Leinster's best chef: An interview with Deirdre Adamson

Story by Adrian Cusack

Friday, 12th July, 2019 4:17pm

Leinster's best chef: An interview with Deirdre Adamson

Deirdre Adamson of The Fatted Calf (right) pictured after she received the 'Best Chef in Leinster' award in May.

One of Athlone's assets is its abundance of great places in which to eat out. The town's foodie credentials received a further boost in May, when Deirdre Adamson of The Fatted Calf picked up the 'Best Chef in Leinster' honour at the Irish Restaurant Awards.

At the awards ceremony in Dublin, Deirdre was in conversation with the person next to her when her name was announced as the winner, so it took a moment for the news to register. When it did, she modestly characterised it as an award for the entire restaurant rather than for her as an individual.

"It's lovely to be recognised," she says. "When you know who's on the judging panel and they say, 'listen, we've been watching you and we really think you're up there with the best of them', it just gives you that little bit of (encouragement to think) 'oh, actually, yeah I am'.

"There is probably a certain amount of modesty to everybody but, yeah, I work bloody hard and I still really love what I'm doing.

"So I am chuffed, of course, but chuffed for the restaurant. The girls here were so excited and were saying they were so happy for me. I was telling them, be happy for all of us. This is not just me, it's everybody."

Deirdre (more commonly known as Dee) is sitting in The Fatted Calf, about to start preparations for the Thursday lunchtime service. A former pupil of Tubberclair NS and Our Lady's Bower, she grew up on a dairy farm in Glasson and got her first summer job in the village, in Grogan's pub and restaurant, at the age of 16.

"That was around the mid-90s and the restaurant scene was starting to take off a little bit," she recalls. 

"Michael Brooks had opened the Glasson Village Restaurant a few years previously. The Wineport had opened. Thérèse Gilsenan was in Grogan's. So there was a bit going on.

"I started working in pot wash in Grogan's. Everyone says you catch the bug, and love it, and I did."

After secondary school, she studied hotel and catering management in Athlone IT, during which time she was working in the original Olive Grove restaurant (incidentally, the Olive Grove's proprietor Garry Hughes now works with her as part of the team in The Fatted Calf).

After completing her degree she went travelling in the early 2000s, working for spells in restaurants in New York, Boston, and various parts of Australia. "Then I came back home to Athlone and was like, right, I have to grow up now!" she says.

It was then that Joe and Kathleen Farrell approached her about helping to open a restaurant in Farrell's Village Inn in Glasson. She accepted and become its head chef. In 2010 the lease became available and was taken over by Feargal and Fiona O'Donnell of The Fatted Calf, who kept her on in the head chef role.

While in Glasson, The Fatted Calf developed a reputation for the quality of its food, winning the 'best gastropub in Leinster' award and earning laudatory reviews from critics such as Catherine Cleary of The Irish Times, the late Paolo Tullio, and many others.

In 2015, the business moved into the centre of Athlone, overlooking the John Count McCormack Square. It is open five days a week, which means there's a fixed working schedule for the staff.

"You are off every Sunday and Monday, and it's pretty strange to have that in this industry," says Dee. "It means you can plan your life and have a better balance, I guess."

The long working hours of a chef sometimes meant she missed Christenings, birthdays, and other family occasions.

"There are sacrifices made as part of it, but there are sacrifices no matter what you do. If you're putting in that many hours of the week into your work you have to enjoy it. And every day is a teaching day, every day is a learning day. Every day is different.

"You're on a different time schedule to most people because you get home at eleven and then you need to wind down. But I've never done anything different, I've never had a 9 to 5 job, so I wouldn't know how to manage it. If you love this job there's nothing else better to do."

Cooking in restaurants is sometimes perceived as being male-dominated, but Dee says the kitchens she's worked in have generally had a fairly even gender balance.

"I've never cared whether you're a man or a woman once you can cook, you enjoy it, and you've got a pretty decent personality," she says.

At peak times, when the restaurant is humming with activity, there's "a little adrenaline that kicks in" in the kitchen.

"All week you are kind of leading up to Saturday night because that's the night when people book a babysitter, get a taxi into town, and it might be their splurge for the next month.

"So there is that little bit of extra pressure from knowing that this is somebody's wedding anniversary meal or 40th birthday or whatever the case may be. You do feel like you've got to pull out all the stops.

"I'm not saying we don't do that on a Tuesday night, but there's just that added something, that sense of special occasion, about a Saturday."

Being a good chef is "not all about cooking" she says. "It's about relating to people. It's about respecting people.

"Obviously cooking is a huge part of it, but to get the best out of everybody, including yourself, you just have to get on with everybody. You have to care if someone's little girl is sick, for example.

"Everybody has external stuff going on in their head and you have to accommodate it and think about it. Everybody's human, everybody makes mistakes, and that's what you learn from."

Outside of her job, Dee and her husband are currently building their home in Glasson and she enjoys hobbies such as golf and hillwalking.

"Fresh air is a big part of it. When you're going to be indoors, in a hot kitchen, there's nothing like being outdoors for a while before you go in," she smiles.

The most rewarding aspect of her work is getting positive feedback from customers.

"When one of the waitresses comes up to you and says 'table 6 said it's the best steak they've ever had' or another table says its 'the best meal they've had in years' - that never gets old. You can't but feel a buzz from that," she concludes.


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