What is the Core Ingredient? Meeting Dermot Gannon, The Old Convent, Clogheen Cahir.

 

old convent 1My mind is preoccupied with questions to ask Dermot Gannon when, on Sunday, December 8th , I traveled to Clogheen near Cahir, with Seosamh and my three sons, to meet the chef and owner of ‘The Old Convent’.

Specifically I have been thinking about the overlaps between creating art and creating dishes for others to eat. Neveana Sticic writes that  food functions symbolically as a communicative practice by which we create, manage and share meaning with others. Understanding culture, habits, rituals and tradition can be explored through food and the way others perceive it’. ( Hemispheres: No 28 , 2013).  This is an academic way of saying food preparation, like art, allows the cook/home chef, to create something that has a symbolic meaning – that expresses something about themselves and about the world he/she lives in.

Is the art of being an artist not very much like the art of being a chef?

There was a weather alert in place on the same day we were heading down to South Tipperary as yet another storm hits Ireland. Intermittent busts of heavy rain lashed down as we drove along the M8, listening to the start of Christmas music being played on Lyric FM.

We branch off to take the side roads leading down to Clogheen (from the Irish Chloichín an Mhargaidh, “Little Stone of the Market”) and the sun emerges from the clouds. We all are struck by the incredible beauty of the landscape.

The Old Convent

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Winter at The Old Convent

The Old Convent is situated in the shadow of the Knockmealdown mountains in this unique part of Tipperary. The building stands out in the landscape. It was, as the name suggests, the home of the Mercy nuns for several decades. In fact it was designed by one of the nuns in 1886 (Mary Ann Vaughan, in religion Sr. M. Bernard) who was clearly a very talented woman. When the Sisters left the house in 1991, it first became a fishing lodge and then a holistic healing centre. In 2006 Dermot Gannon and his American wife Christine took up residence and The Old Convent was reborn as an innovative foodie destination in Ireland.

We arrive a few minutes ahead of the scheduled time. Seosamh and Étienne go for a little stroll in the grounds, while myself, Don and Joss get organised to meet Dermot. We sit down in the front room, at a lovely old table with matching chairs and the conversation begins.

‘You are not originally from Tipperary?’ I inquire.  ‘No – from Connemara, one of 11 kids, council house, no background in food and cooking or things like that’, Dermot says, matter of factly. He tells me he got a job at fourteen years of age washing pots and peeling potatoes at a nearby hotel – Renvyle House, in Galway and maintained that job for three years while finishing in secondary school. His interests were not academic.

Motivator

So, what motivated him to get work in the hotel?. A sense of an innate talent or ‘vocation’?. ‘The motivator’ Dermot tells me ‘was to simply earn my own money and avoid days on the bog! “.

Dermot got a job at seventeen at  Rosleague Manor Hotel under the mentorship and guidance of Paddy Foyle . ‘He taught me how to cook. He saw that I had a natural kind of ability…. which didn’t come from anywhere really as far as I can tell’,  Dermot suggest. ”Luckily and crucially for me,  my parents imparted a strong work ethic which is more beneficial than anything else in this industry”

This was the ‘old school way’ of getting into the food business, I now understand. One worked in a kitchen and learned as an apprentice – this gave a rounded and broad understanding of the business. ‘I found something I was really good at and enjoyed’ Dermot tells me ‘ and it was one for the few sectors where there was employment at that time’. We return to this later in the interview.

After his apprenticeship he leased a restaurant from the same Paddy Foyle at the young age of twenty two and ran it himself for seven years. He tells me he wasn’t really ready for it, in some respects, from a financial management point of view. But Dermot  learned fast.  He made mistakes the first year and quickly adapted to sustain the business. Another aspect of this job, at an early age in his life, that appealed to him, was that the restaurant was closed from October to March every year – ‘so I would head off back- packing in Australia,  New Zealand , Estonia – lots of different places’.

Colorado

At twenty nine Dermot decided he needed a more dramatic change so he left Ireland to go to Colorado for two years. This was a totally new experience in learning how to run a bigger sized restaurant. ‘Get it out fast, get it out big and make as much as you can’ he tells me was the business model. He continues: ‘I was used to a small restaurant and dealing directly with farmers, fishermen and growers. In Colorado everything came in, in an artic truck. I spent more time on the computer than in the kitchen – but I learned very fast and how to deal with volume and to give people what they want. Not what you thought they should be eating .’

