Claire Nash is sitting with an open notebook in front of her filled with dog-eared pages and recipes scribbled on post-it notes.
“When Christmas comes around, this book doesn’t leave my side,” she said.
“Every year since 2008, I keep a note of everything. I must just send a photo of this recipe to my guys in the kitchen… Can you believe, my beautiful ribbons are stuck in customs – they definitely won’t arrive in time now. Gearoid, can you send me a list of what we need to do for tomorrow – we need to make more red cabbage; I’d be delighted if we could do up a sexy roulade! Great, now, what’ll we have to eat?”
At any one time, all these things and more run through Claire’s head.
“When I’m in my business, I’m on,” she says.
This year will mark 30 years since her food business, Nash 19, launched; a sharp intake of breath is followed by an admission of how time flies.
Founded on February 2, 1992, Nash 19 is as renowned for its attentive classic service as it is for its food; both have evolved with each other, and Claire will not compromise on either. From where did her passion for great food and great service come?
“Where I grew up, we had an orchard and a large country garden – it sounds rather grand, but everyone grew their own bit of vegetables – it was what was done.
” We had bullocks and whiteheads, Friesians and Charleroi’s; my father bred gun dogs – he was famous for it. I remember laying down apples picked from the orchard in paper and sand; we went hunting and shooting and we’d sit together on upturned butter boxes, plucking the birds and tossing their feathers.
“Mum was a good cook, but she wasn’t a confident cook. We were a very social house, there were guests from all over the world who came to buy dogs from my father and they’d stay for dinner. They’d bring with them Italian wines, cheeses; we’d eat snipes that we shot and plucked. I can still remember the smell of whiskey and cigars.”
At 13, Claire holidayed with her family in Garryvoe. For money, she and her siblings picked periwinkles, selling them to O’Driscoll’s at £4 per sack; they’d swipe apples from an orchard, and pick potatoes at Ballymaloe farm, until, deciding it wasn’t for her, she walked up to the great house itself, muddied from the field.
“Myrtle Allen adored children. I remember walking up the blue carpet and Mrs Allen peaking around the kitchen door to see me. ‘Mrs Allen,’ I said, ‘Can I come and work for you?’ She said she needed a pot wash for the night.
“Ten days later, Mrs Allen asked me if I had ever cooked before. I told her I had cooked Christmas dinner and she said to come with her into the kitchen, and along with Rory and Susie Allen, the four of us put the Sunday buffet out.”
That was the start of it for Claire, and every year she returned to work and learn from Myrtle. She left to study Hotel Management at DIT and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where, for four years, she managed a Private Members Club.
“It was the crème de la crème,” she recalls. “There was a silver room with an armed guard; we had a special place for storing ladies’ fur coats – nothing was too much trouble, and the service we provided had to be nothing but the best!”
Through the club, she became friendly with another Allen family – the powerful, influential Allens of Atlanta, akin to the Kennedy’s of Georgia. It’s a relationship she has cherished ever since and, just like those her father formed, she learned the importance of connection. “This industry, it’s all about relationships and integrity.”
Returning to Ireland in 1990 following the untimely passing of her father and to care for her mother, Claire decided she had to be her own boss. She opened her first business in Cork soon after, then, in 1992, acquired the premises at 19 Princes Street and opened Nash19.
“I opened at 7.30am – I was the first to open early in the morning. I wanted to make breakfast a big thing. At the time, you could only it in a hotel, I wanted to change that and offer healthy breakfasts filled with great things.
“We had a grilled fry, the best scones, and potato farls in a nod to my mother’s Northern Ireland heritage.”
“I wanted to create a place for people to work in that didn’t impact on their quality of life: no split shifts, to encourage people who loved to cook to work here – we’ve never bought a packet of anything, everything is always made from scratch.”
The experience of working at a high level in the U.S South imprinted on Claire the need for great service.
“All my staff are trained in the classics of serving. As a child, I attended a boarding school and was taught deportment and manners. All these things come together to create the essence of good service. These skills aren’t being taught any more; the value of good service is being forgotten and I’m concerned about that.”
From early on, Claire was involved with business groups. She served on the board of Cork Opera House for nine years, is a member of the Cork Airport Steering Group, has been president of the Cork Business Association twice, and co-founder of the hugely successful Cork Long Table Dinner. In 2010, she was bestowed an Honorary Masters in Commerce from UCC for recognition of her culinary and business skills.
“I get involved for the good of my business, yes, but also for the good of the community. When you put a lot in, you can ask for a little back. That’s what I did when I campaigned for Princes Street to be pedestrianised.”
Without a doubt, this latter achievement of Claire, in collaboration with her fellow businesses on Princes Street, will be an enduring legacy, and lit the way for pedestrianisation for more of Cork’s quirky characterful streets, returning the people’s city to the people.
Ten years ago, at the 20th anniversary of Nash 19, Myrtle Allen gave what was probably her last public speech to a gathering of maybe 400 people who had come out to celebrate.
“I honestly don’t know how we will mark 30 years in business,” says Claire. “I want it to be a celebration; I want us to be able to entertain people.”
Although refusing to allow two Covid years to mar three successful decades, right now a little of Claire’s signature puff has gone out of her sails.
“We’ve survived floods, fires, recessions – I refuse to let Covid define three decades of service. We are weathered and seasoned, but I also know the importance of celebration; the importance of collaboration and building relationships, and to never forget who we are, where we are, and where we trade.”
There may be more ‘speed wobbles’ to navigate than Claire would ideally like, but it is people like her that we can thank for making Cork city what it is today. “We’re an institution of hospitality,” she says; and long may it continue.