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Tuesday
Jan112011

Dennis Cotter - Ireland's Veggie Food Hero!

Award-winning vegetarian chef, founder of the much-loved Café Paradiso restaurant in Cork, and author of a number of acclaimed recipe books; Denis Cotter talks to More than Mushrooms.

When did you become vegetarian?

In my early twenties, though I ate fish occasionally until I was 25, when I went to London and started work in a vegetarian restaurant.

Why did you decide to become vegetarian?

I eventually remained a vegetarian because it became a core part of my moral make-up; my personal way of being comfortable in the world. But at the time, like many other young people, I was hitching onto a fashion. I was a huge Morrissey/Smiths fan, and loved the Meat is Murder stuff.

Are the rest of your family vegetarian?

My two grown sons were raised vegetarian, but both dabble in occasional fish-eating.

Were you always interested in food?

Not really. I became interested in food and restaurants in my early twenties. Anyone becoming vegetarian has to become interested in learning how to feed themselves. At the same time, I was working at a job that involved spending a lot of time away from home and eating out, so I became very interested not just in food but in restaurants in general.

Could you tell us a bit about starting Cafe Paradiso? Was it a scary step? Was it always something you wanted to do?

My ambition when I started working in restaurants at 25 was to have my own as soon as possible. I didn’t realise how much there was to learn! It took about eight years but it was always the goal. We opened Paradiso on a shoestring budget with very low staffing and break-even targets, so we had as much as of a safety net as possible.

Other than the finance part, it was exciting more than scary. I was really tired of working in the health-food business and wanted to try to create a vegetarian restaurant with no other baggage, where the food would be a celebration rather than an act of denial. There is no reason for vegetarians any more than anyone else to eat brown rice or avoid sugar, wheat or whatever, yet these ‘health’ trends somehow became the baggage of the vegetarian catering industry.

Although we didn’t know it, when Paradiso opened Ireland was about to have a boom and people were in the mood for something new, so the timing was great.

Were you ever tempted to include meat on the menu?

NO! The aim was to create vegetarian cuisine that would attract people who loved food, not to focus on the tiny vegetarian market. I knew Cork had a really good food culture with a passionate and knowledgeable public that loved to eat, and hoped that Paradiso would become part of that wider restaurant scene. We weren’t trying to convert anyone, still aren’t. It’s probably true that we wouldn’t be making a living even now if we depended on a vegetarian target audience.

You’ve received numerous awards but are there any you’d still like to get your hands on? A Michelin star perhaps?

Awards are very touching when you get them, and suddenly they become silly, political and meaningless when you get overlooked. Currently, therefore, I find Michelin silly, political and meaningless! Our napkins aren’t white enough for Michelin Man.

The focus of your food seems to be on the ingredients, rather than trying to recreate a meat-less version of a well-known dish – is this something that you made a conscious effort to do?

Not exactly in that sense, but I was trying to move away from the pre-conceived notion of vegetarian food. So I did for a long time avoid relying on meat substitutes and pulses, which instead put the focus on vegetables and cheeses. Creating dishes with one or two vegetables as the main focus means building layers of flavour, using rich ingredients as support and adding texture . When it works you get a finished dish that has contrasts of taste, colour and texture and that has the richness and complexity that people expect from restaurant food. Working with a grower, we have amazing produce so the juggling act is always to preserve the essential qualities of the ingredients while creating a rich and complex dish out of or around it.

Do you ever use meat-substitutes in your restaurant, or at home?

We use tofu in Paradiso and I use it quite a bit at home too, but that’s it. I hate seitan and all those sausage, mince and burger mix things. It’s not that interesting. I don’t understand vegetarians who long for meat. There’s something weirdly old-fashioned-pious-Catholic about it. Why torture yourself? Have a rasher once a month; nobody’s going to tell God on you or kick you out of the club.

Do you think that vegetarian chefs create tastier veggie dishes than meat-eating chefs?

Unfortunately, no. Too many vegetarian restaurants are still stuck trying to cater for every dietary niche – low-this and no-that. It’s hard to be creative with so many restrictions but, more importantly, it’s hard to cook food that gives pleasure when most of your audience is trying to avoid stuff.

Who is your favourite chef?

I don’t honestly have a favourite chef just now. I respect anyone who is genuinely involved in their local food culture and who makes local ingredients the focus of their kitchens. For that reason, I find myself aligned more closely to non-vegetarian chefs.

What was the best meal you ever had?

