Meet the chefs & teams of Ireland’s professional kitchens, with Chef Network
The Chef Network community brings together chefs at all levels from all sectors across Ireland. In a Hotel & Restaurant Times regular column we meet some members and hear from them what inspires and motivates them, their career challenges and opportunities, and how they believe we can improve the industry.
In this edition, we meet Peadar Mc Namee. Peadar started his career doing part time work in a local kitchen before moving to Brooklyn and then on to the South of France. He now travels the world on a private yacht cooking for high profile guests and celebrities.
1. Why did you become a Chef?
I guess it was just something I always wanted to do way back as far as I can remember. I don’t have a story of cooking in my grandmother’s kitchen at the age of 3 or anything like that, although both my grandmother and mother were both cooks in the local convent for the nuns. I always had an interest in cooking, probably from when I hit my teens. I found myself experimenting in the kitchen, cooking a roast chicken, or attempting to bake a cake or cookies. I then started looking up cookbooks and picking something from it that caught my eye and I would put my heart into whatever the recipe was and hope it turned out remotely similar to the photo in the book. From there, I gradually floated towards part time kitchen work.
2. What was your path to where you are today?
I left school early, so from the age of 17, I started working on pot wash at weekends and on the building sites during the week. The Kitchen I was in was local to where I lived and was like a lot of establishments in Ireland at the time. It was a country pub/restaurant, a place where the farmers or the construction lads and locals came in, not looking for anything fancy, but plenty on the plate. A meat, potato and veg type place, shall we say. It was a start, and it was the first footstep in the direction I wanted to go.
I got the feel for what it was like to work in a real kitchen. I could see how everything came together, how the dynamics worked and eventually the chef had me slicing onions and halving mushrooms and doing small prep like that. Then one day it was up to the fryer to drop baskets of chips or onion rings when it was busy and so there, I was, I had the start as a commis chef and very quickly I tired of that type of food, and it was time to move on to bigger and better. I signed up to the chef’s course at DKIT and really that’s when it all started to get interesting. Working with all these exciting new ingredients in an environment where you were constantly encouraged by really great mentors who I still keep in contact with today and would consider good friends.
My first full time commis chef job was at Kilkea Castle and I loved it, as a matter of fact looking back through my career I can honestly say it was my favorite job ever. It was such an amazing place to learn, using top quality ingredients. A lot of the produce I was using for the first time, so everything was very much new and exciting. I also had a really cool head chef whom I respected, and he respected me.
After Kilkea I worked in a bistro in Dundalk called no.32. It was a trendy little place with great food, and at the time, these types of restaurants were just starting to blossom in small towns across Ireland. I worked with another head chef who was real easy going and full of passion for the love of food.
After No.32 I started in Ashford castle under a staunch German head chef with a team of 27 cooks in the kitchen at any one time. This was my first introduction to a brigade style kitchen. Things were run by rank and broken down into sections. I learned discipline and the importance of structure; why things needed to be done the way they were in order to keep the standard the chef commanded. I can’t say it was my favorite job, or by any means easy, but I did learn and I’m thankful for that.
After Ashford I traveled to New York and started working in the River Cafe in Brooklyn where I grew up from the age of 6 to 16. The restaurant, which is still there is under the Brooklyn Bridge overlooking the New York skyline, was another large brigade style kitchen. I worked through the ranks working my way up from starters to grill in a fast-paced busy kitchen with a great team of cooks.
I spent a few years in New York and worked in other restaurants there before moving to the south of France and working my way through some restaurants as head chef and as sous chef of a restaurant where we earned a Michelin star after the first year of opening.
I eventually decided to join the yachting world and now after 8 years, continue in the yachting industry, working for high profile guests and celebrities. I continue to study culinary arts at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and do courses all over Europe every chance I get. As chefs, it’s our duty to keep learning and keep trying to move forward.
3. What are some of the highlights of your career to date or some of the periods/aspects of your time as a chef that you have most enjoyed?
I guess some of the highlights of my career would definitely include being part of a team of passionate chefs that earned a restaurant in Nice, France its first Michelin star the first year of it opening. We all worked hard and had one goal, which wasn’t to earn a Michelin star, but was just to cook our hearts out. We were all really in sync with each other and loved cooking, the star was a bonus.
