Cork restaurant is set for change

On April 10 — exactly 12 years to the day since Kevin and Réidín Aherne opened Sage in Midleton — they will relaunch the business. KATE RYAN talks to chef Kevin about exciting times ahead
Cork restaurant is set for change
Kevin Aherne, Sage Restaurant, Midleton, Cork. Picture: Clare Keogh

WORDS like local, seasonal, artisan and locavore may roll off the tongue with ease these days... but 12 years ago, when Kevin Aherne and his wife Réidín opened Sage in Midleton and launched their ground-breaking 12 Mile Menu, these were new mainstream culinary terms being wrestled into existence by the food industry — from farm to fork.

What the restaurant did was define what local should, can and must mean for it to mean anything at all.

The 12 Mile Ethos demonstrated that, in Ireland, it was possible to design a seasonal menu year-round within a radius of 12 miles of a restaurant’s front door. For Sage, this meant fish landed into Ballycotton, produce from Ballymaloe, whiskey from Jameson Distillery, meats from family-owned butchers on Midleton high street, seasonal vegetables and fruits from nearby growers and a supplemental larder of wild and foraged ingredients.

Kevin Ahern and wife Reidin of Sage and Tuan.
Kevin Ahern and wife Reidin of Sage and Tuan.

Since opening in 2008, Sage has grown from one restaurant to four offerings, all on the one site, nestled down a cobbled laneway.

Sage was followed by The Green Room, followed by The Courtyard, and finally a function room. But on April 10, 2020, Kevin and Réidín will relaunch the Sage empire as one cohesive offering, with the 12 Mile Ethos at its core: Sage 2.0 — same chef, same standard of food, but reimagined as an inclusive, relaxed neighbourhood restaurant.

TIME FOR CHANGE…

“Réidín and I are always thinking how we can evolve the business, adding on as we went along. This time we had a big decision to make: whether to take Sage as a fine dining restaurant to another level, or do something else.

“We talked a lot about what to do, did some research and asked customers which did they prefer, the Green Room or Sage? Which one did they visit more? Which is the better food? It came down to what people want, and to me on a personal note, the style of restaurant I wanted.

“The Green Room is great, but it’s too casual for us; it’s too small and it doesn’t do what its supposed to do because it doesn’t have the space or the cooking capacity.

“Sage itself went further that I ever expected when it first opened, and it evolved into a certain style of restaurant that we never thought it would go to.

“I’m a little bit older now too, Sage has been open 12 years and I can see things a little differently than when I was in my 20s, ambitious and doing what I wanted to do. Now, Réidín and I can look at it a bit more objectively and see what people want, and what would be the best decision to develop the business to make it more attractive for everybody.

“Sage 2.0 will be the kind of place Réidín and I would like to go and eat ourselves: somewhere serving well above average food, where we can have a laugh, a chat, and one or two pints. That to me is the whole package — not just about the food — and that’s where I want to bring Sage to now.”

For Kevin, opening Sage 2.0 will be like launching a new business, and he’ll be putting in the hours too. Open and serving food from 8am to 10pm six days a week, it’s certainly clear that, in the short term anyway, this decision has little to do with work-life balance or spending more time with his family: Réidín and children Tuan, aged three, and Lia, six months.

“If you’re asking would we still be making the change if Tuan and Lia hadn’t come along, yes we would.”

It brings home the reality that restaurants are businesses, in an industry that is notoriously unforgiving. Half of this decision is about reinvention and keeping things creatively relevant, and half about making sure the restaurant achieves longevity — another 12 years as a beacon of great modern Irish food.

“There will always be a place for fine dining,” says Kevin, “I don’t see it falling away at all. If anything, fine dining in Ireland now is stronger than it’s ever been, and I don’t see that fizzling out.

“But the decision we faced was to go up a level or to create a new type of dining experience, and we decided on the latter.

“Ten years ago, restaurants were all about what the chef wanted to give their customer. This year, for me, it’s about what the chef should be doing for the customer.”

Kevin Aherne, chef, who sources all his ingredients for Sage Restaurant from within a 12-mile radius.
Kevin Aherne, chef, who sources all his ingredients for Sage Restaurant from within a 12-mile radius.

A funky, buzzy, neighbourhood restaurant is the kind of place Kevin and Réidín have always loved. So, the question begs, why create this now and not in 2008?

“Personally, I never perceived that I would ever get as high in the cheffing world as I have done in Ireland. Maybe there was a certain sense of having to do what I was doing because I was part of the [locavore] movement of the last 12 years — a handful of chefs who moved Irish food into a different category in the way it is seen internationally over the past decade, and I felt like I had a certain duty to it.

“The 12 Mile Menu was a big part of that, and we also wanted to create a certain type of dining experience that reflected the 12 Mile Menu — a style of cookery that had to be done in a certain way.

“Whereas now I know with Sage 2.0 I can keep everything at 90% 12 Mile, but without the fine dining fuss.”

The 12 Mile Ethos hasn’t aged. In fact, it has taken on more meaning and more resonance with customers, as well as Kevin and Réidín.

“Every restaurant needs to have an identity, and the 12 Mile Menu enabled us to define what local meant. People come to Sage knowing we are a restaurant serving micro local food within the seasons. It will be the same with Sage 2.0, just reframed as a neighbourhood restaurant that only cooks food in season from its locality. That’s the way I want it to be seen. I want people to say: go to Sage 2.0 — it’s great food, casual, buzzy and only cooks seasonal local food.

“I don’t foresee holding onto the 12 Mile Ethos as a hindrance. I do see it as very important to us because it’s who we are — it’s what Sage is, and I know that Sage 2.0 will see the style of the restaurant changing, but at its core is still that ethos of sourcing as local as we can. I think we might be slightly ahead of the curve on it, creating a new dining experience but maintaining the same high-quality produce and cooking.”

The Sage empire as we know it today will close on April 4 and reopen six days later as Sage 2.0 on Friday, April 10 — 12 years to the day since Kevin and Réidín first opened their restaurant.

Newly unveiled, the restaurant will sport a fresher, funkier and edgier décor, a brand-new menu with foods that combine traditional and modern twists such as fermented potato flatbreads and 12 Mile roasts with meats from truly local farms.

In a nod to today’s dietary-conscious diner, coeliacs, vegetarians and vegans will be well catered for, and not an afterthought, and the drinks menu will remain decidedly crafty. A specially brewed beer, named ‘1 or 2’, (keeping the 12-theme going strong), will be new to the drinks menu, as well as Mitchelstown-based 8 Degrees beers pouring on draft too. A craft cider range pays homage to Ireland’s resurgent craft cider industry, and a pared-back wine menu offering will change with the seasons: lighter wines for summer and full-bodied wines for winter.

Sage is about to enter a whole new phase — Sage in name, sage in nature; rebooted for sure but its heart and soul remains constant.

For more information see visit www.sagerestaurant.ie

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