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Dillisk: Interview With Katie Sanderson

 

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I first visited the Fumbally café in August 2014 and was taken with it from the moment I walked through the door. The view out over the café made me swoon; the food’s simplicity and deep, layered, unapologetically punchy flavours blew me away, and I did my best to take it all in, taking pictures, making notes on my phone, trying as many of the salads and sweet things as I could.

It made a big impression – I wrote a blog about my trip soon after, recreating some of the tastes I had encountered; remembering the colours, textures and atmosphere of the Fumbally, ‘It’s exactly the sort of place I knew I’d love – excellent (and really quite keenly priced) Mediterranean/Middle Eastern food; bright, vibrant interiors and good coffee… It’s the kind of food which makes you feel good (fed; satisfied; nice in your bones) rather than merely virtuous’.

Then for some reason I forgot about the café for the most part, until January 2015, when I went to a talk by Aisling Rogerson, co-founder of the Fumbally, at the Science Gallery. I had been initially planning to make notes to use for a long-ish blog post, but as I listened to Aisling I realised that there was too many things happening; too many new directions; too many names and faces and anecdotes and creative pursuits for just a short piece. I approached Aisling to see if I could do my M.Sc. dissertation on the Fumbally, and while it took me a few weeks to work out what exactly I wanted to look at, by July, the Fumbally, the staff, and the place that it’s in, the Liberties, had got completely under my skin.

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Doing the study brought me into contact with a lot of very talented and interesting people, all of whom have a craft and a passion project alongside – and often in tandem with – their work at their Fumbally. One such person was former Fumbally chef Katie Sanderson, who’s in residence at the café’s recently renovated Fumbally Stables at the moment, working on new flavour combinations and experimenting with old and new food production methods such as dehydration, pickling and fermentation. Katie founded Living Dinners, a raw food pop-up company which has hosted dinners at a Georgian house in Henrietta Street, a garden in Co. Wicklow and the Fumbally Stables, among many other ‘unconventional spaces’ that are ‘twisted and turned to offer a backdrop for a once-off experience’, as Katie puts it on her website.

In 2013, Katie, along with artist Fiona Hallinan, set up a temporary café in an art gallery in Temple Bar as a part of the commemorations for the 1913 Lockout. The Hare took its name from the name of a ship which came to Dublin at the height of the impasse, bringing coffee, tea and sugar to the city’s workers. Something of a moveable feast, the Hare popped up briefly in IMMA and in Paris last year, serving fun, colourful, playful food, with bright pink candy striped beetroot, wooden boards and sourdough bread served directly on the table.

After a stage in San Francisco’s famous Tartine restaurant in autumn last year (where she picked up the fermenting bug, so to speak; learning how to bake sourdough, churn butter and pickle vegetables), Katie returned to Dublin to begin preparations for her next venture, which was to be Dillisk; a search for an authentic Irish cuisine in the West, and a temporary food project in Aughris Beg, Co. Galway.

Dillisk was the word of mouth hit of last summer. John & Sally McKenna commented that if you were to measure the ‘column inches and online traffic devoted to Dillisk before Katie Sanderson even put a plate down in front of someone, you would conclude that here is someone with a mighty cult reputation, who gets attention and respect even before the stoves are lit’. Reflecting on the experience of being at Dillisk, food writer Aoife McElwain recalled the ‘dazzling oranges and bright greens in the food’, noting that the ‘people we eat with and those who cook for us are colourful; even the isolated setting itself has a quietly electric energy’. Darina Allen picked up on these colours too in a lovely piece on her trip to the restaurant, noting that ‘getting there is part of the adventure’, with an ‘enchanting drive through breathtaking Connemara. As you wend your way through the narrow boreens towards Claddaghduff,  montbresia, ragworth, loosestrife and fluffy meadow sweet are in full bloom in the hedgerows  – a profusion of orange, yellow, purple and cream’.

Every night sold out, and while it was very much the trendy place to be in August 2014, it was more than that too. Friends were made; return trips to Aughris Beg were booked and the whole of the Fumbally embarked on a trip down to the temporary restaurant, which was housed in a loosely converted boat shed near the Atlantic ocean.

Located in her partner Jasper O’Connor’s family home in Connemara, Dillisk housed a long table designed and made by This Is What We Do furniture makers Barry Rogerson – Aisling’s brother – and Sam Gleeson, former chef at the Fumbally. Salt and pepper was served in mussel shells, and hand-dyed linen napkins and place mats showing an illustrated map of Aughris Beg, drawn by artist, and school friend of Katie and former Fumbally waitress, Emily Robyn Archer adorned the table. Outside, there was a tandoor oven, dug into the ground, and a vegetable patch, where Katie had been growing fresh herbs and produce for the table for several months before the project began.

