Likely thanks to the pandemic, the idea of what a restaurant is – or could be – is changing. Traditional, static locations are great if you can afford things like rent, key money and overhead costs. The thing is, the restaurant industry has never been the money maker many might assume.
The average chef’s salary is meagre and the cost of running a restaurant astronomical. Many young chefs are starting to work around the idea of a static location and are coming up with some creative alternatives, as the months during COVID-19 have shown.
Keith Coleman and Aisling McHugh were thinking outside this box even before the pandemic.
Keith, a chef, and Aisling, a hospitality professional, are a creative couple who spent time working in restaurants in New Zealand before coming home and making their way through several Dublin eateries – including Fia Cafe in Rathgar where their food and approach to service was praised by diners and critics alike.
Keith is a Dublin native and Aisling hails from Co Cavan but studied in Dublin and spent most of her professional life in the city. When their time at Fia came to an end, they considered opening their own restaurant. They had also been organising pop-up dinners in collaboration with other Irish chefs, which had proved popular. They called their pop-up project Roots Dinners.
“We set it up on the side,” Keith says. “I think it was in 2016, when we were in Fia Cafe. A friend of ours, Cúan [Greene], he kind of came up with the name. We didn’t set it up as a company for ages.
“We had done one pop-up dinner and Fia had a run of evening dinners, as well,” adds Aisling. “It happened that plenty of young chefs from around Dublin wanted a space to do something. So we’d do dinners with them through different connections.”
In their search for a restaurant space, they viewed a few locations but now admit that, maybe, their hearts just weren’t in it. Increasingly disenchanted with the idea of opening in a permanent location, they instead decided to move to the countryside and focus on their Roots Dinners.
“At the moment in Dublin, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen with hospitality,” Keith says. “Even [chefs and restaurants] who were established are finding it really hard now. It seemed unachievable to have our own place, so we started to focus more on doing the dinners. And that was really nice because it focused on collaboration and doing something fun and different.”
Now settled into a cute, historic rental home in the countryside, they have since connected with many local food and drink producers.
“It’s just amazing when you realise how many high-quality producers there are in such a small area. It just felt like there was something about to happen down here, so that was a huge draw for us,” Aisling explains. “There is a really strong food culture down here that we felt we could fit into.”
When they moved, they had extensive plans to bring their Roots Dinners concept around the country, but those plans were dashed when the first lockdown was announced.
“We moved and then, almost immediately, the pandemic happened,” Keith says. “We had a load of dinners planned in different country houses. When the pandemic hit, we had to sit down and cancel everything – it was a bit of an ‘oh sh**’ moment!”
But, Keith continues, things turned out OK in the end. McNally Farm in nearby Naul, Co Dublin, became a second home for the couple during lockdown. They both worked on the busy farm and in the farm shop – in fact, Aisling is still working in the on-farm cafe few days per week. Keith does consultancy work and, during the summer months, the pair created a restaurant experience at Slane Castle.
“During lockdown we were both working on the farm for over a year – which we probably didn’t see ourselves doing at all,” Aisling says. “But it was an amazing experience and they were so busy. They did a click and collect and, at the same time, opened the farm shop with a cafe – it’s just grown.
“We had always used them as our main producer for pop-up dinners so being able to go out with them and work in the fields and do everything was eye opening,” she adds. “It gives you such an appreciation for growing food.”
What makes a Roots Dinner?
Aisling and Keith represent a growing cohort of younger couples choosing to leave the city for the countryside.
“I would say that a lot of the time our dinners are not in a conventional space, and – with the exception of our Fia dinners – they are generally not in restaurant spaces,” Aisling explains. “I think it’s about finding out what’s interesting about the space and having a strong focus on the local producers – just trying to intertwine that.”
“There’s always a narrative to the dinners, I suppose,” says Keith. “It’s not like just going out for a meal, but then that narrative is influenced by the spaces or producers or the people we’re working with.
“We did a Sunday lunch a few months ago at the McNally’s and I’d say 90% of that meal was vegetables from the farm and we had picked everything that day – picked it, prepped it and cooked it. And then we had a nice bit of lamb from John [McDonnell, a local biodynamic farmer].”
“We like doing quite small dinners because the spaces usually can’t hold a lot of people, anyway,” Aisling continues. “I’d say the most we’ve ever done is about 30 people. We’ll try to do multiple nights to cover our costs and make a profit. With pop-ups, most of the work is the setup and the take down.”
A relaxed future
When asked what 2022 will bring to Roots Dinners, Keith and Aisling say they aren’t ready to make firm plans with the pandemic still ongoing. However, their 2022 will be filled with food, friends and – most importantly – their wedding, which they are planning.
“We moved down here without a plan at all – even now, finishing up at Slane Castle, we’ve kind of come back to that,” Keith says. “But we want to work to live – not the other way around. It’s beautiful living here but you want the time to be able to enjoy that – and have time to see friends and family.”
Aisling says finding the perfect restaurant space to put down “permanent” roots would be difficult.
“Pop-ups are very creative, you get to meet so many different people and you’re constantly exposed to new experiences but, of course, a more permanent space would be nice – it would have to be the right space and it would have to happen organically.
“For the future of Roots Dinners, I think it’s more about finding the right project as opposed to the right space.”
Aisling and Keith collaborate with different venues throughout the country with their Roots dinners; creating pop-up food experiences inspired by the venue and local ingredients available. They advertise their pop-ups and sell tickets on their website and also have a mailing list you can join if you’re interested in attending one of their events. Prices for their dinners start at €45.
See rootsproject.ie for more information