It sounds like a category in our Keelings Farm Fresh Gold Medal Awards, but that is what owner Xavier McAuliffe and General Manager Peter Wilson are trying to create in Kilkenny. Maev Martin talks to them about their plans to give Lyrath Estate Hotel a new lease of life.
2017 promises to be an eventful year for Lyrath Estate as they plan to undertake the re-development of the hotel and re-introduce a new look and feel Lyrath to the Irish and international market. The interior works have already begun – the bar and lobby are almost complete – and nearly half of the bedrooms have been re-decorated. Xavier McAuliffe purchased Lyrath Estate Hotel approximately 13 years ago and the establishment has been open over 10 years now. “The idea was to develop something unique and top class,” he says. “At the time five star hotels in Ireland were mainly castles so I wanted to bring something different to Kilkenny and to Ireland. Also, I wanted to make Kilkenny a destination that people wanted to visit and to create a hotel with large bedrooms, multiple restaurants and a luxurious spa for all to use.” In the region of 25m has been invested in a refurbishment of the public areas and bedrooms, as well as the convention centre. “With this investment, we will bring a whole new look to the hotel and bring the convention centre to a new level, while still holding on to the history and tradition in the hotel,” he says. “My ambition for Lyrath Estate over the next few years is to bring the hotel back to being one the leading hotels in the country, with a fabulous product and spa, and to introduce it to new visitors. Our convention centre is the largest in the south east and the largest outside of Killarney and Dublin. We want it to be the key location for all conference business to come to.”
Has he noticed any negative impact on the Lyrath Estate operation since the Brexit vote in May? “Up to now, 90% of our business has been in the domestic market,” he says. “For now, we haven’t noticed an impact from Brexit, but we are changing our focus to the US, European and Asian markets to see what potential is there.” However, Xavier has noticed some major changes in the hospitality industry between the pre and post economic collapse periods. “Customers are more savvy and they expect more for their money,” he says. “This was noticeable during the pre-collapse period but has continued to today. We need to ensure that, as the economy grows, our prices grow and that our product and services match this, so people know they are getting value for money. We also have to look at our complaint culture and try and tackle this a bit more. Also, we need to look at training and development, and at getting the right people for the right jobs.” Is he more confident about the prospects for the tourism and catering industry than he was in 2008, or does the industry still face some key challenges? “The industry still faces challenges such as staffing and training, enticing business out of Dublin, putting other locations on the map, not always making Dublin the key entry point, developing mid-week business, and trying to get people to overnight more in towns such as Kilkenny, rather than confining their visit to a day trip stop.”
Trainer & Hotelier
Peter Wilson decided to pursue a career in the hotel business after leaving college with a Diploma in Business Studies and a background working in the Redcastle Hotel & Country Club in Donegal. After securing his first GM position at the tender age of 20, in Lawless’s Hotel in Aughrim, where he worked for four years, he then moved to the Arklow Bay Hotel before completing a stint at The Regency in Dublin. He took an 18-month break from the industry to work as a trainer for CERT, but the buzz of the hotel environment continued to exert a powerful pull. When the opportunity arose for Peter to work as GM in the Connemara Coast Hotel, under the highly regarded hotelier Charlie Sinnott, also of Brook’s Hotel, he simply couldn’t resist. “After three years there I was ready for a new challenge and went on to open and project manage the building of Knockranny House in Westport, which opened its doors in the mid 1990s,” he says. This brought him to Kilkenny to work on the development of the Kilkenny Rivercourt Hotel and that was when he began his business relationship with Xavier Mc Auliffe. He spent seven years at The Rivercourt, during which time he also oversaw the conception and building of Lyrath Estate. “We opened Lyrath in 2006 and I then decided to move on to open Whites Of Wexford, where I spent nine years,” he says. “After that, I moved back to Kilkenny and to Mount Juliet, before finally returning to work with Xavier on the takeover of Lyrath Estate in the summer of this year.”
New Bistro Concept
Work will start on Lyrath Estate’s new bistro concept before Christmas. This is part of a major culinary overhaul at the hotel which is being spearheaded by their new Head Chef Gary Rogers. “What Gary brings to our operation is the international influence from his years in Australia at Sky City Casino, which was the biggest five star casino resort in Darwin in Northern Australia, with five restaurants, seven bars, and huge banqueting facilities for up to 2,000 guests,” says Peter. “He spent four and a half years there, starting off as Head Chef and working his way up the ladder to the position of Executive Chef, which he held for 18 months. During this time one of the restaurants in this resort, EVOO, achieved the equivalent of 3 AA rosettes, and El Piado, an Italian restaurant in the resort, won Best Ethnic Restaurant in Australia in the Australian Hotel & Catering awards this year. Gary’s vision is to make Lyrath the best five star dining destination and also to make our banqueting facility in Kilkenny Convention Centre the best in the country.”
Gary has already introduced a number of new dishes to the menu, including egg sous vide which is served with Lyrath’s Caesar salad in the bar. New dining concepts at Lyrath include fine dining in La Perla restaurant, offering seasonal fayre and using local suppliers, where possible. “Gary likes to source the finest ingredients that are cooked well and to let the food speak for itself,” says Peter. “A more casual bistro upstairs increases our dining options and capacity and will give us a better offering for family dining in the busier periods. The menu here will offer a wide selection of simple but tasty food at a reasonable price.” Lyrath Estate Hotel has also brought Alan Foley, former Executive Head Chef of The Stephouse restaurant, on board on a consultancy basis. “Alan’s role is to shape the vision for the style of food, creating a new structure and foundation, primarily within La Perla restaurant,” says Peter. “With a background in fine dining from his own family business, the Stephouse in Borris, he is ideally equipped for the role. Alan’s approach is about getting the basics right and not over complicating the dishes on the menu. The dishes will be kept simple but tasty, and a key component of the new style will be to inject a lighter touch into all of our cuisine. In other words, we will avoid the over use of heavy ingredients such as cream and butter. We are really excited about our new menu, which will be launched for the Christmas season.”
Lyrath Estate Hotel recently completed a restructuring of its kitchen, increasing the number of chefs from 14 to 22. How did they source so many chefs for the hotel? “It is very difficult to source chefs,” says Peter. “We had to go abroad to Europe, Portugal, Croatia and Romania. We also are very lucky to have a fantastic management team that tries to create an environment that attracts talent and keeps people content and motivated.” Is the training available in Ireland meeting industry needs? “Having worked in the CERT training centres in my earlier career, I feel that there is a need for basic training for all departments from a young age to give students an introduction to the industry,” he says.