Chef Aisling Stone imparts her considerable knowledge of cooking and presentation this week.
I’m originally from Arigna but my parents moved to London when I was four years old. We moved back when I was twelve and when I was twenty I moved to Spain where I lived for seven years and met my husband, Peter. In 2008 we decided to move back to Galway so that I could study to be a professional chef at GMIT. Peter and I moved to Leitrim in 2012 and have found the warmth of the people to override the rain. After working in Lisloughrey Lodge, Kilronan Castle, the Coach House and the Oarsman I decided it was time to strike out on my own. I now run a food trailer at the farmer’s market at the Bee Park in Manorhamilton and the Grass Roof cafe at the Organic Centre.
What gets you out of bed in the morning, what inspires you?
I have ADHD and chefing has turned that around for me; I put all my thoughts and energy into what I’m going to cook this week, and the next week, and the next… my last head chef, Seamus Thompson, said that being a chef is not a choice, it is a calling and I can’t describe that any better. I get an idea in my head and I can’t WAIT to get up and put it to work. Sometimes, like this week when I have put sweetbreads on the menu, I know there might only be one or two people who will appreciate my idea but that one or two will make my day.
What was the first thing you cooked and what age were you?
From the age of four when my parents moved I spent most of the day being minded by “Cookie”, an old London lady with many stories of the war who could make a feast out of anything. I remember watching a children’s programme about pints of cockles at the beach and Cookie sent me down Streatham high street to the deli to get some and we cooked them in vinegar. I made the ladies in the deli laugh- what a weird kid!
Do you refer to cookbooks or chefs memoirs?
I have a ridiculous number of cookbooks. If they even contain one decent recipe they are worth their weight for me. I have a great one from the seventies from members of the WI which has ideas on long forgotten dishes, I love Elisabeth David’s almost novel like books that make you want to go shopping, Dirt Candy by Amanda Cohen which is in comic book style, Magnus Nilsson’s Faviken which I couldn’t put down and kept me awake thinking of how his philosophy could be applied to Irish cuisine. But my favourite is Eleven Madison Park which nearly brought me to tears with the beauty of Daniel Humm’s dishes. There is also a very useful section in the back with recipes for gels, sorbets, butters and purees which I refer to constantly. You don’t have to follow recipes in books exactly as long as you understand the ingredients and cooking processes; you can make them your own.
Your menu at The Grass Roof is very cutting edge and yet comforting, tell us a bit about how you draft up your weekly menus?
My menus are normally pretty much worked out a week or two in advance. I look at the weather, current affairs, seasonality and event the general mood of the population and try to orchestrate something relevant. I have some very odd dishes but also include some plain food cooked well using great ingredients. I also love to include products from local suppliers such as Chef Sham’s Sauces, Bluebell Farm organic jams, Jordan’s Atlantic sea salt, Sean McMorrow’s burgers and locally sourced vegetables from our own land, Reggie’s Veggies and of course the Organic Centre.
How involved are you in the Slow Food movement?
I’m the leader of Slow Food North West and so far I’m the only working member of the convivium! I started the group because I could see that we in Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal have so many exciting food producers, farmers and tourism businesses that I thought we should all have an opportunity to promote ourselves and network with each other. We have had some great events and there will be a big one coming up in August or September- a cruise on Lough Gill with an island forage. Keep an eye on the website and the facebook page for updates.
You grow and utilise a lot of your own food at The Grass Roof and for the van. How much time a week do you think you spend from garden to plate at your chosen field of work?
Actually my husband does the gardening as I have black fingers of death. We only have two acres and most of that is occupies by sheep, chickens and, occasionally, pigs. We have a polytunnel, a greenhouse and some newly prepared outside beds, as well as some forest area where we have planted wild garlic and a few edible weeds. Even with such a small area it is a huge amount of work and gardeners have my utmost respect.
Is it worth it?
There are times when you get knocked down; everyone has an opinion and sometimes they don’t see the bigger picture but on the whole it’s great to see people pointing and talking about the food on their table. I like to think that I can offer them at least an experience that they won’t have had anywhere else. It is very hard work but so is stacking shelves in a warehouse, at least I am lucky enough to do something that I’m passionate about.
Do you have a favourite restaurant or Coffee shop?
My absolute favourite is Kai in Galway. The last time I ate there was a couple of weeks before I started in the Grass Roof cafe and it totally changed my thinking on what I was going to do there. Closer to home I love Miso in Sligo and Cafe An Bia Slainte in Manorhamilton. I’m also super excited to see what Ethna Reynolds will do at her new place opening in Collooney next week, Nook.
What are your five essential larder items and who makes/supplies them?
First and foremost James Jordan’s amazing sea salt from Donegal, the peat smoked one in
particular which I hope to nominate for the Ark of Taste at the Slow Food Terra Madre celebrations this September in Turin. The White Hag brewing company in Ballymote produce beers that I think reflect exactly my food; Joe Kearns makes sour ale which pairs with fish, dark, treacly stout for braising beef and smoked ale for pork. Never before have I tried a beer and immediately the little hamster in my head hops up on his wheel and starts running for his life. Wild garlic is in season at the moment for a very short time and it’s such a pleasure to harvest it on the very day that it will be served to my customers. Hans and Gaby Wieland taught me how to make kombucha and I’m having a lot of fun fermenting things with it. It’s a probiotic that works with liquids to basically make them fizzy and awesome. Lately Tina Pommer has been foraging for me and providing fantastic local roots and plants for me to use at the cafe such as wild pea, goose grass, watercress and willow herb. What a wonderful opportunity to create dishes relevant only to this place and time right now.
Talk us through a typical working week for chef Aisling Stone.
It’s not really that exciting! Monday is spent in recovery from the weekend- normally I can’t even remember my own name… Tuesday is shopping in Sligo and menu planning,
Wednesday I write up the menu and prepare ice creams, sorbets and sauces, Thursday I’m in Carrick buying vegetables from Reggie McNulty and visiting my friends in the Oarsman (my old bosses are so very kind to advise me on business), Friday I’m at Manorhamilton farmer’s market and finalising prep for the weekend and early Saturday morning until Sunday evening it’s up and at ’em, full speed ahead and all guns blazing at the Grass Roof cafe.