If you told me 10 years ago that my passion in life would be food, I would have quite literally cackled. When I was 16, I had no idea what I wanted my future career to look like. I enjoyed art, science and history with equal zeal and imagined myself as a politician or perhaps the female version of Vincent Browne. I dreamt of moving to Dublin and studying Philosophy, Politics, Economics and Sociology in Trinity - all disciplines which I do still have an interest in although I’m now glad things took a different turn for me. Ten years ago, as a 5th year student at the Presentation Secondary in Listowel, many of my classmates were aspiring towards careers in law, medicine, or teaching. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn’t want to be a chef. My parents weren’t – and still aren’t - the kind to put pressure on their kids academically. It’s more important to them that we’re happy in our day to day lives, a value which they’ve passed down to us as individuals. Success doesn’t equal happiness, and I’m very lucky to have known this at 17 as I entered university in UCC. I decided to study Architecture for my undergraduate. I arrived at that conclusion to the surprise of many, including my GP, who asked my mother quizzically ‘where did that come from?’ one afternoon as she picked me up from an appointment. It was generally expected that I would become some description of a baker or pastry chef, following in the footsteps of my mom. Probably our GP wanted to secure the future supply of his weekly apple tart order, of which mom was the dealer at the time. But it did make sense that I should work in food, it came naturally to me, and I had always enjoyed it. I’m stubborn though – I wanted to do something different, carve my own path and all the rest. So off I went to study Architecture, where I felt completely out of my depth as I couldn’t even name one famous architect, not to mind grasp the concept of why some buildings were better than others. I spent the summers working in cafes and bakeries – where I was very naturally comfortable. I started learning the names of famous architects and struggled on for a few years, eventually getting the hang of it. Something about it never felt quite right though, and I couldn’t imagine myself working in an office at a computer all day. It took me a few years to realise - after a fairly big hiccup with my mental health – that time spent in the kitchen made me far happier than time spent in the studio.
As the final semester of my undergraduate degree in Architecture began in UCC, I found that a sludgy quality had begun to melt across my brain. The creativity that had once come so easily to me became stifled and awkward and bringing a pencil to the paper to draw was next to impossible. I was on track to get a first based on my semester one work but found myself unable to move beyond a concept stage with my project and very much fell behind, stuck in this invisible mud. I googled the college mental health services but never managed to make myself an appointment - I felt that I would be wasting their time as I couldn’t really describe whatever it was that was wrong with me. This situation was entirely new to me, and I trudged on, hoping it would pass, falling further and further behind as time passed. On the 16th of March I was due to present my work at the halfway mark of the semester. I had essentially nothing of value to present and was at this stage virtually paralysed by what was now an incredibly dense fog in my mind. In the middle of the night, I woke up, unable to breathe properly. I called my friend, who luckily happened to be awake, and she guided me through steadying my breathing in what was my first panic attack. I woke up my housemate at about 5 o clock in the morning and sat on her bed crying uncontrollably before returning to my room and emailing my lecturers to say I wouldn’t be able to present that day. For several weeks afterwards I continued to move through these days that felt like thick sludge in a robotic kind of way. To occupy myself I began to bake, as I had done when I was a child at my granny’s kitchen table. Baking brought me a comfort that’s difficult to describe, particularly sharing what I had made with my friends and housemates. I applied for a deferral from college to submit at the end of the summer and then another deferral for an additional year. I returned to my part time job at Avoca in Molls Gap where I held responsibility for the Foodhall, and began to realise that I had an unusual passion for food. I continued to bake throughout, making haphazard and deeply flawed cakes for the birthdays of friends and family.
In late January of 2020 I began a part time pastry course at MTU, driving from Killarney to Cork city on Monday nights to attend. I was extremely apprehensive about returning to college and dreaded sitting any kind of exam, worried that the brain sludge would return. On our first night we were reassured that a large portion of the work would be assessed on a continuous basis and that the exams would be very much based on the learning which we had practiced in class. My breathing settled for what felt like the first time in two years; as we whisked eggs and sugar over a bain-marie to make a genoise sponge, I felt I had found my place.The classes came to an abrupt halt as the pandemic began, but I continued to bake at home and absorbed as much information as I could about baking. In September of the same year, I found myself living in Donegal, and eager to return to college, applied for the Springboard course in Culinary Arts in Killybegs. Sitting in the computer lab of the college, about to begin a new academic year, I realised that I was meant to return to Architecture that September. Without hesitation, I downloaded the form for withdrawal and sent it off to UCC, quite content to start my academic career all over again; this time studying something that came naturally to me.
I’m about to graduate with a first-class honours degree in Botanical cuisine, and have now commenced a part time masters in Applied Nutrition. Protecting real food and rural communities is my passion and I feel I’ve been gathering skills for a career in this line for my entire life. Growing up, my understanding of what it means to work in food was fairly limited. Now, I can see the beautifully diverse range of jobs that can be found in all areas of food. From working as part of a highly skilled Michelin star team, to making cakes in a small café, to cheffing in the line in a busy casual dining spot, to food writing, right through to food education. There are so many diverse opportunities available with a career in food, and in my opinion there has never been a more important time to be working in this industry. There is a seismic shift occurring in society’s understanding of food and its impact on our health, and this shift is slowly trickling down to how we consume food in restaurants. Consumers require more information on nutrition and they’re increasingly conscious of the impact the food they consume has on the environment. The food industry needs passionate individuals to drive change in both the options available to consumers and the environments we work in. Degree programs like Botanical Cuisine are paving the way in crafting the chefs that the future needs; environmentally conscious, careful custodians of the wonderful produce that exists in this country.
For many, the path to becoming a chef is not a linear one. They begin working in kitchens as a summer job, something to make a bit of money; it’s not the long-term plan. But for many more - like me - they find something in the space of a kitchen that feels like home. There are lots of things that need to change to make the industry a truly viable career choice, but it won’t change without a few gamechangers. If you or someone you know is naturally drawn to cooking or baking, encourage them to follow their hearts into the vibrant world of food. You never know, they might have just the ingredient we need to make the industry a better place.
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