BACK in June, 2015, I was a fresh-out-of-the-box food writer sent to cover a food producers’ showcase in my local branch of Bank of Ireland.
Under a marquee in the car park among the seasoned demo and tasting staff was a young lady standing nervously behind her table laden down with the most incredible array of cakes.
Unable as I am to resist the temptation of cake, I wandered over, perused the offering of delectable looking baked goods, and naturally tasted a few (for research purposes, obviously).
This was a brand new business, opened just the week before; and Rebecca Scott, a graduate of Ballymaloe Cookery School, had barely had time to let the ink dry on her business cards.
Ever since, Rebecca’s business has been growing and adapting to the wants and needs of her loyal customer base. Earlier this year, over the June bank holiday, the next chapter for Rebecca’s Kitchen Café in Kilbrittain began — a new café to add to her farm shop and tastes-like-home ready meal business.
At only 29, Rebecca has created a beautiful food business that is all about family and community.
“I left school in 2008 and went on to UCC to study Social Science,” she said. “I enjoyed it, but I knew it wasn’t what I really wanted to do, so I left the course after two years.
“I had already signed up for Ballymaloe Cookery School for autumn 2011, the 12-week course finished just before Christmas.
“It seems like so long ago since Ballymaloe, it feels like a blur, but I loved every single minute of it. The passion the School has for what they do really gives everyone ‘The Bug’ — by the end of the course, I knew I wanted to work in food.
“The way things are done at Ballymaloe is very close to how my mum cooks, and dad has a big organic walled garden growing fruits and vegetables all year round. So we always cooked with the same ethos as Ballymaloe, just on a smaller scale!
“Our family home was a guest house which mum ran for 12 years, right across the road from the café. She was well known in the business for her baking and breakfasts so I definitely learned a lot from her. I was always standing at the Aga stirring a pot and getting in her way!
“Mum is a brilliant baker. She’s cooked and baked for as long as I ever remember for friends and family. The family home is quite a big farmhouse, so any family gatherings were always at ours — cooking and baking for everyone. Mum and dad finished up the guest house when I started the business, I just recruited them directly in!
“The café came about by accident. Straight from finishing at Ballymaloe Cookery School I started working as a baker at Diva Café in Ballinspittle. I was there for three years and absolutely loved it. I did work in a restaurant kitchen for about a month and that was enough for me. I enjoyed it while I was there, but it taught me that I didn’t want to work evening shifts and the stress of a kitchen like that. The bakery was much more my style.
“For my own café, I wanted to concentrate on traditional Irish baking. I suppose I wanted to keep things like what mom used to do. I was drawing on nostalgia in a big way, I think I wanted to recreate what mum did, just on a bigger scale. We’re real foodies and our days just revolve around food. It’s massive for us, and a huge part of our socialising as a family, bringing everyone together.
“While I was working as a baker in Diva, a lot of the older people in the neighbourhood wanted ready meals made up — people who were just getting a bit older and couldn’t manage cooking anymore. Mum would have done it for a few of them, but she was still busy with the guesthouse at the time, so I started doing it after work, stocking their freezers with good food. That gave me the push to do it on a bigger scale and see if anyone else wanted my help!
“So I gave up working in Diva in 2015 and built a little kitchen here a quarter of the size I am now. It was a little portable building, an old classroom from CIT, and just fitted it out with a domestic kitchen — hob, oven, nothing major — and started making ready meals and baking.”
Ready meals are now Rebecca’s biggest sellers — her bread and butter. For nearly two years, she operated out of her little portable building kitchen with customers collecting their pre-ordered ready meals from the door or delivered to their home. But then the decision came to open a little farm shop.
“We opened the shop so there was somewhere for people to come. I did takeaway coffees and cake and it’s just grown steadily each year since. That changed the clientele to a bit more passing trade so that grew too!
“People heard about me and there was somewhere for them to come and collect their food and shop, but customers kept telling me I should have some place to sit. I had a few seats outside but, although last summer was good, you can’t expect people to sit in the rain! So it just seemed like the obvious next step was to open a proper little café.”
Rebecca’s Kitchen Café is on her dad’s farm, lands that have been farmed by her family for over 300 years. At the moment, while her dad eases into what can only be described as an active retirement, the lands are let to a local dairy farmer and his herd of 400 cows.