The dinner I cooked last week for someone’s birthday! I put a lot of thought, planning and love into it and it all came out in the cooking. Everyone loved it and consequently so did I. A few days later, I had a gnocchi dish in a restaurant that was just pure pleasure to eat, perfectly made yet simple. I won’t describe it because I plan to steal it for Paradiso! It’s rare enough for me, or any chef I think, to be able to filter out the critical aspect and just eat for pleasure, but that one hit the spot.

What is your favourite vegetarian restaurant? Apart from Café Paradiso of course!

I don’t have a favourite, and I don’t go out of my way very often to eat in specifically vegetarian restaurants. The last two I ate in were a disappointment: one in Toronto, the other in the UK. I still have a soft spot for Food for Thought in Covent Garden – I ate a lot of nourishing food there in my poor days in London.

Do you think it’s getting easier for vegetarians to eat out?

It’s definitely gotten easier, in the sense that you don’t have to put your hand up and ask for something to be cobbled together specially. There’s a lot of risotto out there at the moment; usually mushrooms. Previously it was goat’s cheese on something, and before that the old pasta standby. Sometimes I hanker for the old option of a plate of all the vegetables in the kitchen. But we have no right to complain. I think it’s important to remember that, as someone who has elected to adopt a certain way of eating, it is you who is bringing the issue to the restaurant. So anything a chef is willing to do for you is to be welcomed.

That said, It’s a rare chef who can actually work as well with vegetables as with meat. That surprises me sometimes, when talented cooks find vegetables so bewildering. I think it’s because they are familiar with the idea of starting with a slab that has texture and richness so they don’t actually know how to build those things from scratch. This is most notable at the upper-end of the market. When six people sit down to dinner and five are eating exquisitely constructed dishes while the vegetarian is forking into a trough of pasta it can ruin the evening for everyone. No matter what level a kitchen is operating at, all the dishes should be of the same standard. Otherwise, you are showing your kitchen’s weaknesses.

Do you think that more and more people are moving towards a meat-free diet?

No, but I think people are eating less meat and are happy to eat vegetarian meals. I laughed at the idea at first, but quickly began to see the principle behind the ‘Meat-free Monday’ campaign as the way forward. The notion of strict vegetarianism is too churchy for most people . At the same time, the number of people anxious to change their diet for personal, political and ecological reasons is growing all the time. There are so many issues around food production and consumption now, and a lowering of meat consumption addresses all of them in a positive way.

Therefore it should be encouraged and facilitated as much as possible, without making it seem like a massive sacrifice or having to sign up to a lifelong quasi-religious club. ‘Isms’ are always dangerous.

You’re currently working on a new book – are you still enthusiastic about putting together new recipes?

I started this next book as a follow up to ‘Wild garlic, gooseberries…and me’, so it was going to be a collection of essays with a few recipes tagged on. Along the way, I realised I didn’t have much that I wanted to shout from the rooftops and I didn’t want to fake it. So I reverted to the format of earlier books – writing recipes with informative and occasionally meandering introductions.

Because I was working from home rather than the restaurant kitchen, the recipes are largely relatively simple things you might like to eat for dinner, lunch or breakfast. And I really got to like that aspect of the book as it developed – a collection of nice things to eat for people who already know how to shop and don’t need to be lectured about it any more.

With your books you are able to reach many more people than could visit your restaurant in Cork. How do you feel about people all over the world eating a recipe that you’ve created?

I love it! The books have sold in relatively small numbers but I’m really proud that they are all still in print, and that they’ve found homes all over the world. I get emails from the most unlikely places – I’m fairly sure there are two books in Tasmania – and it is really touching to read how they are treasured in someone else’s kitchen and about the pleasure people get from eating the food. It’s always good to know the recipes work too!

What are your plans for the future of Café Paradiso?

Paradiso is in great shape, with a newly renovated kitchen and dining room . I think the food and service are the best they’ve ever been and we’ve reached a very high level of consistency. So I think Paradiso will be around for some time yet. The idea of opening a restaurant elsewhere comes up often, and I’m always open to it. It just hasn’t happened yet. Most of the time I think it will one day, but I’m not in a hurry and I can’t say when or where. Of course, there’s always a voice too that says leave it. I like the idea that not everything can be copied or moved.

 

Denis Cotter’s new book will be in book shops April 2011 and is available for pre-order from Amazon now.

Café Paradiso is at 16 Lancaster Quay, Cork City, Ireland. For reservations call (+353) 021 4277 939 or for more information visit www.cafeparadiso.ie

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