If Richard Corrigan asks you to join him for a bite to eat, you better turn up hungry, ravenous even. On the rainiest day of the year, the gardening team at the chef and restaurateur’s Viriginia Park Lodge in Co Cavan is gathered around a communal table in a polytunnel where a peach tree and an apricot tree share space with a vintage soft-top Mercedes.
The sports car is a little the worse for wear; Corrigan drove it over from London a while back, and somehow it stayed in situ. But the fruit trees are spectacular, heavy with fruit just waiting for summer warmth to ripen them. “Daphne Shackleton [the garden consultant and botanical artist] says that’s the best apricot tree in Ireland,” Corrigan says proudly.
Above the trestle tables, made with wood salvaged from a dance floor in the main house during its renovation, a trellis of vines has exploded into life. The grapes it will produce will be turned into verjus for the Corrigan Collection restaurants in London, as well as the kitchen at Virginia Park Lodge.
Corrigan bought the 18th-century hunting estate in 2014, having celebrated his wedding with his wife Maria there in 1991, back when it was The Park Hotel, and embarked on an extensive and ongoing restoration of the property, which now functions mainly as a wedding and corporate events venue and market garden.
There's a magnificent trout from Lough Sheelin sizzling on a barbecue manned by executive chef Eoin Corcoran, and a table laden with salads from the garden and bountiful bowls and platters of delicious-looking food. What was supposed to be a light lunch at which Corrigan was to talk about plans for his new restaurant in Dublin 4 — he has taken over the former Shelbourne Social in Ballsbridge — has turned into a full-blown feast cooked mainly by the wives of Syrian and Moroccan gardeners working on the estate.
Lobna Chamor has prepared a magnificent fish version of the Moroccan pastilla, with prawns, cod and calamari beneath the pie's burnished filo pastry topping, and a Moroccan chocolate cake. Nahla Al Mohammad and Rahma Al Mohamad, who came to Virginia from Syria as refugees, have made lamb mandi, Arabian chicken, Syrian vegetable salad, and an array of desserts including barazek (sesame pistachio cookies), qatayef (tiny dumplings stuffed with cream and nuts), and baklava.
I always associate Dublin restaurants with a big hug and a big hello at the door
As well as the estate's head gardeners, Priscilla O'Reilly and Joanne Malone, the guests around the table also include a cosmopolitan group of young WWOOFers, volunteers gaining experience through the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms movement. Two Ukrainian refugees have also recently joined the VPL staff to work in the house. A friend of Corrigan's quietly mentions that in the case of both the Syrians and the Ukrainians, the chef went and sought them out himself, inviting them to join the team.
“They’re lovely people, I hug them all. I genuinely like their company. It’s about respect both ways. It doesn’t work if you just think you’re getting labour. You have to understand their culture and respect their culture and vice versa,” Corrigan says.
He’s big on hugs, this charming, eloquent giant of the London restaurant scene. Talking about his plans for the former Dylan McGrath restaurant Shelbourne Social, which will be renamed The Park Café, he says, “I always associate Dublin restaurants with a big hug and a big hello at the door.”
Dishing out the hugs in the Ballsbridge premises, which will be a casual, all-day restaurant, will be industry veteran Ronan Ryan. “I’ve known Ronan from the time of his Town Bar and Grill. I asked him to be part of this from day one,” Corrigan says. He is aiming for guests to experience “a warm feeling at that door, where you feel someone knows you, that recognition of names and faces. I think that’s really important.”
A mid-August opening date, in time for the Horse Show across the road at the RDS, is suggested, but Corrigan believes September might be more realistic. He is putting a 60-seat all-weather dining terrace in, and has secured access to a roof garden with views of Dublin Bay “for small parties”. Counter dining at the bar, a Corrigan signature, is being incorporated. But other than tweaking the lighting, no major decorative changes are planned for the diningroom. “I don’t throw things out. If I can get things recovered or renewed, I will. I’m not the guy who buys a skip and throws everything into it outside the restaurant.”
