There’s much we don’t know about Covid, but one thing is for sure: it’s going to be with us for a while. So with the segue into autumn and the opening of our Christmas booking diary, we thought we’d dedicate this blog to the safety measures that Chapter One has put in place to protect both our team and our guests. With all the uncertainty, reassurance about safety measures is one thing we can offer.
Safety in our DNA
It all starts with the team; their safety ensures that of others. Daily temperature checks are the responsibility of resident prep chef and master butcher Gavin Cribbin, who has been performing the role of staff nurse with glee, wielding the thermometer with the same skill as he does a kitchen knife. The use of face masks and hand sanitiser is now second nature, too. Luckily this is an industry where close adherence to health and safety protocols is very much in our DNA, so the transition to a different set of behaviours has been smooth.
Discreet yet effective
The more obvious changes relate to our customers, though we’ve made every effort to make them as discreet as possible. And they start from when you book, online or over the phone.
♦ all contact details are retained as we use electronic booking. So no need for notebooks when guests arrive. GDPR rules are strictly enforced.
♦ hand sanitiser is widely available throughout the restaurant, starting at the front door
♦ all guests have their temperature taken at reception via a freestanding, contactless thermometer that resembles a large iPhone and is the closest we’ve come to AI here at Chapter One. It hasn’t happened yet, but if someone’s temperature is high, it flashes red. Apparently!
♦ our tables were already well distanced, but we removed a number in order to maximise circulation space. You know it’s working when your regulars hardly notice the difference.
♦ extensive cleaning and sanitising is carried out between service so all furniture and surfaces are spotless.
♦ instead of hard-copy menus, we use QR codes. Those without a smartphone can use laminated menus which are sanitised between use.
♦ our Midleton room (formerly the Jameson room), which normally can sit up to 12, has slid seamlessly into the role of private dining room for 6, and is already proving popular as a very comfortable alternative to the chef’s table, with a dedicated server, the same intimate atmosphere, and, of course, a tour of the kitchen. Being completely private and separate, it’s the natural first choice for any group with members over 70 or who might be in a vulnerable cohort.
Dining in seclusion
One dining space which has really come into its own is our Demi-salle, which in her feature on the restaurant a few years back, Irish Times food editor Marie-Claire Digby described as a ‘racy space with a whiff of bad behaviour and good liquor”.
Its secluded location is key. The demi-salle (seats 4-6) is a few steps down and away from the main restaurant, so has always been popular with those who like to dine in privacy, but within earshot of the buzz and banter of the main room.
Covid safety measures are changing all the time, and as things continue to evolve, we will too. And if you have any questions or concerns, just ask. We look forward to continuing to welcome guests here at Chapter One.
‘We make sure all the arrangements are taken care of”. That’s the message from Carr Golf, Ireland’s leading golf-tour operator. And they really mean it, too.
Chapter One is fortunate to attract hundreds of people annually from overseas, but for many years some of our most regular visitors have been guests of Carr Golf. Few tour operators take such good care of their guests, or take the time to show them what they feel are the best traditions of Irish hospitality outside of a golf course. Carr’s really is a premium service, and it’s always a pleasure to host them and their guests here for dinner or lunch.
This video from the Financial Times shows just how much fun and variety Carr Golf guests get to pack in during one of their trips to Ireland. Chapter One is right in there – in amongst the trad sessions, the whiskey tours and, naturally, the golf course! Very grateful to be included.
2020 is here. How did that happen?
Well, we can tell you that we planned for how 2019 would happen, and 2020 will be no different.
You can’t plan for everything, of course; there are always ‘unknown unknowns.’ But because restaurants by nature have to move with the seasons, there are many reassuringly familiar touch points throughout the year which provide the ‘scaffolding’ that allows us to build on our successes (and remedy the failures) of the previous year.
Restaurant life has a certain structure. And each kitchen and restaurant floor has its own rhythm – one that hums and thrums below the surface of what, to customers and people outside the industry, can often seem overwhelming. The hours, the energy, the level of organisation, the being on your feet and on the move for long stretches.
