Women Of The Irish Food Industry – Carol Walsh, Managing Director
Carol Walsh is the woman behind the beloved Chameleon restaurant in Temple Bar, in the city centre of Dublin.
In Dublin, Carol Walsh is a name that is associated with the Hospitality industry. Much like her restaurant, she is a much cherished institution. Vanessa Murphy, from Las Tapas De Lola, has an awful lot of nice things to say about her.
Reading her response below, you can see for yourself that Carol is a woman with gumption and deep, deep, personal strength. She is well known around Dublin for nurturing her staff and she is a great support to other women.
We need more women like Carol Walsh.
I’m talking to women the Irish food industry. How did your career path bring you here?
Well believe it or not, in the eighties, I taught exercise through dance, jazz ballet, and yoga. I am a lover of food, music, and dance to this day and can regularly be seen, dancing in the kitchen.
I was looking for a dance studio and signed a 35-year lease on a building in Temple Bar in 1989. I lived on the top floor apartment had my studio on the middle floor and opened a cafe (the Cellary) on the ground floor We served baked cheesecakes, choc chip cookies, a variety of salads, homemade vegetable soups, doorstep sandwiches, quiches, and a hot main course every day. Mainly vegetarian dishes except for my famous Tuna Burger. All made and served by female cooks including myself.
Unfortunately, during this time Temple Bar was being developed which affected the cafe business, in order to pay the rent I ran clubs on weekend nights, the most successful was a women-only club called Grrrlicious and Toast which ran for over a year. During this time, I developed a passion for creating an atmosphere as each club was unique in style. Eventually, the Garda closed us down when we had a queue around the block trying to get into an already full club.
I took this opportunity to travel to Asia and fell in love with Indonesia where I stayed for some months. When I arrived back, I decided I had to bring these amazing flavour-packed dishes to Dublin and the beautiful artwork to the interior of No. 1 Fownes Street Lower. Over a pint, in a pub, with some friends, one of them said to me, “ Carol you are a Chameleon” and the name was born.
I am still in that building today my old apartment is a prep kitchen and my dance studio is the Bali room and Chameleon is 25 years old.
How does your career fulfill you?
My career has given me the opportunity to grow, professionally and emotionally, I have never been bored and it has been very challenging at times but I don’t regret taking this path and am as excited today as the day I opened the doors to the first customer.
Someone said to me once when I was having a particularly tough time, “We do it because it’s what we do” restaurateurs are optimistic people in the main and overcome every obstacle in order to please their customers and keep the show on the road that usually means you work with like-minded people which I find invigorating.
Also, there is nothing better than that feeling at the end of a busy service when you know it was a great night and not only were all the customers happy, but the team too! Every day is different, of course, we have routine and discipline, but you meet new people, create new dishes and I love decorating the restaurant, at the moment I have gone crazy with the lighting in-house. Wait till you see it, this Christmas.
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Carol Walsh?
My professional ambition always has been to keep learning and educating myself, 9 years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant, as you can imagine this changed everything, during this time while going through treatment, I read every book I could find on improving my health, and on how lifestyle and food affects the brain and body. I have been studying the biochemistry of the body and how diet and nutrition can affect the mood, as well as energy and overall health. What really bugs me is food fraud and selling foods as healthy alternatives when they are not.
I am also very interested in biology, anatomy and physiology along with emotional stress (believe me I know a lot about this) and its effects on our health in general.
I would like to do a masters in this area in the future.
In your opinion, what challenges women face in the food industry in Ireland?
Having sat as a director on two boards over the past years, one in Tourism and the other in the Hospitality sector, I always noticed that women were in the minority and that you really had to work harder at being heard and taken seriously. However, when I asked why there weren’t more women sitting on these boards, I was told that it was difficult to get women to apply for such positions, which I believe.
As women in the hospitality sector, if we could support each other and set up a council or community, similar to Growing for Growth which is an amazing community for business women which I found immensely helpful during the recession. If we have a similar community for our industry, where all women front of house and back of house could share, meet and mentor each other, I would be the first to join.
Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistently inspire you and why?
From the moment I first met Birgitta Hedin-Curtin from Burren Smoked Irish Salmon in Lisdoonvarna, I knew she was a powerhouse, but also such a warm, generous and inspirational woman. Since setting up in 1989, she has helped the area bring over a million tourists annually and also employed and trained a lot of staff.
What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?
I think, as women in the industry, we need to stand together, not see each other as competition, share ideas, mentor, receive advice and support each other. As a group, we can be much stronger and more effective to make whatever changes need to happen.
Women are very strong but not as visible or as well-represented as our male counterparts within the industry, but we cannot blame the men (always), we have got to do it ourselves. It is improving however and articles like this are helping us appreciate each other and understand each other. Everyone has a story.
What was the proudest moment of your career so far?
My proudest moment is now, making it to twenty five years running Chameleon, still meeting up with staff (now close friends) who worked with me 10/20 years ago, seeing younger members of the team growing and learning each day and of course happy customers (some of whom have become friends).
What advice would you give your younger self?
Be more confident, go with your gut, lose negative people, travel, learn, love.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
You need many skills to run a small independent restaurant, the main one being to listen, to your staff and customers. To serve consistently good quality food is obviously important, however, creating a warm, welcoming atmosphere and making the customer feel valued is just as important. Along with these skills you also need to know about accounting, taxes, legislation, safety, human resources, staff training, customer service, marketing, and a bit of plumbing.
What’s your tipple of choice?
It depends on the mood, food, and the weather a craft beer on a warm day with crispy chicken, a glass of red wine on a cold night with dinner, or a gin and tonic after a stressful day.