Growing up in a general merchant’s in Cullohill, Co Laois, service is in Blathnáid Bergin’s blood.
And having forged her own career in hospitality, Blathnáid now shares her expertise through The Business of Food, offering “short, sharp, fun and focused” courses, ranging from running your own food service business to masterclasses in everything from menu planning to food waste prevention. She also works as a consultant to both start-ups (her speciality) and established cafes and restaurants, and is business lecturer on Ballymaloe Cookery School’s certificate course.
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What was your first job in hospitality and what was the most important lesson that you learned there?
Duty manager in a Trust House Forte Hotel in Leicester. I learned that a hotel is made up of individual units, which together create an experience for a guest. All of these units need to be independently managed, but are inextricably linked. A duty manager’s role is to ensure that all these units “are talking” to each other through robust operating systems. I also learned that the buzz you get from working in a well-oiled hospitality machine is hard to beat.
Apart from cooking, what is the most important training that somebody should undertake before setting up their own café or restaurant?
There is no question in my mind that learning the fundamentals of running a business are critical. You are running a business first and all business rules apply. It is not enough to do a short “start your own business course”. A person has to know how the restaurant/café industry works. It is possible to open a restaurant/café without knowing how to cook, but if you open one without knowing how to run a business in a financially viable and operationally efficient way, you are absolutely doomed to failure.
When you walk into a café/restaurant, what are the first three things you notice?
The first thing I notice is how I feel. The second is the efficiency of staff and the third is cleanliness.
What is one recipe that every start-up café should have in their store-cupboard?
A good soup. It is almost impossible to get good soup.
If you could “ban” one ingredient from Irish menus, what would it be?
I would completely ban avocados. They are a most wasteful ingredient, as for every six the business buys, the chances are that three will be wasted either because they never ripen, they are overripe, they are rotten or they are watery. Don’t get me started on the frozen avocado pulp that some cafes are using. Appalling stuff.
What has been your most memorable meal?
A campsite in France many years ago. It was run by a family who had owned a restaurant in Paris and brought their incredible food to this campsite up in the hills of the Dordogne. We ate not-yet-matched pastries from their campsite patisserie for breakfast. They had an outdoor oven where they slow roasted lamb over embers. Everything was cooked to perfection; I can still taste the lamb, and summer vegetables. We ate it under the stars on a warm evening. The strawberry millefeuille was as light as air and oozed the taste of summer. I persuaded the chef to share his secret to cooking such feather-like layers. Remembering it now is filling me with summer vibes.
COVID-19 has brought many challenges and changes for the Irish hospitality industry, but is there any innovation you think should stay?
In some ways, COVID-19 has done the industry a favour. Hospitality businesses had to examine the way they had always operated, and many found that it was just not good enough. Businesses have shortened menus, improved operating systems, added take-out options and outdoor dining tailored for our damp, cold and often wet winters.
Those who fully embraced radical change are running better businesses today. It was personally gratifying to see the demise of the carvery lunch and buffet breakfasts in hotels, both of which can be of appalling quality.
COVID also turned menu planning on its head. Pre-COVID, a business would plan a menu and then cook it. Now, the business looks at who is available and with what skills and then a menu will be drafted. I think smaller menus should stay, which would allow greater focus on quality.
What “trends” will we see in Irish restaurants/cafes for 2022?
Greater efficiency across businesses. Businesses really minding their employees. Continued digitisation of the business. Smaller menus are (hopefully) here to stay. A deeper appreciation by the public of local cafes and restaurants, which are the heart of a community. Unfortunately this year will see only the survival of the fittest.
If you were having a dinner party, who would your five dream guests be?
And finally, what would you cook for them?
Oh my God – for such an illustrious gathering!
To start: Potted Irish crab with fresh white yeast toast and Irish butter to showcase our sea and land.
Mains: An Irish stew also showcases the best of what we produce, can be prepared in advance, will provoke discussion about food and culture and can be eaten in any fashion.
Dessert: Carrageen moss pudding – learned while working in the kitchen at Ballymaloe House many years ago. A light dish of great subtlety, which needs little else other than light cream.
All the above can be prepared well in advance and won’t spoil while these fascinating people converse. What a dinner that would be.