So, Dermot took this on as a challenge and enjoyed upgrading his skill base to deal with the large numbers. ‘It was a stepping stone for me’ he explains. ‘I knew I wasn’t going to stay in Colorado’.  A critical stepping stone none the less as he also met his American wife Christine during this time. They decided to return to Ireland together but went travelling to China and other places on route.  Christine wanted to do a Masters in European Development at University College, Cork .

Cahir

This was the early Noughties in Ireland. Dermot tells me that ‘I  started looking for a restaurant to lease, but this was the height of the Celtic Tiger. The key money alone in Cork was €200,000. So, I traveled around looking for a possible place, but it was proving hard to find. Then we saw a lease for sale in Cahir, so we drove up, in a rental car, from Cork to look at the place – ‘The Bell Pub’in Cahir. Tom Shannahan  was the owner’.

There was a restaurant upstairs which was ran by Michael Clifford, a well-known chef who was then in his twilight years and he was moving to Clonmel so the lease was available. ‘We walked in and asked to meet Tom the owner of the premises and I asked what the key money would be.  Tom  asked: ‘what is key money?’.

Dermot agreed to take the lease.

He tells me about how various things fell into place then, to allow them to get a small loan to upgrade the premises they were leasing.. and ultimately lead to their legacy in the history of the old convent building.  ‘Christine went to the AIB in Cork to see could we get a small loan and she was met by a woman who was unconventional, and well disposed to the idea and she knew this area of Tipperary well. She had two friends here who were the two ladies running the old convent at that time as a healing center’.

‘The incredible twists and turns of life ‘ I comment. Christine got the loan and their AIB manager and her two friends, then running a business at the old convent building, were among the first diners they had at their newly leased premises in Cahir. Dermot started doing bar-style food like fish and chips and dishes he had perfected in Colorado and the business took off really well , aided by his natural talent and dedication.

A New Phase for the Old Convent

After a while based in Cahir,  Dermot and Christine were looking for someplace to buy to live.

The women running the holistic centre at the old convent , who were by now friends of theirs, told them they were selling the building and maybe they might try to see could they raise the finance to buy it. Demot laughs and tells me: ‘they were overestimating our financial situation at the time!’

While Dermot and Christine were doing very well in their rented premises in Cahir  – this would present a very large investment and commitment and a loan/mortgage would be needed obviously. Dermot says they were turned down about ten times by the Banks but eventually, with a little help from family, they were able to secure the finance to buy the premises.

Exciting and Challenging Project

I feel envious just thinking of how exciting the project must have been….to have found such a unique building, in such a stunning setting, and to have the combined skill base that this couple have, to make it a success.

Christine has an eye and attention to detail, financial management skills, and her role is ‘front of house’. Dermot is the innovative chef ‘back of house’ – though this is not the term obviously,  essential for such an establishment to work. These two individuals and their strengths, were destined to turn the project into a success.

And they did.

Old Convent Clogheen

Dermot also had a unique way of running the restaurant – he wanted to cook for a certain amount of people, at one time. They can take 36 at any one sitting and they do this just at weekends at 8pm. ‘I can’t think of anywhere else doing what we were doing, at that time, which was a multi tasting menu’.

What also appealed to Dermot about this way of running a restaurant, which has become popular in Ireland, was that he could change the menu every day. ‘Within reason’ he advises, ‘as we got to know our clientele’.

Managing a Small Family Run Business

Dermot explains to me there is a lot of ‘prep’ involved on the nights they do these sit down tasting menus. This leads us into a chat about the huge responsibility it is running and managing your own business, in particular a business like this where Dermot’s skills in the kitchen are vital. ‘If I am not here there is no service’. He tells me that only happened once in the fourteen years that they have been running the business. ‘If we are not here it does not happen’ Demot explains, giving me some idea of the enormity of the commitment involved running a small boutique-style business like this. The couple also have two children now aged 7 and 3, since they bought the premises.

Becoming a Chef

Our conversation then veers back into a discussion of the training involved in becoming a chef.

Firstly Dermot discusses the pros and cons of learning to become a chef in the older style way as an apprenticeship, in contrast to the more conventional approach today which is to go to a cookery school or college to learn your ‘métier’.

‘There is good and bad to the new way’ Dermot explains. ‘The bad is people come out of college or cookery school and want to be head chef straight away but their knowledge base would be slim – they would be good at a couple of things….some can make a living out of that, like open a food truck or a café…..but the old system of apprenticeship, where you do a year here and a few years there…that model for training people in not really around anymore.’

The Art of being a Chef?

We are getting into some of the areas here that I have been thinking on for some time and I mention at the start – perhaps I might even take them further into a possible MA thesis, if I am fortunate enough.

