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Image / Living / Food & Drink

Kela Hodgins of West Cork’s Dunowen House on her life in food


By Sarah Gill
18th Jul 2023

Michelle Coughlan

Kela Hodgins of West Cork’s Dunowen House on her life in food

Co-owner of West Cork’s idyllic Dunowen House with her husband Stephen, Kela Hodgins shares everything from her earliest memories of food, to her favourite flavours and culinary inspirations.

Since making the decision to escape the corporate world and relish the country lifestyle in 2013 when she and her husband Stephen traded in their marketing and finance backgrounds and began honing their hospitality skills — and it’s safe to say that they made the right choice.

Since renovating the 18th-century country house, the pair are striving to make Dunowen House as eco-friendly as possible, and through savvy use of social media, Kela’s bakes have become Instagram famous!

Kela has just launched a trip made of food and wine dreams — ‘A Tuscan Culinary Adventure’ — alongside Villa Burlamacchi outside Pisa in Italy. The weeklong escape takes place in the rolling hills of Tuscany from 27 October to 3 November, and can be booked now.

Here, Kela Hodgins shares her life in food…

Kela Dunowen

What are your earliest memories of food?

Rhubarb, something I still adore. Growing up, our next door neighbour had a huge rhubarb patch and I don’t think her family were too keen. You’d go out into the garden and she’d have thrown a load over the wall. I remember eating lots stewed, in tarts, crumbles and even jam with ginger. One of my favourite ways to still eat it is gently roasted with brown sugar turning it into a compote, then heaped on homemade brown bread and butter. Also my Dad’s Spaghetti Bolognese – we thought it was the height of sophistication in the late 70s.

How would you describe your relationship with food?

Curious and slightly greedy! I’m a very visual person so need my food to look tempting, with lots of colour, flavour and texture. I read cookbooks like novels then work my way through recipes that tempt me.

I don’t need complicated dishes or fancy frills, I just want the best possible and freshest ingredients on my plate. We are spoiled here in West Cork with so many fantastic local producers and we grow a lot ourselves – it’s really hard to beat the quality and taste of just dug new potatoes, some garden salad and freshly caught mackerel or John Dory.

What was the first meal you learned to cook?

A Victoria sponge cake and I made it for my parents wedding anniversary. I think they thought they were getting a whole meal but the cake took so long, that’s all they got. I probably was only 9 or 10 at the time.

How did food become a part of your career?

Completely by accident! While I’ve always loved cooking and baking I never thought it would become a significant part of my career. When we moved from Dublin and bought Dunowen House we had no definitive plan, just that we wanted to turn it into a tourism business. We started with B&B then quickly moved into whole house private rentals. The catering side came about when a large group of American guests couldn’t get a restaurant booking and asked if I could cook them dinner. The feedback was so positive we decided to add private catering to our offering. It is now unusual if guests don’t book us to cook for them.

What’s your go-to breakfast?

Always two cups of black coffee usually followed by toasted sourdough from Clonakilty bakery, Pike Deli. I’ll have this with peanut butter, homemade jam or the aforementioned rhubarb compote.

If you’re impressing friends and family at a dinner party, what are you serving up?

Since learning how to make my own pasta in Tuscany, Italian themed feasts are my most recent go to. Focaccia, bitter salad with vin-santo soaked raisins, a shellfish based ravioli, a meat or veggie based fresh tagliatelle, followed by an authentic Tiramisu or an apricot or raspberry almond tart.

Kela Dunowen

Who is your culinary inspiration?

Here in West Cork, Dede Ahmet of Customs House Baltimore, Rob Krawczyk from The Chestnut Ballydehob, Mark and Sadie formerly of Pilgrims in Rosscarbery, my very good friend Diana Dodog, MasterChef Ireland winner. Favourite writers include Diana Henry, Rick Stein, the fantastic Maura O’Connell Foley and her Wild Atlantic Kitchen cookbook, Linda Booth from the Dublin Cookery School…I have so many favourites it’s hard to pick.

What would your last meal on earth be?

