TO many chefs, food means business, but for anyone who has heard Eddie Attwell discuss the topic, it’s obvious that it’s all about the fun for the Eccles Hotel’s head chef.
That’s clear when he describes a blackcurrant-cured pollack and puffed wild rice dish as “mini fish and chips”, or when he assures the guests of the hotel’s recent ‘A Taste of Wild’ event that nothing on the nine-course menu “looks like a rock”.
As the County Armagh native admits, the flavours that certain food pairings create still surprise him, even after working across various high-end establishments in Ireland and the UK, including two Michelin-starred restaurants.
He often collaborates with grower extraordinaire Mags Riordan, of Bumblebee Flower Farm in Castledonovan. As a keen gardener himself, it’s a match made in heaven.
“I smell something and I look at Mags and ask ‘what can we do with this’,” he says excitedly.
What results are inventive dishes that feature items like fresh beetroot and truffle purées, nasturtium and pickled turnips, woodruff and port syrups, and emulsions of lovage and scurvy grass - a natural source of vitamin C from Alaska that was used before lemons were available in Ireland.
Though Attwell lives in Glengarriff with his family, one might believe his real home was in the Eccles’ vast garden. His nickname, ‘Hurricane Attwell’, seems fitting as he bounces between the polytunnels and outdoor plants he introduced to the property when he joined the kitchen three and a half years ago.
Looking around at the never-ending mounds of vegetables and fruits, it’s hard to believe none of it was there before his move to West Cork.
“I’ve always gardened, but it was when I was working in a restaurant in London that used its own produce that I thought ‘I need this’,” he says.
The restaurant was L’Enclume, Simon Rogan’s two Michelin Star restaurant. Attwell volunteered to work on the expansion of the farm attached to the restaurant with its main forager Kevin Tickle.
Now a keen forager himself, Attwell utilises the space at the Eccles Hotel to grow the produce used in the Garnish Restaurant kitchen, including dahlias, pumpkins, asparagus, and fresh herbs like spearmint, strawberry mint, and sweet basil, which are dried out for use in the hotel’s line of teas in winter.
Attwell also makes use of the vast seascape around the hotel, “literally risking his life”, as general manager David Manning puts it, by kayaking out to catch lobsters or forage seaweed for his customer’s dinners (after nearly four years in West Cork, Attwell still can’t swim).
“I was shocked by the bounty of West Cork when I first got here,” he says.
“So many different varieties of plants grow naturally on the shores, in the forest, and in gardens here. It’s all literally at the doorstep and increases in every direction.”
Though the hospitality industry was one of the hardest hit by lockdown, Attwell was able to keep busy. The hotel, and more importantly his garden, were within his 5km radius.
“It was weird when everyone first started coming back. It was like ‘what are they doing in our hotel?’ because it was often just myself and the managers roaming around,” he says with a laugh.
“But we’re really enjoying this year. People seem to be enjoying food so much more.
“When the staycationers first started coming, we thought they would be a ‘goujon crew’, but everyone is looking for local fish and good meats. It makes it more fun.”
The Eccles is one of the oldest purpose-built hotels in Ireland and, as Atwell points out, was there before the now-famous village it sits in front of. I tell him how I had passed it so many times but had somehow never stepped inside before.
“It was always the place people passed on the road,” he says.
“We’re trying to change that. I think people are starting to realise we are here to offer wholesome, local, and hearty food and a taste of West Cork’s finest.”
Both of Attwell’s parents are chefs, they met at Portrush Catering College where he would later get his degree. Though he grew up working in his mum’s café, his original aim was to be a history teacher.
Did he ever see himself spending his time gardening and sea kayaking around West Cork?
“My inspiration has always been my mother. I was always in the café with her before or after school. Food was a natural interest supported by my family,” he says.
“I’m always learning and trying to evolve. I think once the decision was made to cook, it was just an easy and natural transition.”
Like many of the restaurant’s customers, the 20 people who enjoyed this month’s ‘A Taste of Wild’ dinner are happy he made that decision.
“Enjoy,” he told the crowd on the night, “because I was up all night making it”.
And you can be sure he really was.