Foodies and friends, Bridget Healy (co-founder of Café Paradiso) and Caitlin Ruth (Head Chef at Deasy’s Restaurant in Ring) chat to Mary O’Brien about making food and a life for themselves in West Cork.
Bridget Healy and Caitlin Ruth have both blown in to West Cork — from opposite sides of the world — but have become as indigenous to the area as our native nettle. “It’s easy to forget that we’re not originally from here until our accents give us away,” they say. “I regularly think ‘wow there are a lot of foreigners moving here’ and then I remember I’m one too,” says Bridget laughing.
A native of New Zealand, Bridget moved to a little cottage on an acre near Clonakilty six years ago. The outgoing Kiwi quickly made friends, endearing herself to locals in her role as the outspoken front of house person in Lettercollum Kitchen Project in Clonakilty. “I do feel a little guilty because I have amazing friends in the city but unless they come here I don’t really see them. I don’t want to leave West Cork…everybody smiles and waves at you here!”
Originally from a place called The Bay of Plenty (aptly named by Captain James Cook for its fertile land) in New Zealand, Bridget grew up surrounded by avocado, macadamia and nectarine trees and learned to cook and appreciate food from an early age. “New Zealand was a very self-sufficient country at that time; we grew and produced all our own food and preserved everything. Our garage was full of peaches, nectarines and plums and my mum preserved everything. Life was seasonal — you only ate asparagus when it was asparagus season and sweetcorn when it was sweetcorn time.”
A vegetarian since a visit to an abbatoir when she was 16, Bridget says that even though Caitlin keeps trying to feed her meat, perhaps if it’s the end of the world she’ll eat it! She laughs when she remembers ‘guts fights’ with her sisters growing up. “My dad used to do home kills,” she explains. “He still fattens cattle and is not impressed that three out of his four daughters are vegetarians!”
“I do like going back to New Zealand but everyone there is always so busy; my mum, who’s over 70, still walks up the mountain to shift the cattle. Life is a lot easier in West Cork.”
Bridget met former husband and co-founder of Café Paradiso Denis Cotter working in Cranks — ‘the vegetarian restaurant chain that made lentils fashionable’ — in London.
After moving to New Zealand for a while, the couple relocated to Cork City and opened Café Paradiso together in 1993.
“We were passionate about what we were doing and all worked ridiculously long hours.” A mother of two sons, Bridget used to drive home to read bedtime stories and then back to the restaurant again. “I don’t regret that time — we made the most amazing friends, and my children learned to fold napkins incredibly well!
“They were fun, exciting times; Toby Simmonds opened the olives stall at the English Market and Seamus O’Connell opened the Ivory Tower around the same time. Everyone told us we were mad.
“That was the next 15 years.”
Life now is more relaxed. There is time for long walks on the Sheep’s Head, snorkelling in Sand’s Cove, and dinner parties with friends. “I love being able to do an eight-hour walk on the Beara Peninsula and meeting no one, it’s like having a big empty playground all to yourself.
“I’ll cook something even if it’s stupid o’clock when I get home,” she says. “I usually chop up an onion and garlic, make polenta and then run down the garden to look for something fresh.”
Bridget dries Nori on her clothesline and eats it as a snack while she’s hanging out the washing. “I eat the washing,” she says in a fit of laughter.
Although she’ll ‘eat the washing’, whatever you do don’t offer her a glass of French wine! Ever since French commandos bombed the Greenpeace flagship ‘Rainbow Warrior’ in Auckland, New Zealand, 30 years ago, Bridget refuses to touch a drop of wine sporting a French label. “There are more than enough great wines from other countries,” she says staunchly.
“I just fell in love with her cooking and with her,” says Bridget of Caitlin Ruth. “When you invite Caitlin over for dinner, you leave things lying around and hope she takes over in the kitchen,” says Bridget with a mischievous grin over the table at her friend.
Every time we eat Caitlin Ruth’s cooking, our response is automatic: “This is the best thing I have eaten all year”. John and Sally McKennas’ Guides.
The self-taught Head Chef at Deasy’s Restaurant in Ring, Caitlin has been working in restaurants since she was 12. After making her first pot of broth at the age of six she’s been fascinated with food and what can be created from it.
“I’ve always cooked but I always thought I’d just do it until I found out what I really wanted to do. Then I realised I didn’t really want to do anything else.
“I’m driven by my ingredients. The other day I felt hot and tired at work and then the fish guy rang and said he had an Albacore tuna. All of a sudden I just felt so happy.”
Using the fresh, local ingredients around her, Caitlin aims to make the best food she can. She slowly cooked the aforementioned Albacore tuna in olive oil, teaming it with green beans and quail eggs. “At this stage, I just know what ingredients work well together. For instance, I’ll never put garlic with tuna.”
Originally from a tiny village in New Hampshire in the US, Caitlin settled in Ireland in 1992, raising her daughter Áine here and making the village of Timoleague her home. A lover of raw beef and chicory, she enjoys creating vegetarian food and loves nothing better than a challenge in the kitchen. “I like it when people come in to the restaurant with special dietary requirements and I can make them something delicious.”
For the third year in a row, she’ll be taking part in the Theatre of Food at Electric Picnic with Bridget, cooking delicious samples of food to give out to the crowd. This year’s theme is ‘Food for Life’ and Caitlin will also be holding a workshop showing people how to cook gourmet gluten-free food, delicious and without compromise.
The friends will also be cooking together at a yoga retreat at Dzogchen Beara in August. “We’re both really looking forward to it,” says Bridget, who’s also cooking at a yoga retreat at Dunowen House, Ardfield in October. “We just have to figure out how to cook more often together.”
Both are in agreement on this and on how great a place West Cork is to work and live. “I’m kind of glad the weather’s not predictable here or we’d really be overrun with people,” says Caitlin. “West Cork is such an amazing place.”