Irish chef Kevin Dundon chuckles thinking about how most American's celebrate St. Patrick's Day.
Green beer? No way.
Corned beef and cabbage? Not on his menu.
Dundon, 45, is one of Ireland's most celebrated culinary talents and a partner in the Raglan Road Irish Pub & Restaurant, which opened in 2005 in Downtown Disney. And with his wife, Catherine, Dundon is the proprietor of Dunbrody Country House Hotel, a small luxury hotel in Wexford on Ireland's south coast.
"Ireland's cuisine is organic by nature," says Dundon, in town for St. Patrick's Day. "We don't mass-produce anything. It's comfort food with local ingredients."
The chef goes on to describe traditional dishes such as pork au jus or fresh fish plated with seasonal vegetables. "A call from a boat captain nearby can determine the night's catch of the day."
So how does Dundon translate what he is able to do in an Emerald Isle boutique hotel to a theme-park restaurant that can serve anywhere from 900-1,200 meals a night?
"Stick to your roots and beliefs," says Dundon. "Buy the best ingredients and let them speak for themselves on the plate. Cook the ingredients well with simple cooking techniques. You don't want to hide fabulous fresh flavors, you want to celebrate them."
The chef and his team have developed relationships with trailblazing Florida growers such as 3 Boys Farm in Ruskin. (With a state-of-the-art rainwater recycling system, solar panels and wind turbines, 3 Boys owner Robert Tornello is a rock star of sorts in sustainable hydroponics.)
Tomatoes from Three Boys can be found in Raglan Road's heritage tomato salad ($12), a heirloom mix with tender greens and shallots drizzled with a balsamic reduction.
And traditional dishes are reinterpreted with modern presentations. Dundon's shepherd's pie ($18), for example, isn't suffocating under a massive blanket of mashed potatoes. The dish retains its humble persona but rises appealingly out of a ring mold stack with a bright green sprig of peppery parsley on top.
And don't call his spin on fish soup or stew a chowder. In fact, the name of the dish on the Raglan Road menu is "It's not bleedin' chowder!" ($25). Dundon combines seasonal seafood and potatoes in a white wine infused broth. To me, it's fabulously cioppino-light, referring to the Italian-American fish stew that originated in San Francisco. The "light" comes from the judicious use of the creamy broth to form a shallow pool. That lets the plump mussels, sweet shrimp and other ingredients shine in taste and texture.
"I am here to educate people about true Irish cuisine. My mouth waters for a light salmon mousse with cucumber jelly or that moment of salmon perfection when the rich fish flakes gently with little effort from a fork," says Dundon.
And the setting is important to Dundon as well. While Raglan Road sits on the edge of the land where make-believe is an art, this Irish pub and restaurant has some impressive attributes. The four mahogany, walnut and marble bars were not conceived in an Imagineer's studio. Each antique bar was handcrafted in Ireland more than 130 years ago and shipped to Florida. In addition, Raglan Road's furnishings, lighting and wall coverings were all created and built in Ireland.
Earlier this week, Dundon hosted a four-course Irish luncheon and offered a culinary demonstration for a sold-out crowd in Raglan Road's Grand Dining Room. The event, which marked the opening of the Raglan Road St. Patrick's Day festival, featured hickory smoked salmon with buttered leeks, espresso of roasted tomato and gin soup, a loin of bacon with an Irish Mist glaze served on colcannon potatoes with a parsley cream sauce and panna cotta with rhubarb jelly.
Beyond teaching and media appearances, Dundon's cookbooks — which include the "Recipes That Work" (Collins, 2011), "Full on Irish: Creative Contemporary Cooking" (Epicure Press, 2006) and "Great Family Food" (Collins, 2010) — are redefining how Irish cuisine is perceived around the world.
"St. Patrick's Day is a time for Americans to celebrate their Irish heritage," says Dundon. "We do that every day at Raglan Road and Dunbrody House."
The story of Raglan Road
The real Raglan Road is on the south side of Dublin. In 1946, the lane was made famous by Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh when he used the melody of the old poem "The Dawning of the Day" for "On Raglan Road." (The poem was originally published as "Dark Haired Miriam Ran Away" and was written about his unrequited love for Hilda Moriarty, according to Irish Public Service Broadcasting.) In the 1960s, Irish folk singer Luke Kelly first put the poem to music. "Raglan Road" has become a seminal Irish song and has been covered by such artists as Van Morrison, Dire Strait's Mark Knopfler and U2. Click here to hear those three versions. A bronze sculpture of Kavanagh sits outside Raglan Road at Downtown Disney.