From pig farmers in St. Johnston to fresh haddock just off the boats in Greencastle, Donal Doherty of Harry’s Restaurant likes nothing more than to champion food from Inishowen and the North West of Ireland.
Donal owns and runs Harry’s Restaurant in Bridgend in County Donegal with his older brother Kevin.
Harry’s has been owned by the Doherty family since it first opened for business in 1991 and in the last few years it has led the way in the celebration of local food and drink.
“I’m a proud Bridgend man,” says Donal sitting near the roaring fire in the bar of Harry’s.
“I had the most amazing childhood around here. I got married six months ago and I now live in Buncrana, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Donal was born and reared in Bridgend. He’s the youngest of five children (three boys and two girls) and his father is called Harry ‘Leo’ and his mother is Shiela (nee Rodden).
“Thank God, both my parents are still alive.
“My dad’s well known around Bridgend. He was a business man all of his life but when we were younger he had a piece of land in the hills here where he used to grow potatos. We would collect and peel the potatoes and then chip them. That’s how I got my nickname, ‘chip’,” he said laughing.
“I remember spending many a summer with my brothers and sisters playing in the fields around the family home - they were great days.
“We virtually had the fields from the back of our house and they ran the whole way up to the Grianan of Aileach.
“We’d play all day long in the fields and the only time we would go home was for something to eat or when it got dark,” he remembered fondly.
Donal’s family own the a cafe a few feet away from Harry’s; it’s called Doherty’s Cafe and despite being in her 70s, his mother still bakes the bread that’s sold in the cafe every day.
“My mum has run the chip shop and the cafe all of her life and I am so happy that she’s still down there every day baking the bread and keeping the place going,” he smiles.
Donal attended St. Aengus’ National School in Bridgend before moving on to Scoil Mhuire in Buncrana.
“I enjoyed school but I wasn’t the kind of student who could be found studying away at home.
“Don’t get me wrong, if I needed to pass an exam I always got there but studying for exams was something that I definitely did not enjoy.”
Donal left Scoil Mhuire for the Dublin Institute of Technolody where he lived and studied for four years.
“Living in Dublin was amazing - it was party central back then. I got my degree in marketing and then later I went on to be an accountant in London.
“I lived in London for six years, it was an amazing place. I worked for a company called Mintel Market Research and then, two weeks before September 11 happened I got a job working for British Airways.”
Donal worked for British Airways as a profit analyst but as a result of the September 11 tragedy profits in the aviation industry nosedived and many companies had to cut costs.
“British Airways offered me the chance to travel around the world for free for six months. I’d put a bit of money aside while working in London so when British Airways gave me that opportunity, I thought it was too good to turn down.
“I went to South America and had the best seven months of my life. I travelled to places like Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Ecuador.
“It was singularly the most amazing experience of my life. I remember one time going for a swim in the Amazon River and there was an alligator a few feet away - it’s great looking back now but at the time I was terrified,” he laughs.
Donal recounted detailed and colourful anecdotes of treking through the foot hills of Peru to the ancient Inca site of Machu Picchu and swimming with sea lions off the coast of the Galapagos Islands.
“I tried guinea pig on my travels and even ate a few ants that tasted of mint in the Amazon rainforest - don’t worry, there are no plans to put them on the menu at Harry’s,” he jokes.
“Peru was the best country I visitied. I treked to Machu Picchu on my own. I went up a mountain range by myself - it was 5,000 metres up and then back down again slept with these natives in their villages and mud huts.
“I literally cooked dinner with them one night. The food was very basic but these people had very little in the material world but they were so happy and hospitable - it was a magical experience.”
Since it first opened for business in 1991, Harry’s Restaurant has always been owned by the Doherty family.
Donal’s sister and two of his older brothers owned the restaurant and when Harry’s opened 22 years ago, Donal was 15 years-old and waited on tables on the opening night.
