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 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 Domini Kemp, joint MD at the ITSA Food Group.
Why did you become a Chef?
I’ve actually been cooking since I was a teenager. My sister had a catering company and growing up I used to work for her. You tend to be attracted to something you’re good at and I was always good at cooking - it came easily to me.
In my mid-20’s I made the decision to move to the UK as I was competing as a show-jumper, but it came to the point where I had to start thinking more seriously about my future. Should I continue show jumping, training horses and working within the sport or change careers and go down the path of becoming a chef? Cooking felt like a safer option for me, so I decided to study formally at Leith’s Cookery School, become a chef, and get my piece of paper to prove it.
“I was so worried about screwing up, I didn’t want to be ‘that’ person.”
What was your path to where you are today?
After finishing chef school, I worked in London for some time. I began in The Fifth Floor at Harvey Nichols under Henry Harris. I was very green coming out of school and unsure if this is what I wanted to do with my life. I think many students feel this way when they start off in the industry. I was so worried about screwing up, I didn’t want to be "that" person. Kitchens are high-pressure environments and I didn’t want to fail. Lack of confidence can hold you back. I think it would benefit young chefs to have an easyish first experience in the kitchen, not too easy though, as there does need to be a level of focus to what you do.
In 1996, I was out in Atlanta catering for VIP Executives during the Olympics. I met my former partner (Conrad Gallagher) whom I worked with for three years, during which time we achieved a Michelin star and opened up several restaurants. We went our separate ways in 1999 and that’s when I set up ITSA.
ITSA was set-up with my sister Peaches at a time when we were both unemployed and unsure of what our next steps would be. We decided to put all that we had learned throughout the years to good use and set up ITSA, which started out as one tiny bagel store in Dublin 1. Everyone thought we were bonkers, they all tried to talk us out of it. Nothing was going to stop us though; I think it was an almost blind-confidence, this was going to happen! Since then we have created 5 brands, run 12 locations and employ around 100 people.
What advice would you offer other chefs starting their own business?
The growth with ITSA happened organically and naturally, but I think looking back on it now if I could give my younger self some advice it would be to slow down and avoid making hasty decisions that I eventually had to untangle at great cost. But also, that it's okay to plan to be bigger and more successful. Take the time when you’re setting it up to look at the finer details, look at what’s out there (especially in relation to property and leases) and don’t settle for the first thing you see. Sometimes we rush to sign a lease because we are so keen to get open. Don’t be so trusting and most importantly, make sure you have all your agreements in writing.
“There really are no short cuts, you have to put the time and effort in”.
What is the most important ingredient in your success to date?
I think hard work is always going to be important. Innovation is also something that has come up quite a bit for me; creating a new concept to working on a brand and then developing the story of that brand. I’m good at that creative side and love it.
There really are no short cuts, you have to put the time and effort in. You need to have confidence. Don’t worry too much about how something will turn out, be more prepared to give it a go and be open to change.
It’s important to learn from your failures. You can make one massive mistake or a lot of little mistakes. It doesn’t matter, the important thing is to learn from them. We as a company are constantly looking at how we can improve: our food, our suppliers, our systems, our bottom line. You need to try to be clever with how you tackle challenges - it doesn’t always work to just throw money at a problem. Sometimes the best thing is to do a complete U-turn and change your approach altogether.
Listening to our employees has definitely helped us do this. If there’s a problem on the ground, it’s your employees that are facing it on a daily basis, we listen to what they have to say. Sometimes it takes seeing things from another point of view in order to make the right decision.
Tell us about the team you work with.
All of our teams are different and working with each team requires a different focus. It’s important to find out what motivates your team and how you can help them enjoy the job they’re doing.
My sister Peaches and I are also a team, we’ve worked together since day one. It hasn’t always been easy, but we’ve been able to grow together and figure out what works best for us. We have distinct roles within the company and that clarity is important for us and our staff. In the early days, we often blurred the lines as siblings and work colleagues. Later in our career, we took part in mentoring sessions which helped us have the discipline to stick to a more formal structure when in work.
There have been some incredible people we’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years, many of whom have gone on to open their own businesses. These people often come with a very clear objective in mind; to learn and use that to build their own business. These people always contribute something amazing to the team. I’m always proud to see members of our team blossom and use the lessons that they’ve learned with us to build something new.
Likewise, as with any business, you make mistakes and there are definitely some people I regret hiring. The wrong people can create lasting impacts on the organisation, which has made me more cautious about who we bring on board at a senior level. You need to be able to check in with the culture of the kitchen when you’re not around. We try to remain approachable but respectful with our teams if something is not working everybody should feel comfortable speaking up. Creating a good company culture is so important to us and it's something we’re always looking to maintain.
“It's not about the fall, it’s about how you recover.”
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 mentoring is incredibly important. Although we sought it late in our careers, I think we would have benefitted from more mentoring at the start of our journey - maybe I was just too arrogant to look for it!
Training is something we definitely try to have a focus on and invest in. Training is a common language that management and staff speak, we know that we don’t have all the answers but we’re trying to better ourselves.
I want our staff to feel good when they’re coming to work for us. You need to feel pride in the work that you do, so we try to do what we can to help create that feeling and share their success. We also believe in giving credit where it’s due. It’s a lovely feeling when you get a nice review about your food or your restaurant and being able to share that win with the team. That feedback gives you such a glow - it's a big part of why we love what we do. It's such a key component of hospitality.
What is the most important lesson you have learned about being a leader in the kitchen?
It's not about the fall, it’s about how you recover.
There’s always a way out, I think it’s important that we remember that. For example, in event catering, it’s a high-pressure environment where things can go wrong, people can make mistakes, but you need to be able to look at the solution. How can you fix this? How will you pull the proverbial rabbit from the hat?
Keep calm, keep your cool and focus. As a leader, you need to be able to deal with the problem that’s in front of you. You can scream and shout about it later but in the heat of the moment you keep calm and figure it out. Show your team that there’s always a solution, there’s always a way out.
MY GREATEST MENTOR has been… Ross Lewis has always been a good person to give counsel. Finding someone who is trustworthy and has plenty of experience is really important. I really believe a problem shared is a problem halved.
MY ADVICE TO CHEFS…
starting out is…work in good restaurants and although those first 4 years may not feel as though your career is rising, by putting in the time and having a plan of action, the benefits will come soon after.
trying to progress their career is…. don’t be afraid to write a letter to get into a restaurant that you would love to work in. Some of the best people I have worked with got in touch with me personally and were so keen to come on board, that I created positions for them.
running their own business is… you must find a way to deal with stress that does not involve reckless and unhealthy behaviour. You simply will not survive. Focus on your health - mental and physical. The two are so interlinked. You will need strength and a clear head to deal with the challenges you will undoubtedly face.