Women Of The Irish Food Industry – Sarah Caldwell, Cafe Owner
Who is Sarah Caldwell? Read on and find out.
Sarah Caldwell owns Velvet Cafe in Portmarnock, a teeny tiny café with a big personality in Portmarnock. Homemade cakes, soups, sourdough toasties, salads & really good coffee. She makes celebration cakes for all occasions in many different flavours and styles, and also private catering for dinner parties etc.
Personally, I first came across Sarah as I dug into her desserts in Michael’s. I love how her career path is so far off the beaten track but she is exactly where she wants to be. It just shows that there are many ways to get to where you want to be in your career. You just keep working at it. Talk to people, ask for help, put yourself out there. Be more like Sarah Caldwell.
I’m talking to women in the Irish food industry. How did your career path bring you here?
I’ve had an unusual route to where I am now! When I started out as a chef, I was in my mid-thirties and headed blindly into self-employment running a pub kitchen. The pub hadn’t served food for a good while, so I was starting a completely new concept. Despite never having been a chef, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I had worked as a waitress and I had been an event manager for a few years, so I had some idea of what I was getting into. I also did a two day course in Ballymaloe which was very inspiring and gave me the confidence to go ahead.
The business was busy to begin with during the summer months, however the winter was a different story and it was hard to keep things afloat. I was also pregnant with my second child which was not an ideal situation. I stuck it out for just over a year and a half but at the end of the second winter I decided to stop.
From here I went to do something completely different working with my brother, but that didn’t suit me at all, so I took a job as a chef in a restaurant in Howth. This led me to taking a chef job in a crèche for three years. Throughout this time I was baking cakes for people and teaching myself new skills all the time.
As my kids were getting to the age of going to school, I decided it might be a good idea to find work in a school, so I was lucky enough to get the chance to pitch to a local secondary school and they took me on as their caterer. This was an excellent opportunity and I stayed there for seven years. It was great experience and a fabulous way to learn as I worked. I created seasonal menus and catered large functions for them and also cooked for all the foreign students during the summer, up to 350 people on some days.
I started doing supper clubs in my home as a way to meet new people and also try out some different styles of cooking and new techniques. These were great fun, but also tricky to put together and fill places on the dates.
In 2017 I was told about a job going as a cookery school manager/tutor, so I decided to apply. I got the job and I left the secondary school and started my new position in January of 2018. Unfortunately, I realised quite quickly that this move was a big mistake and they made us redundant after 6 months as the business was being sold.
This was a very difficult time in my life, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. I decided to look at college as an option and I signed up to do the Bachelor of Arts degree in culinary arts in Tallaght Institute (now TU Dublin) which I have almost completed. I took a stall in the market in Howth and sold my cakes there, and Gaz from Michael’s restaurant asked me to make some of their desserts for them. I was always looking for a suitable premises to open a café and I found one in Portmarnock where I have now been since April 2019. It’s been an interesting few months and I love the positive reaction I’m getting from my customers.
How does your career fulfil you?
I love food. Simple as that! I love talking about it, I love learning about it and I love eating. I love the reaction from people when you show them the cake you’ve made for them, or when they taste something you’ve cooked. There is so much to do and learn all the time that it can be all consuming sometimes. I also really enjoy teaching and I am very keen to get involved in any schools program to teach kids how to really cook. I feel that with the new phase of veganism amongst young teenagers particularly, it is very important to teach them how to cook nutritious meals and avoid over processed ‘pretend meat’ products.
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Sarah Caldwell?
I want to continue learning new skills and develop my new business. I would love to have a bigger premises eventually and grow to provide cookery classes, private catering services and wholesale cakes and desserts. I have a few ideas that I want to put into action and I feel that when I graduate with a degree (hopefully!) that some doors might open for me in the future. I also have a dream of opening a small cookery school and seasonal restaurant in the south west of the country, but that is a little bit further down the line!
In your opinion, what challenges do women face in the food industry in Ireland?
Attitudes to women in the professional kitchen are changing, and we can see that with the many inspiring women chefs in Ireland. Definitely women are as capable of doing the job as any man, and it is very unhelpful when renowned chefs make comments to the contrary. I do believe that some kitchens can still be hostile environments, but this can be said for many other jobs out there. I have had a slightly different route to being a chef, having never really worked through the restaurant system. My own experiences have taught me to just get on with it and get the job done, even if you are 8 months pregnant!
Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistently inspires you and why?
I’m fairly sure I’m not the only one who says Darina Allen! She is just an incredible force in the food industry in Ireland. Also, my mother did the certificate course in Ballymaloe many years ago, so both Darina and my mum, Jane, have inspired me throughout my career. My mum always cooked amazing dinner parties when we were kids and I loved getting involved and eating the leftovers! She cooked professionally for a time in a wine bar and private corporate lunches. We grew up with a garden with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables and chickens for eggs, and on holidays we ate fresh caught mackerel and mussels from the shore. She also always made us amazing birthday cakes which has definitely inspired me to make the cakes I do now.
What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?
I think women should step forward and make themselves heard. I believe it is harder for women to shout about their skills and achievements, but we have to find a way to raise our voices about each other. Many women may take different paths to the traditional chef routes, but this doesn’t mean that we don’t have anything to say or contribute to the food industry.
What was the proudest moment of your career so far?
This is a tricky one, because I’m not sure I’ve had it yet, if that makes sense! Although every day I feel a little bit more proud of myself and what I’ve achieved over the years. It’s the journey that I’m proud of most and finding myself in a position to feel like I can make a difference, however small. I find it difficult to praise myself, so I think I need to learn how to do that a bit more.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Well, I would love the opportunity to have a very serious chat with 16 year old me! Apparently my mother suggested that I do the Ballymaloe course after my leaving cert, however I was determined that I wanted to be a beautician and make-up artist so I studied that instead. Whilst I have no regrets, I feel that if I had chosen to do that I might have carved a smoother path to my culinary career.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
Running a business is not easy and multi-tasking is a primary skill required. It is important to understand how to prioritise the important things, even though everything might seem important. As I am primarily a one woman show, I have to be able to cook/bake, deal with customer service & suppliers, and also do all the accounts and HACCP etc. I have a staff member, Jackie, who helps out a few hours a week. It’s manageable but difficult! I’m better when I’m busy and I find it easier to make important decisions on the fly.
What is your favourite meal to make?
I love making pizza at home, but my favourite meal has to be a roast rib of beef with all the trimmings. I don’t care about the amount of washing up, I have to have everything – the fluffy & crispy roast spuds, cauliflower cheese, Yorkshire puddings, peas & carrots and an amazing rich beefy gravy, followed by a fruit crumble or hot lemon pudding. My mum used to make this for us on a Sunday before we’d have to go back to boarding school in the evening and it just evokes memories of comfort and family.