Kitchen Mechanics by Gary O'Hanlon: The Next Generation

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“I’m still deciding if I want to live in Longford”
“It’s very far from Dublin”
“Five choices are a lot to have on a menu”

Just some of the recent quotes from a 21 year old average Pastry Chef on trial in VM.

I’ve been very lucky. I had the same kitchen staff for 7 years, up until a year ago. Bar adding to the team, and the odd promotion from within which I’m a big fan of, I pretty much had the same crew since opening in 2008.

Last year my pastry chef moved on due to the demand on family life and the fact that she travelled over an hour to work. Totally understandable. She had promised me 2 weeks help when we opened in 2008 but loved the restaurant, the working environment and, believe it or not, me! So, 2 weeks turned into 7 years. Not a bad return in this world of revolving doors and, to have the same staff for so long, spoke volumes of how they are treated and it also gave me a great foundation of consistency to build on from day one.

I looked on as every chef I know looked for staff. If I’d a euro for every call or email I got asking for help in finding chefs I wouldn’t need to work.

I now find myself on that side of the fence.

It’s very worrying. I’ve found myself going from pushing everyone towards the goal of Michelin star standards to the fear that one day VM, and many other restaurants, will struggle to just have enough chefs to get through the day/week. This isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. Mark. My. Words.

The future of Irish food lies in training. The old CERT programme was the foundation of our industry. Hands-on practical training from incredible tutors, in strict college environments, followed by intense industry placement.

Where has the drive gone? Those unable to stand the heat of the kitchen need to be filtered out at college level. I remember a thing called October Talks in Killybegs. Those that weren’t applying themselves were simply moved on, one month in. No prisoners.

At 21 I found myself on the piss in the Bronx. I woke up after a solid nights partying and I hadn’t a penny to my name. I’d a flight ticket home but I didn’t wanna go. Gearoid Lynch, my good auld pal whom I’m sure you all know, threw me $400. I threw $200 to my ex-girlfriend, who was with us and also a chef, kept $200 and jumped on a bus to Boston. I wanted to cook in America and I wanted to prove myself there. I didn’t want the easy option of going home.

I’d a bed for a week. I did the only thing any man with $200 (less a bus ticket) to their name would do: I went on the piss. Met a man who knew a man and I figured I’d be working sooner rather than later. I’d cockiness to sell and zero fear. Within 2 hours I’d a job that paid me in a day what I earned in Ireland in a week (no joke) and within 3 weeks I’d been offered the head chef position in a new opening. Happy days.

7/8 weeks passed and I headed to NYC to meet Gearoid and Tara and grab our flight home. I threw Lynch his $400 and declared I was only going home for Christmas. I was for heading straight back out. The land of opportunity had sucked me in. I was terrified, homesick, you name it but, as far as I was concerned, if I could open a restaurant and make it work in Boston, I could do it anywhere. I’d a box room for a year or more and lost count of the nights I fell asleep with tears streaming down my cheeks. I missed my family, friends, Ireland. Everything.

I stayed for 5 years.

The thing is, to push yourself to a level to be like my idols Kevin Thornton, Ross Lewis, Derry Clarke and Paul Flynn, that was just the way it had to be. That’s how it was. You had to earn your stripes. On a daily basis you were corrected, and it was not always constructively either. You needed big stones to cope.

It broke my heart when that young pastry chef was on trial recently. I was served two pretty good desserts. Not great, but passable. One was three times the portion size anyone would expect to get and the other looked like a dog’s dinner but was tasty. I pointed out the mistakes. “Cool, man” comes the reply. I wanted to bust him. No joke. I won’t lie. He didn’t give a fuck. “Yeah man, I’ve a few more trials in Dublin and here and there, I’ll get back to you” says he. Due to desperation that’s the type of asshole I found myself offering a job to. Not one who was killing himself to impress. I’d no choice. It saddens me. Two guaranteed days off per week, zero split shifts and only 4 nights plus one day. It’s a heaven position in the scheme of things. “It’s really far from Dublin man.” Jesus.

I’d like to think we’ve a restaurant with a reputation for a reason. I like to do things right, have never had a bad review, and have been fortunate enough to have been named restaurant of the year and aside from all that, I know, in my heart of hearts, everyone that crosses the threshold gets incredible training. If that kind of restaurant struggles to attract young cooks, we really are in trouble.

Ireland has never been in a stronger position. Our raw ingredients were always revered, now our reputation for great cooking is following suit. It’s imperative we get some sort of system back in place to protect the future of our restaurants. The power can’t lie with those who are badly trained. Worrying times.



Read more from this series:

The Food Critic
The Next Generation
The Front of House
The KP
The Vac Pack
The Chef