Journeys in Taste Interview with Chef Ciarán Sweeney

So much has changed in the past 20 months that for some, it’s difficult to keep up let alone engage with. Negatives can be found here and there and everywhere, but not for Ciarán Sweeney, who started his career at the age of 16 at the Rosapenna Hotel, Co Donegal, and who in 2018 was awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand. The former head chef at Forest & Marcy on Leeson Street, Dublin, is back home in Donegal. He knows only too well that things have changed, and he knows that the pesky pandemic hasn’t been great for everyone. He has been fortunate enough, he says, “to have been able to move home, and to relaunch an existing restaurant. Those two things in themselves are really significant.”

For the past few months, Ciarán has experienced the kind of business that some head chefs can only dream of. The reason is due to, well, his skills in the kitchen and a business acumen that’s as well-cooked as his food. The kitchen in question is located at the Olde Glen Bar & Restaurant in Glen village, close to Carrigart. How Ciarán ended up there is a tale in itself.

“We had plans to come back home, but things were up in the air at the beginning of 2019,” he explains. “I was working on a few projects in Dublin, doing some consultancy work. I’d had it in my mind to move back to Donegal around September 2019, but then Covid arrived in March 2020, and so we eventually moved back home in May of that year.” In the interim period between last summer and earlier this year, he worked at The Lemon Tree, Letterkenny. And then came the opportunity at the Olde Glen. I suggest that he seems to be the kind of person that looks at opportunities and deals with them head on. “You reach a certain level of get up and go, I suppose, but that’s part of the industry I work in. Some things happen that you don’t expect, and you just have to address them and engage with them.”

As the saying goes, Ciarán doesn’t know himself these past months. He had been embedded in Dublin for almost 14 years, and so it’s no surprise when he says, “the first six months back in a rural part of Donegal was a bit strange.” We’ve all been there, of course: lockdowns of varying dimensions, mask-wearing, elbow-bumping, generally avoiding social interactions of many kinds. “It was difficult to meet up with people, so there was a surreal aspect to it. But then after Christmas, I enjoyed having time off, being in the countryside, being beside the sea, swimming, surfing, I even took up golf.” It was a huge contrast to what he and his family had been used to when he worked in Dublin. The phrase ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ springs to mind. “My young daughter started school recently, so to have been able to spend so much time together was great.” Ciarán agrees that life, or certainly a part of it, seems to “have come full circle”, and doesn’t see a return to urban-oriented work on any horizon any time soon. “City life? Not in the foreseeable, as I’m quite happy where I am.”

He also doesn’t miss the cut and thrust of city business due to the simple fact of rural business being equally hectic. “We came from lockdown to opening and relaunching the restaurant here, and it has been such a great season that I haven’t noticed any decrease in activity. It might change in the off-season, of course, when it quietens down. I’ll be able to reflect more then, but for now we’re full steam ahead, doing about 80 covers a night over six nights a week.” It has been amazing, he says, with people travelling to the village for ‘destination’ cuisine. “The feedback received from customers and food writers has so far been brilliant, very positive. Everything has just gone from strength to strength. I’m sure a lull is on the way, but that’s the beauty of being away from the city – there will be lull periods. We just haven’t experienced them yet!”

Ciarán admits that in the lead-up to reopening the Olde Glen, some eyebrows were raised as to the risks involved. There was, he hints, a particular air of, ‘did I really think I could get away with doing something like that in Donegal?’ This is fair enough, of course, especially in such risk-averse times, but what the sceptics didn’t bargain for was the chef’s background. “I was always told that if you were going to do something then you might as well do it right, or don’t do it at all. Besides, it’s always good to change things, and with that you need to be willing to take people with you.”

What has changed, he says, is the food. “I’m not really doing fine dining but rather refined pub-style food.” He is not deliberately putting items on the menu that people wouldn’t be accustomed to, he adds, but rather “slowly taking people on a journey with regards to fresh local produce cooked very well and treated with respect. That’s the ethos we started off with.” The most important aspect for him over the past few months was to source the best ingredients in what he has described as a “marriage between mountains and sea”. In that regard, he admits, it is much easier in his home locale than it would be in Dublin. “We are surrounded by fresh produce. Fish, meat, vegetables, everything is here on the doorstep. Especially over the past five or so years, people are willing to source better products – the food markets here are absolutely jammed from morning to evening, and people are open to that way of shopping now.”

Everything takes time, so it’s just a matter of gradually changing the way we think about certain things – that seems to be one philosophy that Ciarán is living part of his life by. Here’s another one: “Some people look at change in different ways, some negative, some positive, and it’s all about how you move from those positions. I always look at the positive side of things – life is too short.”

Ciarán Sweeney’s ‘Bring the Restaurant Home’ Experience, as part of the Chef Supper Club, takes place on September 11th. He will be showcasing his menu live from the kitchen at Olde Glen. For further details visit www.thechefsupperclub.com 

WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA

Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland

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