Fostering a Learning Culture
Chapter One is in a beautiful Georgian basement. And when the first customer of the day descends the stairs, it’s a call to action: “On stage!” Because in many ways, running a restaurant of this size to the standards we aspire to and customers expect is a performance.
So staff know to do what every great actor does to excel. They learn their craft and they rehearse. Before anyone sets foot on the floor for service, they’ve analysed mistakes from the previous service, resolved them and determined to do even better. Because they want to do better. As a collective, we work hard to foster a learning culture where people get to feed their curiosity, nurture their talents and express themselves professionally in the ways they want.
So we plan and we plan. We look to the months ahead and schedule in time for teaching, learning, collaboration, relaxation, support and challenges (like wine exams!). Because it’s all about marginal gains, across all areas of service we consider how the dining experience can be improved – from booking to paying – and how the professional lives of our team can be made even better.
Fewer hours & better work-life balance
2019 was another big year for us. Another good year, and our first in over 25 years where for 12 months straight we didn’t do lunch Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. We still do dinner Tuesday to Saturday, but we’re now firmly a Friday lunch-only restaurant.
A strong, enduring trend for premiumisation across the industry is now apparent (even your local German supermarket has a ‘luxury range’ now, and why not!), but it was in its infancy when we decided to open earlier for Pre-Theatre – at 5 instead of 5.30. Our Premium four-course menu allows people who want to dine early the opportunity to enjoy dinner, but at a lower price and still be home to put the kids to bed.
The benefits of shorter opening hours continue to be felt everywhere across the restaurant. One of our key motivations for cutting lunches was to give the team a better work-life balance. Shorter hours means fewer shifts and leaves them more time and energy for the things they enjoy. And it is so important to be able to switch off in an industry that too often is fuelled not just by adrenaline, but by energy drinks, cigarettes, poor sleep and an even poorer diet.
Fewer shifts also gives people more time and energy for learning. So they get to study wine (and gain valuable qualifications), hear talks from Ireland’s best food producers, make off-site visits to see what’s happening in the food production business, and get nuggets of wisdom from mental-health professionals so they can thrive in an industry that is wonderful but which at least in the past, could be as punishing for your head as it was for your body.
Kickstarts & Reboots
And then there is the food. Chapter One introduces new dishes regularly in response to the bounty that Irish producers deliver every season, but particularly at this time of year, our team is full of ideas. Recipes are forming, techniques are bubbling away in the grey matter, waiting to be tested – to find the dish they were made for. Maybe it’s the kickstart that is every New Year, or the R&R that the team get over Christmas (we close on Christmas Eve for at least two weeks), but more likely it’s the food they’ve cooked, eaten or seen, or perhaps something about the restaurants they’ve visited. Inspiration can come from anywhere. And for that we’re thankful.
Worth the Wait
But we wait. Every year when we return from the holidays, we like to wait a while before introducing new dishes. We want them to be perfect, and like everything else, recipes have to be rehearsed, over and over, so that by the time they hit the menu, they’re as good as they can be, with all the ingredients and constituent parts singing the same hymn. It’s as good as it gets. And we’re hoping – no, planning – that 2020 will be no different.
Food and wine are the twin pillars of any memorable meal; get the balance right, and you have the perfect dining experience. But while most people know exactly what dishes to choose, or are at least willing to take a risk, they can be a little less certain when it comes to wine. Doubt and hesitation can creep in all too easily, like smoke through a crack. This is where the knowledge and guidance of appropriately trained staff is key.
Wine: A landscape to be explored
For lovers of wine (or oenophiles as they are known in the industry), wine is a labyrinthine landscape of hidden valleys, intricate pathways and exotic destinations to be explored. It’s an adventure, a journey — sometimes, in the case of the great vintages, even a pilgrimage.
But a certain, rather unpleasant brand of wine snobbery – one that thankfully is on its way out – has made others less than confident about choosing wines, particularly when the list you’re presented with is thicker than your arm. So having staff who love wine and are keen to share their passion in their guidance of others is essential.
And that’s what we have here at Chapter One. Yes, we have a sommelier, and it’s their huge knowledge and experience (and that of those who went before them) that underpin the quality of our cellar and, of course, our winelist, both of which have taken years of investment, passion and commitment to build into something we believe is truly special.
