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Interviews

Behind The Scenes With Clair Dowling Of Tiller + Grain

The woman behind this gorgeous sustainable café wants us all to realise the real cost of good food.

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Nine months after opening her cafe on South Frederick Street in Dublin 2, Élodie Noël chats with Clair Dowling to learn about her story, her inspiration, and what it is like to run a sustainable food business in the city centre. 

It’s been less than a year since Clair Dowling opened Tiller + Grain, a bright yellow cafe opposite Trinity College in Dublin 2. The university is a place she knows well, as Clair completed a degree in IT at TCD before undertaking a post-grad in business and another in surveying. After working as a surveyor for about nine years, she realised she couldn’t do it anymore. “I needed something to feed my soul”, she explained to us. She retrained as a chef and got a job at Ottolenghi’s in London. “I thought I’d do six months over there and then come back. I ended up staying for five years.”

Led by an infectious love of food and cooking, Clair never looked back. “I love kitchens, it’s so different from an office. When a kitchen works well, there is nothing like it. I love the banter, I love making really good food, I get so excited about it”. From her inspiration to why sustainability is at the core of her venture, we went behind the scenes to learn more about the reality of her life as a young food business owner.

What’s the story behind Tiller + Grain?

"I was cheffing in London for about five years and when I decided to come home, I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I started looking around and this place was the first premises I saw. I do feel like some things are written in the stars! My landlord is in hospitality and I had to do a little proposal of what I was going to do to get his place, and I mostly stuck to it. My ethos on food is that we need to eat well, feel nourished but it all has to be super tasty. I want to feed people for their mental health and physical health; we put seeds in our porridge because they are full of potassium and magnesium, we use black rice, we use farro, we do different types of grains. We keep it very clean." 

READ MORE: Australian Chef Josh Niland On His Fish Revolution

How do you create your recipes?

"For me, it’s like osmosis, which can make it very difficult for other chefs because there is no recipe book; it’s all in my head. I like strong flavours – if you tell me there is an ingredient in something, I want to taste it. All my recipes are quite punchy. I work very closely with all my chefs because I can’t be in the kitchen all the time. I need somebody who is enthusiastic and likes their own freedom. If you like cheffing, it’s because you love cooking and food." 

Tiller + Grain
Tiller + Grain

Is it important to create a good workplace for your staff?

"I wanted this lovely environment for customers to come into, but also for people to work in. I didn’t go down the restaurant route because I wanted a good work-life balance, especially for my team. I want them to want to be here and really care. I’m very lucky because I have a great team; I have someone who used to work with me in my surveying days, she did that for 30 years, but now she works here and she brings such a unique energy to the place." 

READ MORE: My Life in Plates: Grainne O’Keefe

Is sustainability a key ingredient to your business?

"Hugely. I use about 80 per cent Irish ingredients and I’d like to eventually be totally organic. Sustainability is important on so many levels. The name Tiller + Grain comes from ‘tilling the land’ because my grandparents were small farmers. I don’t beat people down on price, if you tell me that this is how much you need to live off, it’s fine by me. If we continue to go to supermarkets and get cheap things, we will kill that whole economic side of our country. Do we want to be in a country where we can’t get produce? I have a very close relationship with my suppliers. I work with people that have the same ethos in everything they do. If my veg supplier, Sean Hussey, tells me ‘I have loads of radishes from this producer’, and I just take them and I do something with them, I’ll ferment them or I’ll use them in my garnishes.

Sustainability for me is about supporting our farming industry. But it’s also the fact that I only have two bins, one for recycling, one for compost, that’s it. My coffee grounds go back to the farmers who grow micro cress. All my trimmings and peels go back to my veg supplier who gives them to the cows. We offer discounts to encourage our customers to use Keep Cups. We are as plastic-free as possible. The salad boxes, the cutlery, everything is compostable. Unfortunately, there are no brown bins in the streets, which really is a shame. " 

There is a debate about the impact of meat and fish consumption on the environment, how do you feel about that? 

"I don’t think abstinence is the answer, just don’t buy cheap meat. I think it’s important to support people who are trying to do better. Don’t tell me you don’t want to eat meat for the environment and then you have smashed avocado, which is destroying the world just as much in my opinion. My fish supplier is SSI (Sustainable Seafood Ireland). I’ll put in an order but if they don’t have it, they suggest something else. The other day I wanted ling, and they didn’t have any but they sent me an eel. We put it on the menu and got great feedback. We need to shop better and be more concerned. Don’t support supermarkets, support your local. That’s the way the shift should happen." 

What would you like to see implemented to help businesses like yours?

"I think money is the driver for anybody so you need to incentivise people to make it work. I give 20 cents off the coffee when people bring their cup. Next week, I’m going to do a day when people get free coffee if they bring their cup. It’s going to financially cost me, but that’s what the government should do, incentivise for people to do the right thing, not bring on another tax. Positive reinforcement is key!

As a community, we need to realise the cost of good food. When I look at supermarkets, I remember this offer a few years ago, they were selling bags of brussels sprouts for 49 cents, which is ridiculous. If you think you can buy a bag of brussels sprouts for 49 cents, you aren’t thinking about what is going into it. Here we make everything from scratch and it’s labour intensive, people need to understand that comes at a price." 

Tiller + Grain, 23 Sth Frederick St, Dublin 2 - [email protected] - 087 680 8933