WESTERN Road and Washington Street are attracting restauranteurs who like to do things differently. The Spitjack is no exception.
As the venue celebrates its first year of opening, I caught up with Richard Gavin, co-founder with his partner Laura, and their head chef John O’Mahony.
They were preparing to launch a new summer menu; a menu that is the result of as much experimentation as it is enthusiasm for what can be achieved by slow rotisserie cooking.
For Richard, the year anniversary is a time to take stock of what has been achieved and set their sights on what is to come.
“The Spitjack took two years to open,” says Richard. “Laura and I spent our professional lives working abroad in hospitality. We knew we wanted to open our own place and we knew we wanted the restaurant to be meat orientated, something that we consider to be Ireland’s greatest produce.
“We developed some core values to go along with that: to create a beautiful dining space, excellent standard of service, excellent produce and expertly prepared at a very competitive price point.
“We always wanted people to see the bill at the end of the meal and feel surprised — not always easy when we are dealing with an expensive product like meat.
“We did a lot of research to find a restaurant concept that would fit with those values and stumbled upon rotisserie cooking. We went to Spain, famous for its rotisserie chicken; Italy for its Porchetta; and really started to see the full potential of it. By using cuts of meat that weren’t overly expensive, we could cook them in a way that felt premium with a taste profile that couldn’t be found anywhere else and was not easy to do at home, so it would really feel like a treat when coming out to dine with us.”
Richard and Laura committed to the rotisserie concept and learned the history of rotisserie cooking — something that led them to name the restaurant ‘Spitjack’.
“We have an antique Spitjack in the restaurant from 1580. It was the first mechanical way of cooking meat — weight-driven on a clock mechanism that was wound up and slowly turned over fire.”
From there, Richard explains, the concept evolved into what they refer to as ‘a quintessentially Irish cuisine restaurant’ because “there’s nothing more Irish than roast meat!”
But it was far from rotisserie, or even Cork, that Richard and Laura were raised: Richard is from Mayo and Laura from Barcelona.
“Cork was always a place we wanted to come to, such a rich county for quality produce. People here have a genuine passion for the food they produce and the food they eat. The English Market is 100 metres away and most of our ingredients come from there.”
As with many restaurants in Cork, and across the country, the reality of the chef crisis kicked in quickly and they were unable to find a head chef. Laura and Richard dug deep into their experience and kept things going and successfully so. But it took time to find the right person. In February this year, they found their talisman in John O’Mahony.
“We’ve been going from strength to strength since John came on board. He’s really gotten into the rotisserie concept, believes in it and the method of cooking.
“We’re the only restaurant in Europe that has this concept: exclusively rotisserie seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner. To find a chef that has the same way of thinking, the same level of commitment has been great. Rotisserie is not easy, there’s a lot of easier ways to cook a chicken or a steak!”
John O’Mahony dined at The Spitjack before hearing that they were looking for a head chef.
“I was working in catering, but I wasn’t enjoying it at all. The Spitjack was something different that really interested me. I’ve gone from eight to 12 hours a day, but I don’t care, I’m happier here. There are challenges: if we decide to put duck legs on the menu I have to find a way to put them on the rotisserie, but that’s the interesting part of it.
“Rotisserie is a basic machine and method, it’s been around forever. I suppose when you look at it first it can be quite intimidating, but I just had to rethink things. Our chef team is 14 strong now, and all have a fresh outlook and attitude to what we’re doing, they’re enthusiastic to work here.”
When John arrived, the team spent six to eight weeks trialling new dishes, running them as specials on the weekends to see how they worked, how they sold and to get feedback.
“It’s not until you hit a Saturday night doing 500 covers in a day that you really know if a dish works or if we have to go back to the drawing board,” says John.
“Slow cooking over rotisserie opens up the possibility of using different cuts of meat that you couldn’t do to quick order. Our chicken has a fantastic flavour, and that’s down to the way it’s cooked on the bone, the flavours developing during slow cooking, and is really moist.”
“We always wanted to do brunch,” says Richard. “We started with breakfast and lunch when we opened. Everything was new for everyone, we wanted to progress slowly and perfect our brunch menu.
“We have the best brunch menu in the city because there’s just that little bit more to each dish: our Eggs Benedict is classic but we slow boil our ham for three hours, roast it for an hour, slice it, pan fry it and serve it up.
“We add a lot to our breakfast offering: we ferment all our own Kombucha, roast our own coffee, freshly press our juices and blend our own smoothies — there’s something for everyone here. Brunch allows us to be a little more versatile: we can be vegan and veggie friendly, more so than we could in the evening.
“We take influences from across the world and use local Cork produce to really show what we can do with it. There’s nothing on our menu that isn’t from Cork.”
As summer makes its presence felt, The Spitjack are gearing up to launch their new menu. This will be head chef John’s first new menu, delivering lighter dishes nestled alongside favoured signature dishes.
“Our signature chicken and porchetta dishes will never leave the menu, but we will now be offering veggie and fish options too,” explains John.
“We’re also doing rotisserie pork ribs, steak and a new burger section too on the menu — there will be much more selection.”
I ask them how can you rotisserie a steak. The answer sounded mouth-watering.
“We take a whole sirloin of beef,” says Richard. “We season it with our in-house steak seasoning for about 48 hours, then we slow roast the whole sirloin on the rotisserie at a low temperature for about an hour then rest it for an hour. As it rests, it draws the moisture back in and then we carve a 10oz steak off of the sirloin, narrow but thick. Cooking it this way, the steak is beautifully caramelised around the outside edge, lovely and pink in the inside.”
So what’s next for The Spitjack?
With the kitchen team now fully powered up, and the new menu about to kick in, Richard and Laura can focus on their next goal.
“On the horizon for us is Spitjack No. 2,” says Richard. “We hope to secure a property this year and open in 2019 in either Limerick or Dublin — exact same concept. We always had the intention of opening five or six restaurants; it’s why we invested so much in our branding.
“We’re very humble to be in Cork, and moving forward we want to be known as a Cork restaurant in Limerick, Dublin, etc, keeping Cork produce all the way through — be a flag bearer for Cork produce in other restaurants.”
Cork is indeed a city rising. What a prospect it would be to see a quality restaurant chain from the People’s Republic setting up in the Irish capital.
HOW ROTISSERIE WORKS
Rotisserie is the process of slowly cooking meat on a rotating metal attachment over heat.
The rotisserie in the Spitjack has a gas back wall which cooks meat at 400 degrees. As, for example, chicken turns over that heat moisture is drawn out, cooking it. As the chicken turns away it cools to 200 degrees. The chicken contracts and relaxes, and as it rotates the meat is self-basting. All the meats cooked over rotisserie in The Spitjack are full of moisture thanks to this slow, gentle way of cooking.