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 Francis Askin, current Culinary Nutrition Student and former Sous Chef, of Gather and Gather.
Why did you become a Chef?
I wanted to join the army initially. Back then, I was carrying a little too much weight (that hasn't changed) to get into the military, but when I was looking into it, I was told I could be a nurse, a driver, or a chef. The chef bit stuck with me, and when I didn't get into the army, I got a job as a kitchen porter in a local bar/restaurant. I started work on the Friday. It was Mother's Day on the Sunday (thrown into the deep end), and by the Monday I was told they were going to make me a commis. The rest is history.
What was your path to where you are today?
A very long and windy one! That first job sent me on the old Failte Ireland culinary skills course. As part of the communications class, we had to put our CV together and apply to jobs. I got very lucky and was called for an interview in what was then the Marriott in Druids Glen. I still remember being sent into the fridge on my first day for rocket and being convinced it was a wind-up. Roll on a few years later, after working in a few five-star hotels and good restaurants, I landed my first chef de partie role in a neighbourhood restaurant in Monkstown.
Valparaiso is where I worked under a chef who I owe a lot to. Brian took me under his wing and made me the chef I am today. I was lucky enough to work alongside him when he opened up his first restaurant 'Downstairs' in Clontarf. The team there was amazing andwe went on to win a Bib Gourmand. It was one of those places where work didn't feel like work. When I finished up with Downstairs, I took a major sidestep and started with 'The Butler's Pantry'. I'd said to myself I'd do it for a year max and move on. While there, I got to work under another great chef, Niall Hill.
Niall taught me so much more than just cooking food. He was the first chef to show me how a business worked, and as a result, I ended up working there for four years. By the time I moved on, I had reached the position of Head Chef. Leaving Butler's, I had grown accustomed to the daytime hours, but I wanted to get back into service-driven kitchens, so I applied to Gather and Gather and landed a Sous chef position within one of their units. Another great team to work with, the Head chef Barry Hayden and the rest of the guys, made every day enjoyable. Following some advice from Niall a few years previously, I rather cheekily (I’d only worked there for four months) asked Gather and Gather would they consider sending me to do a Master's in Applied Culinary Nutrition with Tu Dublin (it was time to go to college).
I started college in September of 2019, part-time while still working full time with Gather and Gather, right up until March of 2020, and we all know what happened next. Every cloud has a silver lining though. I have used the time out of kitchens to become a full-time student essentially, so I can't complain too much. Plus, the Lecturers in Tu Dublin are amazing; hats off to Annette Sweeney and her team. Where they find the hours to get to all of our questions is beyond me!
What is the most important ingredient in your success to date?
Not being afraid to take the next step.As I mentioned, between doing a Culinary Skills course and starting the Masters, I had no form of culinary training bar on the job. So in the first few years as a chef, when I felt I wasn't learning any more, I moved on to the next challenge. I owe a lot to certain chefs over the years that took an interest in passing on their skills, but at the same time, I'd say my willingness to listen to what they had to say has stood me well.
Tell us about the team you work with
When I was in the Butler's Pantry, I was very fortunate to have built a good team around me. During the last two years there, I had a great crew of people working with me. Some I had pulled from places I had worked previously, some I just got lucky with when they applied for the job (they know who they are). As for building a positive environment, I think it's just a really simple process of treat people how you want to be treated and give them enough scope to turn their ideas into something, and you will be rewarded ten-fold. As for the team I was working with before Covid struck, unfortunately, I'd say most will have had to move on, but Ireland is a small place; no doubt our paths will cross again.
Have you seen a negative side of the industry?
I have been a chef for nearly fifteen years now. Unfortunately, I have not only seen it; the truth be told, I have probably been part of it. Working in kitchens with an aggressive undertone at an early stage in my career led me to think this was the norm.It wasn't until I was out of restaurants that I found my inner peace as a chef, so to speak. These days' chefs see me as the gentle giant, and I am more than ok with that.The industry's negative side needed to be left behind; otherwise, we all would have been.
