“This is where we used to sleep,” Cathal Armstrong calls down as he climbs the ladder into the attic of his Aunt Marie’s tiny Irish cottage, which is no bigger than a suburban shed. All 14 members of the Armstrong family would spend long summers there in County Donegal, up in the wild northwestern corner of Ireland. “It was crazy,” he continues. “Seems like a million years ago.” In fact, the Armstrongs have been making the trip here from Dublin for 35 years, and Cathal’s parents, Gerry and Angela Armstrong, now have a house in Donegal, too. “Ah, yes, they were good times,” Gerry joins in. “Let’s go for a pint.”
After a short drive across the peat bogs and around the small lakes that dot this treeless landscape, we pull up to Iggy’s Bar in Kincasslagh. Iggy beckons us in with a smile and a wave, as if we were entering the front room of his house. While Irish folk music twangs in the background, Iggy sets about pouring us long, slow pints of cream-topped Guinness. There is no menu in sight, but after a few minutes—or possibly longer, as there have been some more pints involved—food arrives out of nowhere: bowls of clear vegetable broth with soda bread, followed by plates of fresh seafood. Everything is homemade, and all the ingredients are local: oysters, mussels, Irish prawns. The lobster and crab were landed this morning. “It’s your original gastropub!” Cathal says approvingly. The meal fulfills his own passion for local, fresh, seasonal and high-quality ingredients—values that have won him acclaim as chef-owner of Restaurant Eve, Eamonn’s A Dublin Chipper and the Majestic in Alexandria, Virginia. I ask Iggy for the soup recipe. “Ah, it’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that...” He is not letting on.
Cathal, an F&W Best New Chef 2006, is home in his native Ireland for a few days to visit with family and get a dose of Irish geniality and spirit. I have joined him in Donegal to learn more about this extraordinary young chef as we visit the local landmarks, pubs, restaurants and fresh-food markets before preparing a big dinner at his parents’ house.