Opening my Cork café was best feeling in the world...

In the final piece of her Café Culture series, KATE RYAN visits Cobh and chats to the owner of Seasalt, where local produce and sustainability are key
Opening my Cork café was best feeling in the world...

PASSIONATE: Jacquie O’Dea, her husband Henry, daughter Ella and son Ben, outside Seasalt in Cobh.

IT’S been an embarrassingly long time ago since my last visit to Cobh, and it bears little resemblance to what I remember.

The town is experiencing a renaissance. Cobh Tidy Towns have pulled up their collective sleeve and won Gold four years in succession. The cruise liners have arrived, and Spike Island was named Europe’s best tourism destination in 2017. Tourism is on the rise, communities are growing and business is on the up. Cobh is looking hot right now.

Facing the Promenade, across the road from The Titanic Experience, festooned in turquoise, is Seasalt. The café is long, narrow with high ceilings. On one side, the bare brick of this old building is exposed, and the original colourful tiled floor has been uncovered and restored. The bright white interior is flooded with light from the vast windows that overlook Cobh harbour. It feels fresh, welcoming — the kind of place where you just know in your bones that there are good things to eat on offer.

Seasalt is the ambition made real of Jacquie O’Dea, and comes with a fully supportive cast in her husband, Henry, daughter, Ella and son, Ben. Originally from Dublin, Jacquie moved to Cobh with her parents when she was 17. They had bought a jewellery shop there, and 25 years later Jacquie and her husband purchased the shop from them. On finishing her Leaving Cert, she naturally went into the family business, working retail. However, in her heart lingered a desire to work in food.

“I did think about going to Ballymaloe after my Leaving Cert, but I was having far too good a time, having way too much fun, so I thought forget that, I’ll work in the jewellery shop and earn my bit of money.

TASTY: Crushed avocado on Syrian flatbread with chipotle beans, Macroom Feta, toasted seeds & leaves
TASTY: Crushed avocado on Syrian flatbread with chipotle beans, Macroom Feta, toasted seeds & leaves

“About nine years ago, Henry was made redundant from his job in construction. While he was around at home, and the children were still quite young, I decided to take the opportunity and go to Ballymaloe.”

Jacquie was 38 at the time.

“My first day at Ballymaloe Cookery School, I was terrified. I had turned up in my full chefs’ uniform and everyone else was in their normal clothes. I was mortified, like, Christ, here comes the muppet in the uniform!

“I think I was one of the oldest people there, and because of the kids, I was commuting every day, so I definitely didn’t have the same connections with the other students as I probably would have done if I was resident.

The course at Ballymaloe is quite intense — long days and lots of work — but I met some really lovely people during my time there, and, sure, it’s just a special place!

It was during Jacquie’s time there that the idea of opening up a food business really took hold.

“The whole point of doing the course was to open a café, preferably within a couple of months of finishing. I was furiously taking notes, creating cut-outs and vision boards of all the things I was going to have when I opened my café. I left full of enthusiasm, but it took me nine years before it actually happened.

“I knew it was going to be really important to have some professional experience, and I ended up working with some really amazing women —Ali Honour of Ali’s Kitchen and Gillian Kearney of Bramley Lodge near Fota. I was so lucky: they were so generous and supportive, allowing me to be as creative as I possibly could. Their attitude was: if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. They really encouraged me to just go for it. It’s the creativity I love — finding a recipe and not wanting to wait to try it out.

“My passion for food came from my mum, she was a tremendous cook, still is. If you wanted to try something she was always game; and my dad was such a foodie, he subscribed to all the food and wine magazines. He would say to mum: maybe you could try this, maybe you could make me that. He had a real curiosity about food, and we ate out a lot.

“I learned to cook from watching mum, then as a teenager I’d collect my siblings from school and cook dinner for all of us while mum worked. I was constantly fiddling around with recipes and just really enjoyed cooking.”

Jacquie worked consistently in Cork cafes and restaurants for those intervening nine years, only taking some time out when her dad passed away. Eventually, the time seemed right to start looking for a suitable premises of her own.

