After almost a quarter of a century of bringing her unique style of cooking to West Cork kitchens, chef Caitlin Ruth is ready to hang up her apron and try new things. She tells Emma Connolly her exciting plans for life after Deasy’s restaurant which is set to close on New Year's Eve.
PEOPLE expected Deasy’s to go on forever, notes its award-winning chef Caitlin Ruth, who has been at the helm there for 16 years.
But restaurants usually have a much shorter lifespan than the landmark Ring eaterie and she’s more than ready to hang up her apron on New Year’s Eve, along with proprietor Elaine Blackwell.
Since she arrived in West Cork over two decades ago, Caitlin has done more than her share to help build up our enviable reputation as a foodie destination.
Originally from Dublin, New Hampshire, she started dish-washing in kitchens when she was 12, and combined working full-time with school from when she was 14.
After meeting a Tipperary man while living in Antwerp, they married and moved first to Galway, where her daughter was born, and then to West Cork.
‘We moved down here to work. Jobs were quite scarce back in 1992/93 and I got a job in the restaurant in Lettercollum House,’ she remembers.
After that she moved to Dillons in Timoleague where she was chef for nine years.
‘I loved working in Dillons, it was really great. Back then people were slow to try things so you had to figure out what to call them on the menu so they weren’t scared of it and it was just fun. We changed the menu every day.’
Fun, but also hard work - for a good few years the restaurant was open seven days a week, from noon to 10pm.
Looking back she wonders how she did it, as at the time she was a single mum to her daughter Aine (now aged 27 and living in London).
‘School plays and stuff like that you could forget about it; I missed stuff like that and I do regret it. It was rough,’ she said.
‘For myself I don’t know what else I’d do. But I wouldn’t really recommend being a chef as a career myself – it’s hard.’
The industry means home life has to play second place, and there’s also the anti-social hours involved, she says.
‘None of my staff work more than 40 hours. I do between 50 and 70. But I’m counting home time when I’m doing my menus and ordering, going into the restaurant and feed my sourdough, that kind of thing. It all takes time, I’m never not thinking about it. I would think there are easier careers. It was obviously the path I chose,’ she said.
Even taking a day off requires a lot of shuffling as the kitchen team in Deasy’s comprises just herself, an assistant and a dishwasher.
‘I had a fender bender the other day on the way to work and my first thought was “oh no, we’re full for lunch!”. I can’t wait for the day when I can have a car accident in peace! But it’s not just me it’s the industry.'
Naturally working in a high pressure job can cause stress – and Caitlin’s not immune.
‘We would do 70 on a Saturday night. Everything is made to order, nothing is pre-prepared so it can be a bit stressful. I can get stressed out. Sometimes during service you might find yourself making mistakes and your heart would start pounding. You want to make all customers happy, all the time. We all do. It’s a real bummer when you fail to make someone happy; but that happens. You’re human!’
Deasy’s is known for making everything from their own bread, to chutneys and Caitlin says it ‘happened by accident really’ as she ‘only cooks one way.’
‘I use the ingredients I get for ideas. So I don’t order food from my suppliers, I take what they have a lot of and think what can I make with that. A lot of people would start by saying “I want this on the menu, so I'm going to need a lot of this” and get in touch with their suppliers but we don’t do that. We do as much as possibly locally. That’s just the way I work. Part of the crack of being a chef is getting to know your suppliers and it’s so good down here.
‘You go up to Dublin and there’s West Cork seafood on every menu. Castletownbere this and Bantry Bay this. And I’m like really? Don’t you have your own bay? I’m always surprised when I go up there!’
Locally her favourite spots to eat are Monks Lane - a short trot from her home in Timoleague which she shares with 16-year-old dog Lola - and Ballinspittle’s Diva.
‘I love Monk’s Lane, there’s such a beautiful welcome there. The wine list is fantastic, it’s the perfect neighbourhood restaurant. And the fact that it’s right up the street and I’m now going to get to go there makes me very happy. Also, Diva Café in Ballinspittle, it’s so nice there. Obviously there are other restaurants around that I’d love to go to but I haven’t really had a chance.'
Her overwhelming feeling as the countdown to final orders on December 31st is ‘bitter sweet’ and she’s certain she’ll miss the mostly female staff who work so well together and support each other in all areas of life.
‘People keep coming up to me saying “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry what are you going to do?” But Elaine and I chose to end this on a high note - business is doing well
but we’re so tired.
‘We chose to close which is important and which is a different feeling than failing; or having to close because business is bad. Elaine and I discussed it and said let’s do other things now. I think people expected Deasy’s to go on forever, but things don’t usually go on forever. Restaurants usually have a shorter life than 16 years.’
First on her list of things to do in January is to reorganise her shelves, she jokes. But after that she’s giving serious thought to going on the road with her new food truck.
‘My partner built this mobile kitchen which is really cool and I’m kind of hoping next year, nothing is definite, but I’d love to take it maybe to say Levis’ bar in Ballydehob or a bar in Dingle and do a residency there for a week, like a pop-up restaurant,’ she said.
Herself and engineer partner Matt O’Sullivan were invited to bring the truck to Electric Picnic’s Theatre of Food where they handed out samples promoting goat meat. ‘Weirdly I hate goat’s cheese, it’s one of the few things I don’t like but I love goat meat. It tastes like lamb only milder,’ said Caitlin.
And we have to ask, for her last supper, what would be on her menu? ‘Any thin crust, wood fired pizza. I love pizza but I don’t eat it because I’m allergic to wheat and it gives me a rash. So it really would have to be my last supper!’