in front of your eyes, and where good local produce was used in the savoury menu. I took influence, not only from home and early jobs, but also from the great café culture I encountered in Australia and New Zealand. I wanted the cafe to be a relaxing place where you are served great food and I hope I have achieved my aim.


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