Chair: John McKenna, McKenna’s Irish Food Guides 

Ross Lewis, Chapter One Restaurant
Jessica Murphy, Kai Restaurant
Evan Doyle, The Strawberry Trees Restaurant
Cait Noone, Head of the College of Tourism & Arts, GMIT
Ed Hick, J Hick & Sons Pork Butcher
Siobhan Ni Ghairbhith, St. Tola’s Goats Cheese
Martina Calvey, Achill Island Mountain Lamb

A discussion on the links between chefs and artisan food. 

panel taste council 2014

John’s Q to Cait – are students thought that the Man In the Van is the source of all or that Artisan Food Producers are place to go? 

Cait responded that the college has changed its procurement policy to deliberately seek out good local and national food producers. She also did a PR piece for the Food Forum that they run in the college.

John to to Evan – Your relationship with framing artisan suppliers goes back 25 years to Kerry. Contrast that with now?

Evan – started by sourcing from local producers and not all organic then. He had to drive to some suppliers to get their produce. Now producers are eager to come and engage with the restaurant and chef’s. He gave examples of Denis Healy, Siobhan from St Tola, Birgitte pulling wild Salmon out of the Nore. Those relationships are a guarantee on the producers side of quality and consistency of supply within seasons. On Evan’s side to commit to purchasing at a fair price and paying in a timely manner.

Next up was Martina Calvey who first spoke about the history of the business with her Dad. Lamb was not part of the culinary experience then. He was a butcher, farmer and also a charmer! So he convinced people to buy the lamb they were not used to. He slaughtered and boxed and branded as Achill Island Mountain Lamb. From then to now they are the only slaughter house on the Islands. A unique provenance – the lamb is born, fed, reared and slaughtered on the Island. 

From there they have developed over 50 years the knowledge and processes required to make their product as good as it is today. They have extended the business by having other farmers raising their lambs to the same standards which the Calvey’s set out.

Ross Lewis then spoke about his business/restaurant and what other Michelin star chefs think about Ireland and cooking here. He shared that a recent visit by 5 other starred chefs revealed that they were in awe of the small scale food production here and the standards implicit in that. Stuff like grass fed cattle.

There is an issue that small scale food producers cannot supply and distribute themselves – the work and scale is not possible. The challenge with a distributor in-between is the break in communications that occurs – the lack of an emotional exchange between the producer and the person who is about to use the product to cook with. He loves the passion of the artisan producer who creates a premium product. 

There has been a revolution in the food business here with more chefs opening up to those kind of products. He also said that the internet is the biggest change in his 15 years – it opens a channel of communication directly between restaurants and consumers who use those channels in planning their visits. Multiple references across a number of channels validate their choice.

He finished by reckoning that the internet may power a business model to support distribution.

Q from John to Ed Hicks. What are the issues today for a small scale producer? 

Ed said the communications breakdowns are a big issue – for example a chef at 11pm placing an order and expecting a delivery in the morning! The micro production runs within artisan are not efficient and do not support Just In Time!

He also made a reference to payment by restaurants – food producers would prefer their name on a cheque over their name on the menu any day! Food producers want to produce, not do paperwork and chase down multiple debtors.

Is there a possible solution in patronage – developing in advance a very close and mutually dependent relationship of supply and use over a full year. John referred to the analogy of Community Supported Agriculture. 

Ed reckoned that the chef moves to being a co-producer of sorts so their understanding of production and constraints is heightened and also food producers will equally understand the life and cycles of a working kitchen.

John moved onto Siobhan and the example of the male kid with no value to a dairy farmer which was seen by herself and Evan as an opportunity to commercialise a waste product. Are there other opportunities like that.

Her answer was yes – the guarantee from Evan made it possible to develop and sell a new product into the marketplace so that more of that close co-operation is a really good thing. 

John to Jessica – how important is her relationship with producers to the reputation of the restaurant in the first 2 years.

She said that it is really important – they cook the products and are the presenters of those products in finished form to consumers. Update – from Twitter her specific quote which is much better “they make my business & I cook purely to represent them” They gain inspiration from them and she considers the producers as part of her extended family.

John with a question to Cait – is it mind blowing for an 18 year old to see the passion that drives a producer. 

She reckons less so now than a couple of years ago – as they have changed their relationship with the food sector and have raised their own standards then the students are exposed to passion from their first day. That emphasis has also changed the profile of the students who come to the college and her courses. She nicely embarrassed Ross by saying she has had students who come to her and say “I want to be the next Ross Lewis”!

Q to Evan – so whats the problem? Why are so many places serve bland imported food?

Evan responded that the kitchens in those places can be lazy – they take the most efficient option. If you move to buying directly from producers they there is a strain on the kitchen, the chef and the consumers – seasonality imposes big constraints and that needs education and extra work and imagination within the kitchen to overcome this.

An ongoing and never-ending requirement to tell the ongoing story of food and work with producers in the sparse times as well as the glut (3 months of root vegetables as an example).

John to Ross – how do you cope with the accountant pulling you up on the cost of supporting and working with artisan producers.

Ross said he calls the shots! But that has taken a lot of hard work and deliberate positioning to get to that position. Good relationships take a lot of work – like a marriage!

John asked him how important to gourmet travellers is his relationship with producers and referred to Noma’s impact on Copenhagen. Ross said that there is a subset of the global population who will travel anywhere to eat and the internet makes it even easier for them. We don’t have the 3 star chef’s yet who will draw in that group but the stage is set for it to happen. And he said that he gets visitors who want to know what an Irish chef is doing with Irish food. He finished by saying that over the last 5 years he has started to see culinary tourists during the summer season which has helped him to fill a quiet time.

John asked Martina how Achill Lamb can assist with tourism and growth. She said that they are part of the overall draw on the Gourmet Green Way (a spin off of the Green Way project) and that does draw visitors. 

John said that Mayo has developed its food culture and sector so well over the last number of years from a very low base – featuring local roll models and supporting them.

Martina agreed and said that the opportunities are there for even part time producers to set up and explore passions on a commercial level and Mayo Co Co have been very proactive in encouraging this. 

John to Siobhan – how does it feel to see St Tola featured on a menu. She responded by saying it is a source of pride – but they referred to the issue of a restaurant naming suppliers whom it no longer uses or only used sporadically. Or once even. So standards around locally sourced and artisan etc need to be maintained and developed. This is hard work and the output of that hard work and the brands that evolve need protection against being undercut by marketing gimmicks and bullshit (last bit mine! Keith).

Ed chipped in here on the challenge of multiple retailers using a soft grain black and white photo of a producer with half a dozen chickens – where the visual has no relationship to their actual production methods. That dumbing down or pandering does not help the education process. 

Evan closed off with a reference to Failte Ireland and Bord Bia – they need to proactively target food tourists as an active opportunity. 

Good discussion, enjoyed that