The Next Generation: Meet Ireland's Top Sous Chefs
We all know the head chefs – the famous, the starred, the celebrity – but who are the up-and-comers? The ambitious, talented young chefs who may well be headlining their own establishments in a few years? ANDREW JENNINGS spoke to the next generation.
Restaurant: Loam, Galway
Trained: Dundalk Institute of Technology
"My culinary career started at 23, after initially training in carpentry. I enrolled in the certificate course in professional cookery at Dundalk Institute of Technology. It required an industry placement, so I applied to Mint, in Ranelagh, where Dylan McGrath had taken over as head chef. It was a bit of a baptism of fire, and really set a standard for the rest of my career.
"I moved to London and secured employment at Sketch, where I stayed for two years. During this time, I did a stage at The Ledbury, where I heard that Enda McEvoy was opening up Aniar in Galway, so I contacted him immediately. I had no plans to come back to Ireland, but I felt that to be a part of Aniar would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I moved to Galway.
"Enda was the reason I moved back, so it was only natural that when he was leaving Aniar to open his own place that I’d leave with him and join what would become Loam. What I love about working in a kitchen is coming up with new dishes. From concept to menu, the process really excites me. Every dish tells a story.
“For a chef, it can be difficult getting used to long hours, especially at the start. The restaurant industry is changing, and people are looking at it now as a career, and not just a job. Restaurants are looking to keep staff and develop them more than they did in the past, so there is a big change in staff incentivisation, and work-life balance is part of that.
“I have ambitions to one day be a head chef. It’s the only way to present your cuisine, and I guess the ultimate goal for most chefs is to eventually open their own restaurant.
“One thing I’d improve about our industry is establishing an apprenticeship programme, something similar to Australia, with an international placement mandatory to pass it.”
Best career advice received: “You really get out of the job what you put in.”
Restaurant: Luna, Dublin
From: Mountcharles, Co. Donegal
Trained: Killybegs Tourism College
“I began my cooking career at my local restaurant in Mountcharles, the award-winning Village Tavern. I eventually moved to Perth, Australia, where I worked in hotels for the first time. The team was five times larger than I would have been used to and I was the only Irish chef, but I thrived in that job, climbing the ladder very quickly. It was hugely beneficial to learn the inner workings of a hotel.
“Before returning home, I worked for a few months in a beautiful little 50-seater Italian restaurant under a talented chef from Galway named Martina Page. “It’s here I really developed a love of Italian food. The owner was this old Italian guy who used to come in every day and help make the pastas. It was really important to him. It always made me smile.
“I have been fortunate enough to be working in Luna with the extremely gifted Hugh Higgins for the past year and a half, which has proven to be an especially beneficial time in my professional life – everything from the products we use, to the methods we try, to the people we work with.
“Aside from the fantastic staff we have in the kitchen and the beautiful room that is Luna, our front-of-house staff are exceptional.
“I love that every day is a school day, and if it’s not, you’re not taking enough risks or asking enough questions. There is no greater satisfaction than at the end of a really high-stressed yet successful service.
“I have met so many different, weird and wonderful characters throughout my time as a chef, and with the long hours, they become like family. I can’t imagine a job in which I would laugh as much as I do in this game.”
Best career advice received: “Don’t worry about your sanity. If you weren’t a little mad, you wouldn’t be here.”
Age: 33 Restaurant: Kai Café + Restaurant, Galway
Trained: Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology
“I grew up in England and moved to Ireland in 2007, where I have worked in bars and restaurants since I was 18. I started working in kitchens in 2010, when studying for a master’s in computer security. I moved to Galway in 2012 and staged in Aniar before moving to its sister restaurant, Cava Bodega, where I worked for almost three years. During this time, I completed the Total Immersion Chef Programme at GMIT, where I am currently studying for a BA in culinary arts. I moved to Kai in the summer 2016 and have been sous chef since March of this year.
“As chefs, we will always have to work evenings and weekends – it’s something that you get used to – however, at Kai, we work a four-day week, so we work long days, but it is balanced, with more days off.
“I have always worked in the hospitality industry, so I had a good idea what I was getting into when I started. I have always tried to work at the best restaurants, so it is a very rewarding experience.
“I guess my best career decision has been turning my back on a career in IT for an unpaid stagiaire at a Michelin-starred restaurant [Aniar].
“I’d like to one day become a head chef, as it’s the natural progression, to keep challenging myself in my career. I would like to open a small restaurant in my home town of Clifden one day, working with the best of Connemara produce.