Dermot knows I have an interest in art, and an interest in food, and I am looking at where perhaps the overlaps historically and culturally lie. I explain to him there are three ways to approach this,  which is largely unexplored academically.

The first would be to look at  how food has influenced the painting of art historically – think of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ as one classic example but there are millions of others.

The second would be to look at a relatively new trend in food circles which is the process of ‘plating up’. Instagram has been a great facilitator here and there are many chefs and restaurants that really focus their energy on this side of the restaurant business.  Cookery programmes on TV and food magazines and books have all zoned in on this aspect of the food business.

Thirdly, and perhaps the one that most interests me, is the idea that the chef, or indeed the home cook, anyone who  approaches the task of feeding oneself or others, consciously, aware that the exercise is an expression of personality, in so many respects, are displaying a skill, an enthusiasm – an aesthetic ability. All essential ingredients if one is to be deemed an artist. The practice of preparing food  is around since our very beginnings as a species, perhaps the first manifestations of humans, attempting to express themselves, depended on an everyday object – food.

‘Art, the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination typically in a visual form such as a painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. Art is something we do: a verb. Art is an expression of our thoughts, emotions, intuitions and desires but it is even more personal than that: it is about sharing the way we experience the world, which for many is an extension of personality’ –  ‘Art as a Means of Communication’ , Steemit. 

Food and how we prepare it is a communicative practice, as I quoted at the start of this blog, rather like art it is a way of sharing the way we experience the world, also a communicative practice, as Steemit presents it.

The Core Ingredient (s): the Gift and the Produce

So I put the question to Dermot: ‘What you do is a form of artistry I suggest, but you probably would never think of it like that ?’.

‘No’ says Dermot. ‘I wouldn’t have’.  He tells me he sees what he does more as a ‘craft’.

‘I am a introvert by nature and not a great communicator and Christine often accuses me of ‘ communicating feelings through cooking instead of words’,  which can be frustrating for her at times I suppose.”

This opens up a fascinating debate about what the difference actually is between an art and a craft . The former is considered more universal in application – someone who does something to be admired, rather than to be used. The latter, crafts people, are perhaps perceived as making things that are ‘useful’ – of everyday application.

But really this distinction could be taken apart and questioned as I do.

Dermot continues to explain to me that he can find it hard to discipline himself: ‘to hone his craft’. This is his expression. He thinks this difficulty is possibly because he has a natural gift as a chef,  as was spotted when he was a teenager in Galway and as his career obviously has demonstrated. But what I find interesting is that Dermot juxtaposes two things here: a natural gift at preparing food: and : a ‘honed craft’ where one is trained  to focus more on what they do. The visuals?.

‘I find if I get too  wrapped up in how a dish looks I  loose the spontaneity and  freedom that attracts me to the craft in the first place’ he explains.

He continues and is intent to emphasize to me that: ‘I am more interested in products and suppliers as opposed to methods ..if someone has a product like the Ballinwillin farm venison or wild boar, Ummera smoked ducks, great Tipperary cheeses or a great piece of well aged  beef…that is what motivates me. The visuals would not be the first, it wouldn’t be the second,it may not even  be the third thing I would think about.  I think of taste, texture, balance and only then would I think of how will I make it look attractive’.

 

Old Convent Clogheen

 

So, the ‘visuals’ are not the first thing Dermot thinks about when he is in the kitchen. Though this of course does not suggest – to me – his skill and gift is not an art form.

‘And are local produce important to you?’ I ask as I quickly check my final few questions ‘Irish produce are important to me.’ Dermot explains ‘I don’t get totally hung up on local as it is small island so why not take advantage of that. The core ingredient would be Irish. That would be very important to me. That is what gets me excited. Not the way something looks on the plate, but a really, really good ingredient.’

Food for Thought

Time to depart and I have a lot of ‘food for thought’, to use an appropriate expression. Dermot shows us all the stained-glass windows of the former chapel in the convent, which is now used as the dining room.

A gifted and hardworking chef who has learnt the business through an array of work experience; travel experience and trial and error in the kitchen. He was also fortunate the way some opportunities came his way: ‘It is one thing’ he tells me’, ‘having a talent and another thing getting an opportunity. It is 95% perspiration and 5% inspiration. It is hard bloody work’ he says

I suppose anything one does , with dedication, any vocation, has to take tremendous time and effort and hard work.

Hard work would certainly be a ‘core ingredient’ in Dermot’s experience . And there are two others: – the ‘natural gift’ and the produce used.

What he and many others do in the kitchen, is a communicative and creative act – an expression of personality.

An art, perhaps?

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