After whispers about its return earlier this summer, Dillisk is indeed back for a second year, with all 15 nights of this year’s venture sold out since July. I talked to Katie at length in June about her journey from Dalkey (where she worked as a private chef for a wealthy family) to Dillisk at Aughris Beg in Co. Galway, via Oklahoma, the Fumbally, and Tartine, Chad Robertson’s famous restaurant and bakery in San Francisco.

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Born in Hong Kong, Katie returned to Ireland with her family when she was 11, boarding at St Columbus school in Rathfarnham. 30 of her 60 schoolmates were from Africa, and the country developed a certain fascination for her during her time at school. After a six-week stay in Africa with a school friend called Pim, Katie returned to Ireland and began a three-month course at Ballymaloe, where she learned how to cook. However, while she loved Ballymaloe she felt like she didn’t get as much out of it as she could have, as the tempo of the cookery course felt too similar to boarding school, which she had only just left. “So for me it just felt like I went from one boarding school to another; the same kind of routines. And since I’d only had a wee bit of summer; a little bit of freedom I didn’t really grasp the value of it.”

Next came a stint working as a private chef for a wealthy family in Dalkey, Co. Dublin; a “really crazy world” of private jets and dinner parties, which for Katie was a creative time, but which was “creative under constraint – you know, we don’t eat this, we don’t eat that. And that in itself can be quite fun; to work within those boundaries.” These boundaries pushed Katie to explore the world of healthy eating in a rigorous and thorough way, and she began using the family’s computer to explore and research this burgeoning world, seeking both dinner party-inspiration and ideas for everyday meals with less gluten. As Katie recalls, “I had a little kitchen that was separate from the house and it had a computer in it, so I spent the days trawling through blogs and trying out things. So what I decided was that during that time I was going to teach myself to do things – I needed to use the time and space well, you know? I started to see all this stuff about raw food coming up, and I kind of had no idea that it existed.”

It was through this research that Katie came across a raw food course in Oklahoma, taught by Matthew Kenny. “I found this course, and I had money, and I decided all in about a month or so that I was going to quit; that I was going to over to the States and do this course even though I didn’t know that you could milk a nut yet! So it was really on a whim. Something just told me just give it a go”. What appealed to Katie about this particular course was that Kenny came at raw food from a cheffing background rather than the more common holistic angle, which for Katie is generally ‘too holy’. “For me, food has to be more than just good for you. It has to have flavor and texture as well, and a lot of raw food and vegan food can be really slapdash-y, and I don’t like that.”

It was during this time in the States that Katie first encountered San Francisco’s famous food scene, and, more particularly, Tartine and Bar Tartine, Chad Robertson’s famous bakery and restaurant. “I’ve been two more times, but really I guess there’s just so much going on there in the way of health or nutrition and food, everyone’s just doing their thing. I always get this sense when I’m in San Francisco that they could just take over the world.”

She continued, “It’s just good – everyone has this amazing balanced lifestyle where they’re working really hard but they’ve got time to walk their dog, and hang out with their lover. And that kind of showed me when I was there that I needed to find a place where I had a good relationship with my workmates and my friends and my partner and stuff. So I came back and seven days later I did my first Living Dinners. I did it as a pop up on the street behind Camden Street in this lovely stone building where there’s architects and so on, but on the top floor we did one for 30 friends. I wanted to show people what I’d done when I was over in the States, and I had that like ‘I can do anything’ attitude!”

However this optimism about Living Dinners led to some rather extreme decisions early on. “With the Living Dinners, I kind of started it and all of a sudden I had a business, and…I wasn’t ready. And suddenly I had this money coming in and I didn’t know what to do with it. So I was spending it on like nuts, and plates in Ikea, so anything that could feed what it was that I wanted to do. One time I spent €1500 on organic nuts, which is like twice as much as my car costs. It was 25 kilos of pistachios…I ended up having to make pistachio pesto for all my friends! But it was just that sense of not really knowing what I was doing – kind of scattered; not good. And because I was by myself at that point…I think if I’d had someone with me there would have been kind of a levelness.”

While Katie continued to get Living Dinners off the ground, using Facebook and other social media sites to build a loyal following for the pop-up events, she began working with Fiona Hallinan on The Hare, a temporary café in Temple Bar Gallery. The gallery had approached Fiona about creating food to provide sustenance to artists as part of an exhibition that was taking place to commemorate the 1913 lockout, who then asked Katie if she wanted to come on board too. “It was called The Hare because on this blog called Come Here To Me we found out that ‘The Hare’ was the name of a ship which came to Ireland with tea and coffee and other bits. And when we started we had this idea that it could be a movable feast, because the ship had to move, you know? And The Hare was amazing, but we kind of weren’t really ready for it. Neither of us had run a café before. And again it’s that feeling of being able to do anything, and it’s an amazing feeling and I’m glad to be around people who have that. But it does mean a lot of work. And now if you were to do it you’d totally own it. It’s just that the first time around you don’t even really know what to expect.”

