The Seafood Interview supported by BIM

BIM Seafood CircleMarilyn Bright talks to Geoff Jones, owner and head chef of The Fairways Bar & Orchard Restaurant near Nenagh Co Tipperary, of the joys and challenges of running a rural restaurant specialising in seafood

Passion for good food and looking after his customers comes barreling out of Geoff Jones from the first moment of contact. His enthusiasm and energy have seen The Fairways Bar and Orchard Restaurant through, as tough years of recession have hit rural business with particular force.

Bought six years ago, just before the downturn, the premises was “run down, and in the middle of nowhere outside Nenagh, but it had a lot of character and I could see it just needed a bit of love,” Geoff recalls. “It was well known locally as ‘The Lucky Bag’ because of some Irish Sweepstake win in the past, but it needed a new identity and a reputation that would be built on food rather than drink. I’m interested in all kinds of good food but I’m really passionate about fish, which is unusual in the middle of Ireland and nobody was serving much around here at the time, so I decided that would be an interesting speciality, a real point of difference between us and other businesses in the area.”

Fish on the Pass at Fairways RestaurantWith a new name inspired by the neighbouring Nenagh Golf Club, The Fairways was smartened up to provide a warm and inviting atmosphere while retaining traditional elements such as the glowing fireplaces and old stained glass. A comfortable dining space was created and christened The Orchard Restaurant, while the kitchen was geared up to serve up to 120 covers between both bar and restaurant.

Geoff’s father worked in stainless steel fabrication with Masser Hammond, so remembers being in and out of professional kitchens from an early age and it was a natural progression to train at Cathal Brugha Street. Experience in some of Ireland’s great classic kitchens followed, and he likes to do things right. Quality food made in-house is the foundation of Geoff’s menus, with special pride taken in the homemade breads, pastas, terrines and ice cream - and, of course, the fish. “Instead of just ordering from a fish supplier, I go to Rene Cusack in Limerick two or three times a week to choose fish straight off the trucks as it comes in, so I’m sure of getting the widest possible choice and at its freshest.”

The menus at The Fairways Bar and Orchard Restaurant are highly unusual - especially for a restaurant so far from the sea - in that they offer a huge range of fish and seafood. While there will be less choice in winter, there may be 15 to 18 different species offered at certain times of year, although probably not all at the same time. And something else which you won’t see often is that the approach is very flexible, with menus changing every day and an amazing amount of choice offered to customers, not only in terms of the fish itself but also the way it is prepared and cooked. Geoff likes to show customers the fresh fish and give them the option of how they’d like it done - filleted or on the bone, steamed, baked, pan-fried or finished with a flavoured sauce or butter - the choices seem to be endless and nothing is too much trouble.

Menus for the day are only decided each morning and Geoff confesses to enjoying the challenge and to encouraging "a bit of passion and originality" from the other chefs in his brigade. He’s a firm believer that the awards on the door are only as good as the chef in the kitchen and he has regular sit-down sessions with staff for reviews and brainstorming new ideas. "I have to say our chefs love what they’re doing and the chat in the kitchen tends to be less about football and more about what Heston Blumenthal was doing on television last night.”

Geoff’s chefs are cautioned not to put anything on a plate that they wouldn't be pleased to eat themselves and, when issues arise about a  customer's food, they’re not allowed to hide behind kitchen doors. “It’s  not fair for the front of house to take the flack if there's a problem concerning the food.” The upside for Fairways chefs was this year's Christmas present from Geoff — a master class in Derry Clarke’s kitchen and dinner that night in the Michelin starred L'Ecrivain.

Prawns on the pass at Fairways RestaurantAlthough Geoff is proud of the team he has built up at The Fairways, he professes to being a bit disappointed with the current training in catering colleges. “There’s more to professional cooking than just opening packets - fish doesn't come out of the sea in neat little fillets. You need to get the full experience, handle fish, know where it's coming from and how to keep and prepare it.”

Fortunately BIM have recognised the need for helping chefs and others with an interest in developing their practical skills in this area, and they offer hands-on “Fish Handling and Filleting” workshops in Clonakilty, which are facilitated by Hal Dawson, an experienced trainer and filleter who has worked in the industry for many years.

The workshops cover a wide range of skills, including species identification, hygiene and safety, safe knife handling and a variety of filleting techniques. The next two day courses, which are each restricted to six participants, are beginning 28th January and 4th February (for further information visit, or call Lorraine O’Byrne 01 214 4185).

At The Fairways, Geoff has a very hands-on approach to fish handling too - and at least one intern has learned that the boss’s convictions are more than mere rhetoric when he was sent off on a trawler for a day's fishing and experience filleting fish straight out of the briny.

Local produce like the Tipperary reared Piemontese beef ( is always on the menu too, and the latest project is the adjacent acre that Geoff has taken to install a polytunnel and grow his own vegetables, herbs and salads.

"Everything is aimed at creating a good experience for customers. We have a baby grand piano and live music at the weekends, as well as themed events like French or Mexican evenings. It takes real effort to get people out in these challenging times but we try to attract customers with quality and by offering something different, especially through our seafood cooking. And we offer a complimentary Daimler service that local diners can book at weekends, so they can relax and enjoy their evening out. People may be only going out every three weeks instead of every two, but we've seen our customer base growing and that makes the hours you put in worth the effort."

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