Cork couple's bar and restaurant  is just the sauce

The White Rabbit is a hugely popular bar and restaurant on MacCurtain Street, run by Stephen and Sarah Vaughan, writes KATE RYAN
Cork couple's bar and restaurant  is just the sauce

Stephen Vaughan, owner, White Rabbit, MacCurtain St., Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane.

STEPHEN and Sarah Vaughan established White Rabbit Bar and BBQ on MacCurtain Street, in Cork’s Victorian Quarter, in 2015. A background in the publican trade, Stephen was also a gallery owner prior to the crash of 2008, and even ventured to Egypt for two years where, together, they renovated properties into a boutique hotel and short let holiday apartments.

Arriving home to Cork in 2011, narrowly escaping the Egyptian Revolution, they got married, welcomed three children to the world, got stuck back into work and haven’t stopped since.

There’s a palpable work ethic that radiates from Stephen; the catalogue of diverse business experiences paying dividends when they established their hugely popular bar and restaurant. Focusing on what White Rabbit is, what it can be, and how it is different is a full team effort where every member can wrangle new ideas into life.

Stephen and Sarah’s professional chops were earned as publicans. Sarah was the long-time manager of The Oval before Adam, their first son, now six, was born, swiftly followed by twins, both now three, a boy and a girl.

Stephen Vaughan, owner, White Rabbit, MacCurtain St., Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.
Stephen Vaughan, owner, White Rabbit, MacCurtain St., Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.

Stephen, aged 43, started in the trade from just 18 years old, managing bar at The Thirsty Scholar, Rob Roy’s, and more besides. When the unit at 56 MacCurtain Street came on the market, the natural first thought was to establish a new bar. But, says, Stephen, it had to be more than that.

“It was a case of what does the city need. We were in the pub business rather than the restaurant business, but the days of pubs existing on opening the door and making money from serving pints of Murphy’s, Beamish and Guinness were gone.

“We both always had a good interest in food – we’re not trained chefs but we both cook and big into food. Then we thought, what kind of food? It was kind of obvious to us; we were into BBQ and American style comfort food. We went away and educated ourselves, did a bit of travelling to the US, bought a small smoker at home and practiced using different rubs, different sauces.”

In the US, BBQ is tribal with different styles depending on where you are.

“In North or South Carolina, the difference between what they call BBQ and what’s acceptable is completely different: different rubs, sauce or no sauce, what kind of sauce – is it tomato, or mustard based…

“New Orleans is a melting pot of BBQ styles; it gets its BBQ from everywhere but doesn’t have its own distinct style. Like that, at White Rabbit, we can do a mix of everything because we’re not tied to any style either.”

A Korean pork belly sandwich and corn on the cob in White Rabbit. Picture Denis Minihane.
A Korean pork belly sandwich and corn on the cob in White Rabbit. Picture Denis Minihane.

Prior to opening, the pair spent six months developing their own house-style BBQ sauces and rub, influenced by what had been learned in the US, mixed with their own preferences for style and flavour. There are five sauces regularly in use at the restaurant; of these the Original with Irish stout, Kansas City sweet and spicy and Carolina hot and tangy sauces are the most popular. In 2021, the Kansas City and Carolina sauces were selected for the Grow with Aldi campaign.

“We had the sauces, but never really did anything with them. In 2020, I submitted an application for the sauces to Aldi and got turned down. But I realised, even before we got turned down, how woefully unprepared as a producer we were. I went back to college for a year to study Speciality Food Production at UCC, learned a lot, resubmitted to Aldi in 2021 and they accepted two sauces.”

The sauces sold well but as a seasonal product, losing out on a long-term listing. It didn’t deter Stephen who now had a popular retail product on his hands, White Rabbit Small Batch BBQ Sauces, and a loyal following.

Stephen Vaughan, outside the bar on MacCurtain St., Cork.
Stephen Vaughan, outside the bar on MacCurtain St., Cork.

“We got great profile from it, even ended up getting people from Belfast, Dublin coming to the restaurant who had tried our BBQ sauces and now were coming down for dinner – so it played the other way round, too.”

During two years of lockdowns while the restaurant remained closed for indoor dining, White Rabbit offered an at-home service of their BBQ meats and popular sides, and a new range of cook-in-the-oven vegetable side dishes. To make them uniquely White Rabbit, a cold-smoked butter was developed for flavouring and seasoning. It was a hit, and this year, White Rabbit Cold Smoked Butter was selected for the 2022 Grow with Aldi programme.

As everything began reopening, the reality of a very busy restaurant and a burgeoning range of retail products rammed home the fact kitchen space was at a premium. The hunt for a second location was on, and at the beginning of May this year, White Rabbit Deli opened its doors on Princes Street.

“White Rabbit Deli is a different offer,” says Stephen. “We have a bigger kitchen and cold room over, so we can produce and store more now too.”

The Deli caters well for the Grab-n-Go lunchtime market with freshly prepared sandwiches filled with slow cooked smoked meats from the restaurant smokehouse: 12-hour smoked briskets, pulled pork and more.

Smoked chicken wings in White Rabbit, MacCurtain St., Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.
Smoked chicken wings in White Rabbit, MacCurtain St., Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.

