Meet the Cork chef tackling gender ratios, work-life balance and sustainability

It’s been a tumultuous few years for the restaurant industry. KATE RYAN catches up with Aishling Moore, head-chef and co-owner of Cork eatery Goldie, who is tackling issues like gender ratios, work-life balance, and sustainability - while hanging on to its Michelin Bib
Meet the Cork chef tackling gender ratios, work-life balance and sustainability

Aishling Moore of Goldie restaurant, Cork City. Picture: Claire Keogh

CORK’S innovative gill-to-tail restaurant may have opened in autumn, 2019, but 2022 will be the first time it has welcomed diners for spring and early summer: a first April, May, and June. The shiny new restaurant with its bright young chef were interrupted by two turbulent years of Covid lockdowns and restrictions.

Of course, even when Goldie restaurant was closed for indoor dining, its head chef and co-owner, Aishling Moore, 27, was never not working, never not innovating, never not hoping for better times ahead. Looking to what should be the first full year of trading since opening, what is beyond doubt is that she has emerged from the tumult sharper, more determined and creative, and less willing to suffer fools. She has carved time out to read, research and think deeply about the industry she loves so much; how it can be better, and what it truly takes to stand up for sustainability with integrity and authenticity.

Since Goldie opened, Aishling has earned copious column inches, rave reviews, and a loyal cohort of repeat diners. This year, she has already thrown her hand in to a last-minute fund-raiser for Ukraine at Ballymaloe and will leave the Rebel County for a pop up at the always sell out Sunday Sessions at Pot Duggan’s in Ennistimon where she is billed as “one of the most exciting chefs in Ireland”.

Against a challenging backdrop, Goldie also retained its Michelin Bib Gourmand for 2022, something Moore says she was delighted about. And yet there is no ego trip that accompanies the person behind the headlines and achievements.

Above all else, Moore imbues humbleness. She is raw talent and a hard worker to boot, but with every statement of intention for Goldie, for her team, for her future, for the collective vision, all that is because of a cast of many others; she is at pains to make this clear.

Aishling Moore of Goldie. Picture: Claire Keogh
Aishling Moore of Goldie. Picture: Claire Keogh

Aishling is also aware that there are issues out there that are bigger than her restaurant. Gender equality and parity in the workplace, work-life balance, and sustainability, and she is working hard on all three.

I met up with Aishling to shoot the breeze over a slice of her mum’s homemade Gur Cake. This year, Goldie achieved 50:50 female and male staffing ratio for the first time in the kitchen and on the floor, but it didn’t come easy.

“When you think of Cork, female chefs spring to mind as fast as the male ones do, and it’s always been like that here.

“Jacques has been Jacques for 25 years and that’s remarkable. Pam Kelly, Caitlin Ruth, Kate Lawlor – there have been loads, so I’ve found it surprising I didn’t get any CVs for female chefs, really, until December last.

“We’re almost back to a four-day week – that’s always been the goal. We just have one service, and the goal is a 38-hour week for everyone. We’re not there yet, but it’s not ever going to be a 50-plus hour week again. Everything benefits from it, everyone’s mental health, physical health; their work benefits and the restaurant benefits.”

Why is the 50:50 staff ratio and four-day working week important?

“50:50 is just a reflection of the world. It’s as important with gender as it is nationalities, having people from different cultures and backgrounds you can bounce off - especially in a place like Goldie where we work collaboratively. 

"If there’s a dish you know from where you’re from, tell us about it because we all want to know, and whether that’s going to be staff food or it’s going on the menu, regardless we’re going to have a good time.

“When Goldie opened, I wanted it to be as good a place to work as to eat because I knew I was going to spend a lot of my life here for the next while. As an industry, I think we need to demand more for ourselves and that goes for the floor and the kitchen. I know the craft and skill that goes into our food, but what the lads do on the floor - they make you feel something; they can communicate the things we can’t. I’d like to see a little more value for what the front of house does and across the industry.”

Aishling Moore. Picture: Claire Keogh
Aishling Moore. Picture: Claire Keogh

Goldie is part of the Market Lane Group of restaurants that also includes the eponymous Market Lane, Elbow Lane, Orso, and Castle Café. Each restaurant has its own unique identity, but they share a fingerprint as part of a larger group.

“It’s the Market Lane Group’s philosophy to always invest in service. Excellence in Service is our motto, it’s simple but it’s also all you need to know. If I have that in my head every day, I’ll always make the right decision. Once the approach between both sides of the restaurant is professional, ultimately the customer will have a really good experience.

