There is no doubt: the hospitality industry has greatly suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.
While restaurants, pubs and hotels attempt to keep their heads above water to enable reopening (when the time comes), other establishments never had the chance to fully open in the first place.
One highly anticipated 2020 restaurant opening was Éan in Galway.
Owned by husband-and-wife team Enda McEvoy and Sinead Meacle (they also own and operate Michelin--starred Galway restaurant Loam), Éan (Irish for “bird”) was going to focus on small plates and wine in the evenings, and house-made pastries and coffee during the day.
The opening of Éan was also anticipated because of the head chef at its helm. Christine Walsh was once Enda’s sous chef at Loam and she has worked her way through some of the world’s best kitchens, including Chapter One in Dublin, Tom Aikens in London, Noma in Copenhagen and Benu in San Francisco. Hailing from Killenaule in Co Tipperary, her food has a wholesome, rustic feel with intensely beautiful flavours – well-suited to the dark, stone-walled eatery located on one of Galway’s cobbled sidestreets.
“Growing up, I actually wanted to be a teacher,” she says during our socially distanced conversation in Éan’s dining area (currently full of boxes to accommodate their take-home offerings). “I was either going to be a chef, a teacher or a garda.”
Upon finishing secondary school, Christine quickly learned her personality was better suited to professional kitchens. She needed a job that would keep her moving.
“I realised: I can’t keep still,” she explains. “I needed to do practical work, so I started cheffing. I went to Waterford Institute of Technology for their two-year certification programme and went straight into Waterford Castle from there. I was 19, at the time, which is older than most chefs would be starting out.”
As we chat, Christine is planning Éan’s weekly menu. Since, thanks to COVID-19, their opening didn’t go as planned, they started offering takeaway options in late 2020.
For take-home boxes, Christine offers two starter and main-course options. This week, the box features cod with roe and handmade crisps, pork neck with roasted artichoke and radicchio and glazed swede with shiitake mushrooms and black garlic. All of the boxes will come with sides of greens and Parmesan dumplings, and, for dessert, hazelnut chocolate choux aux craic (Christine’s special spin on the classic French pastry) and rhubarb and woodruff marshmallows.
It’s not what they originally planned to be doing, but Christine is grateful for the ability to keep busy during lockdown. She hasn’t made it home to Tipperary for a visit for some time.
“[Right before Christmas], one of our chefs got COVID and we all had to isolate,” she recalls. “So, I didn’t get home for Christmas – in fact, I had to get my first COVID test on Christmas Eve. I had never actually spent Christmas away from home, so it was pretty weird.”
Support and freedom
Galway isn’t too far away from Tipperary. But during lockdown, distances can feel much greater. Christine enjoys life in the city, though, and some of her fondest culinary memories are in Galway, working alongside Enda and the team at Loam.
“I ended up in Galway in 2015,” she says. “I worked in Loam up until two years ago; I became the sous chef there in 2016. I went from there to Noma, but I didn’t stay [in Noma] for long. It just wasn’t what I thought it would be.
“I loved working in Loam because we were doing something different,” she continues. “There was nowhere else like it in Ireland. People like to say it’s Scandinavian in style, but it’s not, it’s Irish and very pared back. Sometimes you’d see Tripadvisor reviews complaining that the server was wearing Converse (runners) or saying it was too casual for a Michelin-starred restaurant – but that’s not really the point of Loam.”
She enjoyed working with Enda, saying he gave her the freedom to be creative – something not many executive chefs are willing to allow in their kitchens.
“[With Enda], you have this freedom to do your own thing,” she says. “He’d say, ‘These are the ingredients – what are we going to do with them?’”
With this in mind, it made sense for Christine to take on the role of head chef at Éan, where she continues to have the freedom and autonomy of her own kitchen; alongside pastry chef Lauren Goudeket.
“Enda doesn’t really come in here,” she says. “He was like, ‘This is yours; you have full control over it’. I don’t have anything to do with the bakery side of things; I’m not a baker, but when it comes to the restaurant, that’s my area. Sinead is here all the time and she’s brilliant. She and Enda are very supportive, which is so nice to have coming from your bosses.”
Women face inequalities in whichever industry they find themselves, but particularly within the restaurant industry.
As with the agricultural industry, research indicates women chefs have a more difficult time obtaining financing than their male counterparts, which likely contributes to lower rates of female chefs who are also restaurant owners. Combine this with a sizeable gender pay gap, no union representation and long working hours and you can understand why many women chefs leave the industry before reaching the role of executive chef.
Irish Country Living asks what set Christine apart from the crowd – and have restaurants made valuable changes to enable more women to succeed, as she has?
“I think I’ve succeeded so far because I can be quite stubborn – and I don’t like having people telling me what to do,” Christine laughs.
“I’ve always made sure, whatever job I’m doing, that I’m doing the absolute best I can. I don’t know if it’s confidence, it’s just like – I want to get ahead and this is how I do it. I’ve messed up so many times, though, it’s really through repetition that we learn.
“All that said, I still think it’s hard for women in kitchens,” she continues.
“You hear some people saying there’s no sexism or misogyny, but there is. I felt a lot of it in the last couple of years. [Male chefs] might feel you’re displaying toxic female behaviour when, really, you’re just calling out someone else’s sexism.”
I’m in a place where I don’t really want to take orders from people
Christine says it took time for her to find a voice in professional kitchens, which can be loud and chaotic.
“Even up to a few years ago, I would just keep my head down and say, ‘Yes, chef’,” she says. “But now I’m in a place where I don’t really want to take orders from people – especially if it’s something I feel like I can do better.
“It might be seen as an ‘obnoxious woman thing’, but if I were a man it would be seen as confident.
Tones of home
Christine recalls her youth in Killenaule and the people who first influenced her passion for food. While many of her family get-togethers and fond memories don’t feature elaborate feasts, there was a special someone who inspired her to cook: her grandmother.
“My grandmother was an amazing cook,” she smiles. “When I was a kid, one of my jobs would be to bring my grandmother’s bread to the local shop. They’d be in this cloth bag and they’d be still warm and steaming. I’d be looking at all the corners to see if I could pick off bits of bread to eat, so that no one would notice.
“When I was seven, she was in her late 70s,” she continues.
“I was the youngest of 26 grandchildren. For years, she was the head cook at Plassey House in Limerick. Her picture is still up on the wall there.
“My grandparents had a dairy farm near Kilsheelan and we’d go down every Sunday after mass; we’d be out with the cows the whole time.”
Considering her fond memories of growing up in Tipperary, Irish Country Living asks Christine: is Galway home for good, or will she be making a return, someday, to the Premier County?
“I get itchy feet every few years. I’ll always say I’ll stay somewhere a couple of years, but I can’t make a life-long commitment,” she says.
I could never work in an office
“I’d like to open my own place, someday. If I do, it might be in Galway – but I don’t know. I’d love to do something in Tipp, but is it too quiet?”
“I could never work in an office and sit in front of a computer all day,” she laughs. “I’d be bored and procrastinate. At least, when you’re a chef, you don’t have the option to procrastinate – if the work doesn’t get done, you’re completely fecked!”