Destination: Southeast Ireland
Featuring two nights at Dunbrody House, Wexford, and a chat with its master chef Kevin Dundon
BY ED FORRY
I visited Ireland’s southeast coast late last summer, a trip that, for me, was truly an eye-opener. Until last year, most of my visits to Ireland were focused on Dublin, Galway, and Sligo, places that several cousins and family friends call home. They have all been great adventures, and after nearly a dozen such excursions, I even considered myself a bit of an authority about Irish vacations. But, except for a brief afternoon ride to Glendalough in Co. Wicklow 25 years ago, much of the east and south coasts remained unexplored for me.
Last year, I learned about Ireland’s Blue Book, a specialized marketing program for a collection of more than 36 Irish country house hotels, manor houses, castles, and restaurants. “Located throughout the island of Ireland these charming and stylish hideaways are the perfect choice for your holiday vacation in Ireland,” the brochure said. “They are also ideal for a midweek or weekend break and those seeking a romantic getaway.
“Activities vary from golf, fishing, spas and cookery schools or just relaxing in warm and comfortable surroundings.”
Through the Blue Book, I made arrangements to spend some time in two of the properties in Wexford and Cork.
In my first-ever visit to Wexford, I spent two marvelous days at the Dunbrody House, a small luxury hotel near President Kennedy’s ancestral hometown of New Ross, which is located on Ireland′s south coast on the Hook Peninsula.
Built in the 1830s, the Dunbrody is an elegant Georgian-style house with Irish oak floors, pitched pine window shutters, high ceilings, and twinkling chandeliers. And great food. For the past 21 years, it has been owned and operated by master chef Kevin Dundon and his wife Catherine, who themselves live on the property that overlooks the water.
Chef Dundon has gained a reputation as one of Ireland’s leading young “celebrity chefs.” He’s the author of several best-selling cookbooks, and hosts his own TV programs across Ireland. In recent years, he has become popular in America for his appearances on PBS, “Kevin Dundon’s Modern Irish Foods.”
I stayed in the Dunbrody for two nights, and after dinner one evening, Chef Dundon sat down in the lounge for a BIR interview.
You have a wonderful place here, Kevin, and the food is delicious. I know you’re a Dublin native. How do you come to be here in Wexford?
“I love Ireland and every spot has something special, whether it’s Galway, the wild Atlantic way, to Westport. I love Westport. But what I think we have here is kind of the untapped part of Ireland. The scenery around here is something else. It’s just like when I first came here and played down on the lawn, and I could hear birds. It’s a little piece of heaven.”
You have made a great reputation for your cooking skills. What’s your background?
“I was originally from Dublin but we’re down here for 21 years. I went to college in Dublin then I worked in some Dublin restaurants, then I got a scholarship to go to Switzerland. I went to Canada just for a year and I ended up spending seven and a half years in Canada.”
Where did you work in Canada?
“It’s now the Fairmont Hotel just outside of Banff, in the Canadian Rockies. I became executive chef there at the age of 22. It’s two 5-star hotels with 7 restaurants and banquet for 800 people. It was a great experience. I had met my wife Catherine when I was 17 here in Ireland. We stayed in touch and when we got caught up we got together again. I got her to move over to Canada and she always wanted to get me home.”
It must have been difficult for you to give up that job and return home.
“I said I’d only come back for one of three things: One is the executive chef job at Dromoland Castle; or the Shelbourne Hotel; or my own country house.T he Shelbourne was looking for an executive chef, so I got the job. That was back in ’94, at age 27. At that point, I had had three jobs.”
So you were back home in Dublin, and still a very young man at 27 in such a top position?
“I spent two years in the Shelbourne, which was fantastic because they got me into the whole Irish mythology end and I got to know all the journalists and who to buy food from, different suppliers. We had bought a house in Dublin and I had one of the best jobs around. Catherine was a manager, she had a really good job, and we had no children and this beautiful house in Ballsbridge in Dublin. We had no worries; we could do whatever we wanted to do whenever we wanted to.
“One day I was in the Shelbourne and it was a rough day; you know how those rough days work? I remember I left after lunch service and walked along St. Stephens Green just to clear my head before dinner service. I walked by a real estate agent’s window and they had all these large country houses for sale. Prices in Dublin had started to rise but they really hadn’t in the country, and I thought, oh, we could do this if we want to do it.
We looked at a number of houses and we came across this house down in Dunbrody, so we made an offer, packed up everything, and sold the house and moved down here.
You moved from Dublin to Wexford and opened a new venture?
“When we opened Dunbrody, with the restaurant and six bedrooms, and then that summer we had 12 bedrooms. In 1999 we added more, we now have 22 bedrooms in the house here. It was a private house built by the Chichester Clark family as a hunting lodge. They were from Belfast. In1906, they turned the house around. It was seven generations of the Chichester Clark family and then we bought it. The family built out the road from here to Wexford during the famine. They owned 14,000 acres between Antrim & here.”
Your American fans are familiar with you from your television work on the Food Channel and on PBS.
“I never really went after the TV stuff. A travel show came here to do a piece on Dunbrody House and they asked me if I would step into the house and do a cooking segment with them. From that they offered me my own TV show. That’s really how it happened.”
You have an elegant dining room here, and a mini-brewery with your own brand of beer. And I read that some guests come here to learn how to cook?
“The cooking school opened in 2000. Maximum of ten people, one on one. You get a lot out of it because we hold your hand throughout it. It’s one- three- and five-day courses. We just finished a master class of five days, and that one we do with a maximum of 7 people in the course. It’s a lot more intense, and five of the seven were Americans.
“I went to college for 3 years to study culinary arts and in Canada I did my masters. It’s like everything you do; it’s working with the right people and extracting what’s good and bad. We have our own kitchen gardens. I would say 90 percent of the food we serve here is grown or produced within ten miles of the house. The flavor is so brilliant because it’s literally coming out of the ground at lunchtime and onto your plate at night. The brewery also serves seven or eight beers.”
What advice would you give to someone wanting a career in the kitchen?
“I recommend that when you’re starting out you shouldn’t really work for more than one year under one chef; you should move onto the next, and you have his or her knowledge in your head, and go on to the next. And once you get to the management level in a kitchen, at sous chef level, you should spend two to three years in the place just to show stability, because the first year you’re just learning, the second year you’re introducing your concepts and ideas into the place and the third year you’re reaping the benefit of the work you’ve done the previous two years.
“And then it’s time to move on and get your own place. When you get to head chef level you should stay longer. But the more successful you become, the less cooking you do, with meeting people coming in, and with marketing and executive committee meetings, you spend less and less time. So when we moved down here, I got back to doing what I love.”
About the Dunbrody
It features 22 bedrooms, including suites and junior suites. All major credit cards accepted. French/German spoken; USA Reservations Toll Free: 800-323-5463 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Bed & Breakfast prices per person: $150-235 low season; $160- 299 high season. Single supplement $30 on standard double rooms, seasonal dinner menu $79; mid-week seasonal menu $65. Service charge at your own discretion. Weekend packages 2 B&B from $300 per person; midweek packages from $175.