This will only be of interest to hotel people and Dubliners familiar with Clerys around that time or even later.
This is a photo taken when I was a commis chef in Dublin around ‘62/’63. I know it was in the very early sixties because I remember all the big fellas around the butcher block discussing The Cuban Missile crisis and whether or not we were going to be blown off the face of the earth by the Russians and the Cubans. At the time it was a very distinct possibility for us. It was the main topic of conversation for a few weeks. I don’t really think we completely grasped the situation in those innocent days. We were so far removed from it and there was no internet to keep us up to date.
The photo was taken in Clery’s restaurant kitchen in Dublin City. Clerys was a large department store in the middle of O’Connell Street in Dublin, founded in 1853, and the restaurant was frequented by both locals and customers of the store. A lot of people came from what we Dubliners called ‘the country ‘meaning anyone born outside of Dublin City itself. On sales days it was very busy because of the customers ‘from the country ‘.
I was about 17 years old and as naïve as could be when I started there. I had just finished 3 years as a dishwasher / prep cook / potato peeler /tea maker and general dogs-body to the chefs and cooks and their assistants in the kitchens of the now closed Jervis St. Hospital.
Jervis Street Hospital kitchen will be another story with a cast of true Dublin characters straight from the pages of Dubliners by James Joyce. In fact, I think that many of the people I met there could easily have been a paradigm for a good short story. From Nelly who was the vegetable prep person to J.J. who filled the ovens and flat tops with coal a few times a day and on to Billy Devereux, the clown prince. So many characters come to mind. Working there was like being in a family.
Sister Olivia was in charge of the food department (the hospital was run by the Sisters of Mercy) and she would descend from the convent every night to close everything up. The only problem, if you can call it that, was that she liked us to say a decade of the rosary on our knees on the kitchen floor before we left. This was a little too much to ask of a young lad after a long day’s work, so for the most part we did a vanishing act at 5 to 6. The downside was that after too many vanishing acts the looks got dirty and you had to show your face and get down on your knees for at least 3 days to make up for it.
I enjoyed my time spent in Jervis St. Hospital kitchen and really learned quite a bit, given the lowly position I had. But now I was on my way to the big time. In order to get any kind of credentials I first I had to spend at least two years in an established kitchen in order to get the experience needed to apply to a bigger and better establishment. Clery’s restaurant was to be that place.
I was sent to Clery’s by the chef of Jervis Street Hospital to interview with the chef there ; they were friends. That was more or less the way things were done at the time.
The chef in Clerys was a shortish rotund man with a deep baritone voice and a skin problem. He presented himself well, was always dressed in impeccable whites and had an air of authority about him. His bass / baritone voice alone would have earned him an Oscar in any of todays animated films. His name was Gerry Doran. He had a beautiful white moustache, which only added to this sergeant major image that he liked to project, and he was indeed a good actor. He had the quality of adopting the appropriate body language and posture to the subject on hand and the natural demeanor of someone used to being both in the lead and on top of things, even when he wasn’t. To a young lad like myself he was the Messiah. He was not the first Messiah for me of course; with each step up the ladder the Messiahs began to get bigger and more intimidating. Eventually I was able to tell the difference between the phonies and the real thing but at that age I didn’t. I was impressed with everything and everyone.
Clery’s was a popular place for shopping and dining in Dublin at the time. It catered to the lower middle class I believe; a large cut above Woolworths but not quite on the same level as Brown Thomas on Grafton Street. There were bargains to be had and sales were held regularly.
It’s exterior was also a great source of romance around 7pm. If you had a date you would meet the intended under Clery’s clock or at Nelson’s Pillar, then off to the pictures. Clerys was part of life in Dublin at that time.
The restaurant was usually busy at all times. The food in hotels and restaurants in the sixties was nothing remarkable. There was plenty of roast beef, mashed potatoes, peas and Brussel sprouts; the stuff of the sixties, no imagination and definitely no innovation. To compensate for the lack of new ideas there was great emphasis on doing things right. Everything had to be done according to the book. The only problem in Clerys was that no such book existed.
My place of work would change. In the mornings I would just do butchery, this was my favorite spot. The atmosphere with the butchers was fantastic and they took me under their wing and taught me a lot about the cuts of meat and the breaking down of sides of beef. This would all come in very handy later on. The camaraderie was wonderful with lots of commentaries on the all sorts of subjects. In the afternoons I would be on the service line making omelets and such or on the grill. I really didn’t know how to do anything. I do remember one day I got an order for an omelet and the chef was standing beside me. I hadn’t learned yet how to whip the eggs by just using my arm so I used my whole body. This meant that the more I beat the eggs the lower my body would go until the chef had to grab me by the scruff of the neck and pull me back up. That’s how I learned to make omelets.
