Welcome to the Ómós Digest. This newsletter will hopefully bring you on that journey about the food you were looking for, or perhaps never knew existed. It is our quest to expand on what we don’t know and to share with those who care. If you haven’t read Newsletter #1 yet, it can be found here.
This newsletter is brought to you by Cúán Greene, Founder of Ómós.
“I vow never to set foot in a London kitchen again” -a decision I made as a 17-year-old.
Back in 2009, I had traveled to London for the first time, bright-eyed, eager, full of energy and enthusiasm, as I was about to experience one of the city’s top restaurants in action during my one-week stage. I had grown up in complete awe of this emerging culinary Capital, the home of world-renowned chefs, iconic names which are still prevalent today.
Hours were spent studying recipe books written by these chefs, glued to tv shows featuring their restaurants, doing my best to replicate their dishes in my family kitchen. I was utterly mesmerised by the level of excellence just over the pond. Following a courageous email to a restaurant I had been fixated on (I think my mum helped write it), a month later I found myself standing at the entrance of one of London’s most prestigious hotels.
However, despite the many years spent with stargazed eyes, within 30 minutes of my arrival to this restaurant, I realised this was not an environment with which I wished to be associated. The receptionist ushered me towards the elevator, never catching sight of the dining room. Back then, that was not a place frequented by chefs. The stainless steel almost iron-clad kitchen was our domain, void of natural light, and any personality at that. I recall on my first night a chef aggressively being pushed against a fridge door. Later on, I gathered the courage to ask what he had done wrong. And in an effort to get a leg up on their teammate, his colleagues hadn’t told him one of the dishes had changed, and therefore he didn't have the correct mise en place prepared for service. Kitchen sabotage was common then. Sacré Bleu!
The worst part though about the kitchen was that there were three of them. Just like the sous chefs, one unconditionally more horrid than the next. Firstly came the service kitchen, where chest-thumping testosterone was at an almighty high. Here, the ‘teams’ creme de la creme were stationed. After that was the preparation kitchen where the bulk mise en place was prepared, and where unfortunate chefs, one, in particular, had been banished for the remainder of his days, an act merited due to his lack of desire and commitment, relegated from the glory of upstairs service. Further below that, the butchery and sauce station, located in the depths of the basement, neighboured corridors filled with laundry and abandoned room service carts. The kitchen itself was rife with ambiguous opinions and even more worrying values. Perhaps not the greatest environment for young men like me, which might I add, there were many.
Despite the inherent darkness I had experienced, when I was asked a couple of weeks ago if I wished to travel to London to eat in a couple of restaurants, I did not hesitate to say yes. Never fully capable of forgetting these memories, I was delighted to hear that the industry’s code of conduct was changing, in a handful of restaurants at least. Those who headed the old boys club and macho bravado were making way for younger, more forward-thinking management styles, chefs with empathy, and dignity--ones I knew, and could vouch for... Of course, being in the industry myself, these stories are often heard through the grapevine, and having had to put up with my fair share of BS, I personally, do my best effort to avoid them, as it is the same to me as it is with choosing fair trade food; do you really want to consume food or share an experience in an environment where you know someone might have suffered?
But enough of this misery and let me tell you of some good in this world. On the eve of my trip to London, bags yet to be packed, and most certainly still having to check-in, I decided that 5 pm was the perfect time to drive an hour south to Co. Wicklow, where I would encounter two growers growing a pretty spectacular product... Irish sweetcorn…in Ireland!
It was a beautiful September evening. In my company was Eva, my partner. Having gone to school in Iowa, with maize growing further than the eye could see, she was slightly bewildered at the prospect of traveling for corn. We approached the farm, met by a long driveway, an apple orchard to our left, thick forest to our right. Margaret Hoctor of Kilmullen Farm greeted us, dressed in her white butcher’s coat, hair tied in a bun, witty from the outset. She appeared comfortably flustered and confessed that they were behind schedule with the butchery of their sheep, something had gone wrong at the livery earlier that day (their stables) and subsequently her husband Éamon, a 3rd generation farmer of the land was up in the field harvesting this evening’s crop of sweetcorn a little later than scheduled.
