THERE’S an enigmatic air around Vincent Crepel, the chef-proprietor of Castlemartyr’s celebrated, and newly Michelin-anointed, Terre Restaurant. Who is he? Why is he in Castlemartyr? What’s his story?
From the French Pyrenees, Crepel describes himself as half French and half Italian. He grew up trekking the mountains in summer and skiing them in winter, and fondly recalls family gatherings for Sunday lunch when his grandmother served up feasts of handmade ravioli and gnocchi.
He left home for culinary school aged 17 and has been on the road ever since, globetrotting his way around the world working in some of the best restaurants on the planet. At 39, Crepel finds himself in East Cork drafting the next chapter of his career.
Within eight months of opening Terre, it received its first star from the Michelin Guide. The success came quietly and with much hard work. There was no bombast of publicity in the build up to the March announcement, but anticipation of starry recognition was on everyone’s lips.
The speed of its arrival charts with Cork’s prior success with the Guide in recent years. The Chestnut, Ichigo Ichie and Dede all received their first stars within a year, establishments that confidently stamp personality and individuality on creative gastronomy.
Fresh out of culinary school, Crepel travelled to Europe’s culinary hotspot, San Sebastian, and the three-star Arzak restaurant with its busy kitchen and brigade of some 45 chefs.
At 21, Crepel moved to Singapore, the gastro melting pot of Southeast Asia, working at the Shangri-La then Restaurant André Chiang.
“I wanted to join the team [at Restaurant André Chiang]. I was always looking for the best restaurant to work for and I didn’t want to waste my time. I was not looking for Michelin star, just someone with personality, creativity, and whose food would speak to me.”
The restaurant was located on 72nd floor of Swissôtel, Singapore. The kitchen was tiny, the days long often starting and finishing in the dark, and because of its lofty location, leaving it for breaks was impractical.
Crepel admired Chiang’s ethos of merging French ingredients with Japanese technique, and French technique with Japanese ingredients becoming good friends as well as colleagues. When Chiang left to open a new Restaurant André Chiang in Singapore’s Chinatown, Crepel followed.
The restaurant quickly attained two Michelin-stars and ranking 14th in World’s Best 50 Restaurants. Its backers were Peng Lo and Dr Stanley Queck who, through their luxury hospitality portfolio, Unlisted Collection, began a long-time partnership with Crepel even after he left Singapore.
“I was missing Europe,” Crepel says, after eight years in Asia. An opportunity arose to return via the three-Michelin star restaurant at the Hôtel de Ville Crissier.
“I arrived in the kitchen, and it was amazing. Everything and everybody were at the top level, like the Olympic Games every day,” he recalls.
His time at Hôtel de Ville Crissier introduced him to a more contemporary version of French classic cuisine where ingredients were central. The year-long summers of Singapore had been felt keenly by Crepel who longed to reconnect with seasonality again.
“In Singapore, every day is 27 degrees. You don’t feel the cold, you don’t feel the heat, you’re not connected to nature making it tough to be creative, to understand and plan what to do. It was one of the hardest kitchens I have ever worked in, but I learned a lot about myself.”
Two years later, Crepel reached out to Chiang who planted the idea of opening a restaurant in Paris.
Up to that point, I had been to Paris twice in my life. Returning to France was like entering a jungle again, but I took the opportunity and opened Porte12 in Paris on 14th September 2014. I was 29 years old.
For seven years, Crepel made Porte12 his whole world. Just 25 seats serving 50 covers a night in a beautifully appointed restaurant from an even smaller kitchen.
“After four months, we won Best Restaurant of the Year. We were overwhelmed by everything. I was just cooking; I’m a chef – I learned along the way who I was.”
Porte12 was a success, but competition in Paris is fierce and from a cramped kitchen he felt he was fighting for space both literally and figuratively.
“I felt restrained, like I was fighting against a lot of people. Your first opponent in life is yourself, at least for me. I said to my business partner, Mr Peng Lo, I think I need to close and take some time.
“It was a massive decision, one of the hardest I’ve ever made,” says Crepel, who shuttered Porte12 in mid-2019. The time out lasted almost two years due to the pandemic, but says, “the experience of not doing anything was good for me. I needed to rest, I needed to understand what I was going to do for the next step and make the right decision for me.”