I was slightly immature. I didn’t have the business skin and the hard skin that I have now
He is vague on his plans for the menu, except to say that the produce grown at Virginia Park Lodge will be a big part of the offering, and it definitely won’t be fine dining, which he describes as “a little pool in a bowl”. The premises will work hard, from breakfast to dinner. “I would like to be able to think that you could come for a wonderful cream scone in the afternoon, and maybe have a really nice brunch on Sunday morning, and come with your family and have a pretty polished meal as well in the evening.”
Shelbourne Social opened, with Dylan McGrath’s name above the door, in a blaze of glory — and incredulity about the €120 steak to share — in December 2018. But the expense account diners did not flock through the doors in sufficient numbers, and the pandemic knocked it on the head. “Before I did anything, I rang Dylan and we had a really good chat,” Corrigan says. “He wished me the very best of luck. When you take on a tenancy, some work, some don’t.”
The ones that don’t work can niggle. Corrigan opened a branch of his Bentley’s Bar & Grill on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin in 2008, and exited the business less than two years later, blaming high rents in the city. “We ain’t f***ing Manhattan,” he said at the time. He is sanguine rather than bitter about the experience. “I was slightly immature. I didn’t have the business skin and the hard skin that I have now. And some relationships just inherently don’t work. Sometimes you make a mistake and it’s best to shake hands and move on.”
However, it has been known for some time that Corrigan was on the hunt for another restaurant in Dublin, perhaps keen to prove his restaurateur chops on home ground again. “I’ve always been looking, I’ll be honest with you,” he says. When the Cliff town house, which replaced Bentley’s on St Stephen’s Green, also closed down, he made inquiries about taking on the lease again, “just for the devilment of it”, he says.
Before Covid struck, he was planning to move back to Ireland full-time, leaving the London restaurants in the hands of his elder son, Richie, who is managing director of the Corrigan Collection, which includes Bentley’s, Corrigan’s Mayfair and Daffodil Mulligan, a pub and restaurant in Shoreditch. “We were very much moving back to Ireland. It was imminent, we were looking for a house.” The house hunting was centred on south Co Dublin, and Maria Corrigan, a psychotherapist, had been in contact with Dublin clinics with the intention of setting up in practice here, he says. “Then Covid screwed up the whole situation, because I didn’t know if our businesses would survive in London.”
I’m 58, I’m happy with a few glasses of wine. I don’t need three bottles
Post-Covid, he says business is good again. “We have renewed, rebuilt, spent all our last pennies that we had getting London open again and thriving.” His eye is now firmly back on the Dublin restaurant scene, and on filling what he sees as a gap in the market. “I think Dublin is really well represented for tasting menus and Michelin stars. There’s no question about it, there’s fantastic stuff going on. I’m not too sure about the whole middle part.” He mentions The Ivy, “which would be the antithesis of everything I believe in, you understand, everything. But I do like the glamour, I do like the noise.”
Glamour, and the clamour of a busy restaurant, seem very far distant from the tranquil, rain-soaked gardens and woods of Virginia Park Lodge as I accompany the boss on a tour of the estate he calls his spiritual home. There are formal gardens, but by and large, the place has the feel of a working farm, with four acres of vegetable gardens, a hay meadow, and areas left to grow wild for regenerative purposes. A mountain of produce from the vegetable beds and polytunnels used to be driven to London every week, to supply his London restaurants. “But Brexit screwed us,” he says.
For someone who left school at 15, Corrigan knows an awful lot about a lot of things. “I read all the time. I like things that have meatier substance in them. It opens doors, it opens imagination.” He is not averse to a bit of poetry too, but music is where his affinity lies. “I flew into Ireland a few weeks ago, got in a car in Dublin Airport and went straight down to Wexford, to a little pub on the coast, in Carrick on Bannow.” His mission was to hear concertina player Cormac Begley perform, having seen him in Mám at Saddlers Wells, which he describes as “this modern dance thing with west Kerry music to it. It was spine tingling f***ing brilliance of a new order. And I didn’t want to see him there again. I wanted to see him in a pub. I like to listen to things. I like drinking things. I like eating things.”
