'Welcome Home', the passport control man grinned at me in Dublin airport. I nearly split my face grinning back. Are there any two sweeter words?
What about - 'Yes CHEF'?
Last weekend I went home to experience my very first Irish kitchen.
I had the fortune of getting to know talented Head Chef, Gary O'Hanlon last year. Gary is the man responsible for the award winning Viewmount House restaurant in Longford. You might also have seen him on RTE's 'The Restaurant' and he just recently won the Best Chef in Longford Award. His encouragement has kept me motivated on this crazy journey.
So when he invited me to spend a weekend working with him I jumped up and down at the chance. A dignified jumping up and down of course. After landing in Dublin on Friday night I jetted across to Longford early on Saturday morning.
Going into a new kitchen is a terrifying fun-filled experience. Finding out where everything is, praying you won't embarass yourself (too much) and wanting to learn everything you can. Gary showed me around and set me to work on prep. His energy is contagious and you can see straight away how much he loves the restaurant.
His menu highlights local produce and his main focus is that it must always taste fabulous. He got that one right anyway. It not only tastes fabulous but looks beautiful too. Throughout the day he explained each dish and why they were doing things a certain way. The emphasis is always on developing flavours and doing it the best way possible.
Professional kitchens are always fast paced, but right before service it gets turned up a notch. On Saturday night in Viewmount it was like someone twisted a speed dial that tightens the atmosphere and you literally can feel it quicken.
During service I stood by Gary and Sous Chef Daniel at the pass and tried to take everything in. It's impossible to take it all in: Gary shouting out orders, Daniel plating up, waitresses coming in and out. Roasting hot stoves, 10 pans on the go, 15 dishes being worked on at once. It's a buzz like no other and there are a thousand little things happening at the same time. Watching four Chefs dart in around each other, plating up dishes is a spine tingling experience. Each dish must taste and look perfect. As Gary put it - 'If it's on a plate I'm happy with it'.
Then I had the honour of eating my way through the menu. Standing at the pass eating beside the roaring Chef who created the dishes is perhaps not the most relaxing meal, but one of the best. Like pork cheeks that fall apart in your mouth, quail leg confit, mussels, nettle risotto...and the list went on... Each dish has a combination of flavours that sing a little song in your mouth and make you feel happy. Pure happiness. In response to roars of 'Did you enjoy that Laoise?' I struggled to find the words to describe it properly.
Later on I got to experience the pastry kitchen and help Pastry Chef Sam plate up desserts like peanut butter parfait and crème caramel with black carrot cake (coloured with squid ink). Away from the main kitchen it's a little cooler, but the intense pace is still there.
That night I lay awake running through the day in my head, wishing it was time to do it all over again. Then it was. Having won The Georgina Campbell Guide's Sunday Lunch of the year 2012, Viewmount is always booked out on Sundays.
After working on prep Gary told me I'd be plating up the ham hock terrine I'd made with him the day before and would be responsible for it during service.
Cue heart racing and sweaty, shaky hands. There were quenelles involved. Oh dear.
I tried to look calm. This is what my dreams are made of and no words can do justice to how I felt plating up and handing the dishes over to the pass...SERVICE! It's these type of moments that make all the work and sleepless nights worth it.
My first terrine plated up at the pass
So that's it, 36 hours in Longford. What a 36 hours. To complete the experience Gary kindly let me accompany him during his demonstration at the Gourmet Greystones festival on Sunday evening.
Phew. I fell onto the plane back to London, tired but oh so happy.
Of course there're also some details that Gary promised to keep secret. Like broadbeangate. But that's a whole other story and sure you don't want to hear about that now do you? There were broad beans and a lot of peeling going on. Let's just leave it at that.
Thank you to Gary for letting me into his amazing kitchen and Daniel, Sam, Woijtek and Mateus for making me feel so welcome. And to the friendliest hosts, Beryl and James for their hospitality. If you're looking for a weekend away in Ireland in gorgeous surroundings with exquisite food, don't look any further. I can't wait to see when Viewmount has a star hanging over its front door.
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