“He’s technically retired,” says Rebecca, “but he’s busier than ever! He actually built this whole new café for me. He recycled the floors from fallen trees, he was working all winter on it — he is amazing! A total hands on dad! We opened the new café over the June bank holiday, hitting the ground running and it hasn’t stopped yet.”
Rebecca’s Kitchen & Café is without doubt a family affair.
“I went from almost having no staff last year, just running the shop and doing the catering, to now having a team of six! I have a chef in with me in the kitchen — she’s brilliant, I wouldn’t be able to do it without her. My mum is here most of the time, my aunt and two part-time waitresses. My brother looks after the website and my sister, who lives in Brisbane, Australia, is coming home during the summer to work with me in the café.
“The Café is really her dream: I was happy to just cook and she would take care of everything else!
“She’ll be back to Ireland full time in a couple of years and then we will work together running the café. It really will be a family affair then — everyone’s in on it!”
Alongside the café, confectionery and Ready Meals, there is also a diminutive, carefully curated farm shop. Fresh daily breads baked in house, along with Rebecca’s own jams and chutneys, (made with produce from her dad’s walled garden), bottled lemonade and granola “fly off the shelves”, alongside a selection of great quality artisan foods from around the county.
Without a doubt, when one mentions ‘Ready Meals’ it conjures up a certain connotation that isn’t always positive. But for Rebecca, her Ready Meals are all about a taste of home, honest to goodness cookery and the best local ingredients.
“I get all my meat from Dan Maloney Craft Butcher in Bandon, my eggs are free range and come from a farm just up the road, my edible flower garnishes are sourced from Howe Hill Farm, and all my vegetables and fruits either come from AllFresh or from my dad’s organic walled garden.”
Rebecca’s Ready Meals are home cooked from fresh ingredients to traditional, home-style recipes, many of which are treasured from her mum’s own repertoire, becoming something that is good for people.
“My customers are getting the benefit of saving time but getting a meal that is balanced, nutritious, made with good ingredients and tasty too: Ready to Eat food that is cooked by a person, not a machine!
“My customers are a real mix. I have a lot of young families, young professionals and single people of all ages who come in to get their meals. It’s really hard to get good quality ready meals,- there aren’t many around, so I think we definitely became a destination for that.
“If you’d have asked me two years ago would I ever be running a café, I would have said no. It was never in my immediate dream, but then in recent years people have mentioned about it the odd time so it kinda had to happen, and I’m glad it has!
“It doesn’t feel like work, because I really do love it! If I took a month off, I’d be cooking every day and bringing food to people’s houses anyway! That’s my motivation really, I can’t think of anything else I’d want to be doing.
“Cooking has always been a big part of our lives, but I didn’t know any professional cooks — everyone just did it for the love of it, so I never thought about it as a profession. I knew I never wanted to be a chef in a high pressured environment, and I suppose that was all I thought about when I was younger.
“But I’m lucky in that I’ve found a way to do what I do in a way that works totally for me.”
Rebecca’s Kitchen Café is about comfort food in all aspects: good home cooking with no frills attached. Cottage Pie, Fish Pie, Lasagne, Beef Bourgingnon, Chicken & Mushroom Pie, Lamb Stew – “The good aul Irish staples, really,” as Rebecca likes to put it.
There is a nostalgic quality to those dishes that really speaks to us. We all have memories of dishes being laid before us in the centre of the table, heaped and generous with all the aromas of dinner time with loved ones.
Rebecca’s love for her family, and those precious happy times sat around the table sharing food and laughter at meal times, is the gift she wants to share with those in the community around her. It’s good to remind ourselves of the value in the ceremony around such dishes. Ready Meals they may well be, but they are little packages of familial nostalgia wrapped up as a taste of home.
Rebecca’s Kitchen & Café is open 5 days a week, Wednesday to Sunday, 10-5pm with food served until 4pm. Find on Facebook & Instagram, or visit www.rebeccaskitchen.ie
Next week: We chat to the duo behind Good For The Soul in Ballilncollig.
Rebecca’s Kitchen Café in Kilbrittain is located on lands that have been farmed by her family for more than 300 years, writes KATE RYAN, in the latest part of her Café Culture series