The Humble Breakfast Chef – Gordon Burke, Galway Bay Hotel.
I have worked in this sometimes crazy and often brilliant industry for as long as I can remember. My mother was a casual waitress working functions in Hayden’s Hotel in the 1980’s. I was always equally fascinated and in awe of a group of local women, all casual waitressing staff heading off to the local hotel a couple of times a week to work at weddings or local dinner dances, will we ever see the like again? Their spirits were always good, and they never complained.
School was never my priority, which is ironic as I headed to college in 2015 to decidedly change my life. I had worked in bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and commercial catering and decided after twenty years I wanted to stay in the industry but do something different. I always enjoyed the banter in the kitchen but from the other side of the pass and thought "could I really go to college at 40 and train to become a chef?"
I spoke with two culinary lecturers in GMIT and unknown to anyone applied for the course and got called for interview. I got accepted on the course and only then decided to tell my family and wife about my new career opportunity. Anyone who knows my wife will find that somewhat unusual as she works in higher education, but everyone was incredibly supportive. My next step was to find a job in a kitchen as this was an essential part of the course. My immediate thought was what could I offer any employer? Yes, I do have a very positive attitude and I am always willing to learn. I have always been reliable and punctual, but I did start to wonder had I bitten off more than I could chew?
I was incredibly lucky that I sent my first CV to the Galway Bay Hotel and got called for an interview later that week. I met with Mary McNamara (HR Manager who has recently left us) and Robbie Webster, the Executive Head Chef. We had a great chat and they really put me at ease. Robbie explained that he had an opening on breakfasts. It was a full-time role and I would be trained by his team. In addition, the hotel would support my wish to go to college and work on the days I was not in GMIT. I joined two weeks later in May 2015 and by the time I started the course in GMIT in September I even surprised myself at what I had learnt. I really enjoyed the course in GMIT. I learnt skills and knowledge that have helped me become the chef I am today and some of the team in GMIT are simply outstanding, such professionals and nothing is too much trouble. I volunteered during my time in college to work at a couple of events and never again will I have the opportunity to work alongside Michel Roux Jr or chefs like Frank OConnor or Martin Ruffley but all three are seriously great guys. In GMIT you also must work front of house in the culinary course. This was brilliant because again you are building skills and confidence and seeing the dining experience from another perspective.
Following my course, I spent six months in Hotel Hershey in the USA and I returned to the Galway Bay Hotel in 2017. My job is very much focused on the breakfast service and trying to ensure everyone has a great first meal of the day. Following on from breakfast I also work in the Harvest Café until early afternoon and then my day is over.
Attention to detail is really important and I try to ensure the food quality and standard is as good as every other meal experience in the hotel. We have a great team in the kitchen and Robbie and Ciara Horan (Sous Chef) do provide lots of support and advice as and when its needed.
However, I often wonder, why does nobody talk about the breakfast chef? I know our job is not seen as ‘very glamorous’ and there are no foams or tweezers used in breakfast items. However it takes the same dedication and attention to detail that any meal can take. It is the first meal of the day, a very important meal for many and it provides the energy and fuel we need to get us up and running. I get up every day at 4.10 am and am in work by 5am. I am rostered on an hour later, but I like the hour to myself, to work through multiple tasks in order to ensure I am ready for any scenario. The Galway Bay Hotel is a very busy hotel, it is not unusual to have several hundred people for breakfast in the busy season, yet every customer is equally important, and it is a very pressurised environment to keep on top of all tasks. These tasks include cooking and presenting up to ten fresh cooked items every morning and then keeping this selection topped up while also making sure the food items are well presented and special requests are dealt with. This happens every morning, every day, fifty two weeks in the year. Christmas Day breakfast is one of my favourite days to work because the variety of breakfast items is outstanding, and the hotel really make sure our guests have a wonderful stay and enjoy their well-deserved breaks.
After many years of practice and hopefully getting it right its all about to change because of COVID. Last summer the breakfast buffet disappeared and while we worked hard to ensure the customer had a good breakfast experience, it was different. Going forward I don’t think the buffet will be returning very soon, certainly not in the bigger hotels where you have hundreds of people staying over. In terms of other changes to breakfast our attention to detail is non-stop. You need to ensure you work practices are fully health and safely compliant and you need to demonstrate to the customers, at all times, that their health and safety is your priority.
Us humble breakfast chefs won’t ever feature on the front page of any magazine and we won’t be winning Michelin stars but that is something I never wanted or expected to do. I wanted to learn to cook and make a positive difference and hopefully I am doing that, one breakfast at a time. Not even a global pandemic will stop us breakfast chefs hoping to ensure your start to the day is positive and enjoyable.
Hope to see you in the west at some time in 2021.