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 Erik Van der Veken, Technical Advisor at Redmond Fine Foods and Director & Owner of Arcane Chocolate
Why did you become a Chef?
I’ve always been really into making cakes and baking, ever since I was a child. Every year, starting from the age of ten, I would make the Christmas cake for my family. It was always something I loved to do.
When it came time to decide which direction to take in high school, my heart was set on culinary and, after a few heated discussions with my parents at the age of 12, I was allowed to pursue it. In Belgium the education system is a little different, you walk away from high school with the skills to carry out the job that you’ve studied for. For me, I had chosen to focus on cooking as my career.
From the age of 12, I had been studying and practicing cooking in school. In third year, I was finally allowed to specialise, of course at this point I chose baking and pastry. From the moment that I was introduced to Patisserie, and in particular chocolate, I knew it was what I wanted to do for a living, and I have never looked back.
What was your path to where you are today?
When I was in school, I worked part-time in a local bakery. From the age of 16 until I turned 23, I worked every weekend in the kitchen here. After I finished high school, I decided to take a break from the industry for a bit, although I did continue to work in the bakery. I went to college and ended up studying a few different things; diet science and marketing being two of them. I was also very involved in sports. I had a lot of interests and wanted to explore all the options. In 2010 I got back into the industry and started working in a chocolate shop.
Shortly after that, in 2012 I decided that I wanted a change of scenery and so I made the move and travelled to London, where I worked in 5-star Café Royal and MARC Patisserie as a chocolatier. Working under the watchful eye of Executive Pastry Chef Simon Jenkins, a man to whom I owe a lot today, lifted me to a higher level while keeping my feet firmly on the ground.
Working in London later led to being recruited for a start-up chocolate business in Saudi Arabia. Although I was a little worried about making such a big trip I was also excited for the adventure and I’m lucky I made the move as this is where I ended up meeting the love of my life. I later followed her to Ireland so that she could finish her master’s degree here.
While moving to Ireland was all very new and a little terrifying, especially as I didn’t have any contacts or a job lined up, but it all turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it led me to work for Redmond Fine Foods which has connected me with some of the leading brands in the world of pastry and chocolate as well as the right people to help me progress my career to where I ultimately want to go.
“Thinking that you have it all figured out is a dangerous mind-set”
What is the most important ingredient in your success to date?
I suppose it’s my constant hunger to learn. I’m always trying to research and learn new things, whether that's reading about the ingredients we use, taking courses to build or improve my skills or reading books on business and self-improvement. I am passionate about learning and I urge everyone to keep upskilling and progressing. Be open to learning from everyone you encounter.
Thinking that you have it all figured out is a dangerous mind-set, one that will render you irrelevant over time.
I frequently travel abroad to take courses with great chefs. I have learned some great things from chefs such as Frank Haasnoot, Melissa Coppel, Ramon Morato and Stéphane Leroux, to name a few.
Skills alone are only one part of the puzzle, to really excel in any industry you need a combination of skills, the right mind-set, and experience.
“Skills alone are only one part of the puzzle”
Tell us about the team you work with.
At the moment, I mainly fly solo in the kitchen. However, I do frequently get the chance to collaborate with leading Pastry Chefs and Chocolatiers across Ireland. I’ve also been lucky enough to present several masterclasses, where I love to share my knowledge with other chefs.
Recently, I worked on a roadshow with renowned Chef Michael Zorin who works for Sosa Ingredients. That was a really great experience. There is a growing excitement around Patisserie here in Ireland and seeing that first-hand was fantastic.
I am part of a great team here in Redmond Fine Foods and it’s great to work with people who are all as passionate about food as I am. I share my knowledge and get them excited about chocolate and pastry, by showing them my world and teaching them about chocolate or ingredients they might not be so familiar with.
In the past, when I worked in Saudi Arabia, I managed a team of 10 pastry chefs and chocolatiers. Many of them were excellent workers, with lots of talent in the kitchen but struggled quite a bit with their self-belief and confidence. I believed in coaching them, trying to build up their self-esteem, helping them to understand that they don’t have to resign themselves to just being a “worker” in the kitchen. I encouraged them to dream bigger, apply focused energy on what they wanted to excel at, and helped them believe they could become sous chefs and head chefs if they put their mind to it.
Several of them were able to progress their career after working with me, and I’m still in touch with them today. It feels good to know you’ve made a positive impact on someone’s life.
“If the people who work with you are not happy then you’ll constantly be searching for new people”
Have you seen a negative side to the industry?
Of course. I’ve worked in kitchens in the past where bullying has taken place. However, I am a big believer in creating a positive and inspiring place to work, one in which everyone feels valued and the mentality is around “team” rather than “I”.
The atmosphere in your kitchen is very important. If the people who work with you are not happy then you’ll constantly be searching for new people. Of course, we all have to work to a certain standard, that a given, but there’s no reason why we can’t have a good experience in the kitchen.
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 it’s important that people have a life and interest outside of work, that there is a good work-life balance. Happy people with a fulfilling life outside of their job perform better while at work. Striking the right work-life balance is not a black and white thing, and it shouldn’t be either. Everyone will need to find their own balance. Sometimes, it will be inevitable that you have to stay on a bit later to finish up the job you’re working on, but this should never be pushed to the extreme. Work as required. We should all have time to be able to do what we want.
Positivity in the workplace works to motivate your team and contrarily negativity will cause issues. In a world with opportunities like never before, people choose to become chefs out of a passion for food. We have a responsibility to inspire and fuel that desire, we must encourage this passion and be careful not to kill it.
I believe in coaching you team. Getting to know them, knowing what makes them tick, their individual strengths and figuring out how to use that to create the best possible end result. I also believe that as a team leader, it’s about outlining the vision you have, getting the team excited about that and giving them the freedom (within reason of course) to create and contribute to this vision.
BEING A CHEF….
The most rewarding thing I’ve done is…. Coaching junior chefs for competitions. The growth they go through in a short timespan was a beautiful thing to watch.
I have learned that… There is always something to learn or improve on.
The key skills or traits to have in this job are… Resilience, creativity, work ethic and an eagerness to learn.
We can create a better workplace by… Leaving the egos at home and striving together for constant improvement.
MY ADVICE TO CHEFS…
starting out is… Reverse engineer your career. You want to be a Michelin star chef one day? Start by working for one. You dream of opening a chocolate shop? Work as a chocolatier first. Don’t be afraid to dream big. Without failure there is no success, I fell flat on my face several times, and I probably will many more... it’s part of the game. Ultimately you only fail when you quit on your dream.
trying to progress their career is… Walk before you run, you are not doing yourself, or the company you are working for, any favours by taking on a head chef position if you’re not ready for it.
My greatest mentor has been… Simon Jenkins, Executive pastry chef at Café Royal in London
My biggest inspiration is... Two people come to mind: Ramon Morato, Creative director of Cacao Barry and a true pastry genius, and Frank Haasnoot, former World Pastry champion who has developed his instantly recognisable signature styling.
My favourite job ever… Owner and consultant at Arcane Chocolate, which I have recently set up, there are some exciting things in the pipeline. My role here allows me to travel the world and meet amazing and inspirational people.
Something I would like to achieve… I want to be the first person representing the Irish flag at the World Chocolate Masters final in Paris, the biggest and most prestigious chocolate competition in the world. Keep an eye out for the next edition!
How to keep or attract staff… Make them believe in your vision. Coach them, help them develop and achieve their dreams. When the time comes for them to move on to bigger and better things; be happy for them.