Maria Archer and Ahmet Dede on turning an old customs house into a two Michelin-starred restaurant
The business partners behind Dede at the Customs House in Baltimore in west Cork say mutual respect has been the key to their success - and they’re not stopping yet
“So sorry,” reads the message from the photographer who’s on her way to meet me at Dede in Baltimore in Co Cork, but who’s running a little late. “The traffic is mental, tractors and Dubliners.”
She needn’t have worried. There have been no awkward silences in the hour or so I’ve been sitting with Ahmet Dede and Maria Archer to talk about how they’ve turned a former customs house in this seaside village into a two Michelin-starred restaurant.
Quite the opposite: they could talk about their business partnership all day, and I could happily listen to them.
In some ways they’re an unlikely pair - Archer with her background in advertising, product design and digital transformation, Dede steeped in food, both in his native Turkey and now in Ireland. But mutual respect has seen them flourish.
“I have great respect for Maria,” says Dede. “She is really hardworking, and has been so successful in her career. I don’t think this place could work if we weren’t on the same page in terms of the effort we are putting in. But we have a very similar work ethic, and that is the key.”
As we chat, the restaurant is gearing up for a busy Friday night. The inside tables are already laid, while Jacques Savary de Beauregard, the new sommelier and front of house manager, is starting to dress those in the outdoor dining area.
In the kitchen, the all-Turkish team are well advanced on prep for that night’s dinner service, and the smells are already irresistible. That evening, they will serve up dishes such as turbot with hot sauce, haddock with wood sorrel and a seaweed cookie, as part of the €160 dinner tasting menu.
Archer may never have envisaged that she would one day run a restaurant like this, but she always planned to open a food business in Baltimore.
“I’ve had a holiday home here for decades, and I’ve always loved it. Even when I lived abroad, it was a home from home,” says Archer, who grew up in Dalkey in south co Dublin.
“I met my partner, Shane Menton, here; he has a boat and he loves sailing, and we both had dreams of living here full time, but in order to do that, we needed to find a way of making some money. I really wanted a cafe and deli - somewhere you could have great coffee and pastries in the morning, then lovely rotisserie chicken sandwiches and sandwiches at lunchtime.”
When the custom house came on the market in 2019, the pair made a last minute decision to buy it.
“I rang Shane and said ‘it’s for auction in an hour, what do you think, will we buy it?’, and he said ‘sure, go for it’, probably never thinking we would actually get it,” says Archer. “But we did get it, so that was it - we had to go for it.”
The property was in poor condition, but having always been a restaurant once it stopped being used as a customs house, there was, Archer says, “a lovely feeling” and plenty of potential.
“We heard so many lovely stories from people who had been in over the years, and who really felt connected to the place,” she adds.
She was introduced to Dede by a mutual friend who had worked closely with him at Mews, the restaurant in Baltimore where he had won a Michelin star in 2018, and he agreed to let her spend some time in his kitchen.
They got to know each other over the course of 2019, and when Mews closed after the 2019 summer season - it would not reopen - and Dede was pondering his next move, he sought Archer out for advice on the nitty-gritty of running a business.
“I know how to cook, but not how to do accounts, or make tax filings or anything like that. I really wanted to do something for myself but I didn’t want my excitement to take over, and end up over my head and totally stressed out over money,” he says. “Maria was great, and gave me really solid advice.”
While Dede was still mulling over his future, a plan was hatched for him to cook two pop-up dinners in the customs house. The menu would have a strong Turkish influence, and Dede’s family were mobilised to organise the delivery of ingredients like Turkish coffee, lentils, tomato paste and spices.
“It was the first time I’d cooked Turkish food in Baltimore, and the reaction was brilliant. I still didn’t know what I was going to do - go to Turkey for a while maybe, or take another job - but once night over dinner, Maria and Shane asked me if I would consider staying in Baltimore,” he says.
It was a simple proposition. “I think I basically said ‘I have a building, and you have all this talent, why don’t we do something together?’. It made a lot of sense to me,” says Archer.
“We knew it would be fine dining, but we wanted to do something different within that space when it came to the customer experience. When people come to Baltimore, they’re on their holidays, outside of their usual corporate space, so the atmosphere had to reflect that. The food and wine would absolutely be at that fine dining level, but it wouldn’t be a starchy, stuffy place.”
This plan was not universally welcomed - Archer remembers someone telling her they “hadn’t a hope” of getting a Michelin star if they went ahead with it - but when the pandemic hit, talk of stars switched to talk of survival.
Like many high-end chefs during that time, Dede began cooking bespoke takeaway meals, not just to bring in some cash, but also to keep himself busy.
“That was important,” he says. “We set up the kitchen, we got our whites on, we came into work with a purpose.”
It was also, says Archer, important for local suppliers to have somewhere they could sell their produce to. “A lot of them were just too small to sell to the supermarkets, so without us, the stuff was basically going to go to waste,” she says.
The on again, off again lockdowns were particularly tough; as a new business, with no trading history, the restaurant did not qualify for any government supports.
One of the few upsides was that they didn’t have to worry about Michelin. “We didn’t think about it at all,” Archer says. “It was all about keeping safe, making sure our families were safe, and trying to keep going.”
That said, when they began to notice a single diner who was particularly persistant when it came to trying to eat in Dede - eventually managing it only after his three initial reservations were cancelled due to lockdowns - they reckoned they might be on the guide’s radar.
The menu the inspector ate was a three course, €70 dinner with just one dessert; two days after his visit, the government closed indoor dining once more.
But it had been enough of a window to secure a star, one that was awarded remotely via a videolink to Turkey, where Dede had managed to get home to see his family for the first time since the pandemic began.
“It was really special,” he says. “It felt like it was meant to be, with my mum and dad there beside me.”
Archer still looks on it as a miracle. “There was so much excitement around it because it had seemed practically impossible,” she says. “The whole village was buzzing, it was just wondrous.”
At this year’s Michelin guide announcement - an in-person event held in England in March - the second star came to Baltimore. Archer was stunned (“I was shaking...crying...my knees were nearly going from under me”), but Dede had felt that things were moving in that direction.
“When your restaurant has found its identity, its personality, and when it’s different to anywhere else, that’s when things like this happen. We’d had such a good reaction from the customers, and that tells you a lot too,” he says.
Is there a typical Dede customer? “Not really, and that’s lovely,” Archer says.
“So far the age range has gone from eight to 97. Since the second star came, we’ve seen a lot more overseas visitors - from Turkey of course, because Ahmet has had so much coverage there, but also from Germany, London, Paris, Holland.”
That extra business means the restaurant will be open for longer this year than Archer and Dede had initially planned. It will close on October 1 for an autumn break, then reopen on October 12. Service will then run through until New Year's Eve before the restaurant closes for January and reopens for the February 2024 bank holiday weekend.
This, Archer says, will have been their first normal year in operation, and will allow them to get a much better overview of the financial opportunities and limitations.
Now firmly setted in Baltimore with his partner Carly and their daughter Aleyna, Dede has plenty of ambition left. “I’d love to see us open a small hotel, somewhere really lovely where the Dede guests could stay,” he says.
It’s a long way from the cafe and deli Archer envisaged as her path to a life in west Cork, but it has, she says, been a true adventure. “We have lots of dreams and ambitions,” she says. “Who knows what we will end up doing here.”