Exeecutive Chef Cathal O'Dowd of Avalon House Hotel
Cathal O’Dowd, from Moneenroe, is the Head Chef of the Avalon House Hotel in Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny. The quant hotel is open a year this February and Cathal has a lot to celebrate with putting Lil’s restaurant firmly on the culinary map.
His culinary career began early on, inspired by his grandmother’s home cooking and baking and her love and respect for quality ingredients, and tradition.
After graduating from WIT with a diploma in professional cookery at the age of 19 and achieving Student of the Year, Cathal sought opportunities to further develop his own creativity and culinary career.
Cathal’s culinary repertoire flourished during his time at Zuni Restaurant and Townhouse under the guidance of chef Maria Raftery. It was here working as a Chef de Partie where Cathal developed and refined his culinary techniques in the fine dining setting and gradually working his way through the ranks to a sous chef position. Alongside Maria they achieved and retained many awards, cooking together at a high standard for several years.
From here, Cathal took on the role as head chef in the Marble City Bar for the Langton group. In his first-year cooking at the Marble City he and his team achieved ‘Best Gastro Pub in Leinster' award and retained this award for 3 years after.
After completing two and a half years at the Marble City Bar, Cathal then accepted the role as Head Chef at Langton House Hotel gaining vast experience in a busy hotel, function and restaurant settings. After 3 years guiding an 18-member team, Cathal eventually took the role as Executive Chef for the Langton Groups three premises guiding and managing three kitchens and up to 30 chefs, overseeing up to 137 weddings per year and working closely with couples, tailoring packages to their needs and also current trends.
Along the way, Cathal has worked closely with the Thomastown School of Food and the national apprentice scheme, taking students into his kitchens guiding them and helping them on their career paths just as previous chefs had done for him.
He is married to Audrey, who is the Breakfast Chef at the Avalon. They met while working in Zuni, they have a two year old son and another baby on the way.
Here is a glimpse into Cathal’s world…
What’s your typical day like?
Morning – We are up for around 6am. My wife works the breakfast shift so the start of my morning is to get our two year old up and ready for his day. Then on to our child minder who is great working with us on our very irregular hours. I try to swim at least 3 times per week. It helps keep my head clear and fresh.
Lunch – Prior to lunch service I will check in around three times weekly with both my fish and veg supplier to see what’s in what’s fresh or what we should be using at that particular time.
Evenings – This can be a time to catch up on paper work, menu planning and as much prep as possible, as in kitchens you always have to be working a day or two in advance. An example would be one of our signature dishes in Lils a 12 hour braised feather blade of dexter beef. When home it’s a little down time I watch a bit of TV and like to read. My usual day is around 10/11 hours, but it’s the kind of job where you are never really off. You are always looking for new inspired, new ideas and new dishes.
You have had a great start to the opening year of the Avalon.
It’s a privilege to be working in my home time for the Avalon. Yes we have had a great year, with exciting nominations – the Gold Medal Awards for best food provenance, best chef and best wedding venue. We are currently in the running for the Four Star Breakfast awards. We had a super first Savour Kilkenny, when we hosted our Nature to Plate event.
People seem to love the place, whatever it is when our guests walk through that red door they just fall for the property.
Tell us about Lil’s Restaurant and the woman it is named after?
Yes, it’s a nice back story - Lil is the late Joe Comerford’s mother in law. Locals would know Lil from when she ran the Avalon as a guest house. I suppose that’s what prompted Joe to buy the place, there’s a lot of family history here. Lil still comes in and keeps us all on our toes.
Sadly Joe Comerford passed away suddenly, just five weeks after the hotel opened. He was the man who interviewed you and had a wonderful vision for Avalon House.
I was working in Langtons at the time when Joe had bought the property. He was a local man,
Coincidently, his home place is right next door. I was driving past the site every day, seeing the building works going on. When the position came up, it was too good an opportunity not to go for it.
Joe had a very clear vision of what he wanted for the Avalon. He hired me preopening and we designed everything together. Joe’s direction with the food, was probably what got me. In my second interview, I put a simple question to Joe – ‘what level of food do you want?’. His reply was ‘as high a level as you can achieve’. That was music to my ears.
Joe was always very conscious that he wanted a high level of food in Lil’s Restaurant, but he didn’t want our everyday customer feeling isolated. So he wanted a nice balance with a less formal bar menu, and we are constantly maintaining his wishes.
Naturally it was very tough on his family and all the staff when Joe passed away so unexpectedly.
Very tough. Joe put his stamp on everything and was involved in every aspect of running the business. That left a big gap, obviously for the family but also for the staff. It was very tough on the family but I think Joe would be proud of where we have come in just a year. Things are starting to level out, calm down with a great team forming. It’s a shame that he is not here to see it out.
Joe would be very proud of your achievements. After just six months you hosted an incredible food showcase to the top food critics in the country.
From the very start, we worked closely with our local suppliers and Irish growers when working on our menus. We wanted to give something back because they were very good to us from the start.
So we invited the food heroes on our menu to a gala tasting menu. Half the room was full of food heroes, the other half were food critics/writers. I invited Graham Neville down from Dex in Dublin and Peter Everett from Everett’s in Waterford, to cook with me. It was an absolute privilege to cook alongside them. We also had Kevin Thornton on the night, as well as Lucinda O’Sullivan, Sally and John McKenna.
You are a huge advocate of local food producers. Define local?
For me local is something that has not been flown in, that has no air miles. It can even be further than Kilkenny. When I can pick up the phone and talk to the grower.
How tough is a chef’s life?
It is tough, but it can also be very rewarding. You have to go into this profession really loving it, you can’t plod through it because it will catch you out in the end.
Tell us about the rock you hit in your road?
It’s no secret, I am currently in my fourth year of recovery. This profession almost killed me, but also saved my life. It can really break you down, there’s a lot going on with long hours. There’s not much support with mental awareness and addiction problems. So if you drop your guard it can really catch you out.
There’s a lot of ‘work hard and party hard’ within this industry. It did get out of control for me, but I had a lot of good people who stood by me through those times – my employers and my wife and family. Thankfully I have come through it and I am very grateful for what was a very tough learning curve in my life.
How are you all planning to celebrate the one year anniversary?
We have a big week coming up, On February 13, the family are inviting a few friends and businesses to have a little blessing. The following night for Valentines night we are having a Taste of Lils, which will be a tasting menu with a bit of theatre!
Meet Cathal and his team at Avalon House Hotel at their upcoming Wedding Showcase on February 23.