Adventures in...

Adventures In Vegetables

13th December 2016

Interview: Killian Fox
Illustration: Johanna Kindvall

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The revered Irish chef Denis Cotter on the challenges of setting up a vegetarian restaurant, the freedoms of meat-free cooking, and how his food has become less “shouty” with age

I became vegetarian aged 20 because of an ex-girlfriend. After we split, it stuck with me for some reason. I was always squeamish around meat, so it suited me not to eat it. It was due to the time as well – it was The Smiths as much as anything, really.

We didn’t have meat all the time at home – only once a day [laughs]. Porridge in the morning, baked beans in the evening, meat in the middle of the day.

Before becoming a chef, I worked in a bank. I was doing internal audits and spending a lot of time on the road, staying in small-town hotels around Ireland and the UK. One job took me to Tipperary town for six weeks. I was eating more or less the same dish in the same corner of the same restaurant every day: an omelette. That’s when I started getting interested in restaurants.

Denis Picks His Favourite Seasonal Vegetables

My first chef job, aged 25, was at Cranks [a chain of vegetarian restaurants] in London – and that was pretty much the extent of my training. I worked with a guy called Sat, who was in the Rajneesh movement (run by a guru who had a fleet of Rolls-Royces). Before he turned the lights on at 6am, he’d go into the toilets and have a spliff in the dark. At Cranks, we were learning a very regimented way of preparing food, which proved incredibly useful, but then I was getting this other side of it from Sat: the creative, loving approach.

There’s a huge palette of ingredients in vegetarian cooking. I never felt restrained, in part because I was vegetarian before I learned to cook. In a lot of ways I feel like I have more freedom than formally-trained chefs who work with meat. If I try to think of a dish with an aubergine as the central ingredient, there’s so many places I can go. If you do that with a slab of meat, you’re so narrow. Even for the more creative chefs, the vision is still very narrow – they’re stuck with the obvious thing.

Vegetarian restaurants tend to be lumped with all the other stuff: gluten-free, sugar-free, fat-free, dairy-free. One of the motivations for setting up Café Paradiso was to get all these restrictions out of the way. Before this, I was working in a classic co-op in Cork and it was a question of “What can we work with?” I felt like vegetables don’t need to be restricted – they don’t need to be considered a health food, they don’t need to be considered ecologically environmentally anything.

Customers ask: “Why is there not more vegan choice?” And I’m like, “I’m not a vegan!” Although I do feel I think for the first time in my life, it might be on the cards. My best friend Ultan Walsh [of Gort na Nain farm in Cork], who grows our vegetables, has just given up dairy – and I can see a point where we don’t need dairy. We’ll have other things that melt just as well on pizza.

My food is very colourful and very loud. If it has chilli, there’s a lot of chilli. If the menu has cumin, you’ll be picking the cumin seeds out of your teeth

Fusion food was a big inspiration. Peter Gordon was doing it in London and I felt like I was coming from the same place. I’d spent time in New Zealand and the idea coming out of there was to do very high-quality food, ingredient-focused, with interesting recipe combinations, but to serve it in a deceptively casual environment. A lot of people think they’re reinventing that wheel now: “Let’s turn the music off, get rid of the tablecloths”. Yeah yeah yeah. It’s been done before.

The reaction when we opened in October 1993 was amazing. I think Ireland was really ready for it. We opened on a Tuesday lunchtime and we were full. I just thought it was really easy. We made loads of money, it was really fun.

After the first year, it started to get harder. The economics kicked in. We opened with two people on the floor, one-and-a-half in the kitchen. You can only do that for so long. By the time we were hiring people to get us out of the 20-hour days, that’s when the wage bill starts going up. And you have to start replacing things wearing out from year one. Everything just became very real.

Initially it was all about the recipes. We were trying to make the funkiest food we could, sourcing wasn’t that important. It was only after I met Ultan Walsh and he started selling me vegetables that it became more ingredient-focused than recipe driven. “I’ve got green beans – what are you going to do with them?”

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The dining room at Café Paradiso. Photograph by Cristian Barnett

During the main season everything is coming off one farm. Much less so in the winter, because there are things he can’t or won’t grow. Celeriac for example. We use a lot of celeriac but he can’t grow it. Do we give them up? Nope.

Over the years, the food at Café Paradiso has become more grown-up. I think of my food as quite crude: it’s very colourful and very loud. If it has chilli, there’s a lot of chilli. If the menu has cumin, you’ll be picking the cumin seeds out of your teeth. It’s very shouty. Big flavours. But over the years it’s calmed itself down a bit, become a bit more sophisticated without completely losing the loudness.

Some years ago, I started to move out of the kitchen – and in a lot of ways the food has continued to evolve. I have people who are technically better than me doing the cooking. If I’m in the kitchen and I don’t like the texture of the sauce, there’s nothing I can do. But now I can have a conversation with two really good chefs and between us we come up with a better way to keep the colour, keep the flavour, but lighten the texture. It’s still the same ingredients, same farm, same repertoire, but we think about it an awful lot more.

April is probably the hardest month. My attitude is: stay calm, we have to ride this out. “Can we leave the turnip dish on for another two weeks?” Yes we can.

It’s interesting how your view of certain vegetables can change. I was at Forest Avenue in Dublin last year and I asked the chef John Wyer, who used to work here, how he’d made a particular sauce. It was made from courgette skin. Up to then we’d only bought little courgettes because they taste better, but then, aha, a use for big courgettes. It’s interesting with asparagus too – I think we’ve all come to love big, fat asparagus, whereas 20 or 30 years ago little skinny ones were very fashionable. It’s something that Ultan and I talk about quite a bit. His latest theory is that there’s a higher skin-to-flesh ratio on the little one, so you get more punch and more juice.

We look forward to every season. Although there’s the hard time at the end of the winter when the turnips, swedes, cabbage and celeriac go on and stay on. April is probably the hardest month. My attitude is: stay calm, we have to ride this out. “Can we leave the turnip dish on for another two weeks?” Yes we can. Some years it’s a hell of a conversation because the chefs have had enough of it – they want to move on. But what are we going to do, buy artichokes from Italy? We can’t. So we’ve become really good at waiting.

I don’t do much preserving. That’s probably down to my lack of interest or knowledge, to be honest. For me, it’s really all about fresh produce – and that was very much a reaction to the cultural situation [in Ireland] where we didn’t have fresh produce, vegetables weren’t important, there was very little of that vibrant green fresh stuff. That’s always been my focus: the vibrant green fresh stuff.

Summer vegetables are almost too easy. I’ve developed an affection for the things that are more difficult to make exciting. Years ago, for a TV series called Guerrilla Gourmet, I cooked a dinner for farmers in the middle of the cow stalls. Four courses were constructed from things they were totally familiar with – carrots, mushrooms, turnips, parsnips – but I wanted them to go, “Wow, what is that?” It was great fun. Working with weird vegetables: everyone does that now. For us it’s working with the mundane ones that’s exciting.

Café Paradiso is at 16 Lancaster Quay, Cork City, Ireland; paradiso.restaurant

Denis’s many books include Wild Gooseberries, Garlic… and Me

Follow Café Paradiso: Twitter

Posted 13th December 2016

In Adventures in...

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Illustration: Johanna Kindvall

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