“Sometimes it’s like a perfect orchestra between the kitchen and dining room; other times it’s like three five-year-olds with a drum set. We all have an off day, but we come in and we own it and communicate it. 

"When you feel as part of a team, as I hope everyone who works here does, we can carry each other.”

Making a choice to do things differently isn’t always the easiest option. Goldie’s whole-catch, whole-fish approach certainly isn’t the easy way to run a restaurant! Making a commitment to use up every fish and every part of the fish needs a library of flavours so each new menu tastes exciting. The Goldie larder of pickles, ferments, crazy sauces, and condiments provides that foundation.

“Cities likes ours are too small to repeat restaurants, and people are crying out for change – always. Our staff would be bored working like that, their brains move way too quick to cope! But in other ways we do the same things every single day; there are two extremes - our larder is our baseline.

“Our chefs see how raw the ingredients are when they come in, and we teach in stages of fish preparation. Depending on the fish, sometimes we dry it out for a few days. We dry them in a variety of ways: by refrigeration, we dehydrate, salt, smoke.

“If we got hake in on a Wednesday, we might not serve it until Saturday, because it’s better Saturday, and you cannot skin Dover Soul on the first day it’s landed – the flesh will tear. 

"We’ve had to learn so much over a short time of how to get the best from each fish.”

This education is important and an investment in the restaurant’s future. As climate change impacts what food is available and when, making the most of our valuable marine sources is not just smart, it’s necessary. I want us to have the least possible impact, but this is a business, and we live in the real world and prices are rising all the time.

“I love the challenge and limitations of Goldie and the approach we’ve used with fish here is a model that could be used anywhere for the conscious, ethical running of any kitchen.”

The Market Lane Group have recently appointed an Environmental Manager who will monitor the group’s carbon footprint and look for ways to offset it, but also proactively reduce impacts. For Aishling, it needs to be more than simply waving a green flag around to be sustainable: “I really struggle with the word sustainable because it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. It means something to me when I look at fish stocks, but then I read it wrongly put towards something and it’s greenwashing. A lot of people say how good we are, and we are doing our best, but there are also things we do that I’m not totally happy about, but we’re trying to figure it out.”

Being able to question these big picture issues is a privileged position made possible by the support of other restaurants in the group.

“Goldie has influenced other restaurants in the group, but Goldie is only here because of those other restaurants.

“It leaned on everyone else’s shoulders to be a success and to have the opportunity to be able to focus on things like irradicating clingfilm from the restaurant! I was 24 when we opened; if we had a problem, I could call on Market Lane or Elbow Lane across the road. I like to think that we’re nearly at the position that we can help them.”

The restaurant was only opened for six months when Covid struck. “It was such a leveller for me,” Aishling says. “I was in a very tired, exhausted, stressed, somewhat depressed position six months in. It was a lot, I had put so much pressure on myself, and I wasn’t as enjoyable to work with – I know that. I couldn’t see the wood from the trees, and I’m sure my age didn’t help that either.

“I still have imposter syndrome; I don’t think I’ll ever lose it, but Covid really gave me time to reflect on things after running and racing getting the restaurant open, making sure it was successful; restaurant critics coming in and the worry of one bad review...”

Fast-forward to 2022, and Aishling exudes a relaxed confidence and enjoyment of her work. This year will be better.

“Keeping the Bib was huge for us, and we’re delighted. I’d hate to lose the Bib, and I hope we never do, but at the same time it can’t rule your life. The way my sous chef, Rob Dorgan, and I have learned to deal with it is that we have our standard, and as long as we continue to meet that standard, push above it and almost fail every day, then we are happy. That’s how good restaurants are still here: we look at things every single day. We still think like that and work like that but we’re more assured of ourselves.

“Now, I really feel as though I express my personality through food, and I don’t think I was fully aware of that two years ago. I was doing it, but other people realised it before I did. When you have people who understand things holistically, you get it better yourself. 

"There are absolutely days when I’d love to just cook and not worry about anything else. Some days I get that when everything is going well, but there are also days when you have 25 problems, and you haven’t even had coffee yet!

“I’m lucky to have a team of amazing, experienced business partners who can take things off me to fix, and that means I can focus on the things I’m good at. We have a brilliant working relationship, a great balance.

“Then, five o’clock comes, every day we’re open, and the only thing that matters until the last person leaves is our diners and that is so nice. The 50 people coming for dinner? They’re the perspective. Everything else is on hold until we’re done – there are 24 hours until the next five o’clock, problems can wait!”

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