BEING the pot woman in a restaurant kitchen, up to your eyes and elbows in steam and washing-up liquid at the sink, is probably not the most luxurious of careers.
But in the catering world, the only way from there is up.
“I started washing dishes at weekends in a local restaurant when I was 12,” says Caitlin Ruth.
It was the first step in a stellar food career.
Now Caitlin is hanging up her chef’s apron, on New Year’s Eve, after 16 years cooking at the popular Deasys Restaurant in Clonakilty.
The premises, a familiar landmark in the tiny harbour village of Ring, owned by the Blackwell family, is closing its doors then for the final time.
Caitlin, who hails from Dublin, New Hampshire, USA, built up an enviable reputation for good, local home-cooked food in Deasys, where she worked as a chef.
“As a youngster I worked weekends, combining school with working full-time at the age of 14.”
What brought her to Cork?
“The usual!” she says.
“I met a man from Tipperary when I was working in Antwerp. We married and moved to Galway. Our daughter, Ainé, is 27.
“We moved here to West Cork for work,” says Caitlin. “My first job after we moved down from Galway was in the restaurant in Lettercollum House. Then I moved on to Dillons in Timoleague. I loved working there. It was great.”
Caitlin, as head chef, had a free rein to try out new dishes on her eager customers.
“Back then, people were slow to try out eating new things,” says Caitlin.
She was creative.
“You had to figure out what to call the dishes so that people weren’t scared to order the food. It was good fun. We changed the menu every day.”
While Caitlin enjoyed the lively pace and the lively company at Dillons, it was a busy job, with the restaurant open seven days a week, from noon to 10pm.
Looking back, Caitlin wonders how she did it, being a single mum to Ainé.
“Because of the hours I worked, I never got to school plays or to school concerts,” she says.
“It was tough missing stuff like that. I do regret it.”
She doesn’t regret taking up Bobby Blackwell’s offer to come and work for him 16 years ago in Deasys.
“It was a pub and Bobby was interested in doing food,” says Caitlin. “He said he would introduce food into the business if I came on board.”
Caitlin was like the cat who got the cream.
“We had great craíc in the kitchen,” says Caitlin.
“Everyone who worked at Deasys became my friends. They were my whole social life as well.”
It was hectic, like all kitchens.
“Yes. It was hard work and it was anti-social hours,” says Caitlin. “I did between 50 and 70 hours a week. Home took second place.
“When I did get home I was planning menus for the next day and ordering catering supplies. We prided ourselves on getting available home-grown local food ingredients from local suppliers. It was great getting to know them all.
“Everything was made fresh to order in the restaurant. Nothing was ever pre-prepared. I made my own bread.”
Days off were tricky.
“It meant a lot of shuffling among the kitchen team,” says Caitlin. “There was just me, an assistant and a dish-washer.
“We’d often have 70 people dining on a Saturday night. Sometimes I can get stressed out. Occasionally, during service, I found myself making mistakes and my heart started pounding. You just want to make sure that the customer is happy and satisfied all the time.”
But chef Caitlin is only human.
“The industry is hard,” she says. “You can never let it go. Driving home at night, tired out, I was thinking; how many have we in for lunch tomorrow?”
Deasys, a Michelin rated restaurant, found a place on the culinary map of Ireland.
“We had steady regular customers,” says Caitlin.
“Deasy’s prided itself in keeping its high standards consistently up.
“There was a lot of passing trade too, but that was badly affected when the road closed. The VAT increases didn’t help business either.
Now Caitlin, who is nearly 50, is moving on, and she doesn’t intend on being tied to the kitchen sink.
“I’m taking to the road!” she says. “That’s after I re-organise my kitchen shelves at home!
“My partner, Matt, who is an engineer, built this fabulous mobile kitchen which is really cool,” says Caitlin.
“In the New Year the plan is to do residencies in Ballydehob or Dingle operating a pop-up restaurant. It should be fun.
“I loved working with my colleagues at Deasys,” adds Caitlin. “They were a great team. We made a great team. They are my friends for life.”
Caitlin is looking forward to a whole new adventure.
“Food is my life. I love cooking,” she says.
“Taking to the road is something of a new adventure. Having more family time will be good and being able to call the shots will be even better!”
When one door closes, another one opens.
“When Deasys closes for the last time on New Year’s Eve, it will be bitter-sweet,” says Caitlin.
“We hope to end on a high with a fabulous tasting menu. It’s booked out already.”
Saying goodbye to a way of life is not easy.
“There will be sense of nostalgia. I’ll still see a lot of my friend Elaine Blackwell and her three boys,” says Caitlin.
“Elaine found it hard to juggle everything as well. So having more time with her family and doing other things will be a welcome change. People expected Deasys to go on forever. But nothing lasts forever.”
Some things do.
“We are friends for life,” says Caitlin of Elaine.