“People don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes half the time and everybody has a story. You don’t even know what your customers are going through. But when they come in, you greet them, make them feel comfortable and give them a good food experience, and hopefully they come back again. Be personable and create a warm, friendly atmosphere to work and to entertain.”
These are the words of Carol Walsh, who owns and runs Chameleon Restaurant with her husband, Chef Kevin O’Toole. Open for 24 years, Chameleon has grown and changed with every challenge and each passing season, much like the restaurant’s namesake would.
We called it the Chameleon because of me changing from so many careers and styles and such”, Carol says and it’s a pretty accurate description. Carol is the kind of person with whom you’re instantly captivated by. As quite the traveller myself, I could have listened to her tales from Asia and beyond for hours.
But she’s also quite a passionate and driven business woman and always was, perhaps even before she knew it herself. Explaining how this tall and quirky building became Chameleon Restaurant, she recalled her time teaching yoga and dance in the 80’s:
“This was the Jane Fonda era and I was also very much into vegetarian food and healthy eating, so I opened a little coffee shop here called Celery. So, I taught my classes upstairs (which is also why we still have dance mirrors upstairs) and the coffee shop was downstairs”.
Over the years, the café took over from the dancing and, while travelling around Asia in the early 90’s, Carol met an Irish-Indonesian chef who was based in Dublin. The two joined forces and opened Chameleon as a pop-up for a couple of weeks. The rest, they say, is history:
We wanted to do something different, so we decided try an Indonesian Rijsttafel and had only planned on keeping it open for a few weeks. But within six weeks of opening, we’d won the Best Restaurant in Temple Bar award. All of a sudden, we had people queuing up to come in.
By 1996, the pair dissolved their partnership. He went off travelling and Carol, well, she took over the business. Meeting Kevin through mutual friends at a wedding in 1997, the couple, who never intended on working together, fell in love and in 2002, they welcomed their son Max.
“We hadn’t intended on working together at all”, Kevin says. “The idea came up a few times, but when our son came along, it made sense.” Kevin joined the Chameleon family and worked front of house for about 3-4 years, but he had an itch that needed to be scratched.
I just had a desire to get into the kitchen and cook. I forgot how much I loved cooking when I was a young teenager. I used to cook a lot.
“I re-found my love of cooking, so I wangled my way into the kitchen to work with the other chefs. That was a challenging 6 months, but I got into the kitchen and my confidence grew. While I was in the kitchen, I went back and studied for three years at IT Tallaght. I’m also doing their masters now too.”
Shortly afterwards, Kevin took control of the kitchen because “it was the right time. The other chefs moved on and I wanted the food to progress so I took full control of the kitchen.”
Describing the food on offer in Chameleon, Kevin explained: “The food here has changed and evolved so much over the years, but it’s always made from scratch. We’re very particular about that.”
The meats are all Irish, from fresh Irish fish to free range chicken. We import the pieces because lemongrass won’t grow in Kildare – we’ve tried!
“We’re an Indonesian restaurant, but if I prefer a Malaysian version of a dish that’s also cooked in Indonesia, that’s the one I’ll do in my style. I even brought bao onto the menu. There’s variations of them in Indonesia, but they come from other places like China.”
Expanding their original Rijsttafel offering (which they still serve in set menu form), Chameleon also has some exciting dishes on their tapas menu, with Carol explaining: “We don’t want people to feel like they can just come in because it’s their anniversary. The idea of tapas and making it street is that people can come in and get a quick bite instead of a big set meal.”
He adds: “Even with the baos, I’m very particular about them. We don’t open Mondays and we spend 9 hours making baos for the week. The difference is it costs 4 times more to make it from scratch, but it’s absolutely worth it and so important.”
Carol wholeheartedly agreed, maintaining that “the quality of food has to be a good product and you have to make it in-house. That’s our core. You won’t survive unless you keep changing (as a chameleon would change) and diversify.”
Curious as to Carol’s fascination with Indonesia above all other places, she happily revealed that she loves “all of south east Asia and I love the Hindu experience. The people are so friendly and the food is excellent.”
I think Irish people are great explorers. We come from a small island and the minute you get out and see something completely new and different, it just opens your mind and it’s never closed. Even If you look at our house you can see Indonesia all over it.
Speaking about what they love most about their job, Kevin said he loves “a busy service that goes really well and there’s a good vibe in the kitchen”, while Carol loves meeting the customers:
“I love the buzz when everything is flowing just right and everything smells fantastic and people are happy. The tiredness at the end of a Saturday night can also be delightful.”
