The pandemic put a halt to tourism in Co Kerry but did that stop chef Chad Byrne (of The Brehon Hotel, Killarney) from cooking? Never.
We recently caught up with him to discuss his pandemic food truck, The Hungry Donkey – which he created out of a crowdfunding campaign and a converted horse box – and how things are going now that he’s back in his hotel kitchen.
You live and work in an area of the country heavily dependent on tourism (domestic and foreign). How did the pandemic affect food service in Kerry?
Well, it has been a rollercoaster near-on two years for everyone.
We engaged in alternative dining; from meal kits, online tutorials and the explosion of food trucks.
With so many people cooking at home (and a lot learning to cook for the first time), a lot of butchers and artisans did really well, which was so welcoming and a common bond to help others succeed. I think real community was formed and it was also great to do some excellent work in the community.
I set up a team of chefs to cook meals on wheels in the Tralee and Killorglin area. I was working with many amazing chefs I hadn’t met before, as well as with the remarkable team in Ballyseedy Gardens, where we produced the goods. It really showed what’s best about our industry.
During lockdown, you made a bold pivot (which seemed to really pay off) in creating The Hungry Donkey. Can you tell us how the idea came about and what it took to get your food truck off the ground? Well, being out of work and with funds running low it was the only logical thing to do. I bought an old horse box with my last savings and crowdfunded the [remainder of the set-up costs], which was an unbelievable success.
The campaign reached its target within 12 hours, which was overwhelming. We absolutely smashed the summer season. It was a huge success – great music, great fun – and it really showed in our food. There was proper passion and a buzz for the best produce we could source.
As a chef, what is your approach when it comes to feeding people? Do you like to put your own spin on things, make use of local ingredients, etc? When I’m cooking the classics, I tend to leave things to the good, time-honoured fashion of respecting great recipes and instead do them justice with banging produce. However, if I’m in the horsebox and we are vibing, our spin is unique.
For example, we have baklava-style hotdogs, octopus and scallop spiceboxes and lamb tongue with peanut and gochujang rayu tacos. We don’t label what we do, we just cook the absolute socks of what’s best in season.
This approach got us national acclaim: Ireland’s best spicebox; top 10 tacos in Ireland; McKennas Guide for best food trucks; and The Sunday Times 10 best food trucks, to name a just a few. We thrive on the quirky and unique at The Hungry Donkey.
What does the future look like for The Hungry Donkey? The food truck game is highly seasonal and even more so in Kerry and other rural areas, which rely heavily on tourism.
So far now we are just planning to do some Christmas festivals and a few private catering events. We’ll take a total break in January and then hit the season again come March. We have some really big surprises coming, so trust me when I say watch this space!
You are also clearly very busy as chef at The Brehon Hotel. What were the biggest adjustments to make going from a fully equipped restaurant kitchen to a mobile food truck/horse box? There weren’t many adjustments as we cook cleverly and had a prep kitchen to do all our work in. Just to transport our prepped produce to the box – to just finish our dishes as they were being served – was a very effective way of eliminating the space issues.
When you have such limited space (and when 30% of that space is curved), it’s not the easiest for storage. Looking back, I was naïve enough to think that I’d just be cooking away and everything would be grand. A horsebox will hold food and containers for about 50 people max, so realistically you’re going to need some kitchen space and a prep kitchen space close by.
If you don’t, you’re in trouble regarding food costs and other financial outlays (wages, insurance and so on). In other words, if you’re only serving 50 people per day then you’re not making money, so it’s a pointless exercise. Like anything, if you are organised and have a plan then usually things work out well.
Now that you’ve done both types of food service, do you have a preference for either? What were the differences in the types of cooking you were doing? Good food is good food, it’s as simple as that, and if the customers trust the chef that’s all that matters. The Brehon and many other hotels like it have a certain demographic and a certain marketing strategy. They know what their customers want and they provide that brilliantly. The Hungry Donkey has its own client base too.
With the holidays approaching, are you making any special plans or planning any special meals? We will be doing a spin on a festive spicebox which is taking shape, but not fully there yet. That will be a Christmas festival classic – well here’s hoping, anyway! We have some great new seasonal menus going on in The Brehon too. In October, for example, we did an amazing Samhain menu with all the classics, like barmbrack, boxty potatoes, toffee apples and wild Irish venison.
What is the one kitchen tool you could never live without? This is really simple for me. Call me old-fashioned but a good whetstone or a diamond file knife sharpener. A blunt knife in the kitchen is a sign of an unprepared, unprofessional kitchen so that whetstone is pretty important to me.
What would your death row meal comprise of? Oh ... that would be comfort food all day long! A simple bacon and cabbage with creamy mash and white sauce, or maybe a toasted ham and cheese in a sandwich toaster – buttered on the outside and served with a bag of Tayto. The simple stuff that reminds you of home.