It’s not easy to pin down Dervla James in just a few words. A baking wizard? A creative virtuoso? Organised and an organiser? A hopeless romantic? A whirlwind of activity and inspiration? Impulsive – and perhaps even obsessive? Quite frankly, this Easkey native is all of the above and a canny businesswoman besides.
Happy accidents and serendipity seem to have guided Dervla through her life, but actually her ability to make swift decisions has served her well. Even moving into the kitchen from front of house happened through change. As a teenager her weekend and summer jobs were always as a waitress which she loved. In school Home Economics was a favourite subject, but she preferred the organisational aspect of it and had come to the rather remarkable conclusion that she wasn’t much of a cook! In her last secondary school summer, all her friends were working in the same establishment – Easkey House Restaurant – and wanted Dervla to join them. She reluctantly accepted the only position available – in the kitchen and this literally transformed her life. Under the tutelage of Neville the chef/owner, her eyes opened to the artistic side of baking. She took naturally to creative decoration and a career as a pastry chef beckoned.
A third level course was the next step and Dervla moved to Dublin, beginning a professional cookery course in Cathal Brugha Street. However, neither Dublin nor the course were quite what she had expected and after a year she transferred to GMIT Galway. As ever, Dervla kept busy with part time work, this time in Anton’s on Father Griffin Road. In fact she enjoyed it so much that college went out the window for a few years as she honed her practical skills.
Deciding to go back and finish in GMIT, she began training in her replacement in Anton’s; a Polish girl named Sandy. This opened a rather unexpected window when Sandy told her about a new fulltime Baking and Pastry Art degree course. One lightning-quick decision later, Dervla began hounding the Head of Kevin Street College to admit her to the course. Word finally came when she was at Electric Picnic and ten days later she was back in Dublin and on the course of her dreams.
She adored every moment of it – the practical side and the theory, the work experience, the books and the lectures. She gained wonderful experience in nearby Cake Cafe, where she not only met her future business partner Marion Kilcoyne, but also her husband-to-be Johny Conlon who worked in the same building. Serendipity strikes again – within a scant six months Johny and Dervla were engaged, and married 18 months later.
While in Kevin Street, Dervla spent time in Germany at the prestigious Weinheim Bakery Academy, opening her eyes to sourdoughs, rye breads and new and different flours. Her family have strong German connections, having lived here before Dervla was born, and she studied German in school so unsurprisingly she felt very at home.
Immediately after college Dervla and Marion seized an opportunity to take on a lease in the trendy Powerscourt Town House Centre. They opened a small cafe, The Pepper Pot, which became both beacon and icon on the Dublin cafe scene. It may have been learning on the job for both of them but the experiment worked and worked well. That’s where she first came to the attention of food writers and bloggers; and when the awards began to roll in.
After nearly a decade in cities and as the mother of a beloved daughter (since joined by a second), Dervla began looking west to her Sligo roots. Kildare-born Johny was more than amenable, and they made the move in 2015 – without having the intention of opening their own business. Fate intervened, the old Easkey House Restaurant was available, Dervla poured all her passion into it, and in typical whirlwind fashion, Pudding Row opened its doors just a couple of months later. It’s now a stalwart part of Easkey and Sligo, attracting attention, listings and awards from all over the country.
The name Pudding Row has a lovely, quirky history. While in Dublin, Dervla lived in an apartment block on Essex Street West called after the street’s ancient name ‘Pudding Row’. What an appropriate address for a baker – and no wonder she brought it with her to Easkey. #SligoFoodTrail