The Shining Smile Behind the Star – Sallyanne Clarke of L’Ecrivain
An enduring success on the Dublin dining scene, L’Ecrivain has for 29 years welcomed and wowed diners with contemporary cuisine and the kind of sparkling service that leaves a lasting memory.
Derry and Sallyanne Clarke’s Michelin starred restaurant has stood the test of time, the adage behind every great man is a great woman rings true in the case one of Ireland’s most successful eateries. A popular face in the industry, regular television panellist as well as the former President of The Blue Book, Sallyanne has earned her stripes as well as her stars front of house in L’Ecrivain.
From the boom times to the recession, Sallyanne has worn the smile behind the star, and she chats to us about how L’Ecrivain came to be, what it is like being a couple in business together and how Derry won her over with his cooking.
When you opened L’Ecrivain in 1989, could you have imagined it would become the iconic Dublin restaurant it is today?
We worked very hard and had some fun along the way in the first restaurant in the basement of the Fitzwilliam Guest House. We were a 36 seater where we did a minimum of 46 on a Saturday evening. We managed to do 99 people in three sittings the day Riverdance started in 1994 in what was the Point Depot. We had hoped to do the magic 100 but one group went down in numbers.
We always had a five year plan and moved to where we are now in 1994. To answer your question, we always wanted to be considered one of the best restaurants and we quickly gained a great reputation within months of opening our doors. We are always building our reputation – not sitting on it!!
Did you grow up hoping to have a career in the hospitality industry?
I am a shop-keeper’s daughter. I did a Diploma in Marketing and the Insurance exams. My Dad had been a dairy farmer and when he and my Mum married they decided to emigrate to Chicago to make some money. Mum worked days while Dad worked nights as the pay was better. They say they lived there but now I can say they truly worked there to be able to come home 5 years later and buy their first shop. My Mum had a Boutique and my Dad a Newsagents, so I have been behind a counter since I was 7 years old.
Derry’s father was a food importer and his mother’s family were fruit importers so he has been around food all his life, so when I met him all he ever wanted to do was open his own restaurant. My experience behind the counter and dealing with the public has definitely stood to me and the rest I learned very quickly on my feet. I love it and I do enjoy what I do.
How do you think the team at L’Ecrivain would describe you?
I am described as forthright, straight-talking and very fair. To be honest, I remember what it was like to work for someone else and I always like to give the benefit of the doubt. We have a great team in l’Ecrivain and my one mantra is there is no ‘I’ in team.
How did you manage to steer L’Ecrivain through the recession and what did you learn from it?
The recession was very difficult. Having a Michelin Star brings business through the door, but at the same time it can have the perception of being more expensive that other restaurants – which incidentally is not true. Being at the top end of the market meant we were the first to be cut from people’s budgets and one of the last to be re-instated. We had to prove to everyone what great value we were and still are.
We ploughed all our saving back into the business to keep it all afloat as we felt this was our only option – and we are glad we did.
Seeing how things are in the restaurant now, would you say “The Boom” is back?
The Boom isn’t back but there is a confidence that has not been around for some time. However, there are some 5,000 more restaurant seats in Dublin than there were 18 months ago. Every retail outlet in the city that closes down seems to be opening as a coffee shop, bistro or restaurant.
I do wonder what the planners are thinking as I hope the industry does not become overloaded. After all, if a restaurant goes bust, it is all the rest of the restaurants that suffer with price increases and things of that nature.
The day of the Michelin announcement every year must be hectic for all starred restaurants, do you have a ritual for calming your nerves and what is it like in L’Ecrivain that day?
The Michelin announcement every year is a stressful day and we do our best to be calm and peaceful. We are always nervous and we always hope for the best. It is a wonderful achievement for Derry and all the kitchen team and it means the world to everyone. It keeps us focused and is a great club to belong to.
What is the most rewarding part of your career?
Regular customers could be in every month or once a year. When they tell you how wonderful their experience has been and how thankful they are for all your (collective) efforts and what a memorable time they have had in l’Ecrivain, that is my (or our) reward.
What is it about the restaurant industry that attracts couples to go in to business together? What struggles have you encountered as a result?
Derry and I opened l’Ecrivain but I kept my full time job to pay the bills at home. I would work every evening after my job finished at 5.30pm, and after 6 months, we were having staffing problems so I gave up my job to work with Derry full time. Otherwise I would not have seen him.
I think you work better as a couple because you know the full extent of the commitment made to open a restaurant like l’Ecrivain.
You do a lot more together than you ever will apart and we quickly discovered that we were a good team. Derry was able to concentrate on the kitchen and leave the front of house and most of the administration to me. We both did what we were good at to achieve the best results. I cannot speak for other couples, but it has worked for us.
What is a typical day like for you?
I am in the restaurant every morning to catch up on emails, wine tastings, administration and planning for the days and weeks ahead. I then mosey home for a couple of hours before returning for service in the evenings.
I would work 5 evenings out of 6. We open Monday to Saturday for dinner too, but I do have Sundays and a day off like everyone else. I do tend to do a lot from home too, because I don’t like falling behind.
Who does the cooking at home?
Derry mostly. After all, he is so much better at it than I am. I do cook occasionally, but mostly I do the set-up and the cleaning up. I know my strengths!
What was the first meal Derry ever cooked for you? Did he win you over with his cooking?
He cooked me Roast Duck a l’Orange – still one of my favourites today. I had never tasted Duck before as I was and still am a very picky eater, and he won me over instantly. The way to my heart was through my stomach!
What would be your perfect Dublin food day – where would you go for breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks?
Perfect food day? Mmmm. Theoretically it would be the following as I could never eat that much in one day!
Breakfast would be in the Merrion Garden Restaurant, Lunch at Restaurant Patrick Guilbauds, Dinner would be at the China Sichuan Retaurant in Sandyford and drinks would be in 9 Below on St Stephen’s Green.
You are a very popular regular on the Elaine Show on TV3, is having your own show something you have thought about/would aspire to?
I love being a panellist on the Elaine Show. It is great fun and the other panellists are a great group of ladies. The real fun is in the breaks – I shall say no more! I have never thought about having my own show but never say never I would always consider it as I am comfortable in front of the camera.
I was a ‘Pirate’ on local radio for 12 years, a long long time ago and I have always loved radio. I would definitely be open to doing my own show on the radio if asked as I have been told I have the voice for it! Maybe this could be the practice needed for a TV show?
What three words would you choose to describe yourself?
Humorous, passionate and talented ‘Dumb Blonde’!!
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake Off and am passionate about discovering and creating delicious things – I can sometimes be caught in the act on TV3’s Six O’Clock Show or RTE Today. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me on my pursuit of deliciousness.