SUMMER 2017 / VOL. 17 ISSUE 1
Good Grub

Belfast-born Chef & Restaurateur Gilliland
Launches Cookbook

By James Bartlett

A Belfast-born chef and restaurateur, Geraldine Gilliland came to America more than 40 years ago and fell in love with Santa Monica as soon as she arrived, cashing in not only her Greyhound bus ticket back to New York, but also her return ticket to Ireland.

Her landmark pub in the upscale California city, Finn McCool's, is about to celebrate its 15th anniversary, and she's employed nearly two dozen people coming over from Ireland behind the bar, supporting their J1 visa applications too. 

Finn McCool's actually came to America via the Panama Canal from Rostrevor in County Down, Northern Ireland, where it had been known as the Corner House.

Gilliland had been pulling pints there since she was a kid, but when her stepfather closed the doors and retired, the now-transplanted cooking colleen had it shipped piece-by-piece to her new home and renamed it after the mythical Celtic giant. It's been refitted several times since then of course, but she assures us: "the old bar is still under there!"

Geraldine Gilliland
Photo by Viktor Budnik

You might catch Gilliland at Finn's, but if not you can see her - well, a skeleton mural of her (complete with red hair) - on the wall of her Mexican restaurant Lula Cocina, which is also in Santa Monica. 

Inspired by a positive tarot card reading and educational food trips around Mexico, Gilliland opened Lula's in 1991 and her latest book, Lula's Kitchen - My Favorite Recipes from Mexico to Malibu, came out in May.

"It's taken me 25 years to write down all my recipes!" she laughs. "They were written in Spanglish (Spanish and English) on cocktail napkins and pieces of paper, so over the last four years we have re-tested them and formatted them for home cooking."

Gilliland began her career as a cook when she was still a schoolgirl at St. Dominic's in Belfast. Phoning up to find out the address of The Piccolo restaurant in Belfast city center, she started talking to owner Mike Dimmer, and the next thing she knew she was working there over the summer vacation. 

She was inspired by the then-exotic menu that included special dishes from Greece or India, but she also recalls throwing herself to the kitchen floor when bombs went off nearby. "It was 1969, and we were marching with Bernadette Devlin and so on," she says.

As soon as she arrived in L.A., Gilliland started working over the grill and has continued ever since, using her degrees in classical French Cuisine and Home Economics to teach Indian, Chinese, Regional Mexican, French, Californian and of course Irish cuisines to students at a number of cooking schools.

She branched out in 1984, opening Gilliland's Café, and it was there she became curious about what her Latino staff in her kitchen were eating.

"There were black beans, chilis. I hadn't even seen a tortilla!" she laughs. "I read an article about women chefs in Mexico, and immediately called noted chef Lula Bertrán and said I wanted to come visit."

Today, she lives on the 250-acre Rancho Chiquita in Malibu, where she holds cooking classes and hosts parties and weddings, but her idyllic view was marred by smoke a decade ago, when a nearby forest fire (always a risk in the mountains in dry California), destroyed her guest house.

The ruins did have a positive effect on Gilliland's life though. 

She helped rescue dogs from other houses during the fire and now she hosts fundraising dinners for various animal associations, as well as for the local volunteer fire department. 

"My late husband (Theodore Lonsway, who died in 2003) and I had been helping out in a small way with local dogs since we moved to Malibu in 1995," she says, "but then we got passionate, then obsessed, about saving high-risk dogs from high-kill shelters."

She formed a non-profit agency named "Chiquita's Friends" that fights against animal cruelty and helps other canine agencies and shelters, and also revealed that Chiquita was a dog. "She was a pit bull/beagle mix that we rescued. In fact, it was her - and her puppies - that made us decide to move to a bigger home, so we named the ranch after her."

Gilliland says that more than 1,000 dogs have been saved and found new, loving homes thanks to the Friends, but she's not done yet. "I'm looking at buying another piece of land for another dog sanctuary at the moment," she says, adding that all the profits from sales of the book will go the Friends.

As for flying back to Northern Ireland, that's not something on Gilliland's agenda. She became afraid of flying over the last few years and when she did make a trip recently she said that it was "awful!".

She's still connected and involved with her native land though. She lends her support to the US-Ireland Alliance, a non-profit that builds link between the two countries in education, politics, business and the arts (and hosts the noted Oscar Wilde Awards in Hollywood).

She also sits on the board of Cinemagic, the film festival for young people in Northern Ireland and the USA, and it was for these efforts - plus her animal care and support - that led to her being voted "Irishwoman of the year" by the Los Angeles City Council in 2015. 

"It was a particular honor for me," she says, "because I was nominated by former Irish President Mary McAleese."

Flicking through the pages of her latest book, Gilliland remembers that when she first arrived in Los Angeles, she could barely understand what anyone was saying. "I knew it was English, but it seemed like a very different type of English to me!" 

She stops at the page with her favorite recipe - duck sopes - and then admits that she regularly gets takeaway food from her own restaurants.

"You'd think I'd be sick of my own food by now, but no. I still love it!"

For information:
Geraldine Gilliland's Favorite Recipe:
Duck Sopes

8oz fresh corn masa
1/2 cup fresh ricotta cheese
1 tsp salt
12oz cold shredded duck or duck confit (p.166)
8 Tbsp diced yellow onion
1 tsp chopped garlic
2 Roma tomatoes, chopped with skin left on
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil, or duck fat, for frying
1 medium Idaho potato, peeled, diced, and
boiled in salted water until al dente

Sopes & Assembly
1. In a large bowl, mix the masa, salt, and cheese together by hand until smooth. Divide dough into 15 balls about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Press each ball between a tortilla press lined with plastic on both sides (we use plastic wrap) to 2 inches in diameter.

2. Place each sope on a dry hot griddle and cook for 2 minutes on one side. The dough will be soft and uncooked. Do this in batches. Turn the sopes over and cook on other side. Touch with fingers and it will puff up slightly. Remove from heat, and while still hot, pinch up the edges to form a ridge about ¼ inch high. Press down the side masa to center of the sope. You can keep warm in a plastic bag so they won't dry out.

3. Heat oil in a medium frying pan to 375º and deep fry sopes for about 3 minutes, until golden brown and crispy. Drain well on paper towels. Note: They can be kept warm for quite a while in a low oven wrapped in foil.

4. Heap middle of sopes with filling - directions below.
Serve warm.

For filling: Heat the olive oil, then add onion, garlic and saute until soft-about ten minutes. Add chopped tomatoes, diced potatoes and shredded duck, then cook for ten more minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then cool.

Add chopped cilantro, for garnish.


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