Fine dining in Ireland has come a long way over the last three decades. With new eateries opening all the time, standards have been rising consistently and Ireland now has eleven Michelin Star establishments; the most we have ever had at one time. The talent and experience in the best restaurants has inspired generations of people to enter the industry and carve out a career in food.
One restaurant in particular is responsible for launching and progressing the careers of some of Ireland’s best chefs, managers and service people. Since opening their doors in 1989, l’Ecrivain has become synonymous with exceptional fine dining experiences and is one of Ireland’s best restaurants. Owners Derry and Sallyanne Clarke are pillars of the food community and their contribution to the industry over the last number of years is immeasurable. As they celebrate 27 years in business, I got the chance to go behind the scenes and meet the team behind one of Ireland’s most iconic establishments.
As you step beneath the archway on Lower Baggot Street for the first time, you cannot help but be struck by the culinary significance of l’Ecrivain. A household name for nearly thirty years, the team have continuously set the bar for industry standards, creating a five star experience for each and every guest. Sallyanne says in order to do that you have to have the whole package. “There’s so many restaurants and there’s so much choice out there, what brings people back isn’t just the food, it’s that whole package. It’s got to be a nice place, it’s got to be warm and welcoming, it’s got to be comfortable and most importantly it has got to be clean.”
The whole package in l’Ecrivain also consists of lots of ‘little touches’ that add up to make the perfect experience. The team know when to engage with customers and when to hold back, they remember personal details about customers like certain allergies and dislikes and each guest is greeted, welcomed and thanked at the end of their evening.
A lot of work goes into making sure each guest experiences these gestures and that service runs smoothly. Balazs is the Front of House Supervisor and has been working in l’Ecrivain for four years. He says it’s important that the front of house team are aware of how much work goes into the food and the individual dishes and that the chefs know what it takes to make the service great. “To be honest there’s so much going on behind the scenes, lots of set up. You need to make sure everything is 100%, especially on this level. At the end of the day, it’s not only about putting a plate in front of our guests and leaving the table, it’s actually a big amount of work so we do loads of staff training.”
It is vitally important for Sallyanne that customers are unaware of the effort that goes into making service perfect. “People say about your service being seamless and wonderful, it takes a lot of work to get it done that way. They see us gliding on the water like swans, they don’t see us paddling like ducks underneath. And that’s the secret to getting the whole thing done.”
The key to looking and being seamless is communication, something the whole team prioritises. Front Office Manager Diana Cantor liaises with customers and every department of the restaurant to ensure their needs and requirements are met. “Everybody has to know what’s going on so we have a pretty good system in place and with everyone’s help we make it work. Obviously I have a very close relationship with the restaurant manager, if I don’t pass on relevant information you will have less than happy customers.”
Server Virginia Anton explains that everyone helps each other and works across several different areas so it is important that the whole team are aware of what is going on at all times. “The communication has to be perfect. ‘Don’t top up the water on position two’, ‘table six are OK for wine’. It’s very important for the customer, we have to keep talking. For example, in the Samsung kitchen today we have 24 people. I didn’t bring any of the courses but I know that position six is allergic to mussels. That’s the point, that you know that. You have to pay attention, you have to be very focused. You cannot be hungover here! You must be at your best.”
The communication between departments can occasionally be tense or lacking in some restaurants as the kitchen clashes with front of house. Not so that you would notice here at l’Ecrivain. Sous Chef Patrick Donovan says that this is what happens when it is all about egos and it doesn’t do anyone any favours. “If it happens you have to put that aside and go listen, we’re in a restaurant, we have to get on. If I do a bad job it doesn’t go well for you, equally if you do a bad job it doesn’t go well for me. So we have to kind of meet in the middle, look at each other in the eye and go OK, the best thing we can do is just work together and everything will go fine. Inevitably there will be clashes sometimes but five minutes later you have to forget about that and get on with your job, move on to the next thing.”
Clashes are certainly unavoidable in a restaurant where everybody is held to such high standards. The team are in agreement that most of these are nothing more than family spats, when you spend so much time together. In fact, the word family was used several times to describe the close bond the team has. Chef de Partie Rebecca Souza states emphatically that she is one of the lads. “A kitchen is a kitchen and we spend so long together, like the whole day. You become a family after a while, we are spending so many hours together there’s no other option than being a family. I’d say it’s all kitchens but in here it’s a really special bond.”