“There’s a big lunchtime trade in the city with people that just want to grab and go as opposed to a big full on dirty BBQ, even though the restaurant is open from midday. There is a market there for that American style niche; no-one else is doing a Cuban sandwich - a big dirty three types of meat thing! But it fits in with us, plus we smoke all our meats here; everything is scratch made, we don’t buy anything in. Our rubs, sauces, sides, meats; even our coleslaw is hand chopped – it’s just better, fresher.”

Stephen and Sarah are both keen to experiment and create new products. Using the same cold smoker used for their butter, smoked goats’ cheese and halloumi have been successes, as well as hot smoked eggs for use in a divine sounding smoked egg salad from the deli. With more kitchen space and a ripe creative flow, the possibilities for other tasty smokehouse products making their way into the deli are endless: spice rubs, chutneys and pickles are all on the horizon.

Stephen Vaughan, owner, White Rabbit, MacCurtain St., Cork, with a Korean pork belly sandwich and corn on the cob. Picture Denis Minihane.
Stephen Vaughan, owner, White Rabbit, MacCurtain St., Cork, with a Korean pork belly sandwich and corn on the cob. Picture Denis Minihane.

Back at the restaurant, White Rabbit is well known for the best collection of American bourbons and whiskeys in Ireland, with 150 different bottles, some incredibly rare. Tasting flights, whiskey cocktails and craft beers on draught are where its at with drinks right now – all of which are a perfect fit with the food.

That same creative flair for food is reflected in the bar, too, and Stephen’s experienced bartenders are let loose to design new cocktails and experiment with barrel-aged cocktails.

“We buy in new 5 litre American Oak barrels that are charred on the inside and use them to age spirits. We started 20th January and filled the barrel with Ruby Port, then 25th March we took out the Port and put in Courvoisier brandy. The port takes on the characteristics of the charred barrel and the brandy will take on the flavours of port and charred barrel. It’s a fun thing to do!

“I don’t want to make it sound too contrived, but it has to be an experience. No point in saying we’re fun and inventive on our social channels if we’re not being fun and inventing things.”

Someone once told Stephen you can’t work on your business if working in it. Taking that to heart, in the past couple of years changes have been made allowing Stephen to step back from the thick of the action and entrusting his experienced kitchen, bar and front of house teams to take more responsibility; for them to feel they are part of the White Rabbit enterprise - less a job, more a career.

When the Deli opened, Sarah was thinking of returning to work; the children now 6, 3 and 3. Two days has turned into five days a week at the deli, “She’s loving it,” says Stephen, whose working day is squeezed into just three or four hours a day, the rest is dedicated to what he calls Daddy Day Care.

“Sarah’s taken the lead at the Deli, and I have a great crew at the restaurant, so I don’t have to be here the 60 hours a week I used to. It’s different for us but great, and the kids seem to be enjoying it too! It’s not that I can take my eye off this place, but my front of house team has been here a long time, my chefs have been here a long, my bartenders have been here a long time, they can do it without me which is great to be able to say and means I can focus on other aspects of the business.

“We’re in the up season now, and it’s a good up season we haven’t had for two years. Life is good, you know – I can’t complain!”

There’s an easy equilibrium descending upon Stephen, Sarah, the restaurant, deli, and all that entails. That’s not to say there’s not more to come: the White Rabbit has many more warrens to explore yet.

Stephen shares Top Tips for BBQ, and some of his smokehouse recipes, too.

Top Tip 1

Buy a food probe to temperature check your food. Easily and cheaply available, it removes any guesswork and inevitable over/under-cooking.

Top Tip 2

No matter what BBQ you’re using, divide the cooking area into direct heat and indirect heat. This means keeping your coals to one side of the grill. Cooking over coals (direct heat) is great for quick items like burgers or hot dogs. Larger items, a whole chicken or roasting joint, are best cooked over indirect heat. Once at desired temperature, add colour to the skin over direct heat.

Pork Belly Burnt Ends

Pork Belly strips are easy to find, easy to cook and very tasty.

1. Cut the Pork Belly into 1-inch lengths, place in a shallow foil container and season with salt and pepper or our White Rabbit All-purpose Spice Rub for extra flavour.

2. Put the uncovered container on indirect heat side of BBQ and close the BBQ lid.

3. Leave for up to an hour, stirring occasionally, until there is nice colour on all pieces.

4. Once nicely coloured, empty the container onto a sheet of aluminium foil. Dust lightly with brown sugar and a few lumps of White Rabbit Smoked Butter. Close the foil tightly and wrap with another sheet of foil to keep in all the juices.

5. Return to the BBQ for 30 to 40 minutes.

6. Serve in tacos with salad or as bite size lumps of delicious meat candy.

Stuffed Mini Peppers

Versatile and delicious, fill with cream cheese or swap out snack peppers for chillies for a spicy kick. Serve as a side or a snack.

1. Take a pack of mini or snack peppers, slice off the top and scoop out the seeds.

2. Fill peppers with a teaspoon (maybe a little more) of cream cheese.

3. Replace sliced off tops on the peppers, wrap each with a thin slice of prosciutto or Parma ham.

4. Cook over indirect heat for 20 to 30 minutes, turning occasionally

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