In the kitchen

Cork chef Dan Guerin on kitchen stress, Michelin stars, and the fish he calls ‘prince of the sea’

The 28-year-old aims to ‘keep the place busy and the boss happy’ at Cush, the restaurant in his home village of Ballycotton

Dan Guerin: “I don’t want Cush to be a super-formal place.” Picture: Diane Cusack

At any given time, there’s usually a stand-out ‘buzz’ restaurant on the Irish food scene. Somewhere new opens, word of mouth builds, critics flock to it, customers follow and the restaurant gets to bask in the limelight.

Usually, however, places like this are located somewhere relatively easy for lots of people to get to, in cities like Dublin, Cork or Galway - and not, for example, at the end of a working pier down a narrow street in Ballycotton, a small village in east Cork.

Yet that’s exactly where you’ll find Cush, where chef Dan Guerin and his team have been attracting diners from all over the country. The restaurant is named after the Cush, an old pathway from the top of the pier to the cliff and comes with a stunning view over the harbour and out to sea. The small dining room is one of the best appointed in the country and the food is similarly impressive, which explains why Cush was awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand earlier this year.

“I think we’ve had critics in from every major paper in Ireland at this stage, and thankfully they’ve liked what they’ve found. It’s a fantastic help in filling up the book far into the future. We are now quite heavily booked right into August and September,” Guerin says.

“Is there pressure? Yes there is, but if not now, when? When I came on board here for the relaunch and rebuild of the restaurant three years ago, I was 25. and I’m still only 28 and am able to work hard so why not?”

The kitchen at Cush is typical of those found in a new breed of Irish fine dining restaurants. It’s a relaxed and calm working environment, with none of the shouting and acting out that might have been found in high-level kitchens in previous times.

This is a deliberate move on Guerin’s part. He recognises that he and his staff spend as much time together as they do with their families, and work life balance is everything in terms of performance.

“We spend 60 hours a week working together, so why would you not want that to be a pleasant and rewarding time? I don’t want Cush to be a super-formal place. This is a team effort, and I want the people who work here to be comfortable and relaxed. Some stress is fine, but I don’t want this to be a stressed place,” he says.

The dining room at Cush Ballycotton, with views of the lighthouse and the coast. Picture: Diane Cusack

On the menu at Cush are dishes such as seared West Cork scallops with boudin noir, parsnip and vadouvan-spiced sauce, and main courses like roast saddle of wild Irish sika deer with salt-baked beetroot, pickled trompette mushrooms with lentils, juniper and a black pepper game sauce.

For fish lovers, there’s grilled fillet of wild Irish turbot with organic purple broccoli, salt-baked celeriac purée and a seaweed butter sauce, pickled mackerel in a blood orange and elderflower dressing, and lots more as Guerin takes maximum advantage of his seaside location.

While he isn’t from a long line of chefs, his family has been involved in the industry in one way or another for a long time in the Ballycotton area.

“We were always very rooted in the countryside. My Dad was involved in fishing and working on boats, and between them, he and my grandfather ran Atlantic Shellfish for around ten years, supplying fresh oysters in the area. The company is called Rossmore Oysters now, so between that experience and game shooting, we were always close to the source of great produce in this area,” he says.

“But I was the first person in my family to be interested in cooking, and I fell into the job more than anything. Like lots of others, I started as a kitchen porter for a summer job when I was a teenager in Sage in Midleton, and things developed from there.”

Before taking over at Cush in 2019, Guerin worked with Garrett Byrne at the Michelin-starred Campagne in Kilkenny.

“He encouraged me to enter the Eurotoques Young Chef of the Year competition and I ended up in the final, which meant a trip to Italy,” he says. “He also used to occasionally bring a group of us to London to eat in Corrigan’s of Mayfair, and in other places he rated, and we had a blast. I loved living in Kilkenny for the three years I was there.”

The move back to Ballycotton came from an urge to be located closer to home.

“I was three years in Campagne and learned a huge amount, but basically all Michelin-starred kitchens are the same in that they demand long hours with early starts and late finishes. You get a couple of days off but one of them is spent recovering, so you really only get one proper day,” he says.

“Both myself and Shelly Tobin, my girlfriend, are from east Cork. We wanted to be closer to home so we decided to move back here, and shortly afterwards I got a call from Pearse Flynn, the owner of Cush and a few other properties in the area.”

There had been a restaurant in the same location, but Flynn, another Ballycotton native who owns Green Rebel, the marine tech company, decided to overhaul the premises and build a new business in the same spot.

The kitchen was stripped out, the dining room rebuilt and bedrooms upstairs were overhauled. Guerin was brought in to oversee the food, and Cush was relaunched.

“It was a completely fresh start, and really I think our best days are ahead. We were delighted to be visited by Michelin and it was a thrill to have what we do and the value we offer recognised with a Bib Gourmand, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’d love to see that become a star one day,” he says.

“But sure look, you can’t do that on your own, you have to build up a team around you. For now the goal is to keep the place busy and keep the boss happy, and so far it’s going well.”

Chapter One: “I couldn’t speak highly enough of it.” Fergal Phillips

Dan Guerin’s favourite five

1:The restaurant

The best dining experience myself and Shelly have ever had was in Chapter One in Dublin. We’d been to The Greenhouse, where Mickael Viljanen was cooking previously maybe six or seven times. The food was always amazing but the location wasn’t ideal. Chapter One is the real deal, I couldn’t speak highly enough of it.

2: The hotel

Carton House in Kildare is very, very good. I love the tranquillity of the place. Yes, there are great hotels in Dublin but they’re mostly in the middle of the city; Carton House is in rolling parklands. There’s something different about it right from the drive in across the golf course. It does an excellent breakfast as well.

3: The ingredient

Wild Irish turbot. It’s the prince of the sea and I’m very lucky to have two excellent suppliers in Ballycotton Seafood and in Union Hall. We brine it, portion it and lightly cook it on a plancha until it’s lightly golden, and then finish it under the grill. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and it’s perfect.

Björn Frantzén in Restaurant Frantzén on Stadsholmen Island in Stockholm: “His book is gorgeous, but there’s lots of interesting reading in it too.” Picture: Leisa Tyler/LightRocket via Getty Images

4: The cookbook

I’m currently loving The Frantzén Book by Bjorn Frantzén. He runs the only three star restaurant in Stockholm, and he has a sort of Nordic-Asian hybrid style of cooking. It’s a gorgeous looking book but there’s lots of interesting reading in it too.

5: The kitchen gadget

We were lucky enough to recently get a Pacojet 2+ in the kitchen and I’m kind of obsessed with it. It’s a high-tech ice cream machine that micro-purees deep frozen foods into ultra-fine textures. The only two major things we bought in before now were cheese and ice cream - we’re not about to start making our own cheeses, but now we can make our own top level ice creams. We’re having lots of fun experimenting with it.