A love letter to the Quay Co-op after 40 years of great food

My former “career” as a chef in professional kitchens began at the age of 15, in a fast food restaurant in the city of Cork. I learned nothing about the food and its cooking as all the ingredients arrived frozen and the service was automated to a point 90° north of the fool.

However, I succumbed to the adrenaline rush of service and although I formally trained for an entirely different profession, cooking in various ‘proper’ restaurants, mainly in London, became my fall-back job when times got tough. over the next decade. – and the 80s were largely fat free for this particular soldier. I returned from London in 1989, taking a global recession with me to kick off the 90s. Soon I was back working as a chef at the Quay Co-op.

The Quay Co-op, which has just celebrated its 40th ‘anniversary’, is a beloved and iconic institution in Cork, but it was viewed very differently 40 years ago. Then it was seen as a hotbed of radicalism in a deeply conservative Ireland, still handcuffed to the church, and quickly became a touchstone and sanctuary for young people growing up with anything remotely resembling a social conscience. and an alternative point of view.

There was also a cooperative-run health food store and a full day vegetarian cafe. Although the buffet menu sometimes embodied the stereotype of ‘serious hippie vegetarianism’, more virtue than vice, it was healthy, tasty and, above all, very cheap, supporting a generation of Corkonians. In 1988, a young Corkman, Denis Cotter, took over, refining the menu. In 1989, he added evening service to the menu. The old room on the first floor, elegant and effortless, turned out to be even more atmospheric by candlelight, the excellent food, an epicurean delight which turned out to be vegetarian. It was soon a hot ticket in town.

It is common knowledge that Cotter’s next step was to open Café Paradiso, now internationally recognized as the first restaurant to marry vegetarian cuisine with fine food delivery. The Quay Co-op night restaurant continued under a succession of chefs until the day I was duly anointed the next.

I was to stay for two years and of all my days in restaurants this is the closest I’ve come to describing ‘restaurant’ and ‘colleagues’ as ‘home’ and ‘family’. Eventually, however, I grew tired of the unsociable hours, exhausting night rhythms, and enforced distance from family and friends outdoors and left hospitality forever.

Nearly three decades later, I’m sitting down to my first evening meal at the Quay Co-op in a long, long time. The always beautiful room is very neat following a post-pandemic makeover, the old buffet counter is now gone, the whole restaurant is now served at the table, day and night. On a gloriously sunny May evening, the view from our window seat, over the South Lee River Canal and beyond to downtown, is the deep, comforting balm I had not realized that I needed. An ecstatic litany of memories surges forth, of endless work followed by evenings relaxing after the service, drinking wine, talking, laughing, even dancing; and form friendships, some that have lasted ever since.

Spousegirl wasn’t in my life then, but she is now and she’s got a hunger that won’t tolerate any nostalgic pretense, so we immediately order a mezze board and a cheeky vegetarian version of a shrimp cocktail. , a first look at an upcoming three-course menu from the 1980s, also including vegan glory panties and Cinzano, all for… €19.82. The ‘shrimp’ is actually tofu, which doesn’t quite echo the venerable crustacean’s marine umami, but with its own punchy notes and pleasant chewy texture, with vegan mayonnaise, tangy cherry tomatoes and fresh lettuce. Mezze is an exercise in assembly more than home cooking: artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, hummus, dolmas, grilled almonds, olives served with pitta with seeds; two very good organic Languedoc wines (Domaine Bassac Circulade Chardonnay and La Marouette, Pinot Noir, imported by the always wonderful Mary Pawle), and we’re really starting to roll.

I estimate I must have cooked several thousand vegetable tempuras in the back kitchen, but I still relish this elemental exercise in flavor and texture, first introduced to the Quay Co-op by Cotter . Seasonal vegetables (tonight broccoli and red pepper) stalks and slices, dipped in tempura batter, fried until crispy, served with tamari and deliciously tangy pickled ginger.

The difference between the vegan burger and the veggie burger is the melted Knockanore cheese and the chipotle salad, made with egg mayonnaise. This difference is why I could be (and was, for 15 years) a vegetarian but never a full vegan. The black bean patty needs more bite but is flavorful and dressed in sun-dried tomato pesto. The nice homemade ketchup next door is for… fries?! There’s something almost sacrilegious about serving fries at the Quay Co-op, where brown rice and wholemeal roux were once revered, but then again, who can turn down a fry?

My own main course is an emotional choice rather than a logical one, reminiscent of when we put roast nuts on the Christmas menu. Quay Co-op’s current vegan nut roast is an extremely popular retail item, sold in the thousands every year. It’s a well-made and flavorful comforter, with soft textures intertwined with delicious nuts, adorned with rich and powerful red wine, shallot and garlic sauce. I add a big dollop of sentimentality on the side.

The baked desserts have always been a highlight and the frangipane mixed berry and almond tart is cost effective, while the raw vegan cocoa and avocado cake is superb, rich, gooey, cocoa flavor oscillates between bitter and sweet, precisely the dish to convince naysayers that ‘vegan’, ‘raw’ and ‘delicious’ can all cohabit in the same sentence. The creme brulee is solid, with pleasant ginger almonds.

We are the last to leave; I must be treasured in the joyous embrace of “the other country” which is the past. Our meal was very pleasant as always, honest and tasty, without trying to change the world and the evening was truly memorable. Forgive me if this has been more of a love letter than a review, but it felt so good to come ‘home’. Happy birthday, Quay Co-op!

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