Wine training: Building staff, building trust
We also actively encourage anyone who wants to, to study wine in a formal capacity. This way, not only do they qualify and get another string to their professional bow, but our staff deepen their knowledge and passion about wine in ways that build a customer’s trust and confidence in their opinion.
The natural consequence of this is that staff are happier and better positioned to guide customers. So at busy times, say, when the sommelier is at another table for longer than usual, we have a host of other qualified, passionate people who are more than happy to help guests choose a wine that will complement their meal.
Make guests’ wine experience the best it can be
Even better, they might just nudge the tentative wine drinker to think of the meal ahead as an adventure all their own, with a personal ‘wine sherpa’ to guide them through the unknown and unfamiliar. When that happens, we know we’ve succeeded in making their experience with us the best it can be.
They shouldn’t expect anything less – and we wouldn’t want them to.
Good food and drink are our raison d’être, but more than anything, a restaurant’s success and longevity are determined by its people. There’s real magic in the mix. But it’s not enough these days to have an unbeatable team; to keep hold of them you rightly need to make them feel valued, so investment in ongoing professional training is key.
Right now, Ireland is short of something like 8,000 chefs, but what people often don’t see is the shortage of non-kitchen staff: quality waitstaff, bar people and front-of-house professionals who know the art of meet and greet, small talk and customer service inside out and back to front.
Maybe it’s sky-high rents, or that the globalised nature of food allows people to travel and work far more freely than before, but whatever the reason, it has become increasingly important not just to find great staff, but to keep them – and keep them happy. And if you invest in developing them there’s a strong chance they’ll enjoy what they do even more and be motivated to stay put. Hopefully, for a while!
From the beginning at Chapter One, our focus has been on finding talent and nurturing it so that we have the best people available, from kitchen porters, food runners and waitstaff, through reservations, administration and front-of-house, all the way up to the General Manager. If one area is weak, the effects of that leach into other areas of service, so you have to get the balance right – and keep it that way.
In the last few years, but particularly in the last year, we’ve invested more than ever in providing additional professional training for our team, internally and externally. We do this not just because it’s great for their careers, adding new skills and experience. It also helps them personally: building confidence; expanding their worldview, mind and ambitions; and deepening their understanding of the best traditions and innovations of this wonderful, crazy world we call hospitality.
One of the key people driving all of this is General Manager Danny Desmond. Soon after he joined us three years ago, Danny began compiling what he calls the Chapter One Handbook. It’s probably fair to say that this has become our Bible, though it is very much a living thing, continually tweaked and refined so it contains only what works, based on thorough testing, honest feedback and open conversation. And a bit of trial and error, naturally!
The Handbook focuses solely on internal processes and on nurturing a culture of curiosity, care, learning and personal responsibility. Our aim is excellence, but we also understand there needs to be fun in there too. So yes, we’ve had an expert from Aware come in to talk about managing mental health in the workplace – an increasingly challenging issue across many industries – but we’ve also had our pastry chef teach the other chefs how to temper chocolate. The only collateral damage was the state of their chef’s whites afterwards, but that was more from the eating than the tempering!
And alongside all that internal stuff, we have been bringing in the best artisanal producers in the country, to show staff how to treat, eat and talk about their produce. So we’ve had legendary grower Hilda Crampton sharing the joys and tricks of growing organic veg at her farm in Wicklow, Sheridan’s wax lyrical on the art of cheesemaking and the cheese board, and super-talented sommelier Julie DuPouy tutoring on wine (and wine and food pairing) not just to those who get to pour it for our customers, but also to those behind the scenes, like chefs and food-runners.
Seeing people get excited (and challenged) about something outside of their normal working experience and skills is a real thrill. It’s the alchemy that comes from cross-fertilisation, inter-disciplinarity, collaboration, dialogue, observation and, of course, DOING. This isn’t theory – this is about ideas tested, practiced and applied in the real world, to real-world scenarios.
And best of all, it’s fun.
In the coming months we’ll be sharing some more of the in-house initiatives we find successful in terms of adding new skillsets and building confidence in our staff so they feel both valued and truly on their game professionally and personally.
