17th April 2015
Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Emile Dinneen
17th April 2015
Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Emile Dinneen
Their home, a section of an old coach house arranged around a square courtyard, is wonderful and surprising. A giant wooden horse greets us in the hallway. In the sitting room, taxidermied birds peer out of glass cages and stag skulls glower at us from the wall. The kitchen, far from being a disaster, is attractive, spacious and full of curiosities – including a wooden arm from the Philippines that turns out to be a back scratcher – and wonderful ingredients. Next year they plan to move the whole kitchen to the far end of the house so that it opens onto the back garden, where they’ve planted an array of fruit trees: apple, pear, damson, quince and cherry.
We settle down with a coffee and chat about New York, where they met in the mid-90s, and how they ended up opening a restaurant in Drogheda. Then Reuven finishes off a shoulder of lamb that’s been slow-roasting in the Aga for the past 12 hours and serves it up with a superb asparagus, tripe and lentil salad. It’s a treat for them as well as us: the restaurant is open 362 days of the year and they hardly ever find time for a lazy lunch at home together. Afterwards we stretch our legs in the grounds of the estate, the winter sun beaming down on us. Then it’s back to work for both of them: Reuven motors off to the restaurant in his vintage Merc and Jeni says goodbye so that she, too, can get on with a busy day ahead.
Jeni: We opened the restaurant in November 2008 and moved in here the following January or February. So six years. But I grew up here in the courtyard, and my mum still lives on the other side. We moved down here when I was 11 or 12.
Jeni: In Dublin, but I spent all my childhood and teenage years around these parts. I moved back to Dublin when I was 18, then went to New York for five years… I came home with a little extra baggage [laughs].
Reuven: No, but I spent a lot of time there. I was born in Israel. It’s always a difficult question to answer because my parents moved quite a lot – my father worked for the UN so it was like every couple of years, different country. The place I’ve lived in the longest is actually Ireland. I’ve been here 14 years.
Jeni: It’s time to call it your home.
Reuven: Well I was originally in finance…
Reuven: No [laughs]. We’ve been slogging in the food world for a while…
Jeni: But Eastern Seaboard was our first major adventure.
Reuven: There was no formal training. I studied design and worked in kitchens as a summer job. It didn’t really come to anything till I moved here and decided to give it a proper go.
Jeni: I worked in PR and events in Dublin. When I moved to New York, I worked in various bars and restaurants and then got a job with an events and catering company. I started out in the kitchen, prepping whole boxes of herbs and things, then moved on to managing events. It was so good back then in 1995 doing parties for Donna Karan and Blondie. I was like, Woo, this is it!
Jeni: Reuven didn’t really have a kitchen in his apartment so it meant eating out all the time: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Which was great. So much revolved around food for us.
Reuven: You could eat really well for not much money in New York.
Jeni: I remember when I was working in Soho, for a milliner. At that point budget was pretty tight and you could get this big box of ho fun noodles, the big flat wide ones, on the street for a dollar.
Reuven: Oh my god, just all over.
Jeni: I don’t think at that time we did any high-end dining. I love all different kinds of food – Korean, Japanese – and Reuven does too. I was being brought on a huge culinary adventure to little hole-in-the-wall places, to places like Angel’s Share and Village Yokocho1. Eating takoyaki2 from a box on the side of the street… I loved it.
Reuven: It was a funny period. Jeni was vegetarian when I met her. I don’t know which came first, me or bacon, but suddenly it was like…
Jeni: …in the blink of an eye I was eating foie gras on toast [laughs]. Yeah, there was no stopping me.
Jeni: When we met, we realised we both had a big interest in food, and yeah we talked about a restaurant. But it wasn’t our original intention when we came back to Ireland. Did you see the orange van in the courtyard? We bought that van so we could convert it into a food truck and we were full-steam ahead trying to organise that when the opportunity of the restaurant arose. And I tell you I look back on that moment sometimes and go, oh, if only – if only we’d taken the little van! Because now we have this restaurant, the bakery and 70 staff. It’s insane.
Reuven: We’re open seven days a week from noon to close, so you need a lot of people.
Jeni: Thursday evening if possible, Reuven will try to come home early. I do a half day on Wednesdays and Thursdays so I can pick up the boys from school. So occasionally on a Thursday evening, we’ll have a moment.
“We go for the occasional good pint of Guinness up at Mrs O’s. It’s a tiny little pub on the Hill of Skryne – 10 people and it’s crowded.”
Jeni & Reuven on their favourite food places in Ireland – see Address Book
Jeni: Either myself or my mum will – she’s a really good cook. In fact she primarily sustains us. Often we’ll come home and there’ll be plates in the oven ready to go. She takes care of the boys too, feeding them.
Jeni: We won’t open the cupboard with all the instant noodles in it [laughs].
Reuven: I’m a big fan of instant ramen.
Jeni: Yeah, but you’ll chef it up a bit, drop in an egg or some fresh spinach.