A replica of our Christmas dinner for the last few years. We don’t have turkey but do treat ourselves to an enormous seafood feast spread over the course of the day. Oysters from Roaring Water bay, crab claws and lobster with buckets of garlic butter and homemade brown bread, John Dory or turbot from Union Hall…. we are complete gluttons but it’s the family’s favourite meal together every year. For dessert it would be frozen hazelnut parfait or whiskey baked plums with meringues and lime mascarpone.

What’s your go-to comfort food?

A selection of farmhouse cheese, good crackers, homemade chutney and a big glass of red wine (or two).

What’s the go-to quick meal you cook when you’re tired and hungry?

Macaroni cheese – a bechamel made with oodles of cheddar and parmesan, black pepper then grilled until bubbling under the grill, sometimes topped with crispy bacon. When the kids have been away and come home for a visit, it’s always requested. No matter where we’ve lived, this tastes like home.

What is one food or flavour you cannot stand?

Egg sandwiches.

Hangover cure?

Clonakilty black pudding, streaky rashers, sourdough toast and a big pot of tea. Never coffee, always tea!

Kela Dunowen

Sweet or savoury?

Despite my love of baking, it’s always savoury for me.

Fine dining or pub grub?

Fine dining.

Favourite restaurant in Ireland?

Dede at the Customs House, Baltimore. Michelin 2 Stars in a tiny coastal village on the very edge of Ireland – magical food, magical location. Proof that if you build it, they will come!

Best coffee in Ireland?

I love a flat white from Revel in Clonakilty and at home we use Cork based Mahers Italian Roast beans in our machine.

Go-to beverage accompaniment?

Red wine or a Clonakilty Distillery Minke G&T in the summer.

What are your thoughts on the Irish foodie scene?

I’m probably biassed, but the food scene in West Cork is one of the best in the world. The ingredients, the inventiveness, the hospitality and the clear love people have for what they do here. Our international guests are always astounded by the quality of food and the value for money compared to comparable restaurants at home.

What’s your favourite thing about cooking?

Time to myself to be creative and switch off. I can easily spend a whole day in the kitchen, preparing and cooking with just a podcast or great music for company.

Kela Dunowen

What does food — sitting down to a meal with friends, mindfully preparing a meal, nourishment, etc — mean to you?

Joy. With all our lives so busy, it’s a joy to sit and eat with friends, catching up, swapping recipes and tips, maybe a glass of good wine in hand as we tour the vegetable patch picking salad and flowers for the table.

Food for thought — Is there room for improvement within the Irish food/restaurant/hospitality scene?

Definitely. The cost of rent, rates, staff, insurance and all the other bits that go into creating a business before you buy a single ingredient. It is scaring talented chefs from taking a leap and opening new restaurants, even in vibrant rural towns like Clonakilty.

I would love to see more places using and being proud of local ingredients – we dined in a highly esteemed Dublin restaurant recently and were surprised at how the majority of the ingredients were not from Ireland and that this was a source of pride for them.

Chef’s kiss — Tell us about one standout foodie experience you’ve had recently.

A chance connection on Instagram with a villa in Tuscany developed into the best week of my life, foodwise. I visited Villa Burlamacchi in February after asking if they could teach me how to make pasta. This developed into a completely immersive food and wine experience, learning so many cooking techniques and touring boutique vineyards of Chianti. I loved it so much that we’ve created a Tuscan Culinary Adventure at the end of October, when fellow foodies can come join us for the same amazing food and wine experience in the most incredible historic setting.

Compliments to the chef — Now’s your chance to sing the praises of a talented chef, beloved restaurant or particularly talented foodie family member.

Every time we visit Dede’s we are completely blown away. The skill, attention to detail, the Turkish influence on Irish ingredients, the staff, the welcome…the only thing they could improve on is to move the restaurant beside us!

Secret ingredient — What, in your estimation, makes the perfect dining experience?

I’ve waxed lyrical about using local ingredients throughout but I feel this comes to nothing without properly trained and knowledgeable staff, especially on the service side. It’s a real skill to have someone on the floor that’s attentive without being overbearing, completely knowledgeable about the menu, can pace the filling of wine and water glasses, able to read the table, and remember returning customers. It can make or break a dining experience.

Imagery by Michelle Coughlan