We live in and our business is based in Rathaspick, Co Westmeath. We’re in a little townland about halfway between Mullingar and Longford.
This would be my dad’s farm where he grew up that we’re living on now. My mum was from Multy in Westmeath and we all grew up there as a family.
Then my dad moved back here when I was a young teenager, so my second home is now my home.
My dad died a number of years ago. My brother Conor took over the farm – it’s a conventional beef farm. My brother Richard has a dairy farm in Multy. Conor takes the bull calves from Richard every year and raises them for beef.
From a very, very early age I loved cooking. I’m the youngest of 13 kids, so there was always loads of food and I loved preparing it. That just came from my childhood, cooking with my mum.
I remember saying to my father that I wanted to be a chef. He said: “That’s too hard, you don’t want to do that. You should be something else.”
I’ve been in food all my life. I trained as a chef in Cathal Brugha Street in Dublin. I did a culinary arts degree there. I moved out of Ireland after university and worked in numerous different high-end restaurants, all dotted across the world.
I spent about six or seven years in Belgium. I met my partner Margaux there. We were working in De Wulf. I was the head chef. It’s no longer around, but it was in the top 100 restaurants in the world.
Margaux is French and has a finance background. She got sick of that, left Paris, went travelling and being French, found food a little bit again.
In my years working in Belgium, I opened up another restaurant in Ghent. It was a more casual and relaxed restaurant. We decided we wanted to move on from there, so we bought a camper and we travelled for about a year around Europe.
We took a break and decompressed from pressure built up over a number of years. We allowed ourselves the time to consider, what kind of role do we want to play in the food world? Is it going to be opening a little café or producing a product?
We had the idea then for 4Hands Food Studio, our sustainable food business that produces fermented food and drink. In Belgium, there was a big focus on fermentation. I worked with a university in Antwerp. They used my ferments in experiments.
We were in France for a little while after travelling. We were in two minds where to set up – Ireland or France. We had a meeting with an organic farmer in Kildare about growing cabbage for sauerkraut for us.
She said: “Look, I’ll grow for you, no problem, but I need to order the seeds next week. So if you want me to grow, you need to tell me within the week.”
That was kind of our decision made. We had a really inspiring couple of hours with her. I just said: “Look, this feels right” and we went for it. We moved back in 2018 and renovated the barn we now live in and run our business from.
When we first started 4Hands we started really slowly. We wanted to get everything right. We were supplying to Nuts and Grains in Mullingar, an independent health food store. Then we started supplying a health food store in Athlone and we’ve grown from there.
We found people loved our kombucha, a form of fermented tea. Then the sauerkraut, we didn’t want to cut corners with it. We wanted to give it at least six months, if not a year. Space wise here to be able to make enough, it just wasn’t possible. So we just do it in smaller batches and sell it direct to customers.
Naturally fermented foods are rich in probiotics. If you want to get the benefit from fermented foods you need to be taking a little bit all the time, introducing them into your daily diet. It can help with digestion.
It’s just good for overall health and well-being, but it’s not like I’ll drink one bottle of kombucha a day and it’ll cure all my problems. It’s more thinking of it as an aid, an alternative to a fizzy sugary drink.
After a while, we also started doing a weekly takeaway offering. I don’t really miss the restaurant world that much, to be honest with you, but I love cooking for people and so does Margaux.
If you have a restaurant, you’re not really cooking for people, you’re training people how to cook the way you want. I just like the basic aspect of actually cooking, chopping and picking the foods. On a small scale like this, you’re able to do those things that brought you into cooking in the first place.
What we’ve always done is just let things grow naturally. Now we’re having shops come to us to supply them. It’s really nice that we can just build gradually. We don’t want to get to the stage where we’re supplying every health food store in Ireland.
We’re happy to be just working in the locality with the stores that we can deliver to ourselves. If there are people that really have an interest in us further afield in Ireland, we’d like to build on it and supply them directly too.