Reuven: I’m in for 11ish and then I see service till the end. Honestly I don’t think it’s absurd. Sometimes when I read about chefs and kitchens, I feel almost lazy.
Jeni: Because your 14-hour day is not like their 16-hour day?
Reuven: Yeah. It’s like, Jesus you’re telling me you get up at 6am and finish at 2 in the morning? I must be lazy.
Jeni: Yeah, but – I don’t know if it’s a threat, but I said to Reuven that I should get in the kitchen a bit more. I think it would be good for me, maybe early in the week when it’s quieter, to go in to the starter section.
Reuven: No, I think it’s a great idea, a great idea.
Jeni: But I think there’s a fear that if I got in there, there’d be real trouble. “Not this way, we want it that way.”
Jeni: Definitely not super-organised, no. Things everywhere. If my mum’s over here cooking, she’s super-organised – everything’s cleaned down, bowls stacked up to go. I find myself covering 12 miles in this kitchen, back and forward.
Reuven: People don’t realise how much walking is involved when you work in a restaurant. Out on the floor, you could easily walk 10km in an evening.
Reuven: No, and I had this kind of corrupted view of what this country looked like. It was a mix of The Commitments, where the whole country was tenements, and Waking Ned Devine.
Reuven: Yeah, but when I first moved to Meath it would have really helped if there were subtitles when people were speaking. They tend to push all their words together up here. But then you realise it’s actually very coherent, you’re just not used to the punctuation.
Reuven: Fourteen years ago, the food was surprisingly awful. There weren’t any market systems. You’d go to the supermarkets and get shitty vegetables and crappy products. Or you’d go to a fishmonger and all they’d have was yellowy-looking fish and red-looking fish. You’re surrounded by water and this is all you can offer? But it’s changed so much.
Jeni: It’s been a seismic shift really in the last 10 years.
Reuven: If we’d started the restaurant 14 years ago, we’d struggle. At the scale we’re doing it right now, I think it would be tough.
“This olive oil from Catalonia has got that crisp, clean grassiness – like sitting on a freshly-cut lawn. We drizzle it on our chocolate pots at the restaurant.”
Jeni and Reuven on their favourite ingredients – see Pantry
Jeni: No [laughs]. We hit the ground running. It was a very steep learning curve those first months. We’d be there when the door opened to when it was locked.
Jeni: Don’t do it [laughs]!
Reuven: The one thing I wish we did at the start was close up two days a week.
Jeni: Christmas Day and Good Friday.
Reuven: And St Stephen’s Day now. So three days a year.
Jeni: But Good Friday is our deep-clean day, so we’re still working.
Reuven: Coffee is definitely still my thing. I used to drink it breakfast, lunch, dinner, middle of the night, but for the last two years I can’t drink it past six, which is insane.
Reuven: Yeah. But coffee is a big thing in the kitchen at work. We don’t always have the opportunity to have a staff meal but we never miss a chance to have coffee. It drives the wait staff crazy if it’s a busy period and we’re suddenly ordering 14 coffees for the kitchen.
Jeni: My morning drink is a combination of local honey, cider vinegar, lemon juice and ginger with hot water. I have that every day, it’s like a restorative. Warm water to allow for the absorption, clean out your liver and kidneys of the nightcap you had the night before.
Jeni: On a Friday or Saturday, it’s a martini – really dry, little olive, fancy skewer, the whole thing.
Jeni: So I have my cocktail shaker and a little coupe glass.
Reuven: Much nicer to drink out of.
Jeni: I put just a little bit of vermouth into the bottom of the glass and let it sit there. Ice cubes into my shaker, then I do a free pour of vodka counting to five, then shake it up but not too hard. Then slosh the vermouth out of the glass, put an olive in and top it up, ready to go.
Jeni: It feels dignified and calming. And there’s a process to it, which I like.
Jeni: Yeah, so it will open completely out onto the back garden. We want to make the back garden area an eating, living, working space. It’ll be really nice.
Reuven: Last year we got a dozen fruit trees to start it off.
Jeni: That felt very momentous actually when we planted that orchard.
Jeni: Pear, cherry, damson, quince, apple. They’ve just started but last year there were tiny little pears on some of them. We used them in the restaurant, the first fruits of the orchard. But it will be nice when the doors open out to the garden. We have plans to get a pizza oven out there as well. For all the time we’ll be using it [laughs].
Reuven: The whole two hours a week.
Jeni: Yeah, but maybe by then we’ll have more time.
Roger Phillips – The horticulturalist and food writer takes us around his secret London garden, discusses his deep-rooted love of mushrooms and explains why he sleeps in his kitchen
Erwin Gegenbauer – The master vinegar brewer takes us on a tour of his Vienna factory, explains why local produce is “boring” and makes us breakfast featuring his own honey, oil, coffee, beer and cider
Ryan Chetiyawardana – The cocktail pioneer devises an elaborate pairing menu, explains the deceptively simple idea behind his bars, confesses a major food aversion and recalls his favourite ever meal