WOMEN OF THE IRISH FOOD INDUSTRY – KATIE O’CARROLL, HEAD CHEF
I met Katie O’Carroll, online, when I first put out a shout-out on Twitter to find out what restaurants had outdoor seating in Ireland. As it happens Dooley’s of Waterville has one of the finest outdoors setting in the country, simply for the fact that the view is spectacular. I’ll stick some photos down at the bottom of the post so you can see it, but I can really picture myself having dinner while watching the sunset.
It’s funny, sometimes you just take to someone and this is very much the case for me. Katie O’Carroll is energetic and full of life. It shines through her emails and her enthusiasm is so very contagious, you just want to go on an adventure with her. There is a knack to Irish hospitality and Katie has got it.
At the helm of two restaurants and B&B, Katie O’Carroll is bursting with energy and she has just launched a new business. You will maybe know that there are absolutely no facilities on the Skellig Islands but people love to visit them and given the views, who could blame them? So Katie, as a good Irish mammy, has thought about you and doesn’t want you to starve and she has come up with Skelligs picnic boxes which I think is a smashing idea! It offers a rang of option but of course, I’d be face-planting the charcuterie one. You can take the girl out of France, yadi yadi yada…
I’m talking to women in the food industry, what brought you into this category and what do you do?
We moved here from the USA and my parents bought a restaurant in Caherdaniel in 1977. They had no previous experience in the industry, but my mom was a great home cook. We ran the business as a family, my dad used to collect me from national school to serve tables for the hour at lunch time.
It was the obvious route for me to study Hotel & Catering Management and I particularly liked the catering side to the 4-year degree course. I spent my summers working in different establishments in New York city and spent a year working in The Sagamore Resort upstate New York. I was placed in their Steakhouse grill where I worked closely with the Head Chef who took me under his wing.
I purchased my first restaurant in 1992 at age 23, The Blue Bull ,Sneem. I loved living in the beautiful hamlet village of Sneem and entertained many famous customers including Neil Jordan, Mary Black, U2 (they took the restaurant for Larry’s 30th birthday). Charles Haughey was a regular every summer.
I sold the restaurant to my sister (also a chef) in 1999 and purchased the Scarriff Inn which was the family business in Caherdaniel. It is a busy location for the many coach tours who do The Ring of Kerry every day and in a normal season from March until November, we would do an average of 400 covers per day. We also have a small B&B overlooking what we call The Best View in Ireland.
I met my husband in New York, he worked in Smith & Wolenskis and when he returned to Ireland he purchased Dooley’s Seafood & Steakhouse in Waterville. I did explain to him that it is difficult to get reliable chefs because of the seasonality, and subsequently when his chef failed to turn up to work one night, I was thankfully on hand to take over.
Since then, I have worked daytime in The Scarriff restaurant and from 5- close in Dooley’s.
How does your career fulfill you?
I love the challenge of running 2 restaurant kitchens with very different markets and cuisine. Working with my husband to build up the new business, creating new menus and dishes with the abundance of amazing local fresh produce in Kerry, in particular the incredible choice of fresh fish. What was truly fulfilling was the repeat business. When you see customers returning time and time again it is reassuring that you are doing something right.
What are your ambitions for the next 2 years?
The pandemic has been extremely difficult and disheartening. It was the first time in 43 years that The Scarriff was not open for the season. Our wonderful staff, some of whom had worked for us 20 years, had no work and did not qualify for PUP. That was the most heartbreaking side of the whole situation. We did open Dooley’s when allowed and although the safety protocols were intense at the start, we quickly got used to it and had a very busy July and August. It was definitely strange not having our usual US and European visitors, but the Irish ‘staycationers’ were a treat to serve. The Irish definitely appreciates good food, hospitality and the dining experience.
My ambitions, for when things return to normal, are that I will have my brilliant team back on board, working together with us, for hopefully, many years to come.
What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?
I think we need to engage young female students beginning in primary schools, plant the seed young. We should endeavour to inspire and communicate the positives of the industry, especially the fact that cooking is educational under several categories, engineering, science & art.
We need to portray the career of a chef as being fulfilling, contemporary, fashionable (possibly the uniform could be made more attractive and versatile).
Important to communicate that it is a flexible career, with opportunities which make it possible to have your career and family at same time.
As with any artistic career, a chef’s life can be arduous and difficult to achieve success, but with time, hard work, ambition and passion, it is rewarding, dynamic & stimulating.
Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistently inspires you and why?
Definitely my Mom, she encouraged her 4 children to go into the Food industry (my brothers also owned restaurants, O’Carroll’s Cove & The Lobster Bar) and fostered a love of hospitality and serving people. She is so resilient, having lost her 2 sons and husband in a short space of time, but encouraged my sister in laws to carry on the businesses. At 82 she still works and helps me run my gift shop.
Have you had any challenges in your career and how did you conquer them?
Being young and green, when I bought my first restaurant, it was quite a learning experience. Interest rates for the first few years averaged 15% so I took a job teaching catering for CERT during the winter months to pay the bills during the lean winter months.
The 90’s was definitely a more difficult era for working women and needless to say I encountered a lot of challenging situations, especially as a young single female running a business.
When we opened the second restaurant, it was difficult as my 4 children were young. There was a lot of juggling between childminding and working 7 days and nights. There was a lot of guilt on my part, but they are great kids and respect hard work. They recognize that I love my work and support me.
The biggest challenge for me currently is survival after the lock downs. I have launched a new business ‘Skelligs Picnic Boxes’ with a large choice of picnic options using local fresh produce.
Have you had a wow moment to date in your career? If so which one was it and why?
I have had several wow moments
Andrew Lloyd Webber gave me a great review in the London Telegraph after eating on 3 consecutive evenings in my restaurant.
When I was leaving Sneem, the other business owners presented me with a bronze sculpture and warm letter of thanks.
For my 50th birthday my staff threw me a surprise party and I felt so much love and gratitude.
Running a restaurant, especially a kitchen, requires mutual respect, teamwork, harmony and loyalty, I have all that with my wonderful teams in both restaurants.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Get more sleep and live healthier.
In your opinion, what are the most underrated spices and herbs?
Bay leaves, lovely to look at, adds depth of flavour to any dish, drink with hot water for positive health effects. And carraway seeds, I love these flavour enhancing seeds, they are amazing especially when added to vegetables such as cabbage, in stews, soups, cheese etc.
What is your favourite cooking accessory?
My tongs, I have a particular pair that I have had for 12 years and I literally cannot function without them.