Sometimes, dreams really do come true. Take, for example, Audrey Byrne, who had something of a Road to Damascus experience several years ago whilst on a walking holiday in Spain. It was during the holiday that she realised she wanted, or needed, to look at her career options.
“I’ve always loved cooking,” says Audrey. “I cooked with my grandmother as a child. When I was 16, I snuck off to complete the Cert entrance exam to gain entry to train as a chef. I was successful, but my mother had other ideas, and so I became an accountant.” With numbers, figures, spreadsheets and bottom lines in her life, Audrey says she parked the dream for many years. “I always enjoyed cooking, dining out and trying new experiences. I always had the dream, but I never thought it would become a reality.”
Despite her ambitions to be a chef, Audrey reckons that life, with its many unpredictable twist and turns, simply got in the way. It wasn’t until she reached the age of 50 that she sensed it was her time to stretch out into new career areas. “My children were grown up, and I felt that I had never achieved anything in my life. I had always pushed my children to do something that they loved – maybe because I wasn’t allowed to – and they all did; they all followed their dreams and have careers they really enjoy, and I am proud of that. I think it was seeing them graduate and doing something they really loved that made me rethink. I decided to practice what I preached and follow my dream.”
After the walking holiday, Audrey set about to make her dream materialise by signing up for a six-week cookery course with none other than Michelin-star chef, JP McMahon, the owner of Galway’s acclaimed Aniar restaurant (which Audrey had visited a few years previously). Another factor in the re-evaluation of her life was, she says, when her grandmother became ill. Commuting from Kildare to Galway, late nights and early mornings, became the norm for the duration of the course. Audrey says with little surprise that she “loved every minute of it, and would highly recommend it as a fantastic introduction to cookery. JP was a great teacher, and we all sat around talking and eating at the end of the evening, continually learning.” As usual with some aspects of life, there is a bittersweet aftertaste. “At the age of 102, my grandmother passed away in the middle of the course, but I felt she was happy for me.”
Audrey returned to JP’s kitchen in 2020 to assist him with a subsequent six-week cookery course. “I prepped in the afternoons for the evening class, washed lots of dishes and, in general, just helped. I suppose I learned so much more. JP was a great sounding board for me as he listened to my ideas and gave me advice. It was great to just be able to chat to him.”
While all of this was taking place, Audrey and her husband, Sean, had bought a manor house in Monasterevin, County Kildare. Known locally as The Ranch (so named by a previous owner who was a founding member of Punchestown Racecourse), Audrey says there was never an intention to open it as a restaurant, but by the time the pandemic settled in the seed was sown. The house’s charming reception rooms were converted into a dining space with a capacity for a dozen people, and in July 2020 Grooms at the Ranch opened its doors offering a seven-course fine dining tasting menu with paired wines. To say the venture was a roaring success is an understatement, but Covid-19 cared little about that and so as one lockdown followed another the restaurant closed and opened and closed and opened.
“Every time we re-opened it was just like starting again,” recalls Audrey. “We would open for a few weeks, people would hear about us and we would be booked up only to close again and have to cancel bookings. We were very lucky that we were doing this from our home, so at least we had no rent to pay, and so on, but since we have been open again we have been fully booked.” And that, she says with obvious enthusiasm, “is fabulous.”
The primary experience that Audrey and Sean have developed at Grooms at the Ranch is, essentially, a restaurant that they would like to go to themselves. “One of my favourite restaurants is The Witchery in Edinburgh. It is all dark and cosy with lots of candles, and that’s totally us. We want people to come, relax and enjoy their evening, the whole evening, with us – the table is yours for the evening, whether you spend one hour or four hours with us. We do 10 courses in total, which includes amuse bouche, snacks between courses and homemade petit fours. We also do paired wines chosen by Jean Smullen, wine writer at The Sunday World, and/or paired beers from local breweries. We have guests who have stayed six-eight hours and have become friends. We have guests who text us the next day to thank us, leave gifts at our door and send us flowers when we win awards. How amazing is that? We absolutely love what we do, and I genuinely feel we must be doing something right.”
Audrey isn’t wrong, as her restaurant recently won the Best Country House Restaurant of the Year award at the Yes Chef 2022 event. Winning something like that, I suggest, must surely validate not only all the hard work but also her decision to jump from one career to another? Audrey agrees, but she is modest enough to not take all the praise.
“I couldn’t do this without the support of my family,” she emphasises. “My husband grows our lovely fresh herbs and vegetables as well as helps with the washing up. My son Alex and his girlfriend Chloe are Front-of-House, so we all work together but, yes, winning or being nominated for an award is validation for all the hard work that goes into making Grooms at the Ranch such a success. For me, it means achieving some respect as a chef. I feel I am no longer the accountant who likes to cook and that I have gained recognition among my peers.”
Now that life is, more or less, getting back to some level of normality, I ask what future plans there might be for Grooms at the Ranch? Perhaps with the last two years of uncertainty in mind, Audrey isn’t outlining any significant strategies.
“I want to be lucky enough to keep doing what I love. I don’t want to expand, I don’t want to move premises because what we have here is special. I just hope I can keep doing this, making people happy and making friends.”
Grooms At The Ranch
Proprietor: Audrey Byrne
Tel: (086) 820 1264