“A lot of restaurants are showcasing the best of Irish produce right now and really driving the Irish food scene forward, supporting small local producers, however, at the same time, many establishments still have an overdependence on cost-saving over quality, using pre-made, processed foods, especially in desserts.
“I think it’s important to encourage and educate young people to have an interest in food. Many students leave school and have no idea how to cook for themselves. I believe it is important to instil a strong food culture from an early age. This will encourage more young people into the industry.”
Best career advice received: “Every problem has a solution. Don’t stress the small stuff.”
Restaurant: Lough Erne Resort, Co. Fermanagh
From: Killeeshil, Co. Tyrone
Trained: South West College, Dungannon
“I studied at South West College, Dungannon, and, I have to admit, it was life-changing. I still look back to those days fondly, as it was a very positive time for me. The lecturers helped shape my career immensely. “Since then, I have worked in kitchens in Dubai, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, before returning home seven years ago to take up a position at Lough Erne Resort as sous chef, then executive sous chef.
“The [restaurant] industry does get bad press for its long hours and modest pay, but I always maintain that the landscape is changing in Ireland, and people are taking notice.
“I am a positive thinker, and what I most enjoy about my job is working with a great team and also working with great artisan and local suppliers.
“Yes, the hours are long, and I have heard many chefs complain about it, but it’s a part of the job, and if it’s not for you, don’t do it. It’s the same as many jobs – doctor, farmer – any job worth doing takes sacrifice and dedication. The results will come.
“If someone had told me I’d be second in charge at the G8 summit [held at Lough Erne Resort in 2013] for food, and not only cook for the world leaders, but meet them as well, or cook in the world-famous James Beard House in New York and get the chance to cook for the Queen, I would have told them they were dreaming!
“I am very grateful and humble to have done all of what I have done. I also met my wife, who has been a massive support to me over the years, through cooking.
“My longer-term focus is to be an executive head chef of a five-star property in Ireland or abroad. I only like working in hotels. They give me more scope, and every day is always different. So if I win the lotto, I will buy myself a hotel.
“I would improve our industry by making sure our governments – both North and South – make cooking a compulsory life skill in primary and high schools. This will greatly improve the perception of hospitality and ultimately make our industry prosper.”
Best career advice received: “Love all, trust few, and paddle your own canoe.”
Restaurant: The Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin
From: Celbridge, Co. Kildare
Trained: Dublin Institute of Technology
“Having completed a degree in chemistry at Trinity College, I moved on to do professional cookery at Dublin Institute of Technology. I worked in various food and beverage departments in a number of top hotels in Ireland, and I was always in awe of the chefs and the amazing dishes they created.
“I aspired to be able to cook like that, and I went from waitressing in Carton House, the Four Seasons and Powerscourt to cooking at Killashee, Dunboyne Castle and the Shelbourne. I followed executive head chef Garry Hughes to the Shelbourne, and I have been there for seven years, working my way up the ranks.
“I work with an amazing team. We are like a family, and everyone supports and helps each other out. There is great sense of comradery. I also love having the chance to be creative and the sense of achievement when a dish comes together. Quite often, we become so immersed in what we are doing that we don’t want to leave the kitchen.
“One of the best things about the industry is having the chance to experiment. We do a lot of experimenting and tasting behind the scenes, and although many of the dishes may be too complex for the menu, we continue to explore different ingredients and options.
“There are times when it can be a tough industry to work in, but we have a great, supportive team behind us. Garry and executive pastry chef Katie McLoughlin do their best to accommodate everyone’s personal lives.
“I love the buzz of working in the kitchen. In the beginning, I was really interested in molecular gastronomy, but now I know it isn’t always possible when catering for large numbers. You never stop learning as a chef, which is really interesting, and there are never enough hours in the day – the time flies!
“The best career decision I have made was changing from the hot section to pastry, as the attention to detail and precision cookery in pastry really draws on my chemistry background.
“We are quite lucky in the Shelbourne with our work schedule, but many chefs work split shifts and long days, which drives brilliant people out of the industry.”
Best career advice received: “Keep your head down, keep pushing, and don’t serve anything you wouldn’t eat yourself.”
“I was born and grew up on the east coast of Mauritius, where I started to cook from a very early age. Food was always a big part of my family. I’m very much influenced by my aunt’s cooking style, where it’s all about taste and how to treat food with respect.
