June 25th, 1993. The day before I turned 15, and my first day in a professional kitchen.
It was also the first day I held a proper knife and the first day I realized the top flap of your thumb hurts like hell when you slice it off. I don’t want to jinx myself but I’ve only ever cut myself bad once since and even that wasn’t all that bad.
It didn’t put me off.
I was in the “pot walloping” section of the Rosapenna Hotel, Downings, County Donegal. I’d always wanted to be a chef. That or a pilot. Thank God I stuck with the chef option as I’m now terrified of flying. I’d finished my Junior Cert that week and this was my first step towards my dream spot in The Tourism College, Killybegs, the Holy Grail of chef colleges at the time. (and to this day, if you’re asking me!)
I loved cooking. I loved Floyd, Stein and Rhodes. They were the guys on TV back then.
This was a time when you had to earn your stripes to get into catering college. Mr. Frank Casey nominated one per year. The word was that this helped you get into college and it also meant you had to return for a full season on your first placement. A fair deal if you ask me. He gives you a job, he helps get you into college and you repay the business by returning for a busy season with a higher skill set and contribute to said business.
In The Rosapenna in those days, and still today I imagine, the “KP’s” started work at 3pm. Between 3pm and 5pm you had to prepare two potato dishes and three different vegetables for that nights service. No exceptions. The menu was written in The Head Chef Dette’s menu book and that was the one we all checked once we arrived in at 2.45pm. Yes 2.45. Not 3 or 3.10. Any later than 15 minutes early and you’re late.
First thing you did when you arrived was to hoist a large bag of spuds onto your shoulder and make your way to the kitchen with it. Today I’d find this an easy task but this was Gary pre big belly and broad shoulders. I was 9 stone, soaking wet, and built like a cocktail stick. Jesus, there were days I thought I was going to cough up a lung walking up those stairs with those spuds, but there was no way I was letting the bigger boys see me fail. Like everything else, you find a knack. Aim for the high bags, which meant you didn’t have to squat from the ground up, and use the banister as a spotter. Get to the top, shrug your shoulders and tell the Downings boys to “get the fuck outta your way.” “They’re spuds to be peeled boys” (whilst not letting them see your heart near pounding outta your chest)
Then it was to work. Peeling spuds for mash and for the second potato dish. Whether it be boulangere (if lamb was on) or dauphinoise. (A Rosapenna classic of potatoes, onions, ham, tomatoes, cream, salt and white pepper, baked and finished with cheddar cheese) After that it was the veg. Carrots, mange tout and corn or possibly swede, courgette Provençale and haricot verts. Always three, and always different colours!
Then came the service. You were also in total control of the cooking of said vegetables and potatoes. Yes, that’s right, you were in total control of the cooking. It was heaven that job. Hard as hard gets but I bloody loved it.
You were surrounded by pot wallopers who were all striving to become chefs. The pot walloping job was actually so tough in the Rosapenna that becoming a chef was the trophy job. Chefs, the boys that got to cook stuff, make a mess of the pans, but they then got to hand it to us boys to clean them up.
It taught you many things being a KP. Discipline, work ethic, knife skills, job appreciation, timing and a will to succeed.
I mean that wholeheartedly.
I hated scrubbing pots, but I loved cooking and I made sure I was in early enough to get my veg done because if you did and you were free when the chefs arrived you were asked in to help them. Whether that be decorating cakes (it was a dessert trolley in my day) with Helen the pastry chef or in beside Dette, the head chef, putting stuff through a pane, the longer you stayed outta the pot walloping corner the less you had to wash. Motivation enough for me.
In Viewmount House today, the KPs do the exact same. They are simply an extension of the chef brigade and an integral part of my team. Without them we’d be banjaxed. You see, for me, you always have to think the worst is going to happen. Especially in an environment like a professional kitchen. Stuff just goes wrong sometimes. People get burned, get cut, get injured by a fall. It could be anything. You need to have every single person in your kitchen capable of cooking to some level. You need them to want your job. You need to see past that though, and help them achieve that skill set.
Just recently another “press release” went out highlighting the massive shortage of chefs. I commend the RAI for trying to do something about it. Someone has to. For me, however, it’s just the same stuff every 6 months or so to get the same names in the 'papers. Maybe I’m being harsh as the issue has to be highlighted in some way or other but much much more has to be done. Bord Bia, Failte Ireland, the RAI, Eurotoques, the Minister for Tourism and 10 of the country’s finest chefs need to sit down and totally radicalize the system.
It’s simply not working.
Young cooks want too much money. Young cooks coming out of our colleges today CAN’T COOK. Young cooks today don’t want to scrub a floor at midnight after service. Young cooks want to be on the TV before they can make a hollandaise, make a stock, de-bone a chicken or butcher a lamb. We need to bring back the days of “The Rosapenna System” and tie in a qualification to young cooks that come up through the ranks in professional kitchens. The government needs to subsidize their wages, scrap the colleges altogether and employ the tutors as assessors to ensure they are being trained properly and are progressing at a proper rate and then, and only then, will we start to develop a core group of fine young cooks to be proud of.
Ireland has never been in a stronger position, in my opinion, as a food destination. That’s ok for now but the next 10-20 years are key to ensuring Ireland keeps it’s place at the Top Table.
KP’s are not just integral to the running of our kitchens today, they could be the answer to our culinary future and the Hospitality sector.
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