Chef Noel Keane was still catching his breath when he sat down to talk with Food for Thought – FFT.ie. He had just moved his restaurant – Croí – from its original home in Tralee town square to bigger premises on Prince’s Street and converted the square premises into a brand-new restaurant called Grá. “Both restaurants are now open, so that’s a big relief,” says Noel.
Since it opened in 2017, Croí has built its reputation on offering locally produced, seasonally sourced, freshly foraged and creatively cooked food. This proved to be such a winning formula that the restaurant eventually outgrew the space it had available. “That was the main factor in our move,” says Noel. “The new place seats more people and it has a much bigger kitchen.”
However, the square in Tralee is a very busy location and Noel didn’t want to lose that footfall. “That’s why we opened Grá,” he says. “It’s more of a family-centred restaurant, still serving Irish food done very well for people looking for a more casual dining experience.”
Noel and his team moved Croí and opened Grá within a period of four weeks. “It was insane at times,” he says. “But we did it.”
Surprisingly, recruiting staff wasn’t too difficult. “I needed to double my front of house and back of house crews, but I found most of them with one post on Facebook,” says Noel.
He believes his approach to hiring chefs is the reason for this. “One of the reasons for the staffing shortage is that kitchens don’t want to train chefs,” he says. “They want chefs who are trained but want to pay them the same as the guys with no training. Paul is my head chef at Grá. I trained him up and I’m training others now. If they are interested in food, I can train them. The only reason I’m a chef is because someone hired me and trained me up.”
Noel’s approach to hiring staff isn’t all that sets him apart from others in the catering industry. Another thing is the effort he makes to be environmentally friendly. “We set out to make the restaurant plastic free, which seemed like an enormous task,” he says. “But once we started, we realised it’s not that hard.”
His first step was replacing all black plastic bin bags with biodegradable ones. Next, he looked at the volume of plastic that was coming in via suppliers.
“Things like fish coming in Styrofoam boxes with plastic sheeting on the inside had to go,” he says. “We spoke to our suppliers and decided to invest in big reusable tubs with airtight lids – two per supplier. We empty and wash one to have it ready to be picked up at the next delivery. This solution suited us and our suppliers and meant we cut out 80% of our plastic use immediately.”
Food waste was another priority. “We now divert coffee grounds, tea bags and vegetable peel to the compost heap at our own kitchen gardens,” says Noel.
He tackled cardboard usage too. “Our vegetables used to be delivered in cardboard boxes which got dirty and had to be thrown away,” he says. “Now we use a tray which can be washed and reused. We’re still working on the cardboard boxes wine comes in but at least those remain clean and can be recycled.”
Then, Noel sat down with his waste disposal company to ask them for advice on recycling. “They broke everything down for us, advising us on the different bins we needed, and we made sure the staff understood exactly what they needed to do to make it work.”
The environmentally-friendly ethos is one that extends to everything that is used in the restaurant. “We use eco-friendly chemicals,” says Noel. “We make sure that everything we buy has a long life and we’ve got all of our staff in both restaurants thinking about how we can make a difference as a team.”
Cutting down on plastic has actually been less challenging than Noel anticipated. “When we approached our suppliers and our waste disposal company, they were only too happy to help by suggesting alternative options,” he says. “In fact, our butcher was so impressed by what we were doing that he followed suit by cutting down on plastic in his shop too. We don’t have to keep doing things in the same wasteful ways. There are other options out there if you ask. We’re down to the small things now and would love to get to 100% plastic free. I don’t know if that’s entirely possible but any impact any of us can make is good.”