LESS than five minutes’ drive from the bustling west Cork market town of Skibbereen is Liss Ard.
The elegant Georgian estate is nestled in 163 acres of gardens, peppered with unique vignettes such as James Turrell’s award-winning Sky Garden. The country house, built in 1856, is hidden from view until arriving virtually at its doorstep. It has an immediate welcoming air, relaxed and dripping with understated luxury.
Liss Ard has changed hands many times in its 165-year history, but in the hands of the Stern family based in Switzerland it is undergoing something of a renaissance.
For the past year, a small but ambitious chef team has been built, busy reimagining what it means to be a restaurant in a hotel.
Danny Barter was appointed Head Chef in 2017, and along with a young talented sous chef in Josh Graddon, they have been garnering a reputation for Liss Ard as an exciting and creative dining destination.
So how did Danny move from the gastropubs of Bath in south-west England to fine dining in a west Cork country estate?
“My mother was a terrible cook, bless her!” says Danny, clearly not inspired to cookery from watching at her apron strings.
“I grew up watching Marco Pierre White and a young Gordon Ramsay on television. I liked that it was more of an insight into real life in a kitchen as opposed to the Ready Steady Cook food programmes, and that’s what got me interested. I remember saying when I was about 12 years old that I wanted to be a chef.”
Danny first moved to west Cork when he was just three years old with his mum. At 10, he returned to Bath with his father, completed secondary school and went onto catering college there.
“I started baking with my grandmother, she was a fantastic baker and I learned a lot from watching her. When I was 14, I started at a local gastropub in Bath called The Dolphin Inn, just washing up at first. By 15, I was studying for my exams and also started making desserts and preparing garnishes.
“One day, two of the chefs didn’t turn up, so I got thrown in at the deep end on a full service. It was horrendous, the scariest thing of my life, but at the end of the service people said, ‘Look you did really well, would you consider doing this full time?’
“I attended college four days a week and worked in the restaurant. They supplied me with a uniform and my first set of chef knives – they were very good to me.”
So started four tough years of balancing study at the Bath College of Culinary Arts and putting that into practice three days a week at The Dolphin Inn. After that, Danny needed a holiday.
“I was about 20, and came to Ireland initially for a holiday and worked for the summer in Blair’s Cove. Although Bath is gastronomically very good with some amazing places to eat, working in Blair’s Cove in that country environment, growing herbs and vegetables in their gardens, I really began to focus on simply great food and getting out of the catering production line mentality — I was inspired.
“I was learning new techniques from French and German chefs; the owners Philip and Sabine were fantastic also, they know so much about food themselves, and Philip is a great sommelier. It changed my mind to stay in Ireland. I just fell in love with west Cork all over again.
“I spent about five years travelling between Ireland and the UK, spending winters working in UK and the summers in West Cork. A year ago, I heard that Liss Ard were recruiting for a Head Chef position.”
The position came at the perfect time for Danny. With his partner and two young children, Danny felt he had done his time working away in Dublin, Galway and the UK. It was time to settle down in west Cork.
“I still have the drive and passion to really push myself and work hard. This past year has been really rewarding, especially working with my sous chef, Josh Graddon.
“What Josh and I are trying to do with the food at Liss Ard is constantly ask ‘What else?’ We know that scallops go well with black pudding or a cauliflower or pea puree but what else could go with it? So we try bringing out the sweet flavour of the scallop with beetroot; or use a miniature Tomberry tomato as little bursts of flavour in a palate-cleansing sorbet.”
Danny is referring to the sorbet designed for a recent tasting menu event: a bittersweet sorbet of Calamansi fruit with flavours of lime and lychee topped with a Tomberry and tarragon salsa.
“Instead of having a sorbet to start, I wanted a palate cleanser in between main and desserts to wash away all the smoky flavour from the roasted Jerusalem artichoke and lamb.
“It’s not about ‘pushing boundaries’, it’s just finding new flavours that go together. I want to keep curious. Why can’t you have a tomato and basil salsa with a sorbet?!
“I remember growing up watching Rick Stein and his seafood journey and just fell in love with food as discovery — like raking up the sand and finding cockles, visiting Cornucopia Farm in Ballydehob to pick corn and lettuce, or the wild blackberries that lined the track down to my grandfather’s house. I just love picking, cooking and eating really!”
Good ingredients are not hard to find in west Cork, where everything Danny could need is within a 50km radius of Liss Ard — closer considering the on-site vegetable garden, the apple orchard and an edible mushroom patch.
“I have everything I have ever needed — it’s truly amazing, what more could I want as a chef? I love being able to say that black beans on the smoked salmon dish are from our garden, or that I picked the edible flowers fresh half an hour before service.
“After the first year, I now know what my team and I can do but also what Liss Ard can provide and what boundaries can I push. There’s a lot of trust there, and I think Josh and I have proved ourselves capable of that trust.”
LOTS TO OFFER
Of course, the lifeblood of any hotel are the weddings.
“I love that when the wedding party arrives, my only concern is to feed them,” says Danny. “It’s just them, so I can put all my focus into the couple and their guests. My wedding menus are very similar to my a la carte menus precisely because I have more time; I’m not catering a wedding, christening, party and a restaurant menu all at the same time.
“That’s what it’s all about. I’ve spent the past 15 years working in restaurants and distilled them all into a way of working in Liss Ard that really works and is unique too.”
The restaurant is open to guests, visitors and diners. Seasonally, special once off dining events are hosted and are a real opportunity for Danny and Josh to flex their creativity.
“Without showing off, I want customers to come here to dine and as they’re leaving to talk about it and remember certain elements of the dishes — for someone to really enjoy something without having to understand it!
“We do it to let people know that we are here, and this is what we are doing; that Liss Ard is not just a hotel or a wedding venue. We’re less than five minutes from Skibbereen and yet it can feel like being a world away. It’s such a special place. I want people to have a reason to come here. What other place do you know that you can go and visit the Sky Garden, lie down on the stone and digest your dinner?”
“To place Liss Ard on the food map, to encourage people to think: ‘Let’s go to dinner; let’s go to Liss Ard’. I want it to be known as a destination for a really great food experience.
“We’re not like a usual restaurant where you sit and dine for two hours and then you’re gone again. You can linger, enjoy the house, sit next to the fire, wander around the gardens, go fishing in the lake; bring your dog for a walk.”
Danny is right, Liss Ard has so much to offer.
* Kate's chef series will run every Friday. Next week, May 4, we feature the Perry sisters about The Glebe Gardens in Baltimore and branching out.