It was around this time that Katie joined the Fumbally too, after first meeting the cafe founders Aisling Rogerson and Luca D’Alfonso at a concert. “It was funny actually because my best friend Emily who worked here and who kind of still works here every so often, kind of flowing in and out, which lots of people do. Emzy said to me ‘you’re going to meet Aisling and you’re going to become really really good friends with her’ and I was like ‘Oh amazing!’ But somehow I didn’t make it to the Fumbally for ages. And then there was a gig coming up here called ‘This is How We Fly’ with this really amazing, eclectic band.” She continued, “Emzy was speaking to Ais, and they always get food for these events and they were kind of trying to get outside people to do it, and Emzy suggested that as I was doing raw food at the time that it would be really interesting. Because the way they are at the Fumbally is so kind of light and upbeat. So I came in and prepared some raw food for it and they asked me if I wanted to do any work, and I was like ‘No, no, no I’m trying to do these raw dinners!’ And the next week they put me on the roster for like one day a week, and then the next for two, and then three, and then I was full-time.” Following a year or so at the Fumbally, Katie did a stage Tartine in late 2014, where she both returned to basics as a chef and refined her own interests and priorities as a cook, taking inspiration from the unusual ways of approaching food that she encountered there.

On her return to Dublin, Aisling Rogerson and Luca D’Alfonso offered Katie a residency at the newly renovated Fumbally Stables. Under this arrangement, Katie caters the increasing number of events which are held at the Fumbally and Stables, allowing her to develop new dishes and additions to the menu, and exploring possible directions for the café. In exchange, she has a room above the Fumbally Stables and can use the kitchens below for her own experimentations. These adventures in food have led to the development of a new range of juice and Kombucha-based drinks for the cafe, and the Fumbally has also started serving a wide range of pickles, fermented vegetables and homemade dairy products, such as butter and a cultured sour cream. For Katie, these new directions (and the increasingly important linkages between staff at the Fumbally and Tartine) point to a new era of collaboration for the café and other like-minded restaurants around the world. “And it’s mad, because I saw some things on social media, one on Twitter and one on Instagram that said the Fumbally is getting more like Bar Tartine, which is really nice…. I think some kind of relationship is going to happen.”

Katie’s own relationship with the Fumbally is evidently very deep, layered and, now, having now lived there for six months, in the attic room above the kitchen, increasingly complex and intense. Indeed, Katie’s living arrangements on Fumbally Lane seem to somehow echo the old arrangement in the Liberties, where local people lived above their place of work, on streets delineating their craft –x Cook Street, Fishamble Street, Weaver’s Street. On how this unique relationship actually works in practice, Katie noted that while being woken at 7am by staff coming in to start making orange juice in the support kitchen below her room can make her feel like she is always in work, with that sense that other people are up making her feel that she should be always working too, she also finds that facet ‘really nice’ – “because when the building’s awake, so are you – you kind of become part of it.” Indeed, this staff connection is of huge importance to Katie, and she evidently derives a lot of comfort and inspiration from her relationships with all of the staff at the Fumbally, particularly Aisling and Luca.

Unsurprisingly enough, this connection carried through strongly while Katie was at Dillisk. “When I was down in Connemara, Aisling and Luca came down all the time, like once every three weeks one of them came down. It was like having fairy godmothers or something and then when we started working, Aisling came down one week to help us; Luca came down; Luca’s dad came down. He lived with us for the best part of a month, and went cockling, and all the rest of it. And then every like two weeks one of the chefs from the Fumbally would come down to help us out; people would come down on the bus and they’d help us waiter or waitress for that week.”

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One of the people who made the trip to Dillisk was artist and environmental educator Emily Robyn Archer, a former Fumbally waitress and longtime collaborator at the café. Emily is also a childhood friend of Katie’s. From the moment that Dillisk ‘first got dreamed up’, Emily was determined to spend as long a chunk of time in Connemara, working with Katie and the project, as she could. “At the beginning of the year I was like ‘Okay, I have to really block up time’ because I know how it happens over the summer, you get busy, so I just said at the onset right! I’m going to be there! So I did that. I went down and it was the whole of August, six weeks. It was a dream; a very hard to define amazing time that we had. I lived on the beach in a tent, a big canvas white tent, and I lived out there, going up and down to the house, and it was just a magic, magic time.”

Emily designed the illustrated map of Dillisk and its surroundings that was used as the place card on the tables, with many guests using it as a postcard, writing ‘I was at Dillisk’ on the back and sending it to friends. On how this map was created, Emily recalled, “We had a kind of ‘Meitheal’ weekend a couple of weeks before Dillisk opened to get everything ready, and we were painting the walls and doing the roof and then I had to go back the next day and Katie and Jas suggested this idea of doing a map and I thought great, so I got a big sheet of paper and I drew out a very basic map, and I asked lots of people who were around – Jasper’s parents; local people from around the area. And I asked what they thought would have to be on a map of Aughris Beg based on where Dillisk was. So I got all these tips from everybody, and all this input, and then that night I stayed up till about 4am in the morning just doing it. And it was one of those times where it just flowed so well. So I just did it in a couple of hours, and they took a photocopy, and that was it.”

