It is quite remarkable that one of the top and most innovative chefs in Ireland started his culinary career making lollipops at the tender age of 12 while burning many saucepans and teaspoons in the process.
This was Cedric Bottarlini's baptism of fire into the ever changing world of culinary art.
Cedric is the new executive chef at the 5* Lough Eske Castle hotel and is already bringing a lot of innovative dishes to the already well established eatery.
In an exclusive interview with Donegal Life, Cedric spoke about his early life and his love of Ireland.
From an Italian/Spanish background, the young Frenchman spent the early years of his life in the city before moving out into the countryside on the Swiss border at the age of ten.
He said, “I really am a country boy at heart and that is probably why I have such an attachment to Donegal.
“We were a large family and we did all the things that Irish kids do - roam the fields picking berries, climbing trees, robbing orchards - there was just so much freedom.
“I got into cooking with my brother in the most basic of ways - we used to get sugar, put it on a teaspoon or into a saucepan and caramelize it in an attempt to make nice syrupy lollipops. To be quite honest we burned more spoons and pans in all our efforts but at the same time it developed an interest in cooking for me.
“With all the berries and apples we were collecting we tried our hands at baking all sorts of tarts - life really was an adventure in those days.
“You can imagine an old rural cottage with plenty of green fields and loads of kids running round collecting wood for the fire and helping restore the building - it all sounds very Irish when I think back now.”
Cedric's father was a chef and his grandmother was also a great cook and by the age of 14 he had decided that the hospitality world was for him - “It was in my blood.”
He embarked on a hotel management course in one of the top management colleges in France and one that was to prove very beneficial to him in later years.
“This was learning the trade in the old fashioned way - you were a kitchen porter, you carried luggage, you cleaned toilets - putting it simply, you worked from the bottom up and you had to be prepared to do everything that you expected your staff to do.
“This followed through to the whole business side of things - administration, financial and marketing - you had to be an all rounder.
“Things can be somewhat different today regrettably where after a year or two people arrive into the business with a sparkling white hat or a crisp shirt and tie - it's not like that - you have to know this business inside out.”
Cedric spent his college placement years in Finland, Sweden and then in Ireland where his love affair with the country began.
“I ended up in the middle of the country at Glasson Golf and Country Club near Athlone and from day one I was hooked on the country. The genuine friendliness, the welcome it was just all so refreshing after the more 'stilted' lifestyle in urban France. It was idyllic.”
He then returned to college in France but it was not long before he was back in Ireland at the beautiful Ballynahinch Castle.
Cedric and I both had vivid (and painful) memories of this great hotel - it was indeed a very beautiful place surrounded by trees and rivers but the “midges would eat the head of you”!
The love of trees, lakes and rural Ireland took Cedric to Cromleach Lodge in Sligo before he decided to widen his management experience in Jordan. “This allowed me to focus on both the management and creative side - I had 84 chefs working under me and it really afforded me some great opportunities.”
Ireland's call remained strong and Cedric was back in Ireland again at the helm of the prestigious G Hotel in Galway.
“I loved the city - it is colourful, very bohemian but at the same time the call of the country always beckoned.
“When the opportunity arose at Lough Eske Castle I sort of knew it was for me. I had never been to Donegal before but everything about it just gelled with me, the wide open spaces, forests, hills and mountains, the genuine friendliness - I just felt immediately at home.
Cedric continued, “Lough Eske was really the icing on the cake - here I met a great team of welcoming and unpretentious people - people whose goal was to ensure that nothing was left to chance but people who could do this in a totally genuine way.
Asked what his vision for 'the Castle' was, ge said: "The Castle is already a tremendous place with a truly great team. Of course I want to bring my own personal touch to add to this. We all have a goal here to deliver the message loud and clear that Lough Eske Castle is Donegal's hotel.
"It is for everybody - just like walking into your own sitting room but not having to do the wash up afterwards.
“I want to introduce some changes to our bar menu and perhaps make it more 'woman friendly'. The dishes on it are great but I want to add some lighter and more delicate dishes to enhance this.
“I also want to develop the whole afternoon tea trade - with the surrounds here, what better way to spend an afternoon than with a nice walk through the woods and around the lakeside wrapped up by a nice afternoon tea by a burning log fire?”
With his insatiable love of nature, Cedric has this two year plan to introduce some elements of nature into his whole concept.
“I want to use many natural elements as possible in the whole presentation of the food and also use as much organic produce as possible.
“Let's face it we are here in Donegal surrounded by forests, mountains and are home to some of the best grazing pastures in the country.
“I would envisage using wooden and marble slabs as much as possible to add to the whole organic texture of the great food that is available to us.”
Cedric added, “As a chef my responsibility is not to educate but to please the customer. At the end of the day it is the customer who pays all our wages and we must be very conscious of their wants and needs.
“A top class steak still represents 50% of my sales and I am not going to even attempt to break this Irish eating habit - however, I aim to enhance it with my signature 'Tomahawk steak' which essentially is a large rib of beef cooked on the bone and served for two people. It is proving unbelievably popular."
“People often ask me what my own favourite dish is and I will have to confess it is the best of Donegal lamb. I call it the 'Lamb Journey' and served it as a rack accompanied by Pomegranate, Yoghurt, Mint and Almond. It is absolutely beautiful."
Launch night tonight (Thursday)
“I am looking forward to meeting so many Donegal people here tonight in the castle at the launch of our new menu. I am very excited about the whole concept as are the whole team here in the hotel.
“Everybody has had an input into it - the sales staff, the KP's up to Sean Carney, the General Manager. I suppose we could call it a menu by consensus - I really am confident that it will prove popular with our guests.”
After the lengthy chat Cedric took advantage of the good Donegal weather and went off for a good hike through the surrounding Bluestacks with his wife Merlyn.
“This is my way of relaxing in Donegal, I always come back with new ideas.”