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‘It is a bit scary’: How the couple behind Homestead Cottage won a Michelin star

A young Scottish-French couple who opened a restaurant in Doolin just seven months ago have made a rapid entry into the Michelin Guide 2024

A fire is blazing in the stove, the candles are lit, the tables set and the wine glasses shining. John Prine is putting the world to rights on the speaker and there are delicious aromas wafting from the kitchen. It could be any pre-dinner-party moment in time, that sweet spot where anticipation sometimes meets anxiety. But it is not. It is the first dinner service at Homestead Cottage in remote Doolin, Co Clare, since its young owners, Scots-born honorary Irishman Robbie McCauley and his French wife Sophie, were awarded a Michelin star.

Just 10 guests are booked in for the nine-course tasting menu, which has gone up in price from €85 to €95 in the three days since the restaurant made its debut in the influential Michelin Guide in Manchester on the first Monday in February. The increase is justified. “We had to put our prices up a little bit. To be honest, we haven’t really been charging enough,” says Robbie. Price doesn’t seem to be a factor for the restaurant’s many new customers, 400 of whom made reservation inquiries the day after the awards ceremony, with a further 200 bookings, emails and calls the following day.

It is a lot of business for a small restaurant, especially one that has just reopened after a winter break with only three full-time staff members – Robbie in the kitchen, assisted by sous chef Bryan Bridgeman, and Sophie holding the fort front of house. “We space them out, three tables every half an hour. Bryan is very good at coming out with snacks while I look after the drinks,” Sophie says. “We all work together, it’s the only way it’s going to work. Now, I think we can focus on fine-tuning a few things,” Robbie adds.

The chef, who has an Irish mum, from Ennis, Co Clare, and a Scottish dad, did his training in Edinburgh and London and worked at Michelin-starred Campagne in Kilkenny, before becoming head chef at nearby Gregans Castle in the Burren. He is a prodigious talent in the kitchen, whose motto “Grown not flown” is at the heart of his food philosophy. Sophie, at 32, a year younger than her husband, is already an industry veteran, having begun her hospitality training in Burgundy as a 15-year-old, qualifying first as a chef then moving into front of house. She came to Ireland originally on a college placement, to perfect her English, and fell in love with Westport first, and then Robbie, who she married in 2021.


The three small diningrooms in their 200-year-old former stonemason’s cottage can seat 35 guests, at tables made from teak floor boards, mounted on old Singer sewing machine table legs. There are Luogh stone flags on the floor, and hand-painted dressers hold bottles of wine, glassware and decanters, as well as memorabilia, and jars of jams and chutneys, for sale. A well-worn copy of Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery, liberated from Robbie’s mum’s kitchen years ago, sits among a collection of cookbooks.

The decor is eclectic, from family portraits and paintings, to posters picked up on a trip to Vietnam. All were transferred from the house the couple live in nearby, during the hectic six-week period from taking over the premises and opening for business in June of last year. “There’s not much artwork in the house now,” Robbie says. Some of the green-painted ladderback chairs with rush seats are draped with tartan rugs with the name of the restaurant embroidered on them, a gift from one of Robbie’s sisters. There are a couple of antique Michelin tyre advertising plaques dotted around, sourced in France by Sophie’s dad, who is a mechanic.

There are only 10 diners on the guest list tonight, who will feast on Hegarty’s Cheddar Welsh rarebit; Flaggy Shore oysters; Moher crab; Connemara scallops; Aran monkfish; Burren beef, and two dessert courses, one with blood orange, Jersey cream and meringue, and another with chocolate, whiskey and coffee. Although the number of diners with reservations is up from the four who were booked in ahead of Monday’s news breaking, the couple resisted the temptation to fill every seat from the get-go.

“We closed for lunch and said we wouldn’t push too much for today,” Robbie says. But by the weekend, the numbers will have reached capacity. “The gears go up now. Saturday lunch and dinner is full, Sunday lunch is 70 already, and we will start at one o’clock and go till seven.” Part-time staff have been drafted in, and a recruitment drive is under way.

In the minutes before the first guests arrive, Sophie tells me about her day. The couple have two daughters, three-year-old Louise and Iris, who is seven months. “When we wake up really depends on the kids, but we have to leave the house at nine o’clock to drop the girls at 9.30am.” Twice a day they drive 30 minutes to Inagh, where their childminder is. They have been on a waiting list for a local creche for 3½ years, since Sophie was three months pregnant with Louise.

Back at the restaurant, they work through until collection time. “We do lunch and then, at three, we have to leave for the pick-up. Sometimes Robbie will do it, to spend a bit of time with them. We are back in the house at four, getting ready for dinner and whatever, like ironing the napkins. Then we have a nanny coming at six, so I am out the door and in the car, back here, usually until 11 or 11.30pm. It’s a long day,” she says.

Five minutes early for their 7pm reservation, the cottage door yields to the squally rain and wind outside, and the first guests of the evening arrive, saying “I hear congratulations are in order.” It is a familiar refrain as the evening unfolds. The guests include industry colleagues, owners of a prominent Co Galway restaurant, who come bearing celebratory Champagne, and the owners’ neighbours, celebrating a birthday.

Answering questions from the diners, Sophie recounts the highlights of their extraordinary week with charm – yes, they did go to the ceremony; yes, the celebrations were mighty; no, they did not know in advance that their invitation meant they were getting a star (it could have been a green star for sustainability). “We’ll never be able to eat here again, we’ll never get a booking,” one table say, congratulating themselves on having booked on Sunday, before the news broke.

