Playing with fire in the kitchen...

Continuing our series on Cork chefs, today we feature Decky Walsh, whose signature low and slow food is proving a hit at The Mardyke, including retro arcade Barcadia. writes Kate Ryan
Playing with fire in the kitchen...

REALLY SMOKING: Decky Walsh, from Waterford, who is Head Chef at the Mardyke, taking care of all the food needs there, including Barcadia and Holy Smoke.

A VISIT to Barcadia may be an attempt to reconnect with a misspent youth, as it was for me. Alternatively, it might be to figure out what your parents did for entertainment when the internet was still the stuff of science fiction.

Either way, a few hours spent shovelling tokens into slots to relive the thrill of Pac-Man, bashing a pin ball machine, or out playing your mates in a game of shuffle board, is the stuff of happy days.

Barcadia retro arcade, kitchen and bar, is the brainchild of Cork’s two beloved entertainers, Colm Lougheed and Patrick Ahern of 80s v 90s DJ group and is well worth the visit — trust me.

The added bonus is the food you’ll get to fuel your arcadian escapades. Pizza made with a 72-hour proven sourdough base, West Cork Buffalo Burger and juicy, tender Southern Fried Chicken Wings are just the sticky-fingered, lip-smacking tip of the iceberg.

Decky Walsh is Head Chef of The Mardyke. He is responsible for every delicious morsel that is placed before diners in Barcadia, Woolshed Baa & Grill and of course Holy Smoke. I caught up with him to find what brought a Waterford lad with a background in fine dining to the People’s Republic.


IT’S PAUL FLYNN’S FAULT

“It was my mum’s idea to apply to The Tannery in Dungarvan, she knew Paul Flynn personally and got me the interview,” Decky says. “I started when I was 17, and he opened my eyes to the possibilities of what it meant to be a chef, that it wasn’t just carvery, sandwiches and dinner service — there was much more to it. That was the start of my fine dining experience, but I hit a few speed bumps in my career.

“I was working at Sheen Falls in Kenmare, but I left when I was 20. I was really questioning what the point was cooking fine dining and if I was going down the right road; all well and good to get yourself a name but there’s no life in it. I’m very strict to the fact that we go out to work to fund our life, our lifestyle and for our families.

“Some of us are lucky to do something that we love, but there is a fine line. I’ve seen people over and over devote their lives to being a chef, but there’s a lot more to life than dedicating yourself 24 hours a day to what we do. So I had to get that balance.

“I needed to get out of Ireland, needed the head space, so I disappeared to Australia for a year. I maybe cooked for one day and I believe it’s the reason I’m still cooking now.

“Within three months of arriving, I was the part-time night manager of the hostel I was staying in and was working for AJ Hackett, the bungy-jumping company.

“When I came back to Ireland, I started cooking straight away because that was what I knew. The break got me back into it and saved my career if I’m honest. If I went away cooking I probably wouldn’t be a chef now.

“Soon after I came back to Ireland, I got a call from a friend who was opening a new restaurant asking me if I wanted to be his sous chef. Within a couple of months, at 24 years old, I stepped out of the kitchen and became a head chef and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

After a few years taking on head chef challenges in Waterford and Cork, Decky thought he had struck gold working as a head chef for a catering company — easy hours, weekends free, good money.

“I thought, this is it, this is what I’ve been waiting for, but I couldn’t handle the hours: home by 5pm every day wondering what the hell to do with myself. What do people do?! I’m not one for going to the gym and there’s only so much you can walk the dog so I decided to go back to the restaurant business. It suited me in many different ways: for my own head for one.”

NO SMOKE WITHOUT FIRE

In early 2016, Decky got a call from John Relihan, the Jamie Oliver protégé who had been tempted back from an illustrious career in London to open a new restaurant in Cork specialising in cooking over smoke and fire.

“We got on like a house on fire and I knew the name, but kept thinking, how do I know this guy, so I went home and googled his name. The penny dropped then! But I didn’t say yes to the position straight away. Eventually I walked in two days before we opened and never looked back. It’s funny how things happen…”

FINE DINING VS LOW AND SLOW

From the outside, the jump from fine dining to low and slow cooking over smoke and fire seems like a monumental one. Not so, says Decky.

“Fine dining got me into the low and slow element of it. At 17, working at The Tannery, Paul Flynn showed me how to braise a pork belly overnight, how to treat it the next morning, how to press it, how to dry the skin for the best crackling.

“There’s something about that side of fine dining that I love — the time and effort you put into something, and what you get out of it. There’s pride to be had in taking 14 hours to cook a piece of meat.”

Decky took what he had learned with Paul Flynn and pushed it further when he worked with Aidan McGrath at Sheen Falls (now the proprietor of award-winning Wild Honey Inn), and he continued to explore it more in his role of head chef.

PYROMANIAC

“The obsession with fire and smoke came from the fact that I was an absolute downright little pyromaniac as a child! I was fascinated by fire, and later working in restaurants there were BBQ elements always.

“I remember one summer, my wife Suzanne and I had just moved in together, and every week on my two days off we were cooking outside: hale, snow, whatever — I was outside cooking over charcoal.”

Taking that passion for cooking over fire outside to a restaurant inside was an easy enough transition.

“I’m a chef; I know how to run a kitchen, so I can bring what I do outside inside. There’s not many restaurants doing what we do with smoke and fire. I think that’s why John (Relihan) was so accepting of me in here, because I had the knowledge and enthusiasm of it. We went from there and it’s been really enjoyable.”

John Relihan has moved onto other projects in Dublin, with Decky taking over the mantel of responsibility for all the food being prepared at The Mardyke, including Barcadia.

“In Barcadia, the food is served in quick order, but still to our low and slow way. So we have pizza made with a sourdough base that been proved for 72 hours, West Cork Buffalo Burgers topped with buffalo mozzarella, and Southern Fried chicken made to my own secret recipe.

“The menu in Barcadia reflects how I strip back the divide between casual food and fine dining: we serve comfort food in a nice setting.”

So what’s the secret? Come for the food, stay for the fun.

* Next Friday, May 25, week we talk to Rob Krawczyk about his new venture, The Chestnut Restaurant.

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