During the holiday season there were usually office parties held by the various big companies in Dublin and a lot of them would be held in Clery’s ballroom with all the big bands of the day. Dermot O’Brien and the Clubmen were regulars and sometimes we would have big names like Dickie Rock.
One Sunday morning in the wee hours after a Saturday night function, around 2 am, when we were all about to leave work some of the crew gathered at the top of the stairs of the front exit. The Chef, Gerry Doran, was there with us too. We heard a bit of a commotion from the floor beneath. It turned out to be a young drunken reveler harassing a young girl on the floor below. She was crying and obviously in distress.
The chef (Gerry Doran) was dressed in his charcoal fedora and his dark grey overcoat; he was always impeccably dressed. He decided go down to investigate. From above we could hear the echo of his booming resonant voice. The young fella, feeling the presence of an authoritative figure took him for the police, apologized profusely and promised it would never happen again. He never inquired as to the identity of Gerry Doran but assumed by his composure that he must be someone in authority. Amazingly his presence in the guise of a police detective put a stop to the whole thing immediately. This, after all, was the day of Lugs Branigan, a notorious member of the Irish police force and the scourge of juvenile delinquents in Dublin City in the 60’s. He said about three or four words in that deep baritone of his and it was all over. The young man wormed his way up the stairs and out into the night. It was just like those old English detective shows on television in the sixties.
When it was all over I hopped on my bike and cycled home only to be stopped at O’Keefe’s the knackers by the real police in a squad car wanting to know what I was doing out at that hour of the night, 2 am. This happened every time I worked late. The police were always from ‘the country’, they would question me and then let me be on my way.
We also had our fair share of characters who had their own names. The grillroom chef was a very jovial and overweight person who was named ‘Billy Bunter ‘, the Italian butcher who, to make sure no one took his tea, would spit in the cup was called ‘Luigi’ I think. Then there was the arthritic and incomprehensible old Irish butcher by the name of Ed Hughes. His Clery’s name was Edward G. Hughes (a reference to Edward G. Robinson) because no one could understand a word he said.
Gerry Doran’s sous chef was his complete opposite. His name was Eamon, he had a constant frown in his face and absolutely no presence or charisma. I think I may have seen him smile once during my time there. He always seemed to be worried about something and never spoke except for the business at hand. I don’t think they liked each other very much. Gerry Doran would make fun of him when his back was turned.
Eamon’s main responsibility was to prepare Mr. Clery’s Irish Stew. The old man would come into the restaurant every Thursday and his Irish Stew always had to be there for him. Mr. Clery was also from ‘the country’. Eamon spent the better part of the day preparing his Irish Stew and great care was taken not to disturb it so it could rest while awaiting consumption. The old man loved it.
For the most part the work in Clery’s was interesting enough. This was where I learned a lot of the butchery skills that would come in handy for the future. As far as real cuisine was concerned it was nothing to write home about. Meat would be delivered fresh from the supplier almost still alive, and guaranteed to be as tough as nails. The purchasing was done by some unknown person who obviously did not have a clue about food. They would not allow the chef to order the food. This was the time of big kickbacks in hotels between the chefs and the vendors.
A frequently heard phrase regarding the customers were concerned was that " we would never see them again". This was meant to prompt the carvers to cut the roast beef as thin as they possibly could and to cut back on the portions and costs as much as possible. They were country people who came up on special buses and trains to do their shopping in Clerys and not be back for quite a while. Even then I thought this was a terrible way to treat paying customers / guests.
I stayed there for about 2 years I think and look back at the time fondly. I was sad to see that it had closed and all the workers were laid off.
My next step was on to The Gresham hotel which was just up the street from Clerys and another new adventure started. It is well documented on this blog. I worked with Paddy Roberts / Pastry Chef and Eamon Cunningham / Pastry Chef. Paddy Roberts also played for Shamrock Rovers. Eamon’s nephew became one of my best friends after we met in London 3 years later. It’s a small world. Our story is on my blog under Noel Cunningham.
Many, many years later I came home to Dublin from abroad where I had been working for a couple of years. I had a job lined up in Paris but it fell through. I had to look for something to do in Dublin while I planned my next move. I eventually found something in a place called the Green Isle Hotel and, lo and behold, who was working there but Gerry Doran, my chef from years ago. He was not the chef but he explained to me in his all too familiar rumble of a voice, even after all those years, that he didn’t want a ‘ big job’ he just wanted something to do. The chef of the Green Isle Hotel was someone I had worked with in The Gresham Hotel in the sixties but he did not do me any favors. I think his name was Aidan and from what I remember he had a bad habit of looking at the floor while he was talking to you.
The food and atmosphere of the place was really awful. I stayed one day and realized why I had left the country in the first place.
Food quality in Dublin has greatly improved over the decades as it has all over the world thanks to people like Paul Bocuse, Roger Verge and a host of others. Most have passed away or gotten too old but they were the ones who started what was to become a worldwide awareness and interest in food presentation and quality.