Sophie’s favourite thing about her job is being able to have the craic with the guests, and on Thursday the craic is mighty, meaning it is after midnight when the couple get to wind up their first day as a Michelin-starred restaurant. The next day, preparing to do it all again, they reflect on their route to Michelin recognition, and what it might mean for their fledgling business.

They first saw Homestead Cottage last May, in the weeks immediately after Robbie left his job as head chef at Gregans Castle, where they met and married. “It was love at first sight,” says Sophie, although it took a while for them to become a couple. “Sophie started the year I left Gregans for the first time. I was down in Kilkenny but I kept coming back, so we met a couple of times at the bar, and then I was invited to the end-of-year staff party. Then, when I started back at Gregans as head chef, she had actually left. So it was fate that she came back.”

After his time in the kitchen with Garret Byrne at Campagne in Kilkenny city, Robbie worked as a private chef, cooking in a €120,000-a-week ski lodge in Verbier and crewing on superyachts, including one based in the Mediterranean with three kitchens on board and seven chefs and a kitchen porter among a staff of 100, catering to a maximum of 12 guests. Meanwhile, Sophie was spending the summer seasons working at Gregans Castle and her winters indulging her passion for travel.

Those freewheeling days must seem like a lifetime ago for the couple, who now spend their days anchored to their business on its hilltop site overlooking Galway Bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. The cottage was previously a pizzeria, and before that a cafe and, when they first saw it, they immediately recognised its potential. “We had six weeks between getting the keys and opening; it was all last-minute,” Robbie recalls. “When we came in, we really liked the bones of the place. I think we both are quite good at looking at something and being able to see what can happen. I think we took a week to say yes to it.”

There was no time to spare. Baby Iris made an early appearance on June 16th and the restaurant opened on June 28th. “I was meant to be on bed rest [for placenta previa], but we arrived at the hospital and I had paint all over me,” Sophie says. The first few weeks were quiet, Robbie says, mentioning that when Irish Times restaurant critic Corinna Hardgrave visited, she and her dining companion were the only guests. “I went out and apologised for it being so quiet,” he says, while not recognising his incognito guest. “Things blew up then the minute it [the review] came out online. In July and August, we were full every night.”

Hardgrave saw the potential for Michelin success from the outset: “Sometimes you just get a feeling about a place. When everything feels right. The beautiful room with the patina of years, the cookbooks on the sideboard, the quality of the food on the plate that clearly is not just seasonal, but was grown, tended and prepared by someone who is so at one with the beauty of it. The service, the chat and the feeling that this is something very special. A place you tell people about, to book now, before everyone knows about it,” she says.

Sure enough, the Guide’s roving inspectors pitched up not once but twice in the ensuing summer weeks. “We knew we had two visits and they were in the space of about six or seven weeks,” says Robbie, who can spot the telltale signs of a potential Michelin visitor from his time at Campagne and at Gregans Castle. It was a single male diner in both cases. “The first guy was very pleasant, very talkative, asking lots of questions, but didn’t make himself known. The second guy was quite reserved.”

Fast forward through a fairly quiet late autumn and early winter for the restaurant, with the exception of the period between Christmas and new year when the influx of holiday homeowners to the area kept them full for lunch and dinner every day, and then came the news that they had been waiting for: an email invitation to attend the Michelin Guide 2024 awards ceremony.

Robbie and Sophie travelled over to Manchester from Cork Airport on an early-morning flight, after just two hours’ sleep, not knowing whether they were to receive a star, or perhaps a green star for sustainability, both prestigious industry accolades, but only one of them potentially life-changing. The warm-up started with lunch with some of the Irish contingent at Hawksmoor steakhouse in the city. “Plenty of soakage and a few drinks to try and settle the nerves,” Robbie says.

The nerves were unfounded. A few hours later, Homestead Cottage joined D’Olier Street in Dublin and The Bishop’s Buttery at the Cashel Palace as Ireland’s newest Michelin one-star restaurants. The congratulations were quick to flow, from industry colleagues, customers and suppliers. It is the suppliers that Robbie is most keen to share the success with. “Our job is easy at the end of the day, if we are able to get great produce.” As well as growing some of his own vegetables on a plot near the restaurant, the chef has an enviable network of food producers, growers and fishermen. “It has taken the bones of 10 years getting to know people and building relationships. When we opened, they were the best; the butcher turned round and said `don’t come near us to pay us for six months, until you’re set up’. That’s unheard of nowadays.”

The restaurant’s success is a source of pride in the locality. Donal Minihane, managing director of Hotel Doolin welcomes the news. “A Michelin star in the area is just going to push standards higher and inspire our young chefs and bring more visitors to the area. I’m delighted for Robbie and his team who really backed themselves and achieved this with very little resources available to them. They put their faith in the local ingredients and their talent, hard work and commitment shone through.”

The Michelin Guide has its roots in France and, for Sophie, the star comes with considerable gravitas. “It really means something for French people. It is a bit scary. I always do my best, but now people know we have a star. Yes, it’s going to change for us, there is more pressure.” The couple enjoy working together at Homestead Cottage, and are highly effective collaborators. “We love it, but I know it is not for everyone. I think we have found a nice way to work together.”

Robbie agrees. “I think we’re lucky – it works for us because we know each other’s strengths. And we’re quite open to talking about things,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, it can definitely be frustrating, but I think because Sophie knows me so well, she gets it, she understands why I am getting frustrated. I definitely wouldn’t like to have done it with anyone else.”