The Vegetable Visionary – An Interview with Denis Cotter
Speaking at the inaugural Food on the Edge event on the theme of ‘The Future of Food’ Chef Amanda Cohen, of New York’s Michelin starred vegetable restaurant Dirt Candy, proclaimed that if chefs don’t take vegetables seriously they will be left behind. However, it was twenty-two years ago when Chef Denis Cotter began moving vegetables to the centre of the plate. Highlighting that his vision to bestow vegetables the reverence usually reserved for meat, showcasing them with real skill and passion, is as groundbreaking today as it was when Cafe Paradiso opened its doors in 1993. I met with Denis to chat about about his signature style, his relationship with suppliers and his opinions on the vegan trend and the restaurant scene in Cork.
Denis’s journey in food started from an usual place; internal audit. However, after eight years working in banking and having become a vegetarian his ambitions to work with food became too acute to ignore, “my interest in food was growing at the same time as my frustration with my life and work”. He took a break from work and trained in Cranks the famous vegetarian restaurants in London. It goes without saying that the realm of internal audit never tempted him back.
Back in Ireland, Denis worked in a whole-food restaurant, but became frustrated with the limitations of the vegetarian industry, “the restaurant had to be too many things, a café tied up with the health industry and a political centre. I wanted a restaurant that was just a restaurant”. Denis opened Cafe Paradiso with the ambition to take vegetables out of the health foods industry and to reverse the perceived negativity of vegetarianism, creating an environment where he could curate a personal style of cooking focused on the pleasure of real food. “For me it was always striving for high-end. Not adhering to what other peoples preconceptions of that vegetarian food should be. Not trying to adhere to any other style or trend” Denis says. His inventive and original style of meat-free cuisine has won Denis and Cafe Paradiso awards and acclaim, from far more than a ‘vegetarian’ audience, resulting in the publication of four celebrated cookbooks.
Just as important as intensity and complexity of flavour to Denis is ingredient provenance, and the close working relationships he has built with local growers and cheesemakers constantly influence the menu. In particular, Denis credits Ultan Walsh of Gort-Na-Nain Farm with changing the focus of cooking in Paradiso, “it was very much recipe driven at the start, about doing exciting things with vegetables and sourcing them in an conventional way. Then we very much got into organic foods, but we became over committed to a principle that was letting us down … Then Ultan showed up”. As Ultan’s repertoire and variety of produce grew, Denis adapted the menus to stay in balance with the specific vegetables coming off the farm and over time a symbiotic relationship formed, “it became very personal. Stuff I wanted he would grow and stuff he was interested in growing he would push on us”.
Today vegetarianism and veganism is more popular than ever before, but Denis maintains the hype has had little effect on his approach, “I think we see ourselves as separate from that. We don’t feel any pressure because we are comfortable with our personal style”. This is despite some asserting that the menu is over-focused on cheese, “we live in Ireland, it’s all about grass, it’s all about cheese. I love it and I am not going to apologise for that. I am not going back to where someone else dictates the balance of the menu, it’s cheese-heavy so what”. Ever a trendsetter, not a follower, he shuns the buzz words du jour ‘vegan’ and ‘plant-based’, “I tend to say ‘vegetable focused cuisine’, because its a cuisine like any other cuisine, it’s about making food taste nice. If you say anything else people think you are on a health-kick”.
Today Denis works as an executive chef and although hesitant at first to loosen his grip on the helm of the kitchen, it has allowed him a better work/life balance and to assume the role of play maker, with his kitchen team making his visions a reality. “Being an executive chef is all concept. Because I was never properly trained technically the food is much more polished. I know how I want it to look and taste and they make it look and taste like that” Denis says. This means collaborating on the menus and individual dishes with Head Chef Glory Mongin, “Glory is brilliant to work with. We are working on variations of a repertoire. We know what needs to be changed this week, tomorrow, next week. I draw and suggest things, she makes them and we improve them”.
Although prospective additions to the menu might look and taste amazing Denis always stipulates they must taste ‘Denis Cotter’. “The new dishes haven’t made the menu over the years have been too clever, too modern, letting themselves down in terms of flavour, and that’s our thing, big intense flavours. Trying to bring in modern, clever elements that still have the wow factor that’s what we are always trying to do” he says. That signature touch is what continues to bring new customers in the door twenty-two years later, “it takes people ages to take build up the courage to come in here. We have the element of surprise and the ability to please. Very few restaurants have that in their armoury. People have a lot of fun here”.
When it comes to dining in Cork, Denis admits that Cork is lacking a certain spark, “in Cork we are not Michelin star aspirant and no one seems to be”. His theory is that the food culture in Cork is not restaurant focused, “we have amazing producers, and we are very knowledgeable consumers who know how to shop and like to cook. Those kinds of people often don’t waste their money on restaurants, unless it’s better than them”. However, according to Denis Cork’s hospitality is always reliable on one front, it’s pubs. After leaving for a period it was the Cork brew Beamish and the service of ‘proper pubs’ that lured Denis home, “I like walking into a bar a saying what I want. I like even more when I walk into a bar and the person behind the counter knows what I want”.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.