This particular bond extends to the separate pastry kitchen where chefs Laura Allen and Florent la Monaca have their own space. She says they make a good team. “I’m not going to lie, we work really well together. We get on, we even spend our days off together sometimes. Everyone asks what we talk about all day for hours standing beside each other but we find there’s no silence that’s for sure!” Flo agrees, joking that Laura can be a moody girl sometimes. “It’s good, it’s actually perfect, we get on very well together. The team is very good, we all get on well, kind of like a small family you know. We have good craic and then at the same time we have the professional team that delivers.”
Right now that team consists of around 40 staff members and Sallyanne maintains that everybody pitches in and helps each other out. “We don’t stand on ceremony here, everybody has a job to do. So if you are late or you don’t do your job, it’s not me or Derry you’re letting down, you’re letting down the team. There’s no ‘I’ in team and that’s the way we set it up so there’s no chiefs here, we’re all Indians. So if everybody does the job that they’re supposed to do it’s a very well-oiled machine and that’s basically what it’s all about.”
In a transitory industry such as theirs, l’Ecrivain have created a positive working atmosphere that people don’t want to leave. Restaurant Manager Darren D’Arcy has been working there for over ten years and he makes the point that most potential staff members want to get the Michelin experience on their CV before moving on. He likes to invest in his team members and reach a level of longevity. “We have quite a few members of the team that worked here for a long time, we had a sommelier Martina who worked here for 21 years. It’s important that we have continuity of staff, particularly when it comes to regular customers, they don’t like to see new faces every time they come in.”
One of the main reasons that staff stay in the restaurant is that their skills are valued and hard work is rewarded. Supervisor Balazs started out as a Chef de Rang before his promotion 18 months ago while Front Office Manager Diana began her seven year career in l’Ecrivain as a receptionist before taking on extra responsibilities in her managerial role. Darren says that people here at l’Ecrivain appreciate their efforts being rewarded. “We have a good eye for people with merit. For me, everything is based on merit, if you work hard and show potential we will all encourage you to push forward so from that perspective it’s a really good place to work. We’re very encouraging, we’re very open so if somebody has a good idea to make service more efficient, more professional, if we think it’s going to work we will implement it.”
Balazs agrees that Derry, Sallyanne and the whole management team really invest in training and development, giving everyone the opportunity to learn and grow. “Derry and Sallyanne are really good owners and they look after the staff as well. It’s a good place to work. I mean I’m too young to spend my time in a place I don’t like so… Sallyanne has a lovely personality. She’s really funny and good craic to be honest. At the end of the day it is a business and it is serious on one level but you need to enjoy what you’re doing because otherwise you’re just going to be clocking in and out.”
Darren appreciates the freedom he is given in his role and the respect he is given means he will be staying put. “It is a great place to work, every day is enjoyable, every day is new it’s brilliant. Sallyanne and Derry have obviously given me the flexibility to implement systems and in that respect my hands aren’t tied, I’m not restricted, I’m very much part of the team that’s great. It’s a fantastic place to work, I don’t plan on going anywhere.”
Even those who leave seem to find their way back eventually, Sallyanne admits that l’Ecrivain is like a Hotel California, “you check out but you don’t leave”. Many staff members who go on to do other things are welcomed back because they part on good terms. “We don’t lose contact with people when they leave. It’s always nice to leave on a high and always to stay in touch with people.” In fact Derry and Sallyanne have just been at the wedding of one of their old managers. Derry says it was nice to be invited and they always try to look after their staff. “Most chefs do that, try to be generous and look after people. I think that’s why we’re chefs. They’re a good team, they really are.”
The team’s hard work is also rewarded in the kitchen as the team of chefs is constantly learning and improving with a view to promotion. Sous Chef Patrick says the best part of his job is seeing that investment in the other chefs come to fruition. “We’ve got a few guys that are just growing into themselves now, really pushing on and doing really well. You don’t have to constantly keep an eye on them or give out to them about stuff, they’re just on the ball now. It’s a very good feeling, it’s a very big sense of pride and I can’t say that enough about some of them because they are fantastic. That’s where your hard work goes when you’re a head chef or sous chef in a place like this.”
