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Thanks to Jenny Egan in the Evening Echo for her article on our 30th Birthday this September!

The Crawford Gallery Café, opened by Myrtle Allen and her daughter Fern, is celebrating a milestone.

THE Crawford Gallery Café is set to celebrate 30 years in business on September 15. Ballymaloe matriarch and culinary icon Myrtle Allen and her daughter Fern opened the café in 1986, situated in the same building as the Crawford Art Gallery at 1 Emmet Place in the heart of Cork city.

The café was run by many members of the Allen dynasty over the years until Hazel Allen, asked colleague and Ballymaloe alumna Sinéad Doran to take the reins almost three years ago.

The café has earned high praise from renowned food critic Tom Doorley, who said: “This is cooking you can trust, done the way we do it at home, using excellent raw materials and avoiding any messing with them. It’s first-class home cooking with a bit of a twist and a healthy dose of inspiration.”

With its sky blue walls and high ceilings, light streams in through the large windows to a 1940s jazz soundtrack. Contemporary and traditional paintings adorn the walls and the smell of fresh coffee and homemade goods is intoxicating. These little touches make the Crawford Gallery Cafe a serene retreat from the bustling cityscapes.

But central to the success of the Crawford Gallery Café, is Jackie Carroll, from Grange, who is the longest serving member of the team. She has been serving customers for the last 26 years and her enthusiasm is infectious.

“A friend of mine was working here and the boss Fern Allen asked if I would come in and give a hand, just to try it and see if I liked it,” she says. “That was 26 years ago and I’m still here! I loved it from day one.

“The building and clientele are really nice. There is such a lovely atmosphere. The food is always great and we have a lot of fun! I love coming to work every day and I especially love our customers.”

Jackie has served people from all walks of life over the years, from celebrities to shoppers to her regular customers.

“We have had some famous celebrities pop in over the years including actress Angela Lansbury of Murder She Wrote fame. I served actor Kevin Costner and he was just divine! Our own Cillian Murphy popped in recently too. Often times, you might not recognise someone because you are so busy and it’s only afterwards you realise who they are.

“We cater for everyone though from students to shoppers to our regulars, who have been coming in for the past 30 years. We have a lot of young people coming in now, the next generation. They might have been in here with their parents when they were kiddies.”

According to chef and manager, Sinéad Doran, Jackie knows all their regular customers on a first name basis and knows what they want before they’ve even ordered.

“I’ll tell them what they are having some days,” Jackie laughs “They keep coming back even if they have been away for a few years. It’s like a reunion and they’ll ask what I recommend from the menu. Consistency, knowing the customers really well and great food is why they keep coming back.”

Sinéad and her team of 10 run a tight ship and her years of experience are evident. She studied professional cookery in WIT (formerly Waterford RTC) and then worked in Waterford Castle for award-winning chef Michael Quinn before moving to Cork where she got a job working in the kitchen in Ballymaloe.

“Ballymaloe has this magnetic effect attached to it. You can never leave Ballymaloe, but after many years I did eventually and went to New Zealand where I bought a house and worked for eight years.”

But disaster struck when a spate of earthquakes hit New Zealand in 2010 and 2011.

“It was horrible. In February 2011, the city of Christchurch just fell apart. The whole house would shake… the walls rattled… you would wake up in the middle of the night to the house shaking and horrible noise. You are kind of living on the edge, 163 people died the day of the earthquake and the final death toll was 183. I was living just 20 minutes away. Just talking about it now still gives me the shivers.”

Sinéad decided it was time to make a change and had quit her job right before the earthquake happened.

“I flew home to Ireland and was trying for a job in Italy but then that fell through. Hazel Allen, who was running the Crawford Café at the time, needed someone to take over. I will be running it three years, this November.”

The Ballymaloe tradition is still very much alive in the cafe menu, which features the best of homegrown produce from local suppliers.

“We support local Cork produce, for example all of our cheeses are made in Cork as well as our meats and salami. We go as organic as we possibly can. We have loads of different suppliers rather than just buying from one. We try to source our ingredients locally wherever possible. I root around in streams and pick watercress and I forage in the Ballymaloe gardens… although foraging, I don’t know, maybe it’s stealing!” Sinead laughs.

Fern Allen recalls the early days when the Crawford Gallery Café had a tiny kitchen and barely an oven. The food was cooked at Ballymaloe HQ each morning and delivered to the café in a little red van. One particular ‘bump in the road’ still makes her laugh.

“I normally drove the van, but I took a day off and gave the job to someone else. So the chefs loaded the van and everyone hopped in but forgot to check if the boot was closed properly. A neighbour of ours happened to be heading the same direction and by the time they reached Midleton they had picked up pots of chicken casserole, loaves of bread, squished cakes and various other things that had fallen out of the boot. Our chefs were oblivious to all this until they pulled in at the Crawford and went to unload. Needless to say, there was hardly anything on the menu that day!!”

Fern says she is really looking forward to the celebrations at the café to mark 30 years in business.

“I’m looking forward to meeting staff and customers that I have known over the years. I am so happy that Sinéad is bringing the business forward and doing so well and our longest serving staff member Jackie is still with us and as bubbly as ever. The cafe is looking wonderful and it’s great to see it thriving.”

So what is the secret to longevity and success of the business over the last 30 years?

Sinead said: “Consistently good food all of the time and of course Jackie. She has amazing energy and does about 6km around the restaurant each day. She measures it on her pedometer! I think if Jackie left, the café would lose its soul. Everyone knows her and loves her.”

Opening hours at the Crawford Gallery Café are from 8.30am until 4pm Mon-Sat.

By Jenny Regan

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