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.
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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.
Wicklow Wonders: Pristine Veg from the Garden of Ireland
It might be very late, but Spring has finally arrived, at least on Castleruddery Organic Farm in Wicklow, where, after a pretty dismal winter, spirits are rising as the first of the season’s vegetables are harvested and seeds sown in their thousands in anticipation of another successful growing year.
With its lush valleys and temperate climate, it’s not for nothing that mountainous, elemental Co. Wicklow is known as the Garden of Ireland. It’s no surprise, then, to find that Hilda Crampton and Dominic Quinn chose the lovely town of Donard to set up Castleruddery in the late 1980s.
Early adopters who have inspired others
Nestled into the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains, the farm is one of Ireland’s longest running organic farms, certified since 1989 no less, when organic was not the rage or movement that it is now.
But Hilda and Dominic were determined, and their hard work has paid off, not just in the amazing and wide variety of vegetables produced at Castleruddery, but in the way they have inspired other growers too, giving rise to a cluster of organic farms now dotted across the Wicklow countryside, geographically distinct but united by the desire to show that when done right, organic farming can be both ethically sound and commercially viable.
From kitchen garden to viable farm
What started out as a kitchen garden has grown to around three hectares of mixed vegetables on a ten-hectare plot that also features a mix of old permanent pasture, oak and ash woodland, and oats. The produce is sold in farmers’ markets and in the on-site farm shop, but canny chefs have long cottoned on to the quality and flavour of the veg, choosing to showcase them in dishes that put them front and centre, or at least as co-stars that get their moment in the limelight alongside meat, fish or fowl.
Not a pesticide in sight
Here at Chapter One, we’ve been a fan and supporter of Hilda and Dominic’s since the early 2000s. This is as fresh and good as it gets when it comes to veg, but it’s crucial, too, that as well as looking and tasting sensational, everything that comes out of Castleruddery is free of the pesticides and chemicals that are commonly used today by large-scale commercial growers. As with all our ingredients, we like our vegetables to be as fresh and unadorned as possible, so we prioritise those who grow not just for flavour but for purity too, because we believe it adds to the experience of eating our food.
Seasonality on a plate
And of course chefs particularly celebrate the arrival of Spring, as finally the supply of seasonal vegetables starts to expand, making their presence felt in the kitchen and on the plate.
So we think this is the perfect time to feature Castleruddery in our new series of profiles of suppliers, with a view to showcasing the people whose beautiful produce we choose for our simply because we believe it’s the best.
We recently did an interview with Hilda and Dominic, who were happy to share a few snippets about Castleruddery and the pleasures of being an organic grower.
Where did you get the idea to set up an organic farm in the 1980s?
We kept a large kitchen garden for our family and people started calling wanting to buy fresh produce, so it grew from that
And why organic?
Oh, organic is the only way – why would you want to eat anything else? At the time there was very little organic produce available and it was novel and very exciting.
How important, if at all, has the restaurant and catering business been in the success of Castleruddery?
It is very enjoyable to produce for restaurants; there is great feedback from the chefs. They get so excited when they visit our little farm and see the veggies growing. You can see the dishes being planned there and then!
Where do you find your inspiration and motivation – what keeps you going in this business?
Magic happens each year when the new seedlings emerge. It’s very rewarding watching it all unfold. We can’t help ourselves, it’s what we do!
You started the business at a time when organic food was very much a niche product. Things have changed hugely since then. To what do you attribute the change?
Consumer awareness, travel, increased availability and a greater interest in food.
What sort of changes have you seen in terms of demand for particular types or categories of vegetables? E.g. greens, potatoes, exotic varieties.
Sadly people no longer eat much cabbage or potatoes. Maybe they have forgotten how to cook them?
Do you have a favourite vegetable that you grow – and if so, why?
At the moment it is globe artichokes and rainbow chard. Both are very pleasant to produce and look and taste brilliant.
Where do you get inspiration or demand for new varieties to grow?
From seed producers, other growers and consumers.
Do you follow international trends, or do your buyers ask for particular types?
Not really – we focus on what grows well on our farm. Occasionally chefs will ask for an unusual variety and if we can source a suitable organic seed we will give it a go.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in commercial organic growing since you started?
There is much more agronomy advice available now for organic growers which is a fantastic support. Sales tend to be directly to the consumer which keeps the connection to the land available
Are there any future plans or innovations that you’re happy to share with us?
Just to grow our veggies better than ever!
Finally, what do you find most satisfying or rewarding about running an organic farm? (e.g. lifestyle, work/life balance, living in/with nature etc.)
We are so privileged to live and work in this beautiful part of Wicklow, to care for and improve our land and of course to eat so well.