When asked what it’s like working with each other, Kevin laughs saying, “it’s a joy”, before getting serious and stressing the importance of “ground rules”:
“We made mistakes early on, but we realised that we don’t talk shop at the dinner table. It’s not fair on the kids so if we have to talk shop at home, we step into the office. We keep it separate as much as we can.”
Carol chimed in, saying: “It can definitely be tricky. Initially we said no because it can be bad for the relationship, but we realised we had no choice if we didn’t want to outsource the children to minders all the time. I think it’s very important though to have two separate roles.”
She added that Mondays are usually the days where “we have our little tiffs as it’s an office day”, but maintained that in the food industry, “you may have a hard service but at the end, you shake hands. If you need to let off steam, you leat off steam”.
Kevin and Carol have such a playful relationship, which is amazing especially given how long they’ve been together. Speaking about their little tiffs, Kevin jokes, saying that “fortunately, I’m very calm” while Carol, also laughing, adds: “You’re the calm on and I’m the fiery one”.
With a business that’s been running for as long as Chameleon Restaurant has, it can be difficult to pick out a single highlight, or even narrow it down to five. Nevertheless, I pressed the pair for theirs, with Carol saying: “I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved. I opened this up with 250 Irish pounds at the time and I lived on the top floor. I went with instinct rather than a business head.”
I’m also really proud of what Kevin has done, because I got to the stage where I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. I think if I was to close down tomorrow, I’d say we did a great job and I’m proud of us.
Echoing her sentiments, Kevin added: “Carol’s created a great place and I’m happy with what we do here. We’re not fine dining, we’re a really good casual restaurant and we’re decent value for money.”
One thing I’m particularly proud of is something that many wouldn’t think about. A lot of people started working here maybe 15 years ago. They came from eastern Europe or Asia with nothing. They were looking for a new start and they got it here. Now, they have houses and families and it’s a good feeling. They could have gotten their start anywhere but it’s nice. Basically, just try not to be an asshole in life.
With their 25+ years in business, Kevin and Carol are the perfect people to ask for advice, whether you’re an aspiring chef, business owner or anything really.
“Create a team. If you’re going to open a restaurant and if you’re the chef, have a partner that’s front of house and have another partner that’s possibly an accountant and work as a team. Also, treat your staff well. It’s not all about how much you pay them. People want to feel valued, so say thank you to them.”
Carol agreed, saying: “We wouldn’t have gotten a holiday this year if it wasn’t for our staff. We managed to get two weeks away this year and that’s because the staff said ‘look we can handle it, we can manage and look after everything’.”
She also stated that her number one tip is to “trust your gut and go with your instincts, but do your accounts because the books never lie. If you can’t pay your staff or your bills, you won’t survive.”
Life and business are both filled with a number of ups and downs, with Carol remembering one particularly difficult year, one which almost made the pair call it quits:
“2008/2009 was a disaster for everybody. There were restaurants closing not just every week, but every day. So that was a massive challenge for us, especially as we had just had a baby and I was diagnosed with breast cancer as well.”
That year was crazy because we still had to work and I had to have nine operations and go through treatment. And Kevin had to hold the baby and run the business, so that was a really challenging year. It was a nightmare, very close to a nightmare. We almost gave up that year. But thankfully that’s nearly ten years ago now.
Smiling, she added: “But we made it and kept a smile on our face. We didn’t tell too many people. Family and friends helped but we didn’t put it out there because we were afraid people would go ‘oh well she’s on her last legs, we won’t go near her’. We were afraid it would actually turn people away, but you have to keep the happy face on.”
Kevin, who had been silent and thoughtful, simply nodded his head in agreement before adding that “you just have to get on with it”.
Looking to the future and Carol confirmed that they’re “definitely not going to go away”, with Kevin teasing that “we’ve been toying with the idea of getting a food truck for festivals and such, but that won’t be until next year”.
Most importantly, this impressive duo, who can’t help but instantly like, are “going to keep doing what we’re doing. We’re busy and we’re hoping to stay busy”.
Sarah has always had a great love of travel, food and photography. Following her journalism degree at DCU, she developed a passion for travel writing while living in Spain.
Named Best Break Out Travel Writer at the 2018 Travel Media Awards, Sarah loves exploring new places and sampling the local cuisine. Working with TheTaste.ie combines her love of food and travel.
A big people person, especially when it comes to hearing other people’s stories, Sarah loves interviewing chefs, food producers and more.