“I was involved with the renovating of the place 22 years ago and I worked in here on the opening night and even though I lived in London at the time I was always interested in what was going on with the restaurant back home.
“I was enjoying living in London and then I loved travelling around South America - believe it or not, I had never intended to return home. I wanted to go my own way but then a few things happened.”
At the end of his six month South American sojourn, Donal, booked flights home to Ireland to attend two weddings. Then tragedy struck when the woman in charge of managing the accounts for Harry’s restaurant died suddenly.
Donal had purchased an around the world ticket and after the weddings he had every intention of visiting other countries. However, after agreeing to help out with the accounts for a few months he gradually became more involved with the restaurant and fast forward ten years it’s become his passion.
“I still have the round the world tickets at home,” he laughs.
“I never intended for things to work out the way they did but I am glad things worked out the way this way. I am very settled here now and I love living where I am in Buncrana.”
“I am also really enjoying married life. I met my wife Edel here in the restaurant. She’s now a primary school teacher in Buncrana and she is understanding of the very long hours I have to work at the restaurant. I always try to make up for it by cooking some freshly caught fish for her at home,” he smiles.
In the last few years, Harry’s restaurant decided to go in the opposite direction of many of its competitors.
Donal and his brother Kevin decided that they wanted to create a unique dining experience like no other and the restaurant became focused on sourcing local ingredients and championing local dishes.
“I am being completely genuine when I say this but I believe that some of the food we have here is amongst the best in the world.
“The fish we buy in Greencastle is top class and the beef we use for our steaks is locally reared and if our customers are to be believed the beef tastes amazing.
“We have our own hanging room where we hang our own steaks. Largely because of where we are we have to work harder here.
“I’d be down at Greencastle three times a week buying fresh fish and we change the menu here in the restaurant depending on what fish we get.”
In 2011 Harry’s was awarded the Board Bia ‘Just Ask’ restaurant award for April; it also won Board Bia overall restaurant of the year and over all Bridgestone Restaurant Of The Year.
“We were on a real roll in 2011 and as a result we were the go to restaurant in this part of the country. People from all over Ireland came to the restaurant and they still do. It’s a great honour, to be honest, and it took us a long time to get here but we are always having to up our game.”
In a bid to celebrate the food of Inishowen and the greater North West area, Harry’s host a market every Saturday morning where local cheesemongers, pig farmers and bakers can come to the restaurant and sell their produce.
“I tend to go on about this all of the time, but I think the quality of food on offer in Inishowen is world class.
“The focus we put on the fisherman and the farmers of this area has been really positive. People soon realise that when they pay for their food their money is going right back to the local producers in the area.
“Our Saturday food market is flying. We still want to hear from anyone who wants to sell their produce here. As long as it’s good quality and it’s local we are willing to give it a go. We don’t charge for stalls here which means that the sellers get to keep all of the money.
“It’s all about creating a collective of local producers and one of our success stories is a local woman who has given up her day job and is concentrating on producing food to sell at our market.
“The market is a great place for local producers to start selling their product. We have a guy from Carrigart who smokes his own salmon and he started selling the smoked salmon here before Christmas. There’s a pig farmer from St. Johnston and again we were the first people to give him a start. And again, it’s something I am passionate about because you are working with good people and there’s a real buzz here on a Saturday morning. I hope that the market continues to get bigger and more and more people come to it. Essentially, I just want to see more and more local people access more and more local food.”
He added: “We have also added Legenderry Warehouse No 1 to our list of places to eat. It’s a little cafe in Derry that serves good coffees, breads and sandwiches - we are really pleased with how that’s going. The reason we opened it was because we wanted to dip our toe into the whole City of Culture. I think the City of Culture is the single best thing that has happened to this part of the world and I wish everyone involved with it the very best.”
Donal is also a Bord Fáilte Food Ambassador for Ireland.
For further information on Harry’s restaurant visit www.harrys.ie or telephone (0035374) 9368544.