The idea of Dillisk being at the centre of a particular landscape; a particularly Irish landscape, came through strongly in conversations with Katie too. “We were picking blackberries; we picked loads of seaweed; samphire; we’d go to pick different types of seaweed two times a week. And you’re totally dependent on the tides. It’s not like you just go and pick up your perfectly shaped courgettes from the Tesco; it’s the total opposite. You can only go and get your dillisk at 11.25am and if you’re not there you can’t get it.” She added, “we knew the name of every single supplier we got food from; as in we knew the name of the person who grew it. Two boats came into Cleggan, and we would be buying fish half an hour later; picking up the fish, almost as it was still moving, and filleting it outside as the guests arrived. And we used pollack all summer because it was the fish that we could get the most of and it was the freshest. For me, there was no way I was going to get monkfish just because it seemed fancy to put on a menu when I could get this fresh pollack.”

This aspect of Dillisk reminded Katie of her time working in a hotel kitchen in Kenya, where she had a window down to the beach and didn’t have to wear shoes to work. “In Kenya, I was able to see the sea, and I picked up fish straight from the fishermen. And in Cleggan I did the same thing. Now the fishermen looked very different, and the boats and everything, but there was an amazing connection.” She also had a very good relationship with the hotel’s proprietor and his family, and it was for her a treasured time.”And when I was sending an email to his wife this summer just explaining how much that time meant to me, I wrote that for years I’ve been saying I wanted to go back to that job and Dillisk was actually the start of being able to go back to that. After years of kind of thinking that I needed to work for families, and then realizing that I needed to work in a community more like the Fumbally, and then making that community something more where you are more in charge of its destiny or something. And I did wear shoes, but I wore flip flops. So it was this really nice connection.”

Two months before her second journey down to the boat shed in Connemara, when the idea of doing Dillisk again was still at a tentative stage, Katie reflected on how her feelings on Irish cuisine had evolved over the intervening year, noting that for her “cuisine is what you make it into. Sometimes I feel like I’ve made a dish with a Japanese influence and a Hungarian influence, but the carrots are from Mick down the road and for me that’s so quintessentially Irish. It’s Irish because it feels Irish; for me, and it doesn’t have to do without.” She continued,”for Dillisk, we were initially thinking of doing it totally Irish – no black pepper, no olive oil. And then we went very much against that and decided we use olive oil, black pepper and lemons, but not much of anything else from elsewhere. And for me, what I’ve kind of realized, was that if I were to do something similar again, I would make it more of the food what I feel like cooking all the time, which is going to be Irish by default because lots of the food is going to be Irish, but there’s also going to be influences from growing up in Hong Kong; influences from Tartine and I think that if I want to put an avocado on the menu I think I probably will.” Laughing, she added, “I don’t know – I might change my mind between now and then; it’s very likely!”

On the subject of places being or becoming destinations, Katie recalled a disagreement she used to have with a friend. “He used to think that you have to find the right location for something; and his definition of the right location was somewhere with really good footfall, and really busy, and right for what you’re doing. So if you’re doing a pub, there’s no point putting it in between two hairdressers. And I used to totally disagree with him – and I used to say that if you build something and it’s really good, and it stands for the right reason, people are going to come to it. And they’re going to go out of their way to do so. And the Fumbally is such a good example of that because it is on some people’s city map, but it’s not on everybody’s, and they make that journey. But Dillisk, I also knew that if we did it right, and we did it for the right reasons and our heart was in it, and we produced something that was good people would come. But we definitely didn’t think that they would come in the way that they did, and that it was going to be so busy and generate so much interest. But I guess it just sparked something in people, and I was so happy about that.”

“We want to go down to the West again, and we’ve been getting loads of emails; and I really love the idea of it. And so many people said such lovely things. Some people said that it was their best meal, and you go ‘really, the best meal?’ And then they say ‘well the best experience’, and we’re happy with that; we’re totally delighted with that. Because I care so much about the food and I’d get my knickers in a twist if I didn’t think it was up to standard whereas other people might be more lax. And also for me it’s about the whole bigger picture; of the journey to Connemara. And people staying in B&Bs in the area and actually saying ‘Oh we’ve booked again for next year in Connemara because you brought us here’…it’s amazing! Hopefully the food was good but we had the simplest set up and we were just doing food that made sense to us.”

Dillisk is on in Aughris Beg until 12 September. Keep an eye on Katie’s website for more of her upcoming events.

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