The world was Gary Stafford’s oyster when he left Cathal Brugha Street College and he intended to explore its cuisines with enthusiasm. First stop was a college placement in Brittany working in the lovely walled town of Vannes and discovering a new world of food. That led to a ‘real’ job in a delightful nearby fishing village of Pont Aven. Its main claim to fame is a close association with artist Paul Gauguin but for Gary the appeal was learning artistry of a different kind – the art of French cuisine. It proved a good choice and a couple of years gave him a very solid footing for his future career.
After a couple of years Gary left France and returned to his native Dublin but still had itchy feet and yearned to travel more. An intriguing ad in The Irish Times led to an interview – for head chef to a Saudi Arabian sheikh. Interview passed Gary headed to London for his ‘practical’ trial with the sheikh’s family at their London house. He was offered the job and so began a wonderful seven year exploration of Middle Eastern and world cuisines.
Saudi business culture involves much entertaining, all done at home. The home in question lay discretely behind high walls and consisted of a veritable palace built around a leafy centre courtyard. One spacious wing was private and reserved for family use, the other consisted of function rooms which could hold up to 250 people. Gary’s team consisted of a Syrian and an Egyptian chef, as well as two Filipinos. Each brought a deep knowledge of their own traditional ethnic cooking. Experts were brought in from abroad to share their knowledge like the Japanese chef who spent a month teaching the team about sushi. Gary’s kitchen was also his classroom. He learned about spices, marinades, pastes and new approaches to food.
Their guest list included some high profile figures – numbering amongst them Bill Clinton, John Major and George Bush. Gary talks nostalgically of sailing trips on the Red Sea with such luminaries. Each summer was spent at the family’s London home and the remainder of the year in Saudi. Gary made good use of his free time, travelling as much as he could around the Middle East and beyond.
But all good things must come to an end and by the early 2000s, Gary was ready to return home and family reasons brought him to Sligo. He had a strong sense of where he wanted his career to go and considers himself lucky that the lease on Lyons Café above Lyons Department Store became available just when he needed it. The Celtic tiger was just getting going so the timing was impeccable. He took this historic and traditional tearoom and created something that is anything but predictable. The flavours of the Middle East, France and the world combine in a delightful menu where everything is prepared fresh daily.
Over the last 15 years Lyons has earned a dedicated following of customers who trust them and are willing to try something different. Their salad bar has become legendary and Gary has shared some of these recipes as well as others in two Lyons Café cookbooks. From the beginning they baked their own breads, beginning at 5am and moving straight from baking into prep for the day. Space was running out upstairs but Gary had his eye on an unused area downstairs and in 2013 Lyons Bakeshop opened its doors. With two bakers and two pastry chefs, all from France, it has gone from strength to strength since. The Café and Bakeshop now employ 30 people in total.