“I actually said I wouldn’t open a place in Cobh, so we were looking in Cork city, Midleton, and came very close to opening a place in Douglas. But I saw a sign in the window for this place and just loved how beautiful the space was, the large windows and looking out over the sea. It just felt right, so I said to Henry, let’s go for it!”

Seasalt opened on February 24 with Henry by her side.

“It was a bit surreal the first day we opened. I put a lot of pressure on myself to have everything right. But then when the café was full, it was just the best feeling in the world. I had finally done it!”

During the weekends and holidays, Jacquie’s son and daughter help out in the kitchen and front of house. Ella, 15, decided to go Vegan earlier this year, something that Jacquie says has had a huge influence on Seasalt’s menu.

“I’ve had to re-look at the whole way I cook at home, which has really influenced the menu here. I’m always looking to see how I can make something vegan: what can I take out or put in to give it that extra little bit of nutrition.

“My son, Ben, aged 13, loves to work in the kitchen with me. He has the most amazing palate, so I’m hoping he becomes a food critic, travels and eat his way around the world and gets paid for it!”

Seasalt had a pretty impressive summer, with critic after critic lining up to try Jacquie’s food and heaping praise for her commitment to using only the best of Cork produce on her menu.

ON THE MENU: Seafood platter with Hederman’s smoked fish, hot smoked salmon and mackerel pate
ON THE MENU: Seafood platter with Hederman’s smoked fish, hot smoked salmon and mackerel pate

“I absolutely wanted to support local food producers. There was never a question that Seasalt would be a vegetarian place, but I will not serve chicken unless it’s free range.

“The result is we’ve never had chicken on the menu because the cost of it puts it out of our reach, and the reach of our customers, but I’m simply not willing to drop my standards in terms of animal welfare.

“We have Caherbeg Free Range Pork, Frank Hederman smoked fish, all our eggs are organic and free range, our cheeses are all Irish (Macroom Feta and Ardsallagh Goats) and Gubbeeen Chorizo. Our sourdough bread is from Panna in Midleton, and Ali, our in-house baker, bakes all our Soda Bread and cakes.

“Our coffee is Badger and Dodo, and organic Kombucha from Holo Organics in Youghal.”

Jacquie is a member of Cobh Zero Waste, and has made a conscious decision to incorporate as many of those principles into the café as possible.

“We don’t stock anything in plastic bottles, so all our minerals are in glass bottles which we recycle. We compost any food waste, and recycle everything else.

“Everyone working here is very conscious and aware of what we are doing. For instance,we don’t put any garnish on the plates. I’ll put it on if customers want it, but we use beautiful organic leaves from Horizon Farms and it just breaks my heart if I have to scrape them into the bin.

“People might think we’re being tight by not doing it, but we’re not, I’m just not willing to waste good food. We are happy to put it on the plate for anyone that asks for it.”

One of the long terms aims of Cobh Zero Waste is to acquire an anaerobic soil composter that all the food businesses can use, and establish community edible gardens or allotments that the soil created can be used to grow organic food locally.

“It’s not a big leap of imagination to foresee a time when soil created from food waste can be used to grow more food, the gluts of which could be sold back to local cafes, like Seasalt. It’s clear that the answers to the myriad questions of sustainability lie in community aspirations like that.

Jacquie describes the 28-seater Seasalt as a purveyor of fresh, seasonal, flavoursome food attracting a real mix of customers. A daytime café, the menu moves from breakfast to lunch during the week, with cake and coffee until 5pm. Weekends are for all-day-brunch.

“A few people have asked me would we do an evening event, and Seasalt would be perfect for a casual tapas evening, so we’re going to do a few as the autumn kicks in about once a month. We have a completely new menu, from September 21; the challenge is to see if we can get even more local, if possible. Autumn is a glorious time of year for Irish produce!”

We finish up chatting about the rights and wrongs of having avocado on the menu — such is the inevitability when foodies get together! Customers come and go with a friendly hello or goodbye, and it strikes me — for all the feelings of overwhelm created by the big ticket topical food debates of the day, like most things destined to make the biggest change, it all begins at home.

Seasalt creates delicious things for you to eat, so you can sit back and enjoy it, knowing that Jacquie and her ten-strong team have done all the ethical heavy lifting for you.

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