One day, his business partner, Peng, contacted him about Castlemartyr suggesting maybe this could be a project for Crepel to sink his teeth into.
“I think in life opportunities are given and the worst thing you can do is not to try. See the opportunity and take it, but make sure it’s 100%.”
Crepel knew nothing of the food scene in Ireland or Cork’s reputation as a food capital, so began researching, talking to whoever he knew in Ireland and visiting Cork four times – twice more than Paris.
I called people I knew who lived here. I wanted to know about the culture, the ingredients, the people. I knew what I didn’t want more than what I wanted.
“Porte12 taught me a lot about the job we do, the industry we are in, the team, also identity – all these things were in my mind. So, I wanted somewhere I can really see bigger picture. Not just in awards, but in everything.”
Crepel came to live in Cork for four months late 2020 to completely immerse himself in life in Cork.
“When I arrived on the plane, I could see Ireland surrounded by ocean. There’s something about that, something special, and everything was super green. I travelled around meeting people, producers, cheesemongers, fishmongers, and the beautiful scenery. It’s very wild here and untouched in parts.
“The space I had at Castlemartyr, the grounds, the history of the seventeenth-century manor house – all this combined speaks to me.”
Crepel arrived at Castlemartyr in January 2021. The decision was a life changing one and admits the older he gets the harder it is to pack up one life and start over again in a new place.
Terre isn’t just a menu, ingredients, artful plating, and nice furniture. It’s a space for guests to immerse themselves in.
“Terre means the walls, the grounds; Terre means people and hospitality. There is just one entrance door into the restaurant and no signage. We want to keep it just like you’re coming home. Someone is in front of the door to welcome you personally into our little bubble: come to our place, come to our house, and let us show you the best hospitality we can.
“Terre is also about ingredients, and we use the best we can,” says Crepel. Ingredients are sourced from wherever they’re the best. When he finds it, the menu is a triumvirate of ingredient, flavour and technique – a harmony of French, Asian and Irish influences and techniques.
From the high ceilings of the salon to the crisp elegance of the dining rooms looking out over French-style gardens, to the sharpness of Crepel’s fastidiously professional kitchen, diners experience all as they journey through the menu.
For the summer, the kitchen garden will be an additional stop as guests are surrounded with the produce soon to be on their plates whilst sipping the finest of champagnes.
Castlemartyr is a five-star resort, and the restaurant is a one-star Michelin affair, but Crepel keenly emphasises all are welcome.
“In Terre, we try to be genuinely hospitable and friendly. I don’t want people to feel uncomfortable or somewhere where guests feel they aren’t wearing the right clothes.
We don’t judge, everybody is welcome, and if we can share part of the story and journey with you, if we can make people remember that experience or moment they had, I think we all want the same.
Crepel’s collection of Michelin Guides is well documented – and displayed. But the award is not so much coveted as a benchmark for pushing the envelope further to see how far he can go.
“It’s not an award to say, OK this is done. It’s to say you guys are doing something right, this is something special, we give you a green light. That’s what we aimed the project for. But what drives that dream is that the team is proud, the team is happy, and the team wants to deliver more hospitality and more amazing dishes.
“I would like to turn Terre into a destination. I see more and more people coming from Dublin, driving three-and-a-half hours to visit us, dine with us, take a room, and stay. I know how much it costs and I’m very respectful and touched by that. Every night, when the dining room is full and I see people happy, thanking us after their meal – it’s amazing. In what other job do you have that? What other industry do you have that?
“We aim to do our best, and if the best is defined by three stars, then perhaps. Overall, when it feels right, you can see it. You must be comfortable in yourself for sure, and we will push while we have the soul and the will to do it, and the place wants us to do it.
“I truly believe where we are in East Cork, Terre has so much to offer, and its infinity. We can push as much as we want, and we’re going to create a deeper experience, better hospitality and really be proud of the place and the grounds we’re in and part of the Irish hospitality.
We get great feedback from people; they say we are lucky to have you, but I think we are lucky to be here.