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 suppose a few key elements within the charter stand out for me. Giving back to the community, finding work-life balance, and promoting learning and development. If I am asked to do anything by a community member or a fellow chef in general, I say yes first and then figure out how I will do it. I have been lucky for the last seven years I have had a great work-life balance, but when the time comes for me to go back into restaurants or hotels, I will make sure that everyone on my team feels they too can get a bit of balance in their lives. And as for development and learning, that's an easy one; I will always push anybody that wants to go to college or on a course to do so. It has completely changed my life, and I would encourage anyone to do the same. After I complete the Masters, I am already thinking of signing up for the BA in Botanical cuisine. Hopefully that would put me in a position to one day maybe teach or lecture and pass my knowledge on to the next generation.
What is the most important lesson you have learned about being a leader in the kitchen?
A wise chef once told me, "the fish rots from the head down", and that's a principle I try to work from in my kitchens. Lead by example and never get someone to do a job you wouldn't do yourself. That and no matter how busy it gets, stressful, heated, whatever, all we are doing is cooking someone's lunch or dinner; there's no need to kill anyone over something going wrong. Have fun with it, enjoy it and build the people up around you, and the kitchen will soon run itself.
BEING A CHEF….
What I love most is…
The camaraderie - you will spend more time with chefs you work with than family, so liking them is key.
The biggest challenge is…
Killing negativity within a kitchen, but once you do, there's nothing like it!
What makes me most proud is…
Passing on my knowledge and having those chefs go on to be bigger and better than I could be.
The most difficult thing I have had to face is….
Other than Covid closing our industry? Letting go of my negative side and finding the passion again.
The most rewarding thing I've done is….
Work-wise, College - going from a pretty crappy junior cert to hopefully an honour (Don't jinx it) in a Master’s Degree has to be it.
I have learned that…
Being proactive and over-reactive is the key to getting things done!
THE KEY SKILLS OR TRAITS TO HAVE IN THIS JOB ARE…
Be willing to learn, willing to listen and willing to fail. Some of the best smells come from the bin; learn from your mistakes and grow from them.
WE CAN CREATE A BETTER WORKPLACE BY….
Treating people how we would treat our granny! You wouldn't shout at your granny, would you?
ONE SMALL CHANGE
This one's personal - reconnect with food, don't be wasteful; food waste is a huge issue which is not being tackled where it needs to be; it's up to us as chefs to push this forward.
WE CAN MAKE OUR BUSINESSES BETTER BY….
Pivot or die, as I said, don't be afraid to make a change; after all, if we don't change, how will things get better?
MY ADVICE TO CHEFS STARTING OUT IS…..
Find yourself a mentor that will drag the best out of you. Find somewhere you are constantly challenged and don't be afraid to leave somewhere you're not. The key to success is to never stop learning.
MY ADVICE TO CHEFS TRYING TO PROGRESS THEIR CAREER IS….
Take a step back, work out where you are now and where you want to be in ten years. Now try to get there in two, chances are you won't get to where you want to be, but you will be well on your way.
MY ADVICE TO ANY CHEF OPENING THEIR OWN PLACE/SETTING UP A BUSINESS IS…
Only invest what you can afford to lose; it's a path I haven't gone down yet, but it's a piece of advice I was given, and I'll stick to it when I do.
MY GREATEST MENTOR HAS BEEN
Too many to mention, but they know who they are.
MY BIGGEST INPIRATION IS
Two of the Commis Chefs from back in Downstairs; Conor Halpenny and Julie O'Flaherty. Both have kept pushing on within their own spaces and inspire me to do more.
MY FAVOURITE JOB EVER
It has to be Downstairs. The team, the standard of food, the craic! I loved every second
MY FAVOURITE PLACE TO EAT:
Now there's a question! The last great meal I had was in Kai in Galway, but there are so many new spots to try out; once we are let, that is.
MY FAVOURITE THING TO EAT
Pork belly hands down. The crispier the better!
MY FAVOURITE PIECE OF KIT
I keep a pastry card in my back pocket at all times, handy for cleaning down a board or a bench and I genuinely feel lost when I don't have one.
SOMETHING I WOULD LIKE TO LEARN
I wouldn't call myself a pastry chef, more a chef that can do pastry, but if I could start over I’d go pastry all the way, chocolate work fascinates me.
HOW TO KEEP OR ATTRACT STAFF
Simple, Don't be a Dick!
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