A BOWL of cornflakes with cream, milk and sugar is the guilty pleasure of Cork’s most recently celebrated Michelin chef.
“Anything I don’t cook myself or that’s served up to me,” jokes Richard Milnes, chef and proprietor of Dillon’s, in the West Cork village of Timoleague, which has just been given a coveted Bib Gourmand status by the Michelin Guide for UK and Ireland.
Richard is highly experienced and well regarded in the industry having worked in the likes of The Merrion Hotel, Dublin; Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in London; The Park Hotel, Kenmare, and extensively in West Cork including Carmel Somer’s Good Things Café in Durrus, Blair’s Cove, Durrus and Liss Ard Estate, Skibbereen.
“But I always wanted to do my own thing and my own style of cooking and take the snobbery out of it,” he said.
“I wanted to give people a level of food but in a way they could still feel relaxed and not have to get dressed up and feel uncomfortable, or have a waiter hanging over them; to do it in a way they could feel relaxed but still get a decent plate of food.”
From the general area, he opened Dillon’s four years ago, living overhead, and it’s literally a two person show — Richard in the kitchen and partner Valeria Ventura front of house.
On the evening the Michelin inspector visited, they recall they were both flat out with lots of last minute bookings, stretching them to the max.
The inspector only makes him or herself known after paying and then visits the kitchen, which Richard says ‘was like a bomb hit it after a service from hell’. Clearly it didn’t take away from the experience which will soon see the prestigious Michelin Bib plaque join their other awards at the restaurant’s entrance.
Richard hasn’t spent the past four years working with a Michelin in mind, but it was a brilliant surprise and one that’s still sinking in.
“I don’t know how they work; there are lots of restaurants in Cork and West Cork that deserve the Bib and didn’t get one. But the phone has been very busy since, even with calls from people in the UK who are travelling over and want to come and visit while they’re here, which is great,” said Richard.
They are both very honest about the challenges in keeping the business going — with Richard describing it as ‘tough’ at times.
“There have been moments when I wondered what was I doing — like when in August you’ve five or six people booked on a Saturday night. We know what we’re doing is good, not just because we have a good idea ourselves but just because of awards we’ve got from people I would respect in the industry and guides I respect. But when you know what you’re doing is good and people still aren’t coming through the door, you start questioning everything,” he said honestly.
It can be physically and mentally tough at a 14 hour day, but Richard says he’s well used to the long hours of the industry.
“It would be great though if people would pay more for their food and understand the whole system; but it’s difficult with chain restaurants selling food at such a low cost, you can’t compete with that and it does affect small businesses like ours. We have 24 seats and don’t turn our tables, people come in and have the table for the night.
“Lots of people think if you have a restaurant you’re suddenly a millionaire, but there are lots of easier ways to make money,” he said.
Valeria, a biochemist from Italy/Switzerland, agrees it’s a labour of love.
The couple are keen to dispel a preconception that they’re a fine dining spot:
“Price-wise we’re not in the find dining league; don’t do table cloths or credit card reservations, I think maybe it’s the style of food that gave people that impression but that’s the last thing we want people to feel; we want it to be casual and for people not to make a big deal out of it,” stressed Richard.
They also want to be known for their ‘nourishing’ food most of which is grown out the back of the restaurant.
“I grew up with that; my father would always have grown food and when I didn’t have that I felt I was missing something and my food was missing something. It’s more work for me, like another job, but it’s like a sanctuary for me, even doing some weeding, I love it up there. I like to nourish people and not just to cook people food. I’m an honest as I can be with my food. For me it’s about the authenticity.”
Classically trained in CIT, he said some of his dishes would have very classic aspects “but with little twists if I think the dish needs to lift it. There can be lot of trial and error in there.” The menu is designed around what’s available on a given day and is known for its pared back, non-flowery descriptions.
“A dish can be just four words — sometimes ask can I add the word ‘with’ and I’m told no,” jokes Valeria.
But far from being the stereotypical tempermental chef, Richard says he doesn’t believe in theatrics having worked in kitches where there were pots and pans flying and serious bullying going on.
Although he did once throw some diners out for being “nasty and horrible for no reason,” he remembers.
Cancellations and no shows are what irks him most and he says he finds that behaviour “incredibly disrespectful”.
“When people don’t cancel a table or waltz in half an hour late and expect to be taken care of, then complain. There’s a lack of respect to the industry in general which should change — if you had to queue in a pub for 20 minutes you wouldn’t complain when you got your pint; and this is fuel for your body, it’s sustaining you but they’ll have a whinge when they have to wait.”
Time off is a luxury, but when they do get a chance they name-check The Chestnut in Ballydehob (which last week got a Michelin star) and The Lifeboat Inn in nearby Courtmacsherry as places where they like to eat.
They stay open all year round (closing Wednesday and Thursday) from 6pm and for the rest of the year are running a series of intimate courses for around five to six people. Richard admits he isn’t hugely comfortable being out of the kitchen, but correctly points out that if he’s in the dining room it means someone will have a longer wait for their meal!
They’ll be on meat, bread and baking (see their Facebook page for more) as well as a National Council for the Blind of Ireland Dining in the Dark event on November 18 .