Restaurant Profile March 2020: Killeavy Castle Estate, Co Armagh
Darragh Dooley, executive chef, talks to Alyson Magee
Afternoon tea served in the Garden Lounge.
The main restaurant overlooks the castle and estate.
A coffee shop in the walled garden serves lunch in the summer months.
Bar food is served in the informal dining room and bar
WHEN DID YOUR RESTAURANT OPEN & WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION BEHIND IT?
We opened in April 2019, with a farm to fork ethos. We’re trying to hit a modern style of cooking, with a classic feel to it. I love being creative with food and, for me, the ultimate reward comes from seeing the reaction on a customer’s face as a beautiful dish is presented to them; that’s what we are hoping to achieve in our kitchen. Every course should be memorable, and we’ll keep working on it until we meet that goal.
TELL US ABOUT THE SPACE YOU HAVE
We have a 60-seat restaurant space, a more informal dining room and bar serving bar food and then the Garden Lounge for smaller functions so we can cater to all requirements. Behind the Castle, we have a marquee for weddings and private functions, there is a Castle Cellar Bar and we do dinner parties in the Castle as well. Our coffee shop in the walled garden opened at the end of February and we will also be serving lunch in the summer months.
WHAT’S ON YOUR MENU?
Fresh, seasonal, quality ingredients are the key to our menu. Sustainability is at the heart of everything we do, our food is all grown on the Estate in our walled garden or locally sourced. Chances are the meal you eat in our restaurant will contain ingredients freshly harvested the same day. I believe that with fresh ingredients, the less you cook it, the less damage you do to it. There are so many innovative techniques you can use now doing a lot less with food to get more out of it.
For example, with our scallop ceviche dish, we marinate the scallops with fennel from the garden, olive oil, salt and pepper, roasted hazelnuts and add lemon foam.
Our Tea and Toast appetiser course is also from our walled garden. We are constantly foraging, harvesting and preserving so anything preserved over the last six months is diced up and used as a garnish for the toast. We have heather broth we make by picking heather, adding honey to it, a few other herbs and spices, pickling liqueur and gorse syrup to make our own tea.
We’re using as much as we can from the Estate and trying to offer explosive flavour that is memorable. That is our legacy.
DOES YOUR MENU CHANGE OFTEN?
We listen to our customers and if a dish sells well, we will keep it on our menu but we’re always coming up with new dishes and change the menu seasonally. We do this for ourselves as much as for the guests, but if we have repeat customers, we have to keep it interesting for them as well.
WHAT IS YOUR FOOD SOURCING POLICY?
Farm to fork is our policy and that goes back to our heritage of sustainability. We have our own herd of Longhorn cattle and flock of Cheviot sheep. A favourite with our customers is the Longhorn burger, and we also have sirloins and fillet steaks and preserve meat too.
And then we have the walled garden and, now this is more established, we can create a menu around the seasonal produce we grow. We have a great gardener, and will have our own carrots, parsnips, celeriac, turnips, micro herbs, fennel, beans, peas, rhubarb and apples.
We use a lot of local suppliers; Keenan Seafoods in Belfast, which gets its fish from Strangford Lough, and Taste of Gullion and William Baird butchers for breakfast sausages, bacon, and roasts.
Susie from Burren Balsamics visits our garden and picks whatever we want her to use, takes it away and creates vinegars.
And then we use Ballymakenny Farm for our violetta potatoes, sweet stem cauliflower and broccoli.
We hosted an event in the walled garden, bringing local suppliers together like NearyNógs chocolates, Harnett’s Oils and Ballylisk Cheese; all products that we use in our kitchen. The majority of our suppliers are within 30 miles, so we’re lucky where we are situated.
Even our honey is from Slieve Gullion, and we hope to have our own hive set up by summertime.
WHO ARE YOUR CUSTOMERS?
In the beginning, our customers were mainly local people coming to see the Estate they had watched develop. As the hotel rooms started to fill up, this changed so our restaurant is mainly now hotel guests. We are now in a place where we have a good balance of non-residents coming in for our tasting menu on a Sunday.
HAVE YOU FACED ANY CHALLENGES AROUND STAFFING?
I’d like to increase the team because the menu is getting more complex so we will need more hands to do a lot more foraging and work on the garden. We have a couple of young lads from Slieve Gullion we are training ahead of the summer season to pick from the garden.
It’s nice to have a team you can rely on, you know their strengths and can teach them new skills and techniques. If you have people coming and going all the time, it’s difficult to be consistent.
We find it challenging to find chefs because of the long hours, so we hope to reduce the number of hours. If you build a good team and put the work into designing a good roster with shorter days, I believe you’ll have a happier team.
Back in the day, I was a lot more aggressive in the kitchen because I grew up in times when it was like that, but I decided it wasn’t for me. We’ve all turned it around and that’s why we have so many young staff coming through the door and wanting to stay, because the culture is better.
At the moment, I have nine chefs and another seven in the kitchen. Everybody helps each other so they have an idea of the whole menu and can jump in and help each other out. We’re trying to get everybody interested, and hopefully create some new chefs out of it as well.
HOW DO YOU SEE YOUR RESTAURANT DEVELOPING THIS YEAR?
Banqueting starts in March, so we’ll have a busy year ahead of us and we have a lot of work to do on the coffee shop menu. We also have plans for a brewery on the Estate.
12 Ballintemple Road, Killeavy
T: 028 3044 4888
Instagram & Facebook: @killeavycastle