EDDIE Atwell finds himself on stranger shores these days as he settles into his new post as Head Chef of The Eccles Hotel in picturesque Glengarriff.
Born in Co Armagh, he spent most of his early years growing up in the beautiful countryside of Antrim before launching a career that has seen him champion hyper-local and foraged ingredients in high-end restaurants across Ireland and the UK, and representing Northern Ireland on The Great British Menu two years running.
He is a self-confessed country boy, and although West Cork may still feel like the great unknown, it won’t be long before he fully ingratiates himself in the vibrant food culture of Ireland’s breadbasket.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST GET THE
FEELING THAT A CAREER IN FOOD WAS FOR YOU?
“I’ve always been surrounded by food; mum and dad are both chefs, they met at catering college — the same catering college I then went to. They opened a coffee shop and mum helped my auntie to open a bakery.
“Sunday was always Pie Day, a big long table in the kitchen and we all chipped in making pies. So I was always involved but my parents never pushed me, I supposed because they knew how difficult the industry is.
“I wanted to be a history teacher. Every career talk I had, I’d say how much I loved history but the advice sheet would always read catering or hospitality! I did A-Levels in history, politics and economics but it wasn’t for me.
“During that time, I worked summers in the café with my parents, getting more involved and figuring out that I liked this work. Eventually, I decided to do catering and went on to complete a Foundation Culinary Arts Degree in Portrush. When I told my parents, it was like a switch flicked on: total full support.
“I still have a green book somewhere where my mum wrote down every French culinary term she could remember!”
“I started out working on the north coast in a fast-paced wine bar. A former college lecturer suggested I move to Tony Tobin’s two rosette restaurant Reigate in Surrey. I remember all these ingredients arriving to the restaurant fresh and it blew my mind.
“From there, I moved to the Cotswold House Hotel working with Steve Love, a Roux Scholar with a lot of accolades under his belt. Produce-wise, things were just on another level: foie gras and truffles.
“Two years later, Steve opened his own place in Birmingham and I learned the other side of running a restaurant: working with cheaper cuts and smart cooking, things that have really stuck with me.
“Steve is one of the most inspirational chefs in my career, I spent five years with him in all and he still is a friend. He got me involved with the Roux Scholarship, getting to the final twice in 2012 and 2013 — once in a lifetime experiences.
“In 2012 I got a letter from Albert Roux to say I had missed out by just half a point and that I was his winner — something I’ll never forget.
“Steve had always said to me when I stopped learning from him, he would let me go. So I took a trip back to Belfast and worked with Michael Dean for a short period of time. It gave me a bit of head space to think: where to next... I needed to step things up.
“That resulted in going to L’Enclume, Simon Rogan’s two Michelin Star restaurant in Cumbria. That’s when things really started to make sense. I worked closely with Dan Cox, a development chef, director and Roux Scholar and for years I spent any holiday I had working at restaurants on Stage (an unpaid internship for chefs), picking places that I knew I could learn from.
“While at L’Enclume, I volunteered to work on the expansion of the farm attached to the restaurant for six months and met Kevin Tickle, the restaurant’s main forager. I wanted to be a link between the farm and the kitchen: growing, foraging, seeing everything through the seasons and how to use it all.
“The growing and foraging side became really prominent in all my thoughts: seasonality became about what you could see, not what the veg man was importing from Egypt. Food to have more locality and zero food miles became instilled and made cooking really exciting: whatever you had was prepped on the day or preserved to use in winter.”
BECOMING A FORAGER
“Once you’re tuned into foraging, you just start to see food everywhere! I walk in a forest with my head down because I’m looking.
It’s going to be amazing this year because I don’t know half the stuff that’s going to come up here in Glengarriff! I’ve already been down getting seaweed. I’m always scanning to see what’s there.
“The smell of Sweet Cicely reminds me of being a kid rolling around in the fields; Wild Garlic brings me back to a park in Crumlin near to my old school where it used to grow.”
“I usually become friends with the people producing food, I guess I’m just on the same level. When a chef understands why a grower is growing something in a certain way, or is able to see what they are growing, it’s amazing.
“I remember a grower complaining all her broccoli had gone to flower, but I packed a crate full of them because it’s the best bit! To be able to garnish the broccoli with its own flower, to serve its own leaves, that makes it more complete: one ingredient being able to really shine and be at the forefront, showing how each plant produces so much. I’m no vegetarian, but meat is nearly a second thought to me now.”
GROW IT YOURSELF
“My polytunnel is set up and I’ve been growing in a neighbour’s tunnel pretty much as soon as I got down here!
“All the plant pots around the hotel will be edible, we’ll be growing all our herbs and drying those we don’t use in the summer for our own line of teas in the winter. Out there, that’s my larder and I want to be able to use it in here.
“We’re in the process of rebuilding the hotel’s standing and the restaurant is a part of that. There are weddings to cater for and a bistro to run. I’m not pretending that I’m running everything right now, but as time goes on, we’ll create a smaller restaurant where I can showcase what we are growing and foraging.
“My previous Tasting Menus were 75% tunnel produce and changing every day.”
“We’re a small kitchen team starting off from scratch and we need to get things pumping again. Eccles Hotel was traditionally a seasonal place open for only six months of the year, but the vision is for a resort hotel open year round. You can draw people in with food, doing foraging with groups for wild ingredients, go through the tunnel and cook a meal for them based on what they have picked.”
WHY WEST CORK?
“A change of scenery and a new challenge; the countryside and terroir I like and enjoy cooking in.
“There’s a lot of history at The Eccles Hotel. In Victorian times it was a wellness spa with a seawater pool outside and glass houses covering the land at the back where they grew fruit and vegetables. I’m going back to that — like a rebirth of the hotel, back to where it started from. It’s nice to be able to tip the hat to what the hotel was 250 years before I ever got here.”
DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF A BIT OF AN OLD SOUL WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR APPROACH TO FOOD?
“I suppose so: an old soul with modern interpretations, going back to see what people did before. We’re building slowly starting with the all-day bistro menu. It’s important for me that we can feed our locals well, cater our weddings well, become sustainable and then take ourselves to the next level by opening a restaurant, but only when we’re ready for it. I don’t want to do six things half a way when we can do three things to our full potential.”
WHAT’S THE MARK YOU WANT TO MAKE AT ECCLES HOTEL?
“To be a destination restaurant. We’re surrounded by some of the best produce in the country, why would Glengarriff not be the place for a destination restaurant? We have a great team, amazing environment, the best produce in Ireland and a stunning location.”