25 years of a stairway to food heaven

The celebrated Farmgate Restaurant in the English Market celebrates 25 years of business this year. CHRIS DUNNE spoke to its founder, Kay Harte
25 years of a stairway to food heaven
Kay Harte and her daughter Rebecca at the Farmgate Restuarant in the English Market, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

IT comes as no surprise that Kay Harte, owner of the Farmgate Café in the English Market, has huge respect for the arts.

There are many fine examples displayed at the café, and it’s all down to the legacy of her parents.

“My parents were not commercial people,” says Kay, who opened the Farmgate Café 25 years ago this year, in 1994.

Her younger sister, Máróg, already in business 10 years in Midleton, had spotted the opportunity for a café in the English Market.

Kay adds: “My father loved art, music and poetry, and being from West Waterford he had beautiful Déise Irish.

“My mother loved theatre and she was very well versed in the Gaelic Revival.

“In 2016, The Farmgate held an exhibition ‘Women of the South’, documenting hidden stories of women who played a part in both Cumann na mBan and the Francise movement in Munster.”

The O’Brien women were high achievers too.

“Máróg was the entrepreneur in the family,” says Kay. “She was ahead of her time, opening the Farmgate Café and Country Store in Midleton 36 years ago. When she went to Dublin, Máróg used to visit the vegetable markets there and bring home unusual vegetables.”

The sisters, who grew up in The Strand in Youghal beside the sea, were very well versed in sourcing and producing good traditional, wholesome Irish food.

“My favourite place was at the Cookery School at the Loreto Convent where we went to school,” says Kay, who has two daughters, Sarah and Rebecca.

“Our mother was a practical cook who fed five kids nutritional food on a limited budget.”

Kay had another asset nearby that would serve her well in her future career.

“My neighbours had a fantastic housekeeper, Eileen, who was a great cook,” says Kay. “I lived in her kitchen, hanging around morning, noon and night. I saw my first prawn in that kitchen! Eileen made proper stews and fabulous tarts and flans. She knew how to cook in season and she went on to be the chef in Aherne’s in Youghal.”

Máróg O’Brien had set her sights elsewhere.

“One day, when Máróg was in the market, she looked up and saw an empty space,” says Kay. “She said to me it would make an amazing restaurant.”

What was Kay’s response?

“Terror!” says Kay. “I thought it was much too big.”

But the already established food ethos — food from the farm gate to the kitchen table — established in Midelton by Máróg, could easily be spread to Cork City.

“City Hall were hugely supportive,” says Kay. “They were really interested in the concept of a café in the English Market and they were very good to us.”

The time was right.

“It was the opportune time for me,” says Kay. “I came in with the product. People say the Farmgate is a great success. Running a café in the outstanding English Market is a no-brainer. From the first day we opened to this present day, I am getting my meat, fowl and fish from the same suppliers downstairs.”

Kay’s new domain was a different one than she was used to.

“It was a very foreign world to me,” she says. “I got lots of encouragement from stall holders like the late Kay O’Connell and Mary Rose Daly. I realised quickly how much Cork people loved their market, supporting it every day. I was very keen to do the same.”

Soon, drisheen, paired with tripe, appeared on the Farmgate menu as well as corned beef, poached mutton and ham.

“I was very nervous opening first,” says Kay. “I wanted no fuss.”

Twenty-five years ago, the sisters, Kay and Máróg, with Betty Davis at front of house, quietly put on the lights at 11am and opened the door of the Farmgate café. And they waited. But not for long.

“People came up the stairs constantly,” says Kay. “The balcony was full.”

She and her dedicated team were enthused looking forward to joining the culture of the popular cork cafés.

“There were very good cafés ahead of me,” says Kay. “Jack’s, Isaacs. Nash 19, Michael Clifford; I had stiff competition to face. It was full on. I was a bit daunted and I had some doubts.”

But it was full steam ahead for the initial Farmgate café team of 14, which grew to 25, who had a huge appetite to succeed.

“I think it was 10 years on that I began to think; I can run a café after all!” says Kay. “This is going to work after all.

“Yes, it was tough and I had no background. Often people don’t always ‘get’ the challenges that self-employed people face.”

She had her backroom team too

“Máróg was coming and going,” says Kay. “My daughters, Sarah and Rebecca helped me out at Christmas and Easter time in between going to college and going travelling. They were there when support was needed. We have a great relationship.

“Rebecca, who has a great natural innate instinct for food, manages the café full-time now that I am semi-retired. I am very proud of both my daughters.”

Back of house is equally important as front of house.

“My husband Niall has been a stalwart since the foundation of the café,” says Kay. “Always a sound background advisor when the going gets rough!”

Kay had a fool-proof recipe for success.

“Simplicity is the secret of success. Less is more.”

She has a lot of help from her friends.

“I’m firm friends with the stall holders downstairs,” says Kay. “We continue to support each other very much. They are all just steps away.”

Friends have come and gone over the years.

“Some of my staff were lifers!” says Kay. “People like the Mayo man, Seamus Farrander. Donal Casey was a unique and special part of the café for many years with his piano playing. He had a wonderful story about meeting President Eisenhower. Dina Twohig worked on the balcony floor for years who was well loved by all our customers. We had many great hard workers with us over the years.”

Kay inherited the O’Brien hard-working genes.

“We were all very hard-working. I wasn’t afraid of hard-graft; getting that from dad’s side of the family! I was never over-confident and I didn’t rest on my laurels.”

Visiting the Farmgate café on a sunny July morning, I am in good company. American chef David Tanis is in for an early lunch and our Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, is due in later to eat.

A framed poem, personally presented by President Michael D. Higgins, has pride of place on the wall above the walnut cabinet made by cabinet maker Hans Leibtin; which no doubt is admired by the patrons of the Farmgate Café.

Kate has arrived, surely?

“I’ve never thought that I’ve arrived!” she says. “I still don’t think it. It was definitely 10 years in business before I thought; I can do this. I am so fortunate with my excellent food suppliers and my excellent staff.”

Kay can be a perfectionist.

“I stop by long enough to make sure everything is right. I’m often in search of faults. Accepting the imperfect is about survival. Otherwise you’d never open your door.”

Being a fan of the arts, whose mother loved the theatre, Kay says every day is like a performance. “The curtain goes up and you’re only as good as the performance on the day.”

Does she ever get fed-up of performing?

“Funny. I don’t,” says Kay. “I have a love of food. I moved to Union Hall 15 years ago and home-made brown bread, fresh fish and salad leaves which I grow, are staples on our kitchen table.”

Kay is a staple at the English Market for 25 years.

“When I came to the Farmgate in Cork, I came with Máróg’s wonderful ethos in Midleton. There was no fear. Máróg is fearless!” says Kay.

“She continues to be a true inspiration.”

Farmgate Café opens 8am to 5pm, Monday-Friday. Closed Sunday.

Farmgate café and Country Store, Broderick Street, Midleton, opens 9am to 5pm Tuesday to Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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