Kitchen Mechanics by Gary O'Hanlon: The Sous Chef

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The camaraderie in a professional kitchen reaches its zenith in the accord between the head chef and his sous chef. Gary O’Hanlon gets into the psychology of it all.

“What do you want from this job” says the HR manager of the Galway Bay Hotel, Salthill, circa Jan 2005.

“Bobby’s job” I replied. (Bobby was the Executive Chef)

Dan Murphy, the GM, and Mary Catherine Conroy, the HR manager, smiled and half-laughed nervously. I wasn’t laughing. I was deadly serious. I’d already been pushing myself to the brink in Boston over the previous six years and Head Chef of a Four Star Hotel with average – at best – menus wasn’t fazing me. With that confidence, though, came a serious streak of respect for Bobby and everyone else associated with the hotel. I wasn’t in any way trying to be disrespectful. I was simply fighting my corner. I wanted the job. I wanted to work there. I knew what the very ambitious General Manager wanted. He wanted me and that drive and steeliness. He didn’t have to say it. I knew.

I made it very clear  very early that I was a team player. Yes Chef, No Chef. That’s the lay of the land. And rightly so. The first thing I did was drain Bobby’s mind. I knew my strengths but, more importantly, I was very much aware of my weaknesses. Patience, control, and finances. Now I was good at finances, very good in-fact  (you don’t survive for six years in America if you’re not) but not as good as Bobby. He was a machine. Empty fridges come Sunday night is a gift when you consider the variety of menus and dining that was happening. He was next level. Always meeting margins. Chefs with the urge to be heroes on a plate are expensive eejits to have about the place. Bobby lengthened the leash but by no means was it ever taken off.

That can be a head chef’s undoing, though. You’ve got to let your chefs dance. Ultimately they need to know all dishes pass you (control is everything) but if you curtail talent, you’ll be on a hiding to nothing, and your business will suffer. It can never be about the head chef’s ego. You may be the best player on the field but, if someone else hits a better free kick, you had damn well better let him/her hit the frees!

If your sous chef doesn’t go on to be a better chef or, at the very least, a more improved chef you’ve failed him/her miserably.

I’ve been blessed in Viewmount House with my Sous Chef. Daniel was a very raw talent back in 2008. A young Slovak (20) with little English and less experience but what he did have was a desire to work in VM alongside me. More importantly, I knew I’d be glued to the place for years so his youth and inexperience were irrelevant to me. I’d have the perfect clone in 2-3 years and by then have enough belief instilled in him that his own creative side would shine. It has. A student chef of the year title, a scholarship to Johnston & Wales, and a one year career break to work in one of New Zealand’s best restaurants soon followed. We sucked up his absence by working harder and promoting from within but, ultimately, we wanted to keep his job for him should he return (with an even better skillset). Thankfully he did. He busts his ass for me on the sidelines day in and day out. The least we can do is let him do his thing to prosper his career. He’ll move on again when the time is right and when the right opportunity presents itself, but the bigger picture is the bond you need with your sous chef.

There is no greater honour than seeing someone you had as a sous chef going on to prosper. Take Kevin Thornton, for example. Gearoid Lynch, Graham Neville, Jess Murphy, Ciaran Sweeney to name but a few have passed his door. Paul Flynn can look towards the scarily talented duo of Gregans Castle’s David Hurley and The Greenhouse’s Mickael Viljanen. Paul Rankin had the likes of Frankie Mallon, Robbie Millar (R.I.P.) and Eugene O’Callaghan. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. They all trained many, many more I’m sure.

What all those chefs have achieved since moving on says all you need to know about them and their characters. These chefs bided their time. Walked the long road. Now look at them. Mind you, the masters are still dancing themselves and then some.

You can’t do all the work yourself. A great sous chef knows that, and must always have your back. No exceptions. Ever. What they give you now should be given back in spades should they move on and need help. Provided, of course, they earned that level of respect.

A good sous chef is someone with cooking skills, patience and the loyalty of a best friend.


Read more from this series:

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