“I started my cooking career at aged 16, at the Constance Academy in Mauritius, where I completed a professional cookery course (Level 6), which was followed by a degree in culinary arts at the Hotel School of Mauritius.
“I did my apprenticeship at the Constance Belle Mare Plage, while also doing some of my training at Spoon des Îles (by Alain Ducasse), also in Mauritius.
“I arrived in Ireland in 2005 and completed a degree in hospitality management. I have competed in many culinary competitions, achieving a gold medal and a young chef award at WACS [World Association of Chefs' Societies] competitions.
“I have been working at Chapter One for the past four years, starting as chef de partie before moving up to sous chef. I just keep working hard, keep motivated, and keep learning from the best head chef in the country. I enjoy every moment of it – after all, it’s the best job in the world! For me, hard work and determination always pay off.
“I moved to Ireland to experience a new culture. My plan is to travel to the Nordic countries to experience their way of cooking at some stage.
“My ambition is to one day introduce my own cooking style in my own Michelin-quality restaurant here in Ireland. My favourite style of cooking is French, as I grew up in a French cooking background.
“If I was asked my death-row meal, it would have to be spicy fish soup with home-made vegetable dumplings.”
Best career advice received: “Keep the head down and push on, and most of all: OUI CHEF, OUI CHEF, OUI CHEF.”
Restaurant: Campagne, Kilkenny
From: Ballyragget, Co. Kilkenny
Trained: Waterford Institute of Technology
“I’ve had a passion for cooking since I was a child. Becoming a chef was always my goal. I was the only boy in my home economics class in school. During my summer breaks, I worked in Dublin in a kitchen, helping my aunt by peeling potatoes, making coleslaw, etc.
“When I finished school, I started working at Zuni restaurant in Kilkenny, where I stayed for seven years. While working there, I was also in Waterford Institute of Technology part time for three years. After Zuni, I started at Campagne as a chef de partie, and I’ve worked my way up to sous chef.
“I love cooking. Even when I’m not in work, I’m cooking at home for my family. When you’re passionate about your job, it makes the long hours easier. Of course, you’d like a more balanced work/life, but they are the hours required for the job, which you’re aware of when you choose this career.
“I was very young when I started to follow this career, and I wasn’t really sure where it would take me in life. I just knew it was my passion. I feel lucky that there is such a good restaurant in Kilkenny that has the same outlook on food as I do and keeps me close to where I want to raise my children.
“My best career decision, so far, is moving to Campagne. It’s a very well-run kitchen, and I’ve developed a whole new set of skills.
“One day, I’d like to become a head chef somewhere. I’d also like to own my own small restaurant, however, at the moment, I’m happy where I am.
“There are some very good chefs in Ireland who get to use top ingredients, however, I don’t think there is enough outside-the-box thinking. I wish there was more.
“I love cooking Indian food, or food that’s spice orientated. I love the depth of flavour you can get from four or five spices, which can make the simplest dishes shine.”
Best career advice received: “Believe in yourself. You are good at what you do.”
Restaurant: MacNean House, Co. Cavan
From: Tempo, Co. Tyrone
Trained: South West College, Fermanagh
“My cheffing career started 18 years ago, when I met Neven Maguire, who was lecturing at my college, where I completed my catering qualification.
“In 2001, I was Neven’s commis chef for the Bocuse d’Or world cuisine competition in France.
“To further my skill set, I went to Dublin to work at Bang restaurant for four years, before returning home in 2005 to work in a local restaurant and hotel, to experience a different aspect of the industry. In 2010, I started back at MacNean House. I recently went on a stage to Pied à Terre restaurant in London, working with head chef Andy McFadden.
“In any career, you need to be passionate and love what you do. If you’re happy and proud in what you do, that will show in the food you give to your customers. I enjoy working with a top-quality head chef and being able to create dishes that I know customers will appreciate.
“You get used to the long hours. It is the nature of the industry that we work in. When you enjoy what you do, it makes it easier. It’s very important to have a work-life balance as much as possible – family is important, and you can miss a lot of different family occasions – but Neven is very good and, as much as possible, encourages his staff to attend such functions, as MacNean’s is very much a family business, in every sense of the word. “Working as a chef has very much lived up to my expectations when I started out. Over the years, more and more opportunities have been made available to me as my career has developed. I believe it’s up to all chefs to push themselves as far as they want to go. There are always things to learn if you are willing to invest the time and effort.