Within minutes of our arrival, an old white Land Rover came hurtling down the hill in our direction. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own Grandfather whose name was also Éamon, from Co. Wicklow, and who drove an old Land Rover not dissimilar. In fact, riding with him was not without its discomfort; Camera boxes, film, tripods, and camouflage bobbled around, with the occasional wounded starling or injured fox filling a seat, rescued along the journey. However, on this occasion, the Land Rover belonged to an Éamon Bourke, not the filmmaker Éamon de Buitléar, birdwatching equipment and wildlife replaced by crate upon crate of exquisite fresh sweetcorn. Aware that we were on borrowed time, we rolled up our sleeves, helping shift crates from truck to cold room, located in a beautiful old barn detached from the farmhouse, all the while listening to Éamon speak passionately about the land he grew up on.
Sheep have grazed the land of Kilmullen Farm longer than Éamon can remember. His father had worked this land, and his grandfather before him. Today the lamb is butchered on-site and can be collected as part of a box scheme. 70 years ago, Éamon’s father planted an orchard of apples, whose trees this time of year were now laden with Bramley and Cox apples, from which wonderful apple juice is made and sold. They also have a livery, where one can ride horses. With livestock and orchards to be tended to, one might ask why corn, too?
When we think of corn, the mind wanders to warmer climates, such as Mexico and South America. However species of corn exist for cold climates too, and at Kilmullen, it is the Northern Extra variety that thrives. Grown outdoors, the tall sun-searching plants produce bulging cobs bearing vibrant yellow kernels. Grown for their sweetness and pronounced flavour, the sight of such an exotic crop feels precious in the midst of these lands. In Ireland, corn has the potential to come to full ripeness between late August and September but not without its issues. The crop is susceptible to disease, and although it is virtually impossible to cultivate organically, Éamon chooses minimal intervention, avoiding pesticides at all costs. Margaret tells me the crop is not only a favourite to ourselves; the 1-acre plot is a sweet shop to badgers and deer alike, who strip the plants of their cobs when left to their own devices.
Wandering in admiration, through the lush cornfield, I was reminded by the handful of corn I had tried planting myself this year. It had failed miserably. Today, however, at Kilmullen Farm, we could rejoice in tasting food at its peak, a result of Margaret and Éamon’s unparalleled hard work, love, and determination. Standing in the field, I realised that I had found the perfect gift for my chef friends in London. Let’s hope Ryanair don’t cause a fuss.
Where to get it:
At the farm shop: Margaret and Éamon started the ‘Gate to Plate’ initiative which allows you to visit their beautiful farm, tasting the corn at its absolute optimum.
Top Tip: If you are cheeky like I am, ask to run-up to the cornfield. Sorry, Margaret.
They sell their corn, lamb and apple juice at Airfield Estate farmers market (from 9.30 am-2pm on Fridays) and Dunlaoighre People’s Park (from 10am-4pm on Sundays) from July to December.
London meals of note:
Café Cecilia: Run by Irish chef Max Rocha. Unapologetically simple. I dined alone, was served the whole menu, and more. Diners left and right of me were equally fascinated by why I was being given so much food and how I finished it all.
Brat: Having been recommended Brat by almost everyone I knew, I can now say that the food here is absolutely delicious. Open wood fire grill cooking with an emphasis on whole fish. Great Lunch.
Kol restaurant: Head chef Santiago Lastra has created something truly special. We worked together at Noma Mexico, where he was responsible for the sourcing of all the indigenous produce used on the menu. An incredible guy and an experience to remember.
Leila’s Shop: Not a restaurant, but a really beautiful grocery, on an equally beautiful street in Shoreditch. Get the gelato.