“We are celebrating 5 years today,” says Michelle Crehan-Kavanagh, chef and proprietor of The Kitchen, as a boisterous bunch of figure five gold balloons are ushered in the door. Located on the ground floor of Galway City Museum on the banks of the River Corrib overlooking the famous Spanish Arch, The Kitchen serves delicious, healthy food that combines the flavours inspired by Michelle’s travels with the very best local ingredients. It is clear that over the five years Michelle has built a loyal following. While we chat she flooded with congratulations from adoring regulars, with each of whom she shares a tidbit or enquires after a family member.
Michelle had a varied career path before realising her calling to be a chef. Travelling a lot in her youth, she was an English teacher in Japan, and a journalist in Sydney and Dublin, before coming back to Galway to marry a local man. When her eldest child was born with a heart defect, she put her journalism career on hold to care full time for her daughter. But when the recession struck and Michelle’s husband Mark lost his job, the mother of three had to reconsider her career options.
“But of course, my confidence was down, I had been out of journalism a long time. I thought ‘what am I going to do to earn a crust?’,” Michelle says. Food was always a passion, but it wasn’t until her sister-in-law convinced her to cater for an event that she began to consider it as a career. With two days notice Michelle whipped up a feast with dishes of shredded leg of lamb with a pomegranate and couscous salad, beetroot and goat’s cheese salad with yogurt dressing among others . “I wanted the food to be colourful because it was for a theatre group,” she says.
To supplement her instinct for good food, she enrolled in the Total Immersion Chef Programme in GMIT. “As soon as I put on the whites up in GMIT I knew I had made the right decision. It was the best year of my life,” says Michelle. She gained kitchen experience with like-minded chef Jess Murphy, now of Kai, at Bar Eight, and when an opportunity arose to take the space on her own, Michelle took the chance. Despite having to buy ovens on credit cards, tableware from IKEA and get credit from suppliers she had built relationships with, Michelle established The Kitchen in 2011.
Five years later The Kitchen is woven in the fabric of Galway’s blossoming food scene, and the Galway Food Festival has grown alongside it. “We’ve been here as long as the food festival. It’s been great to see how it’s grown. From tiny acorns, great oaks grow!” says Michelle. “When you think about what was in offer in Galways five years ago, it’s amazing; there has been a total regeneration. Our food culture has changed so dramatically. Five years ago there would have been only a handful of places to eat. Now we have become this place where people come for a foodie weekend. We’ve become a really exciting food city, and really, there is no where that can beat the craic in Galway either.”
Running alongside the commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising, the theme of this year’s festival is ‘100 years of Irish Food’, embracing the food traditions of the last 100 years to inspire a new Irish cuisine. For Michelle, the traditional Irish food methods of slow cooking, stewing and braising are just as valuable in the kitchen today. Though she says our tastes and knowledge of international cuisine has come a long way from the first time her mother put the once exotic spaghetti bolognese on the dinner table. “my father was like, ‘what is this madness?’,” she laughs.
With a multinational team of chefs, from places such as Poland and South Africa, fusing the best of Irish ingredients with international flavours is part of the culture at The Kitchen, where you might find Irish beef roasted served with an Argentinian chimmichurri sauce or an Athenry lamb tagine with prunes and preserved lemon on the menu. “One of the biggest things for us looking forward is that we should be embracing all these new traditions. I love the idea that going forward we will have our own amazing fusion going on. The floodgates have just opened.”
During the Galway Food Festival Michelle will host a demonstration titled Buttermilk Beauties. On Good Friday at 12pm, with The Kitchen chef Louise O’Neill by her side, Michelle will demonstrate how this magic potion can be incorporated into marianades, corn bread, buttermilk salad dressings, an upside down pineapple cake, and even your Christmas turkey. Buttermilk is a staple in Michelle’s kitchen, where she uses Cuinneog Natural Buttermilk, produced in Castlebar, Co. Mayo to brine meat, resulting in succulent chicken thighs, tender pork belly, and finger lickin’ Korean fried chicken. “It’s great because the acid in buttermilk breaks down meat fibres,” explains Michelle.
Later that evening Michelle is hosting a Recipe Swap and Fruit Cake Competition in The Kitchen. “Because it’s 100 years of food and we are in the museum I wanted to do something really inclusive for the community,” says Michelle. “I have invited the ICA, Slow Food, all the active retirement groups around. Basically we are throwing the doors open and my daughter will sit with a printer and computer and we will type and photocopy the recipes as they come in. They will be hung on washing lines throughout the restaurant.” “It’s a way of archiving recipes that are important to people. Really we are only ever borrowing recipes, passing stuff down from Granny and Auntie Mary.” Tickets for the event are €5euro, with all proceeds to COPE Galway, prizes for the best fruit cake and spot prizes.
Whether it’s through sampling The Kitchen’s worldly, wholesome fare, or meeting Michelle to learn about the wonders of buttermilk, or to swap your granny’s scone recipe, this Galway Food Festival make sure you factor in some time with one of the champions of food in Galway, Michelle Kavanagh.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.