“WE’RE genuinely proud of making it this far and being still on top of our game and not just hanging in there. I think that is what the team here is most of proud of: we’re 25 and still good.”
So says Denis Cotter, of Paradiso, on Washington Street, which is celebrating a major milestone this year — 25 years in business.
I caught up with Denis, who founded the famous vegetarian restaurant, to look back on the early days, beating off the crash of 2008, and what the future holds.
CAN YOU REMEMBER WHAT YOU WERE FEELING THE NIGHT BEFORE PARADISO OPENED BACK IN 1993?
“I had one of those nightmare stress dreams. I had a dream that the restaurant was in the back garden of my mother’s house in Macroom, I was wrecked from running around and preparing everything. The customers came in, loads of them, I looked around and there was nothing there. I had done nothing, no prep. The reality was that, amazingly, on the first day we did lunch for 50 people more than filling the restaurant, which blew us away.”
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO OPEN A
“I was working in AIB Internal Audit and spent a lot of time on the road, consequently a lot of time in hotels and restaurants, and I became obsessed with restaurants.
“When I left the bank it was because I wanted my own restaurant. It was never about cooking or promoting vegetarianism — I was simply obsessed with restaurants.
“Vegetarianism was a personal thing that came along with me, but I was going into food whether I was veggie or not.
“I was very excited about Paradiso because I knew what I wanted to do. The whole thing was always about two things: one was to have a space to cook what I liked to eat, the other was to somehow create a vegetarian cuisine that was positive and pleasurable and not connected to health food, whole food, austerity or negativity.
“I wanted to create a vegetarian restaurant that could stand by itself in the mainstream.”
HOW HAVE ATTITUDES CHANGED IN IRELAND SINCE OPENING PARADISO?
“Cork was a very sophisticated place at the time with a very wide developed food culture: cheese makers, growers, producers, etc, and consumers knew their stuff so it was a good environment to open in,” said Denis.
“Over the years, our audience has become more mainstream rather than a strict vegetarian one, and that was always the aim.
“Every now and again a wave of people say ‘Oh, we must cook more plant based foods’ and then they don’t bother, because there isn’t a deep understanding of vegetables. But now there is a new generation of chefs coming through that are very focused on plant-based cookery: not vegetarian food but very good at cooking with plants which is very encouraging.
“I’m very impressed with veganism, even though I’m not a vegan. I have huge admiration for it because it’s coming from a very holistic place. It’s not a fad, it’s a genuine sense of what is and is not food on the planet and how we perceive animals and ourselves as animals. I think we’re really getting somewhere this time.
“There’s too much focus on how restaurants respond to developments in food, such as the rise of veganism, but restaurants are a product of culture, not a leader of it, which a lot of the time some seem to think they are.”
HOW DID THE 2008 CRASH AND RECESSION HIT PARADISO?
“For us, the crash was a positive thing. We were terrified like everybody else because we didn’t know what was going to happen, everybody thought that restaurants would be the first thing to go,” said Denis.
“We quickly realised that wasn’t going to happen, people liked eating out but they weren’t willing to pay for it any more.
“The boom years were a very easy time to run a business, I would say we weren’t running a business, we were just running a shop: I did the books but we had no strategy and no business sense, so as soon as the crash happened we had to sit down and figure out how we were going to survive it.
“Basic things like management accounts, cost controls, profit management tweaking; we cut our prices, stopped serving lunch. We had to become a very tight good business and I had to learn to enjoy that.
“Paradiso was one thing pre-crash, but it truly grew into its own post-crash. We had to become good at everything so we could stand out: not just cooking, but service, re-engaging with the creativity of the restaurant; taking care of everything involved everyone here. The pleasure came from all of those things combined.
“Paradiso has received many awards and is frequently included on lists of Ireland’s best restaurants. We got a lot of acclaim during a certain period, and that was very good for Paradiso. Personally, there is a level of satisfaction that’s a very nice grounding base — I really like that it’s there in the background. There is a certain impregnable thing about it that can’t be taken away,” he said.
“At 25, we’ve disappeared off the celebrated awards cycle and it’s partly our doing and partly inevitable as a process of ageing. The industry is always interested in the new, and we benefited from that when we were young hotshots, but some time after the crash we realised that our relationship is with the customer, and those are the people we need to engage with: we work for them.”
HOW DO YOU ACCESS SEASONAL AND LOCAL VEGETABLES ALL YEAR ROUND?
“We’ve been working with our main grower, Ultan Walsh of Goirt na Nain Farm in Nohoval, for the last 15 years. He grows specifically for us, and seasonality is built into our menu, but that’s not all that we use, it couldn’t be otherwise we wouldn’t be open five days a week in April! But that’s part of the fun.
“We’ve been working with a repertoire for a while so we know what vegetables are coming next and when they do we know what we’re going to do with them.
“When we first started working with Ultan, he was renting one acre and growing a few green things. But as our relationship developed, he bought nine acres that was used to grow sugar beet. He broke it up into eight different fields, polytunnels, a pond and an orchard. It’s now thriving with wildlife and producing huge amounts of vegetables, all chemical free.”
WHY DID YOU MAKE THE DECISION TO HAND OVER THE MANTLE OF HEAD CHEF?
“It was a gradual thing. While I was writing Wild Garlic in 2007 my publisher, Harper Collins, part subsidised a wage for a chef to come so I was only cooking a couple of nights a week.
“I became dependent on people in the kitchen to cook while writing the book, and then, in my personal life, I ended up commuting back and forth to Canada. I was still cooking here when I was in the country, but it was becoming more and more dependent on someone who eventually had to be given a title and a role. I finally let go of the kitchen six years ago when still in Canada. In the process, I worked with three chefs that are still here now: Ro, Glory and Eneko, who is our Head Chef.
“It was very difficult to do — I was a total control freak! But as I get older it’s much more creative because I’m working with people who are technically more skilled than me, so between us we can come up with stuff that I wouldn’t have been able to pull off on my own.
“Aside from the food, what this move has reminded me of is that the restaurant was my first love, not being a chef — it’s like I’ve come full circle.”
YOU HAVE ALREADY CREATED A LEGACY FROM THE LAST 25 YEARS, SO WHAT COMES NEXT FOR PARADISO?
“I would hope that Paradiso still has a long life in it. Maybe not 25 years more, that wouldn’t work for me anyway! It has an independent life now and I would hope that there will be a future series of really good chefs that will run the kitchen, and gradually an increasing influence from those chefs on the menu. If that keeps happening and evolving, then ultimately the food here will not be directly mine, but descended from it and I think it has that potential.”
For more about the restaurant see ttps://paradiso.restaurant