Keep an eye on our Facebook and Instagram for pictures and stories – there’s plenty more to come!
It’s all about the Land, you see.
We’re talking about the land where the food we use in our kitchen is grown – the soil the vegetables are planted in, the grass that lambs graze on, the orchards where tree roots dig deep to nurture crisp, plump Irish apples.
Here at Chapter One, we recognise that great Irish food is about land and the unique flavour and personality it gives to the produce it yields through the seasons. And we celebrate not only the people who produce that food, but also those dedicated to educating others about it so our knowledge of it is never lost – people like foodwriters John and Sally McKenna; Ballymaloe‘s Darina Allen, the doyenne of Irish farmhouse cooking; and John and Kerryann Fitzgerald of Atlantic Irish Seaweed in Kerry, passionate educators on the over 600 (!) varieties of seaweed that flourish around Irish coasts.
For the ingredients that go into our kitchens and then onto your plate, we choose growers, farmers and producers who love the land and who excel at what they do. These are passionate, dedicated people who cultivate the land, care for it and coax it into a flavour-defining landscape like no other. In Ireland, this means everything from the stony soil of Clare to the rich loams of the Midlands, wild seas and calm shores, heather-clad hills and electric-green, rain-drenched pastures.
The French, being the French, have a word for this. They call it terroir. This one little word embodies the essence of a specific growing habitat: the climate, the soil, even the orientation of the land itself. There are wines in neighbouring vineyards in France that, all other things being equal, will be different because despite being just yards apart, one vineyard faces south and the other north. And those differences aren’t always subtle either (just ask our sommelier!)
This is the beauty of terroir and of the foods we use in our dishes here. Whether it’s sweetcorn from David Byrne in Lusk in North county Dublin’s prime veg-growing territory, organic “black leg” chicken from Sean Ring in Kilkenny, or cheese from all over Ireland (most of ours come via Sheridans), these are ingredients – and people – we really believe in.
So, here’s to the Irish terroir, and those who celebrate it – on the land, in the kitchen, and at the table.
Chapter One Suppliers List
Walk into Chapter One and everywhere, elements of the interior combine to make your time here as pleasurable – we hope – an experience as our food. Fine art, craft and design are all around.
The Best of Irish Craft
On each table gleams a small, gold-leaf-lined piece by master woodturner Emmet Kane. Lustrous, ebonised oak on the outside, these purely decorative pieces seem almost lit from within. Although the tulip-shaped vessels are on a small scale, the level of craftsmanship they display is immense.
The craft doesn’t end there. Bread, baked daily in-house, is served freshly sliced in asymmetric, handwoven baskets by Joe Hogan, and whether you opt for an espresso or a glass of champagne, there is a sleek piece of design by Dublin duo DesignGoat to tempt you, the latest being a brass and white Corian drinks trolley whose gleaming curves make it a thing of beauty. It’s certainly caught the eye of more than a few of our diners.
Art All Around
And then there is the art, about which Ross is passionate. Around you, paintings small and large, figurative and abstract, make their presence felt yet do not dominate the space. At reception the latest addition to Project Art is displayed front and centre. With its vivid colour and gestural brushwork, Leah Hewson’s expressive ‘Bathe in Encounter’ evokes the immersive, full sensory experience of eating a meal. And hung against dark wooden panelling, two pairs of small, unframed canvases by Helen Blake pop like jewels.
Design with a Purpose
At Chapter One we’ve always believed it’s the people that make the atmosphere, but we also understand the value of great design. Everything our guests see and touch has been designed to ensure their experience here is a pleasurable, even sensory one, and not just in terms of their encounter with the food.
So the pieces we’ve commissioned showcase the talents of Irish artists and craftspeople who rank alongside the world’s best. But underpinning and complementing all of it are the interiors themselves, by Irish interior designer Maria MacVeigh. Known for her sleek, pared-back designs and use of luxurious yet understated natural materials, the award-winning MacVeigh has been collaborating with us for over a decade.
