ON HOME GROUND Pat McEllin is delighted to be back cooking up a storm in his native Balla. Pic: Kathy Lyons
Name: Pat McEllin
Occupation: Chef/owner of Oxtail restaurant
RIGHT now we’re busy preparing our restaurant, Oxtail, in Balla for re-opening after lockdown and trying to figure out how to do it.
It’s going to be tricky, because what is and what isn’t allowed is changing every week, and for good reason too. So we’re still going with the two metre social distancing, which means in our restaurant, which has 28 seats, we’re cutting it in half, numbers wise.
There’s no groups allowed to avoid the place becoming too cramped and a two-hour time limit is on each table, which means we’ll try and do it with two or three sittings if needed. We’ll also be doing takeaway food from when we open on Thursday, July 2.
Of course safety is our number one priority. From the girls on the floor to the guys in the kitchen and our customers, that is always at the back of our mind.
So we’re weary of people coming in and how their mindsets are after lockdown – that’s if they come in at all!
Before my partner Rebecca and I opened up Oxtail, it was a small bit of a risk opening in a small village like Balla. But we did our homework and it has been brilliant. The location is perfect; Claremorris, Kilitmagh and Castlebar are all within ten minutes, so we knew we wouldn’t have to completely rely on the people of Balla. So being right in the heart of Mayo, we knew customers could get to us relatively quick and it has built up traction all the time and we’re still getting people who are only hearing of us, which is brilliant in one sense.
I left Balla 18 years ago and to be honest I never thought I would came back. When I met Rebecca ten years ago, we went and worked in Galway for eight or nine years and then did a year in Westport.
Dream come through
But then you get to a stage in your life when you’re doing cooking and working front of house like Rebecca, that you say, ‘Right, let’s make the plunge and do it ourselves’, so this really is the dream for us.
And we’ve been very lucky. We knew the kitchen was there and Donagh Gilmartin of The Shebeen has been brilliant to us since we set up. But the community has really embraced us too, which isn’t always the case in a lot of places.
So being honest, bringing a French brown-eyed beauty back to Main Street, Balla was never the plan! But it worked out. It’s a bit surreal to be operating a business in the shadow of the old castle on Main Street where my family operated a business for many years. I think my parents are proud.
My life has always been about cooking, cooking, cooking – I love it. In terms of cooking, experience is huge. The basic fundamentals of how to do things never changes, but you learn techniques and experiences along the way. It’s so important to always be willing to learn new things, picking up different tricks from people along the way.
Our menu is seasonal and you have to see what your customers wants, as opposed to cooking for yourself all the time. You look around you at what’s going on in the world, what is growing outside, what cuts of meat the many brilliant local butchers near us might have that might be aging and ready.
Tried and tested
So it’s basically a tried and tested method at what works and what doesn’t. But it’s a very satisfying job, which we do because we love it. When people compliment us on a great meal, or on how they love the place or that the girls were brilliant on the floor, it’s rewarding.
I can’t wait to open the doors again. We’re going to be back next Tuesday and Wednesday to starting cleaning and tidying up the last few bits, before getting the whites on and tearing into it.
It’s going to be different going back. In one sense it won’t be as busy and it will take time to figure out what works and how many customers are coming in and out. The regulations are going to be more difficult on smaller restaurants, especially with the VAT rate that recently went up. I think bringing it back down to 9 percent would be massive for restaurants and it needs to be sorted out. We’re also expecting a baby, so life is going to be busy. Long may it last.
In conversation with Ger Flanagan
If money was no object, what would you do everyday?
Most unusual thing you have eaten?
It guess it would have to be crickets and other insects in Cambodia
Favourite place you have visited?
What makes you nervous?
Watching Arsenal playing at the minute!
Name three celebrities you would invite to your Zoom party?
Matt Luca, Michel Roux Jr and Ian Wright.
Best advice you ever got?
Never substitute brandy, butter and cream
Three things always in your fridge?
Butter (Irish!), Branston Pickle and Sriracha sauce.
Most prized possession?
My collection of cook books
Sum up the coronavirus in three words?
Reflective. Scary. Solidarity
Last book you read?
Sober, by Tony Adams.