It’s 11am in the morning, reclined on an armchair in a reception room at Mount Juliet, talking to Executive Chef Cormac Rowe.
The topic of course is on everyone’s lips - the Michelin Award for the Lady Helen restaurant.
So, early in the conversation, I have to ask, what’s his favourite dish. A look to the ceiling momentarily, and its the Quail starter, with hazelnut, and chicory and apple and truffle. And the techniques, the preparation, some of it done 24 hours beforehand. The spelling of Cromesquis - a new one on me. But at that hour of the morning, virtually salivating over the thoughts of a tiny quail’s leg prepared with such precision for flavour and presentation you just think - it’s no wonder.
Cormac is a young man - thirty to be precise. And to have his restaurant, the Lady Helen honoured with a star is something astonishing. Cormac cites the team effort and the work over the last three years in particular. That can be no doubt, but on meeting Cormac you certainly get the impression that he is just as intense about his food, its preparation and the delight of customers as the flavours on the plates are at the Lady Helen.
Since the announcement it’s been hectic. But that’s nothing new to a man driven by twelve hour days, six days a week.
“We’ve got a great response, from the customers, our suppliers, the team here. Three years ago, we just said we’re going to start pushing the food, how to make it better, more exciting. We worked on our flavours our technique, getting a high consistency right.
“I’m just delighted for the entire team here - Head Chef Ken Harker, Sous Chef John Kelly, Pastry Chef Patrick O’Meara, Restaurant manager Agnieska Kubinska all the staff that we have assembled here as a team,” said Cormac.
He loves food, and creating sublime dishes. A Wexford man from Bridgetown after his Leaving Cert he headed straight for the kitchens of Kelly’s Hotel in Rosslare. Two years at college, then The Park Hotel and for the past seven years his home is Mount Juliet. The Michelin award was a happy surprise. “You don’t know when the judges are here, or how many times they called. At the start of the year a representative comes, tells you you will be judged and you don’t know how many times they come and go.
“Sure you’d have your suspicions but you can never be certain. We always start with having our food taste good and look good, every night.
“We want to present good food, and at affordable prices. For Kilkenny, two Michelin stars is amazing, I’m delighted for Gareth (Byrne) and all at Campagne. It’s super for Kilkenny, people are coming here and trying out both restaurants. Word of mouth is very important in our trade.”
On the reasonable prices, the seven course table d’hote menu is €65 - tempted?
And on the Kilkenny front, with the Savour Festival fast approaching, Cormac notes the high quality local suppliers like Knockdrinna Cheese and Goatsbridge Trout, the excellent produce they produce. “Our great produce, from Kerry lamb to venison from Wicklow, it’s all in abundance, great for the country, great for exporting.”
A glance at the Lady Helen menu for this time of year is a real delight. The menu is changed regularly and weeks goes in to the preparation and tasting of new dishes before a customer gets to try it. So for Autumn there are four ‘game’ main courses. And I just note with Cormac the style of the menu, no big explanations here. So for a fish dish its titled Monkfish and underneath Chicken Skin, Onion, Tomato, Lemon and Chervil. “We want people to read the menu, look at the ingredient of the dish and say, what way is that going to be prepared, what way will it look and taste.” Had me wondering, I got an insight, you’ll just have to go there and order it.
“Our menu is modern, we may have a traditional setting but we like to get our inspiration from around the world, in particular France and England, Those type of dishes.
“We are constantly looking to improve,” he added, when asked is the plan to go for a second Michelin. “It’s like in anything, in society, if you stop then someone else is just getting better, you have to stay going forward.”
His favourite dishes to cook are fish dishes “They are light, quick to cook and very tasty. We don’t appreciate it as much as we should and the price has gone quite high.”
Future Ambitions? “Consistency, team work, more definition in our food, strong flavours, just getting better. Being consistent.” As for a Michelin kitchen, don’t take your lead from TV. “TV has to be exciting, it’s a pressure situation in a working kitchen but with motivation by goodwill, and everyone working together, it’s a super place to work.