THE restaurant business is hard work, even more so if you are a chef-owner! A continual cycle of cooking, maintenance, ordering, staff, paperwork and promotion — all the things that make a restaurant function.
This is the reality for Richy Virahsawmy, restaurateur, TV chef and farmer who moved to West Cork 18 years ago with his Finnish wife, Johanna Simi, establishing a restaurant with a reputation for good food synonymous with Clonakilty.
For 17 years, through the worst recession of recent memory, six major floods and two years of extensive road works, he and his team have kept the restaurant going and growing!
Did I forget to mention his farmstead, Carrigfadda Farm, established primarily as an experience to understand what it takes to grow and rear the food that appears on restaurant plates?
Richy’s Café & Restaurant operates as a café by day, restaurant by night as well as offering a cookery school, pizza takeaway service, private and event catering.
It’s an enterprise that works hard to service a vast array of customers, whether it’s a daily cup of coffee or a group looking for a dining experience with a personal touch.
Virahsawmy is a ball of energy. On the morning we meet, he is just off the phone from RTÉ who have asked him to their Cork studio later that day to do a Vegan Cookery Demo live on air. A curved ball for sure, but one for which Richy doesn’t even break his stride to manage.
That aside, Richy has 30 years in the kitchen under his belt. His children are growing up fast, and at the end of 2017 Richy’s father passed away. It signalled a time to change things up, a decision leading to appointing Meeran Gani Manzoor as his new head chef in a carefully managed move, allowing Richy to gradually exit the kitchen full time.
But why the change of heart?
“When my father passed away, it was a very difficult time and the end of a chapter. Meeran was already on my radar a year prior to that. He joined us as a Sous Chef in February, 2018, signalling the start of a new journey and a new direction. Our skill here has always been ongoing movement and changing what the restaurant offers, so I decided to take a step sideways and bring in a really good Sous Chef.”
It was soon evident that Meeran had Head Chef potential — a position he was promoted to in September last. This year, Meeran’s influence will be apparent on the new season menus as he takes charge of recipe development and building on his exposure to the vast larder of food producers in the region.
Part of the strategy for this latest reinvention is developing the guest experience.
“Having Meeran in place has allowed me to come out on the floor a lot more and engage with guests. It has developed a really good harmony between the kitchen and front of house, and I can train my team about the produce we use and the food Meeran is creating so the passion for the food we interact with can be translated back to the guests through the menu and the guest experience we deliver.”
Meeran’s career to date has seen him work in London’s Dorchester Hotel and at two Michelin star standard venues in Belgium, but West Cork is presenting Meeran with a different challenge — the change of pace! In a busy city restaurant, the pressure is year round; in West Cork the long hours are confined to the busy summer season with winter offering plenty of time to enjoy what’s on our doorstep.
“It’s no good being a chef that’s burnt out,” says Virahsawmy, “and I see it all the time. This is why we moved here, because it offers a work life balance that is essential for a healthier and happier lifestyle.”
With a shortage of qualified and experienced chefs in Ireland, Meeran ticked a lot of boxes for Richy.
“Meeran is an amazing chef. Bringing him in as a Sous Chef meant I could mentor him on the business of running a restaurant. As well as developing an understanding of the locality of what he is cooking, he is meeting producers like Avril Allshire of Caherbeg, going foraging in Courtmacsherry for wild garlic or meeting a seafood supplier — experiences that many chefs rarely get to do.”
Meeran says, “More than cooking, Richy is giving me insights into the business. I’m learning everything from changing a fuse to ordering and cooking. This is how I develop from a chef to a chef owner.
“Most of my inspirations come from street food from around the world and find a way to elevate them to restaurant standard. I’m from Chennai on the east coast of India originally, so naturally many of my influences come from there. I always try to mix and match, the hidden flavours in my food are always Indian spices: turmeric in carrot soup, cumin in the peanut crumble that accompanies our Jacobs Ladder, or the aromatic spiced brine for our RFC,” (a cheeky riff on the West Cork penchant for a deep fried chicken goujon!).
“When you take a bite of something that has been carefully spiced, you might not know what’s going on, but the flavour will stick into your mind forever. Indian cuisine is so vast, it’s like a sleeping legend that hasn’t woken up yet!”
This new playfulness around the versatility of spice led to the launch of Richy’s Curry Club, a weekly gathering to excite the palates of those looking for a taste of warmer climes.
Despite Richy’s Mauritian and Meeran’s Indian heritage, both are at pains to point out that neither are curry chefs. Rather, use of spice is part of the natural melting pot of their home cookery, and the Curry Club is as much about a journey of discovery for them as chefs as it is for their diners.
“The Curry Club is a journey about heritage and not a reflection of our professional culinary backgrounds; but it will be authentic and fun,” says Richy. “Spice doesn’t have to mean chilli heat, in fact many curries don’t use chilli at all! It’s about aromatics, balance and a deep understanding of how to use spices. Every week, for a year, we will showcase the wide array of curry styles and flavours from across India.”
It starts with Meeran’s native Chennai, home of the Madras curry and famous for its use of sweet/sour tamarind. Both chefs will cook live in front of diners, and food served Thali-style — a series of small bowls containing curry’s, pickles, condiments, vegetables and rice to make a complete and balanced meal.
“There will be a bit of theatre to the experience and plenty of interactions, a really unique guest experience and an opportunity to learn something new.”
As well as the new menu and Curry Club, keep an eye out also for Richy’s new season of hands-on cookery demonstrations and new season menus. www.richysrestaurant.com