Danni Barry talks to Marie-Claire Digby about The Wicklow Escape
MICHELIN-STARRED CHEF DANNI BARRY TALKS TO MARIE-CLAIRE DIGBY ABOUT THE WICKLOW ESCAPE
“Danni Barry’s culinary talent with brilliant local ingredients and artisan producers make the Wicklow Escape an intoxicating experience. The food is superb and perfectly in synch with the location” Marie-Claire Digby
The Wicklow Escape, with its scenic location and interesting story, caught her eye on Instagram, and she was already familiar with its sister business, The Elbow Room, a yoga and wellness centre in Stoneybatter, Dublin 7. Once she had ascertained that the job wouldn’t involve cooking exclusively vegetarian or vegan food – “that wouldn’t be my forte” – she was definitely interested in working there.
“So I came down for the weekend and cooked for Lisa [Wilkinson, owner of the business] and her friend, and just chatted about what she wants for here.” The two women found they were “saying the same things, which is always a good sign,” Barry says. She took the job as executive chef, and moved to Wicklow, bringing Sarge, her constant companion with her.
By her own admission, Barry is an ambitious person, and the package she and Lisa Wilkinson have devised for the gourmet getaways – they call them forest breaks for foodies – at The Wicklow Escape gives her plenty of scope to flex her chef muscles, while at the same time keeping the offering in sync with the surroundings. “One of the first conversations I had with Lisa, she mentioned all the suppliers that are around here, like Ballyhubbock Farm, Castleruddery Organic Farm and Ridgeway Wagyu, so it seems like a little pocket of real foodie stuff and we would like to showcase that here. When they’re coming to your door with good produce, you know you’re in the right place. ” Much of the produce Barry is now cooking with comes from within a few kilometres of her kitchen.
The two-night, three-day breaks at The Wicklow Escape include two quite different evening dining experiences. On the first night guests eat outdoors, under cover at The Fiery, where Barry cooks on a wood-fired grill and pizza oven. A typical menu might be Ballymore organic grain flatbreads, garden salads, barbecued meat and fish, and dessert, with wine pairings. The second dinner is a more formal, though also relaxed occasion, with five courses served at the long table in the main reception room, again with wine pairings.
“I love the staycation idea, because you get two different experiences. You should feel like we’re minding you, when you come here. You should be able to park the car and have a total escape, and we just want to feed you, and feed you well.”
LISA WILKINSON, THE ENTREPRENEUR behind The Wicklow Escape is a mathematics prodigy, cryptographer, ceramicist, wellness advocate, doula, and barrister-in-training. The British-born businesswoman founded The Elbowroom yoga studio and wellbeing centre in Dublin 7 in 2003, and also runs a multi-disciplinary clinic, a centre for children with additional needs, a training company, and an online yoga business.
But her passion project is the renovated and extended former An Óige hostel in the Glen of Imaal in Co Wicklow which is home to The Wicklow Escape. “I was looking for a business opportunity where I could maybe have a rural house, but bolt a business onto it,” she says of the whitewashed cottage and adjoining hostel now transformed into a rural retreat with seven stylish en-suite bedrooms, an informal banqueting hall, outdoor dining pavilion, permaculture garden and vegetable plot.
Formerly The Elbowroom Escape, an off-shoot of the Dublin yoga studio, hosting weekend yoga retreats and corporate events, the venture is now described as “a mountain lodge for foodies”, and also hosts weddings and corporate gatherings. Wilkinson had been familiar with the property for many years before eventually buying it in 2016. She had hosted yoga holidays there in its previous ownership, and celebrated her 40th birthday there. When it was advertised for sale, she jumped at the chance to take it on, renovating the bedrooms and the main house and cultivating the gardens, with the idea of growing food for the business.
“And then at that stage, I did what I do with most of my businesses and just kind of tried different things out. I started doing yoga holidays because it was something I knew, and then I switched more to the events, so people would hire the place and we would cater for them, and then we got more into weddings.”
An introduction to hotel manager and hospitality consultant Éanna Hassett from Karen Dwyer, Wilkinson’s “coach and very good friend,” led to plans being put in place to offer short breaks where locally produced food, much of it from within three kilometres, is at the heart of the offering.
An accomplished chef was required to put the plan in motion, and Wilkinson advertised the position. “Hire her. Do not ask any questions. Hire her now,” Hassett said on hearing that Barry had applied for the job. With Barry in charge of the kitchen, the day-to-day running of the business is in the hands of Conrad Robinson and Tatiana Amorim, both previously with Feast Catering at Powerscourt House, and Jill Robins, operations manager for all of Wilkinson’s businesses. Deirdre Madden, a perinatal mental health nurse and horticulturalist, takes care of the gardens and polytunnel.
As part of the new plan, the seven en-suite bedrooms were given a stylish makeover, and the main reception space redesigned, with a stunning oak dining table taking pride of place. “My partner of 10 years, Justin Thomas, is a craftsman furniture designer and maker, and he made it,” Wilkinson says. Thomas’s work features throughout the property, including the bedrooms, two of which, four-person rooms ideal for a group of friends or family, have spalted beech bunk beds he made with timber from the Lisnavagh estate.
Up to 18 people can be accommodated on the gourmet breaks. Guests arrive on either Wednesday or Friday, and should pack a healthy appetite for their stay. Two dinners with wine pairings, breakfast, a picnic lunch and a farewell brunch are included in the package, which costs from €493 per person sharing a group room, going up to €668 per person for a deluxe superking. On Wednesday and Friday evenings, you can book for dinner only, €89 per person, including wine pairings.
Wilkinson plans to make The Wicklow Escape her retirement project, but with several businesses on the go and her studies at King’s Inns to complete, she is staying in Dublin for the foreseeable future, leaving the country property in the hands of what she calls her “dream team”.