These are contemporary interiors that, like our food, let the materials do the talking: every element is carefully curated, yet always with an eye for how people experience the final product. In short, they work. Chairs are comfortable, carpets thick and surfaces soft, ensuring the atmosphere is shaped by conversation, not noise. Sight lines are clear, and every surface invites you to touch it, to inspect it closely with the hand or eye, whether it’s the grain of the parquet or the woven silk wallpaper in burnished gold in the private dining room known as the Jameson Room.
Building on previous refurbishments led by MacVeigh, including the addition of a Chef’s Table in 2011, this latest design phase is the final one in a multi-phase project that has taken over a year to complete.
The Design Details
MacVeigh began in 2017 by adding new carpeting in the main dining spaces, practical yet elegant parquet flooring in the hallway, upholstered banquette seating and, just in the Jameson Room, that tactile silk wallpaper. The materials palette is contemporary yet organic, earthy even: stained oak; dark-grey upholstery fabric with a soft sheen; and a mid-grey carpet with a scattering of abstract willow leaves in mustard, supplied by Stepdevi in London. In each of the two main dining spaces, curved banquette seating ensures that those eating at the central tables have the same intimate experience as diners elsewhere in the restaurant. No-one misses out.
But perhaps the biggest change has been the addition of stained oak panelling on some walls. MacVeigh started last year with a single wall in the first of the two main dining rooms. In the final phase, the same panelling was installed in the second dining room and, most dramatically, in the bar, where new, sleeker chairs offer diners a comfortable perch for their pre-dinner drinks. The juxtaposition of smooth, polished wood with the rough, cut stone of the listed Georgian building’s original walls is beautifully judged.
As ever with this most exacting of designers, the finish and level of detail are impressive.
The overall feel – as is so often the case with Maria’s work – is one of refined, elemental luxury that we believe very much complements our food. But perhaps most importantly for both her and the Chapter One team, the new design continues to function really well, allowing the team to put the focus where it needs to be: on ensuring people enjoy their time here. To the full.
If you’re on Instagram, there surely can’t be a better post to catch first thing every day than Velvet Cloud yoghurt’s regular ‘Good morning Mayo’ videos from their glorious West of Ireland farm, Rockfield Dairy.
Terroir is everything
Wild, oh-so-green and with a sense of the ancient that so defines the landscape of this part of the country, the location says it all really. Sheep have always been good at making the West of Ireland their home, adapting well to its varied, weather-beaten landscape, but the pasture in Mayo must be extra special, because the rich, creamy yoghurt this flock produces is especially delicious.
Mild, Sweet Flavour
Contrary to what people might think at first, sheep’s milk is mild and sweet, and not at all redolent of the farmyard. Many start eating it because compared to cow’s milk, it’s generally easier on the digestion. It also has greater nutritional value and concentrations of proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins.
But forgetting about all that for a second, the key attraction of Michael and Aisling Flanagans’ sheep’s yoghurt is not just its flavour but its unctuous texture and sheer versatility, as it can be used for dishes right across the spectrum, from sweet to savoury.
Chefs as Champions
Chefs certainly can’t get enough of it. Here at Chapter One, our head pastry chef Darren Hogarty (Stan) is a true champion of Velvet Cloud. In fact, their yoghurt has played a starring role in many of his most popular desserts over the last few years, taking myriad forms and guises, from mousses to ice creams.
Here are just a few of his desserts celebrating this beautiful ingredient.
And a few words from Velvet Cloud owners…
Recently we did a little interview with Michael and Aisling about Velvet Cloud, their farm and their future plans. And of course, about their sheep.
Where did the name come from? It’s so distinctive!
When we were starting out worked with a brand agency to come up with a brand look and feel as well as the name. They suggested many names but Velvet Cloud seemed to best represent the luxurious texture, yet healthy pure natural characteristics of the product
What made you think of using sheep’s milk for a yogurt product?
Sheep’s milk dairy products and sheep’s milk yogurt are commonplace in southern Europe. We lived and worked in Italy and France for over 10 years and always wondered why there were no Irish-made sheep’s dairy products in Ireland given we had so many sheep. When we returned to Ireland to live on Michael’s family farm we did some research and found there was a gap in the market and that we should give it a go.