The camaraderie in the kitchen comes from the top down as Derry is frequently there, despite his busy schedule. Patrick says he brings a great energy into the kitchen. “He is always in the kitchen asking about menus and coming up with menus and stuff, it’s good to see. Derry has done his time coming up the ranks, I like to work with him, he’s a really good employer, really nice and down to earth. He’s not stuck up, there’s no real big ego like he has his Michelin star but he gets on really well with all the guys in the kitchen, he still has the craic.”
Under the leadership of Derry and Head Chef Tom Doyle, the team in l’Ecrivain have been making a lot of changes since Tom’s arrival last year. Chef Sergei Noskov says in kitchens you have to adapt. “I’m the second longest here after Laura so for me it’s fine, a lot of things change every year and I have to follow it. All head chefs are totally different.” He says that Tom was totally respectful of the whole team and their opinions. “He was asking everyone something, everyone is always involved.”
Junior Sous Chef Darragh O’Flaherty explains that Tom took his time bringing in his individual changes to give the team a chance to adapt. “Compared to when I first started here, it’s completely different. Everything was done to enhance what we were doing already i.e. menus, rosters, orders, and other aspects of running the kitchen have been changed, mostly for the positive. It was implemented bit by bit so it was never like you walked in one day and it was completely different. The way Tom went about it meant it wasn’t a shock to people and he said that, at the outset, it’s going to take a while but we’ll get there.”
Patience in the face of change is something the team are used to as there have been many changes throughout l’Ecrivain’s 27 year history. Diana says development there is constant and you have to roll with it. “It’s constant change, we’re bringing in new systems, we’re changing menus, we’ve had new tills put in, we’re upgrading reservations systems, there’s always something happening. Every day is different, there’s no one day the same as yesterday. We’ve had two major renovations since I’ve started but I think everybody deals with it when it’s happening, you take one day at a time and you just keep going and try to do the best that you can every day. It is all about the customer and making sure they have a great experience.”
Over the years the industry has also gone through a lot of changes and the team in l’Ecrivain has had to adapt to evolving tastes and expectations. Sallyanne says that her priority always is to make customers feel at ease, especially now with an increasingly conscientious customer. Darren agrees that allergies, intolerances and clean eating are prevalent concerns for customers and the team have to be able to cater for everyone. “We have very clean and healthy food here, considering it’s a gastronomic restaurant. People are definitely more conscious in general, even when it comes to wine, sometimes you get customers asking for organic wine so there’s no sulphites. It seems to be more widespread in the last couple of years for whatever reason. There are genuine allergies so obviously you have to cater for everybody, you can do your best anyway.”
One of the biggest changes to the industry came in the form of the latest recession. Darren says that business was ‘just guaranteed’ before the crash and l’Ecrivain, being one of Ireland’s top restaurants, would have been full for lunch and dinner every day. “I think a lot of restaurants learned their lessons from that time, not to take everything for granted, not to take business for granted and I think since then the standard has risen across the board, all over Dublin. And with a lot of new restaurants opening up as well, it stops complacency from setting in and it just keeps everybody driving forward and making sure you’re kept on your toes. So I think the restaurant has definitely evolved a lot in the ten years I have worked here.”
Sallyanne and Derry have witnessed two recessions and she claims the last one caused some of the hardest and most difficult times they had ever faced. “I hope we never see anything like that again, it’s been really hard. And because we’re Michelin star and we’re a five star operation we were the first to be cut and we’ll be the last to be reinstated. There’s still companies that can’t be seen dining so therefore when boom went bust one of the first things we did was add another private dining room so people could still come in and enjoy without being seen and being on display. So now we have three private dining rooms. And there are days when the three private dining rooms are full and we might have 26 people in the main dining room.”
The most recent addition is very special as The Samsung Kitchen at l’Ecrivain also contains a demonstration kitchen where Derry can host groups of over 20 people for events. Derry and Sallyanne had originally applied for planning permission for a cookery school and that idea evolved into the live kitchen you can see now. The walls are adorned with commissioned food photographs by the couple’s close friend Barry McCall which hang over a solid walnut table. The atmosphere at these events is relaxed and convivial with guests free to engage and interact with Derry and his team as much or as little as they like.
