Let’s Do Lunch With Sallyanne Clarke

Over baked hake at L’Ecrivain, SALLYANNE CLARKE steels herself for an EMOTIONAL FESTIVE SEASON

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Sallyanne Clarke and her husband Derry own L’Ecrivain, the Michelin-starred Dublin restaurant. She is also president of Ireland’s Blue Book.

Every lunch is a matinée, every dinner a full performance.” The playhouse in question is less a theatre in the round than in the corner: the historic corner of Dublin that is L’Ecrivain restaurant, the razzle dazzle mistress of ceremonies, Sallyanne Clarke, who with her husband Derry created the gourmet production. “It’s all about giving people the experience they’ve been expecting,” she says.

A taste of La Dolce Vita is the dream: Clarke’s classic glamour helps make it a reality. But somewhere in here too is the chapel of ease which transformed the anguish of Christmas four years ago into a bearable ache for the Clarkes. At what point did their public buoyancy transcend their private pain? And is the secret in the restaurant?

If the showbiz analogy seems far-fetched, consider this: Hollywood bad boy Mel Gibson, after a ten-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film festival last month for his film Hacksaw, his official coming in from a ten-year freeze, said: “It’s like being a chef. If people eat it and go ‘Yum yum,’ it’s gratifying.” Who knew good food could be so cathartic?

There’s no doubt that food and entertainment are part of the eternal verities of this season. But Sallyanne Clarke doesn’t deal in sentimentalities. Untypical truths turned out to be her thing. When I complimented her on her fresh complexion, she cheerily announced, “Oh, I get the vampire facial,” thereby becoming the first woman I’ve interviewed – met, even – to admit to the tiniest procedure. When I asked how L’Ecrivain survived the recession, she eschewed self-pity: “We lost all our savings. But this place gave us the savings in the first place, so it was right to put it back.” And most telling of all, when I asked how she and Derry cope with Christmas, anniversary of their beloved son Andrew’s death by suicide, her answer was stunningly simple. “We run away.”

The five stages of grief are well documented. Those who know grief know a sixth: the stage at which escaping the barrage of painful memory is essential for survival. Christmas is the crucible of memory. “I don’t talk about it very often. When your child doesn’t drink or party, you don’t worry. We think it was his first time doing drugs. He was coming down, the dangerous time.”

Their brief respite is in no way a denial. Their commitment and work for suicide charities, like Teenline, keeps them connected to their loss. And to Andrew. “Even before Andrew died, Derry had done cycles for Console. When the scandal broke, he was devastated.” That too passed.

She’s insightful and funny. Donald Trump, she says, got the earth-shattering Mexican wall idea from Doonbeg and the plan to build a wall to protect his golf course from erosion. “He announced Mexico very shortly after Doonbeg.” She’s pragmatic about walls herself: when the corporate world got anxious about conspicuous consumption during the bad days – “We weren’t more expensive but we were seen to be more expensive,” – they built a wall, a corporate dining area. Now “people like to be seen again.”

She believes Bill Clinton didn’t support Hillary – not really. “I have just completed my first year as president of Ireland’s Blue Book, which was a challenge. Derry was joking, calling me El Presidente, but then he said ‘I’m so proud of you.’ That matters more than anything else.”

Bill’s charisma, however, is not in doubt. “I met him when he was here. While he was shaking my hand, he was rubbing my back.” I mention a conversation I overheard between his secret service men, perplexed at his habit of doubling back in a crowd if he missed an outstretched hand: it made their job difficult and they couldn’t figure how he saw everything. “It’s because he’s tall,” she says. As she is. “It’s an advantage to be tall. You can look over all the customers – see who’s not eating, who’s uncomfortable, which pregnant woman needs the cushioned chair. ”  She points to a mezzanine, rather like the gantry on a film set. “We encourage the staff to go up there and look over the restaurant. Because it’s the little things people appreciate. Like noticing if it’s someone’s birthday even if they haven’t told us. It takes three minutes for a pastry chef to write happy birthday in chocolate on a dessert. And they remember it. “When people recognise me outside and say ‘Aren’t you the girl from the restaurant?’ I love it.”

Our own menu choices were dictated by my bout of sniffles. If that disappointed her epicurean plans, she didn’t show it. Warming velouté of potato yielded to baked hake, followed by a spicy poached pear. She tempts me to another dessert of Tonka bean tart and I need no convincing. Feed a cold, they say – sure isn’t it medicinal? The medical excuse appeals to her.

The art of front of house, she believes is “like a bedside manner – you can’t teach it.” Clarke could have been born to it. “I’m a shopkeeper’s daughter. My mum had a boutique, my dad had a sweetshop. I’d worked in hospitality, I’d had my own agency. And marketing
is my baby.”

Before she took it on, “Derry would be working all hours. I’d come in and there might be maître d’ problems.” Working together was the solution. And working together became their salvation when the terrible tragedy struck.

“This place kept us sane. A lot of people depend on us. You don’t get over it, you work it out.” This Christmas will be a cruise where others will entertain the Clarkes. After that, the show will go on. And putting on a good show is another term for courage. 

Anne Harris

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