Were there any psychological barriers you felt you needed to break down in order to sell sheep’s milk to an Irish audience who love their cow’s milk?
For Irish chefs there was no psychological barrier at all; they know and love good natural food and ingredients. With consumers it depends. If they are concerned about their digestive wellness or feel they have an allergy to cow dairy, then we have no barrier to overcome. These consumers often come looking to us asking about stockists of our sheep’s yogurt, or a nutritionist or a doctor has recommended sheep’s milk, so again there is no barrier. For other consumers who have never heard of sheep’s yogurt, sometimes they are afraid that it will taste of “sheep” or it might have the slightly stronger taste of goat’s milk but 100% of the time once they taste they are always surprised it tastes so “creamy and mild” .
How many sheep do you keep and what do they eat?
We have about 300 sheep on the farm and milk approx 100 of them at a time. They are on a grass-based diet, with grass outside in the fields approx. 10 months of the year depending on the weather, and if they are inside they are eating grass silage.
Do you have any favourite sheep/lambs?
Siobhan the sheep still has to be the favourite on the farm, as she was our star on the LATE LATE show two years ago, when we milked her live on TV and she took it all in her stride. She now even has her own twitter account @SiobhanTheSheep. Having said that we love them all as they have soft gentle sheepish characters.
You’ve developed a cheese in the last while – any other products in the pipeline? Like ice cream, perhaps?
For now we are focusing on cheese, yogurt and milk. This year is really the first year we have perfected our Rockfield by Velvet Cloud semi-hard sheep’s milk cheese which is aged for three months. Perhaps down the road we will look at other sheep’s cheeses.
what do you love most about sheep farming/milk production?
We get to meet so many creative people, (i.e. chefs) who to us are as much artists as they are chefs. We also love the supportive nature of the Irish chef community. Sometimes if a chef makes a dish with Velvet Cloud they will post it on social media, which is great for us because we get to see what happens to our product once it leaves the farm, but it and also helps us build awareness and spread the word about Velvet Cloud. Stan is an example of someone who is so creative with Velvet Cloud and also so generous in posting, supporting and helping us spread the word.
It’s also a family business and while it’s very hard work, everyone in the family including the kids are involved, so it’s great to be doing something with the entire family even if it’s working!!
how have chefs heard about you?
Social media has been hugely helpful (see comment above), and we also won a EuroToque award for Innovation in Dairy early on when we had just started, which introduced us to a fantastic network and certainly helped a lot.
Why do you think chefs love your yogurt so much? (we all know Stan – in here – is a HUGE fan!)
Sheep’s milk has a much higher solid content when compared to cow’s milk, so it has higher fat and higher protein. This makes it very versatile, it goes in both savoury and sweet dishes. We’ve learnt so much about menus since we started; for example, we would have never thought to put it with fish but it complements seafood really well, and it also works well with lamb and spiced foods. It’s a great alternative to creme fraiche, mayonnaise and cream. Because it contains just sheep’s milk and live yogurt cultures it is also natural; there is nothing added or nothing strained away so it suits healthy menus, and Free From menus too. Chefs tell me it “stands” on its own and has a creamy mouth feel and taste which is why it works so well in both sweet and savoury. They also love the farm to fork story.
And finally, how do you feel the food scene in Mayo has developed in the last while – for both producers AND consumers?
The Mayo food scene has really taken off recently, we now have some excellent producers whereas 10 years ago there were very few. For example there is Andarl Farm – free range pork, Achill Island Lamb, Cuinneog Dairy, Wildwood Vinegars, and a new one to the scene, Noo Chocolates.
Consumers are now lucky enough to have some excellent restaurants where they can sample these products, like House Of Plates and The Dining Room in Castlebar; Sage, Pantry and Corkscrew, Knockranny House and The Tavern in Westport; and of Course Ashford Castle and The Lodge At Ashford in Cong. These restaurants are all fanatical supporters of local Mayo producers but also speciality producers from all across the Island of Ireland. This means that Mayo consumers are exposed to a much wider range of locally produced products than they were in the past, which can be only a good thing for everyone.