So is he still a party animal? “No, that’s over, I’ve done it all.” He says he’s trying to look after himself a bit more. “I’m 58, I’m happy with a few glasses of wine. I don’t need three bottles. Because I just don’t know when to go home. That’s the problem. That’s been the problem all my life. I didn’t want to leave the party.” The secret to a great party is, he says, “a good mix of people who potentially could dislike each other at the drop of a hat”.
Virginia Park Lodge certainly throws a good party. Its wedding business is booming, with four booked on successive days during the week I visited, and up to 100 guests staying in the lodge, in self-contained courtyard cottages, and in 12 dinky, fully-equipped shepherd’s huts or trailers, in the grounds. “We normally only do one or two a week, but because of Covid there’s a backlog. So you could say we’re busy, busy, busy.” He describes the weddings as “a very important part of our business, because there’s no way we’d be able to renew this estate if we didn’t have that kind of income coming in.”
It wasn’t always thus. “Oh, God, the first two years here, it was very tough. I used to look at the diary and there was absolutely nothing in it, empty months. London supported here up to 2016. And then from 2017 onwards, it started just being able to wash its face and stand on its feet.”
He has talked in the past about the financial burden buying and restoring Virginia Park Lodge put on him, and his other businesses. But he was never going to give up on it, motivated by “the fact that my children are in the business and will take it over and lead it forward into something interesting”. As well as Richie, the eldest, there is also Jessica, co-founder of a marketing and PR firm specialising in hospitality, and Robbie, the youngest, who has just graduated from hotel school in Shannon and is off to work at the Maybourne in LA. Will he too come home to join the family firm, I ask? “Jesus Christ, hopefully. Don’t frighten the s**t out of me, will ya,” he replies.
“The wedding business has rebuilt this estate, but one day that will go and there will be no weddings here. And the estate will become something else,” he says. “But I wouldn’t like to think this would become a kind of a fine-dining hotel. I think it needs to be just a beautiful dining room, full of nice things from the garden, a little eccentricity going through the food, a little worldview maybe of everything going on. I’d rather that. A nice cookery school, and a little bit of soulful, wellbeing stuff going on here as well.”
Richard Corrigan on …
Negotiating a deal for his new restaurant premises with the Comer Group They’re big dudes in property and I loved putting them through the meat grinder. Eight years in Cavan has sharpened me up, yeah.
Food security I’m terrified about it and that’s why I keep telling them: grow more, grow more, get out into the fields. That’s what I tell the garden team.
Pizza I’m not against people eating pizza, but it’s not dinner, it’s bread.
Eating well, as costs rise Good home economics and back to basics is a really important place for food right now. Knowing what you can do with a tin of chickpeas, what you can do with a good egg, what you can do with pulses.
Cultural identity I’m Irish abroad, it’s a self-imposed exile, it’s an economic exile, but it’s not a cultural exile because my soul is Ireland.
Restaurant critics It’s not like the Fay Maschler days of 25, 30 years ago, with chefs lined up in Piccadilly Corner waiting for the Evening Standard to come out at 10.30 in the morning. Now, it’s changed, there’s internet, there’s Instagram, there’s bloggers; it’s slightly more muted.
Being a chef The lifespan of a cook is very tight, the window of being successful is very tight and very small. Because after you’re 40, it gets pretty f***ing hard to stand in the kitchen and take that pressure.
Restaurants postpandemic One thing that has come out of the shock, for everyone in the restaurant community, is to realise the fragility of life for us all. And to make the best of it, and to enjoy yourself a little bit more and take more time out.