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 Barry Ralph, Chef-Proprietor at House of Plates
Why did you become a Chef?
I’ve always been interested in food from a young age. I’ve always dabbled in the kitchen and in the garden.
When I was 14, I went down to the market and bought a packet of seeds. I began to grow my own little garden of vegetables and each week I would bring the fruit and veg I’d collected and sell them in the local market. I’d make jams and chutneys with some of the wild berries I’d found and sell these alongside my own garden produce as well. Setting up my very first business.
I remember recording Darina Allen’s cooking show each week on my VHS and watching them back to recreate the recipes. Another big inspiration for me growing up was Gerry Daly and his gardening show. I wasn’t very academic, and I didn’t have much interest in school, but cooking and growing food was something I was passionate about. I have always felt as though cheffing was for me.
What was your path to where you are today?
After school I made the decision to try and get my CERT to become a chef. At this point I’d had zero experience in a commercial kitchen. The first day of college we were all asked to say a bit about ourselves, including which kitchens we had worked in. There was only two of us in the whole class that had no practical experience in a professional kitchen, that was quite intimidating for me at the time. Still, I knew that this is what I wanted to do and during my time on the course I was placed in some of the local hotels to gain my work experience. I graduated from GMIT in 2000 and later went on to work in various restaurant and hotels in Mayo.
I moved up pretty quickly and got my first head chef job at the age of 24 in a local restaurant in Castlebar. I realised that I had quite limited skills at this point and that I wanted to gain more experience. That’s when I made the decision to move back to one of the local restaurants that I had previously worked in.
I eventually grew tired of working for other people, I knew that I wanted to venture out on my own. I was driving home after attending my very first Food on the Edge conference and started thinking to myself. I knew I had settled for the job I was in; I wasn’t enjoying it and something in me knew that I need more. I decided to follow my dream, take the leap and open the restaurant I always wanted. When I got home that night I sat down with my wife and together we set our minds to creating ‘House of Plates’. A small plates restaurant which would take sustainability seriously and work with local suppliers to support the community.
“I decided to follow my dream, take the leap and open the restaurant I always wanted”
What is the most important ingredient in your success to date?
Hard work, honesty, dedication and a passion for what you do.
I genuinely believe that anyone can be successful if they work hard.
“Anyone can be successful if they work hard”
Tell us about the team you work with.
We have a small kitchen team in House of Plates. Stephanie my sous chef has been working with me for 15 years and I consider her my right arm. We’ve worked together so long that we don’t even need to speak in the kitchen, we both know what the other is thinking. She is one of the hardest working people I know and always goes above and beyond for the restaurant.
Owen and Marty run our front of house and have been with us since day one. Having interviewed them both in a shell of a restaurant and then seeing them take the leap with me makes them very special. They had the same belief in the concept, the theme and the food as I did and that is what makes the whole thing work.
Jemma has recently joined the kitchen team as a chef de partie and brings a vast amount of knowledge with her. She has good experience in some of the top kitchens.
Sean is our commis chef and joined us after we reached out for an apprentice. He came to the role with great enthusiasm and a hunger to learn. That is what makes him a great addition to our team.
Samuel is our prep chef and has dipped in and out from the beginning. He gets a lot of the hard work done in the mornings and makes life a lot easier for us, he’s not afraid of hard work.
We also have some fantastic part-time kitchen porters and waiting staff on our team.
We like to think of ourselves as a family and this is how we’ve always been. We look out for each other and make sure everyone is happy in their work. We are all very open, which means we can all speak our mind and iron out any issues that may arise. Mutual respect is what make it a positive place to work. Everyone respects each other’s roles and responsibilities.
We all try to come up with new ideas to push the restaurant forward: days out foraging, team building days and things like this mean we are always learning and trying new experiences. We’re not afraid to take chances together, not just leaving it up to one person but changing together as a team.
Have you seen a negative side to the industry?
Yes of course I have. I’ve been a chef for nearly 20 years now! Kitchens were a lot different when I started, a lot of the bigger teams that I was a part of had a lot of issues. Starting out you would take a lot of stress and grief from your senior chefs. Thank God those days are gone, and things have moved on since then. I think we’ve come a long way.
“It’s important that everyone feels like they are respected”
The Chef Network Kitchen Charter aims to create a positive and nurturing work environment in kitchens. Which point(s) on the charter do you feel are most important and how do you implement these in your own kitchen/business?
I think that prioritising work-life balance is very important to any team.
Being a chef is hard work and being in the hospitality industry is tough! It’s important that my staff get time off, quality time off. That is why we close on Monday’s and Tuesdays. Your teamwork hard when they’re with you, so it’s important to schedule a time for them to be off, everyone needs to have a life.
We have our schedule written up on the wall in the kitchen, staff write in the days they want off for holidays on the board and we find a way to work around it.
What is the most important lesson you have learned about being a leader in the kitchen?
It’s important that everyone feels like they are respected and that they have something valuable to bring to the team. I think if you show that to your team, you will all work well together and people will want to work for you, they’ll want to do the best they can.
A good leader cares about the team, you know that they have your back. I’d like to think that I’m able to spot if someone in the team is having an off day. It’s important during these times to be able to take them aside and talk to them, find out what’s going on. Is it something you can help with? Every member of your team needs to feel like you’ve heard them.
BEING A CHEF….
What I love most is…. the ability to create
What makes me most proud is… House of Plates is now 3 years old. Proud that we have achieved what we have achieved to date and that we are constantly evolving and doing new things.
The most difficult thing I have had to face is…. the concept of the restaurant and trying to show diners a new way to eat
The most rewarding thing I’ve done is…. followed my dream of opening a small plates restaurant in my hometown of Castlebar
I have learned that…it is important to respect nature when working with the seasons.
We can create a better workplace by…. Respecting our staff and the environment.
We can make our businesses better by…. Reducing waste and trying to be as sustainable as possible
My advice to chefs starting out is…. ask questions and work hard
My advice to any chef opening their own place/setting up a business is…work in a place similar to the type of place you would like to open, don’t be afraid to do something different, start small, know your business inside out, write a mission statement and stick to it, never go off track and finally know your numbers!!
My greatest mentor has been: everyone I’ve worked for I’ve learned something off
My favourite job ever: the one I have now!
Something I would like to learn: I would like to learn more about fermentation, we always work with the seasons and sometimes it can be hard in the winter months to find fresh produce. I’d love to do more to preserve the stuff from our urban farm
How to keep or attract staff: Keep things new, include them, do something different and never stand still!!
This was originally posted to Hotel & Restaurant Times for their December 2019 Issue. Read the piece here
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