I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times I’ve been brought to the verge of tears, in a good way, by a restaurant experience. And I wouldn’t need my whole hand. Eating food which pulls on the deepest part of the soul is a rare and wonderful occurrence, one that only happens with the magical touch and inherent intuition of a chef who totally understands his or her ingredients.
Ahmet Dede of The Mews in Baltimore, West Cork manages to tug on those heart strings, stir up emotions you didn’t know you had and get the hairs on the back of your neck standing upright when you eat his food. He possesses a stratospheric skillset earned at Michelin starred restaurants like RPG and Chapter One. His last post before moving southwest was as Executive Sous Chef to Mickael Viljanen at Michelin starred The Greenhouse in Dublin, working with Viljanen even before the star arrived.
This summer, Dede kicked capital city grafting in the teeth, in favour of a summer season of cooking in a tiny but chic dining room, down an old mews laneway, in a coastal village at the edge of Ireland. Baltimore links the mainland to the islands of Sherkin and Cape Clear and Carbery’s One Hundred Isles. After that, it’s the Fastnet Rock and wild Atlantic ocean, all the way to continent of the US of A.
The Mews has attracted a big hitter in chef terms, thanks to the two culinary entrepreneurs who own the restaurant and enticed him here. Robert Collender and James Ellis have about thirty years’ collective experience in the foodservice industry. Anyone who thinks they are just two young bucks trying to make a buck can think again. These boys have CVs as hot as the stove in their kitchen, rocking up Forest Avenue and Richard Corrigan’s Bentley’s in Dublin among the many familiar names on the list. Two school chums who went on to work together in some of the best establishments in the restaurant industry, then decided to do it themselves.
Robert has a culinary arts degree from DIT and serious flair for business. James is an Economics graduate turned knowledgeable, attentive and passionate front of house man. The pair roped in a third friend Robert knew from catering college in Luke Mathews, their original Head Chef, and began to look for a venue.
“We never looked for a place in Dublin. We came here for a specific purpose, because we knew we wanted to have an ingredients focused, coastal destination restaurant. We travelled all along the Wild Atlantic Way and nowhere had the depth of ingredients like West Cork. This place has the very best ingredients in the whole country,” Robert says.
The trio had two good seasons in 2015 and 2016, but when Mathews decided to move on to other commitments at the start of this year, the two remaining partners were left to make a decision. “We talked about whether we would stay in business at all, or try to employ a chef to take us to the next level,” says James.
Fate stepped in. Ahmet Dede had just returned from a heavy night shift at The Greenhouse when he checked out a link to a job sent to him by a friend, about a far flung restaurant in West Cork which needed a Head Chef. It was 2am - there and then, he made the decision to follow it up. The rest, as they say, is history.
What really won him over, say his two bosses, was the cute newborn baby goat he met when he arrived in West Cork on the early spring day he came to see the restaurant. It stole his heart and got them a world class chef. Ahmet smiles at the suggestion. “I just came down here and saw the restaurant and the location, and we talked about all the fresh produce you can get here, the fish and shellfish, meat, vegetables and foraged ingredients. I knew it was where I wanted to be. That I could do things here that I really want to do. I came here with a lot of questions. Robert sent me a list of ingredients which would be available in April and I was planning in my head.
[pull_quote_center]I get inspiration from the choice of what is available. I can go to the market in Skibbereen and meet growers with seasonal vegetables. I see our suppliers coming into the kitchen with the best fish and shellfish from local boats or meat from local farms. We have foragers who bring me wild ingredients and I like to go foraging myself; when I am out with no one else there, I can just stop and think and work out what I will do with an ingredient. That’s why I love it here.[/pull_quote_center]
The Mews opens between April and end of September, serving an almost daily changing menu depending on what’s available, with a few signature dishes. Baltimore is a huge draw this time of year for visitors from the UK, Europe and the D4 crowd that tend to have holidays homes in this area.
This restaurant taps into all that makes West Cork a long standing flagship culinary region. “There are people doing local and seasonal in Ireland, but it’s always been happening here in West Cork. This is the place that kick started a food movement, with the artisans who arrived here in the sixties. They were self-sustaining and brought their own vision and expertise. Those original businesses are now in the hands of the second generation. This is why we wanted to come here, to be part of the food community that has grown over the past few decades,” the boys explain.
On the business side, Baltimore is a tough spot to make a living in winter. A few places on the waterfront stay open, serving the locals and offering a port of call for commuters for ferries to the islands. But winter opening hasn’t been an option for the boys at The Mews as yet. “Of course we would love to be a year round restaurant, but realistically, it’s not feasible at the moment. We have a hectic workload for the six months we are open, with July and August our busiest months. During that time we have two full sittings each evening with 70 covers altogether. We offer a four course menu that often stretches to six or seven courses with snacks and a tasting menu that runs sometimes to twelve courses."
[pull_quote_center]It’s just the two of us on the floor plus one other. We do long hours and put in hard work. When September arrives, that’s when we start thinking about what we are going to do in the winter.[/pull_quote_center]
For those who haven’t made it there yet, The Mews will remain open till the end of September. The grand finale to this season happens during the Taste of West Cork food festival, with a guest chef appearance from Chapter One’s Ross Lewis, a man who the boys say is ‘very supportive’ of their work and who dines here himself when he visits West Cork. The event has been sold out since the programme was launched in July - and there’s a waiting list.
As the month comes to a close, the team will part company till spring next year. Ahmet Dede already has irons in the fire for working during the gap. Robert and James will do what they have done the last two winters - take stock and plan for the 2018 season. They speak about the closure in a positive way, using the time to renew, reflect and regenerate.
Robert says “It’s not unusual for places on the coast of Ireland to close in winter. We’ll concentrate on what’s happening in our dining room and how we can move it forward again next year.”
[quote_box_center]Find out more about The Mews at www.mewsrestaurant.ie.[/quote_box_center]