“Travelling to various parts of the world to sample new cultures and experience different cuisines is very important. I really enjoy travelling to different parts of the world on my holidays to sample and enjoy local delicacies, and I find it very interesting seeking out how different restaurants serve their dishes.
“My favourite style of cooking is modern Irish, using quality ingredients sourced in our local areas.”
Best career advice received: “Every new day push yourself, learn as best as you can, be willing to listen and open to trying new things.”
Restaurant: Harvey’s Point, Donegal
From: Donegal Town
Trained: Killybegs Tourism College
“I started working as a kitchen porter at the age of 14, at a local hotel called the Central Hotel, where I was eventually given the opportunity to work more closely with the chefs, doing basic food preparation and helping out during service. I went on to do a two-year professional cookery course at Killybegs Tourism College. I eventually took a job at Harvey’s Point, starting off working as a commis chef in the banqueting area of the kitchen. After about a month, I was moved into the AA 2-Rosette restaurant, on the starter section.
“Two years later, I was moved up to main courses and got promoted to chef de partie. Luckily for me, Harvey’s wanted me to gain experience in other establishments, so they sent me on stages to several Michelin-star restaurants in Ireland, England and Scotland. After six years, I was made junior sous chef, also in charge of designing and creating the menus, and the running of the AA 2-Rosette restaurant. After showing what I could do, I was made senior sous chef.
“For me, there is nothing that beats the buzz of a busy kitchen. I enjoy the fast pace of working under pressure, the creativity of writing a menu, and the enjoyment of helping to lead a positive, hard-working, driven team. “When I became a chef, I knew what I was letting myself in for. The hours are long and unsociable, but I didn’t let this stop me or hold me back. As the years go on, you get more used to it, and it almost becomes the norm. However, since I met my fiancée and became a dad to my daughter, Mia, I must admit, I do find it very hard to leave them in the morning, knowing I won’t see them until late that night. Not just because of my own experience, but, in general, I think the working hours need to be improved to help entice the younger generation into our amazing industry, to help with the current chef shortage, and to make the job of the chef more inviting.
“For me, I always wanted a career where I felt like I was being challenged and where learning never ends. Being a chef certainly exceeded this, and more. When I thought about professional kitchens, I always thought about the pressure, the fast pace, and the overall thrill of working in a busy environment, and, for me, these expectations have been met.
“I would like to be a head chef one day, but in a restaurant, rather than a hotel. I want to be behind the stove, stuck in the middle of cooking. Sometimes, as a head chef in a busy hotel, this is hard, as it can be more office/meeting orientated, so, in a restaurant, yes. I think every chef wants to be a head chef someday, and this is one of my goals, but my real dream is to open my own place.”
Best career advice received: “Small things make a big difference.”
Restaurant: Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud
From: Catania, Sicily
Trained: Catering School, Mount Etna
“I grew up in Sicily, where the kitchen is the heart of the home. I remember my mom and nana pressing almond milk by hand, making ravioli, pizza, bread and cake.
“I spent five years in catering school beside Mount Etna, in Sicily, where on completion I went to work for Alain Ducasse in Tuscany, which was very challenging, but a hugely worthwhile experience.
“Following three years in Tuscany, I wanted to travel and perfect my English, which took me to Dublin, to work for Patrick Guilbaud. I was promoted to sous chef after 12 months, and have been in the position for the last four years.
“I’ve always agreed with the saying that if you find a job you love, you will never work a day in your life.
“Every day is a new day and brings new challenges at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, which I strive to perfect. “Being a chef can be a tough life, but at Patrick Guilbaud we have two Michelin stars, and we’re always aiming at the top. There is no reward with no sacrifice.
“In terms of one day becoming a head chef, I guess I’m on that ladder. All students leave their masters, and the cycle continues.
“Irish restaurants (and people) are a lot like those in Sicily – warm, generous and welcoming – although I do think Irish restaurants could serve more pasta.
“I’d like to see better investment in catering colleges and courses here in Ireland, so today’s students have more knowledge entering the workplace of tomorrow.
“For a young chef, I think travelling certainly broadens your horizons and exposes you to new food and cultures.
“I’ve spent the last five and a half years in Ireland and recently spent three months at Ca Sento, the three-Michelin-star restaurant in Kobe, Japan, where I learnt a lot.”
Best career advice received: “A Sicilian proverb: Go fast, go alone. Go far, go together.”