Sallyanne is very proud of the new addition. “This kitchen is our newest baby, we opened it last September and we’re delighted with the response it’s got. There’s nothing like this in Ireland. There’s nothing remotely like this.” The kitchen itself is decked out in state of the art Samsung Chef Collection appliances, for which Derry is a brand ambassador. Each oven, hob and fan that you see is a domestic appliance so guests can technically recreate all the dishes they are shown in their own homes. “It’s all done in front of the customer. So they see what’s being done, how it’s being prepared. You have the flat screens, the cameras are on the hobs and on the ovens so they can zoom in when they’re doing something. People in the front can ask questions, people in the middle have the flat screens to watch and down the back will be the ones like me, there to enjoy the food and enjoy the wine and have a good old natter in the kitchen!”
Sous Chef Patrick says he assigns a chef who will do the prep for the event during the day and set up the kitchen for service before he and Derry ‘rock it out’. This element of fun is obviously for the benefit of the guests but it means the chefs really enjoy working in the Samsung Kitchen. Patrick has done quite a few of them. “It’s nice to work down here for a service, it’s really relaxed so everyone is having a few glasses of wine and just watching us do our thing. Derry loves the fact he gets to interact with the customers he is cooking for.”
Most guests in the Samsung Kitchen will be used to seeing Derry cook on TV3’s Seven O’Clock Show among his many other appearances. When I meet him, he is just back from two days filming for the next series of RTE’s Lords and Ladles. After 18 hours of filming the day before, it’s no surprise that his commitments outside of l’Ecrivain take their toll. “I’m really feeling it today. Sometimes it’s hard but you’ve got to take each day as it comes. Tomorrow I’m going up to Donegal, I’m doing TV again Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, then back up for more TV on Thursday, Friday in TV3 and then I’m doing couple of interviews and then holidays. I’m looking forward to those two weeks because at the moment it’s getting a bit frantic and you find you’re just constantly on the go. Like I would give anything to have tonight off to be honest and just chill out because I’m wrecked. But look, you gotta take each day as it comes, otherwise you would just completely crack up. I’m nearly doing as much outside here as when I am here. That’s just the way it is.”
His profile in the media is important for Derry as all of his roles work to promote l’Ecrivain and keep the restaurant on people’s radar. This is the same with Sallyanne, her involvement with organisations like Ireland’s Blue Book (she is the current president) and her own media appearances on Midday lead to more bookings. “Obviously it’s good for us, it’s good for the restaurant, so when he does the Seven O’Clock show, so many people see him and see the food we do, people ring and say I haven’t been in for ages have you got a table. So it’s all about profile.” Sallyanne says that profile is essential to modern business. “When we opened all those years ago, all you had to do was provide good food, good service and a comfortable place for people to sit down. Now you have to do all those things with social media and everything else, that is the way it is, there’s no choice, you have to get yourselves and the restaurant out there.”
The downside to maintaining that profile outside the restaurant is that Derry is not as present in l’Ecrivain as he would like to be. He has great faith in Head Chef Tom Doyle. “The people working here drive you, they are very passionate. Especially the chefs, they drive me along. We have a great head chef here Tom Doyle. Tom runs the kitchen for me, I don’t have to worry about it and that makes a big difference. He’s a great chef. Before Tom arrived I was completely tied to the restaurant here and I couldn’t do a lot of what I’m doing now. It makes a great difference to have back-up in the form of Tom, Paddy, Serg, Darragh and all the chefs. But also it’s a young person’s game, it really is you know. Like I’m moving on in years now, but I am still here – that’s the way it is.”
As Derry and Sallyanne look to the future and the next 27 years in l’Ecrivain, she says they don’t have any major plans in mind yet. “Sometimes you would love to be able to push the walls out and expand on a weekend night, but you can’t. We’re just looking at how we can improve things. I change the tables around regularly, I drive everybody nuts. Probably the bar is my next thing, ‘gizz’ it up a little bit more.” Derry says he is proudest of lasting this long. “Seriously, lasting 27 years and the fact that the restaurant is still relevant. We’re still with it, still doing really good food. We are very proud of all the team here and would like to say a big THANK YOU to them all – particularly the present, the past and the future.”
Alison has been writing since she could hold a pen, which came in handy for her degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies. She has been working in media since graduating and is the latest features writer for TheTaste.
Writing for TheTaste allows her to combine her passion for the written word with her love of food and drink. Find her on Twitter @AliDalyo