Another highlight to my career would have to be when I published my first cookbook, From Fridge to Fork, I’m quite proud of it ( available on amazon). It’s nothing fancy just my ‘go to’ dishes if I’m cooking at home. It’s not complicated in anyway, simplicity was what I was going for so that anyone could pick up the book, choose a recipe and execute it with ease and I genuinely hope I’ve achieved that. I put a lot of effort into the whole process, I’m self-published so it was quite an interesting challenge. Cooking the dishes was the easy part, writing out the recipes, photographing the dishes, editing, proof reading and repeating to make sure you got it right was the more time-consuming part (and even at that I’ve noticed one or two spelling mistakes but don’t tell anyone!). Like everything else, it’s a learning process and book number two, which is simple recipes for home baking, is in progress. I might add that I have to thank my wife Edwina for helping me with the whole publishing process, it wouldn’t have happened without her
4. What is the most important ingredient in your success to date?
That one is simple, Passion. Cooking is my passion and I love it. If you have passion for something, do it and you’ll be successful at it (if you want to be)
5. What is the most important lesson you have learned about being a leader in the kitchen?
I think the most important thing about being a leader in a kitchen and indeed in any leadership role is to lead by example. Don’t ask someone to do something you wouldn’t or haven’t done yourself, remember where you started yourself.
Try not to be arrogant or condescending to any of your team. Remember someday they will probably be in the same position as you. There’s a difference in teaching a certain level of quality. Choose the humble road, be the leader not the boss.
QUICKFIRE Q & A
What I love most is the variety of things to do. There’s never a dull day and always something new to create. We work with such an abundance of seasonal ingredients that your creativity and hunger for development is constantly being stimulated and that to me can be very satisfying.
The biggest challenge is trying to do something better than you did it the time before. Perfecting sour dough is an ongoing challenge for me; rewarding but challenging.
What makes me most proud is being able to pass on knowledge to younger chefs and then watching them take that knowledge and make it their own. You kind of feel that you’ve done something right, an accomplishment - passing the flame on is very important to our industry.
The most difficult thing I have had to face is letting someone go because they didn’t have enough passion or motivation. In order to run a successful kitchen you need a team of like-minded chefs, chefs you can bounce off, that get excited about a new ingredient or a new dish on the menu. Chefs with a huge smile of satisfaction on their face when they taste a dish for the first time and feel the same way about it as you do, without speaking a word you just know what each other is thinking. If you don’t have a team like that, the simple answer is you need to get one.
I have learned that you never stop learning unless you want to. Once you start to stagnate it’s time to throw in the towel, it’s not fair on paying customers.
The key skills or traits to have in this job are to work well as part of a team, to respect your team mates. Confidence is important, be humble enough to know that you don’t know it all and every day you go into work is an opportunity to learn and better yourself. Grab the bull by the horns and do it.
We can create a better workplace by treating your team with respect and fairness. Be a leader not a boss and set an example. Be flexible to a certain extent and a exercise a level of understanding. Set a standard and stick to it (or better it through time). Anyone who can’t meet that standard or at least be willing to learn shouldn’t be there. Everyone needs to be on the same page.
My advice to chefs starting out is if cooking is not your passion, then don’t waste your time. Go and find out what your passion is and pursue it. Trust me you will excel at whatever that may be. For young chefs starting out you need passion and motivation, an inquisitive mind and being competitive isn’t a bad thing either. Remember to stay humble, nobody likes a big ego. If you can tick some of these boxes, then you need to find an establishment that’s good enough to feed your hunger to learn. If you are in a place already and it doesn’t do this, then you need to find somewhere that does. It’s so important, otherwise you stagnate and go round in circles.
Don’t be afraid to leave your hometown, county or country to follow your career and passion. Step outside your comfort zone, throw yourself into the deep end from time to time, take chances, ask questions. Watch how things are done, don’t be afraid of hard work, it’s not hard work if you love what you’re doing. I used to say don’t take any B.S. from anybody, but that’s wrong. What I would say is don’t take it from anybody unless it’s worth it. You’ll know it’s worth it or not, in which case ‘yes chef’ it is and head down, carry on. It might not feel it at the time but it will stand to you, even if your pride is temporarily bruised.
My advice to chefs trying to progress their career is to never use the term ‘it’ll do rightly’ because it won’t. Always use the best of your ability, keep your passion alive by learning new skills, practice, set yourself goals and constantly strive to meet those goals and set new ones.
My greatest mentor has been… There have been too many along the way to name. I think you learn from everyone you work with, how to do something or how not to do something. My lecturers at college and my Head Chefs when I was just starting out had the biggest influence on my understanding of what being a chef is all about.
My biggest inspiration is all the beautiful ingredients that come through the doors of the kitchen. I’ll see something and be like ‘yup, I know what I’m going to do with that’ and an idea starts and then all of a sudden its garnished and on a plate and a new dish is born.
My favourite job ever was Commis Chef in Kilkea Castle.
My favourite place to eat is London, I love the variety and the standard of food there.
My favourite thing to eat is a good Pizza with a proper base, or a good loaf of sour dough with lashings of salty butter.
My favourite piece of kit/equipment is my Thermomix , its magic the things it can do!
Something I would like to learn is to master viennoiserie. There’s a science to it I find fascinating, you need to be on the ball and precise with timing, temperature and weights otherwise things just don’t work. It takes a lot of patience too!