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 Grainne O’Keefe, head chef at Clanbrassil House in Dublin
Why did you become a chef?
I think I’ve always been really interested in food, although I didn’t come from having an amazing background in it. I actually hadn’t been to a restaurant up until I went to college. When I was young, I used to constantly watch cooking shows. I would always get cookbooks from the mobile library in school. Watching these chefs on TV made me realise that this was all I wanted to do.
What was your path to where you are today?
I finished school when I was 17 and went straight into DIT Cathal Brugha St. I stayed there for 2 years while completing the Fáilte Ireland Course. By the end of my first year, I was working full time in a local restaurant, Il Segreto.
Then I moved to the Merrion Hotel for the next two years. Following that I moved on to Pichet for another 4 years. I ended up working in Bastible for a year and I finally ended up here in Clanbrassil house and have been here now since we opened.
What’s the most important ingredient in your success to date?
Working hard and not leaving long gaps or breaks between jobs. Moving from one job to another, constantly trying to learn as I go. Having a strong work ethic is also something I think is incredibly important to have - it’s the main key to making it.
Tell us about the team you work with
I work with quite a small team at the minute. We have our front of house manager, Micheál Murray who’s been with us since the start. He’s got more experience than all the rest of us put together. There’s Michelle Powell, she does the wine here and is so knowledgeable, even with cheese. We have a couple of part-timers on the floor as well.
Then in the Kitchen, there’s myself and my sous chef Harry Quinn. He worked in Chapter One, in Galvin at windows and in Luna before coming to work with us. He’s been with us now for about 2 or 3 months.
There’s Pearse who does all the baking and pastry. Pearse worked in the Greenhouse and the Forest & Marcy and Bastible and has been with us for a year. He’s brilliant, his pastry knowledge is unbelievable. You can even see it in the café, all the pastries are made by him from scratch every morning. He’s great.
We have a great team altogether, back and front. I’m really happy to work with them every day.
how do you build a positive environment for your team and keep them motivated?
To keep them interested we do a lot of specials in the restaurant. I always try to encourage the team to come up with new dishes and try them out with our customers. I wouldn’t consider myself to be one of those chefs who must have total control of the menu. I want them to be interested in what we’re doing. It’s also nice for them to put their own dishes on the menu.
As it’s such a small team we try to sit down and have family meals together often. We go out for meals together on our days off and things like that. We’re friends. I think it’s a positive environment to work in. People generally stay a long time when they work here.
Have you seen a negative side of the industry in your experience?
Yes definitely, but there’s negatives in every industry. You’d be lying if you said there weren’t.
I guess one negative might be that you tend to miss out on a lot of family things. You’re off different days. You lose a lot of friends that you would’ve been friends with before you started in the industry. But then there’s a lot of positives, like you make lots of new friends.
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?
Work-life balance is so important here.
We only open for dinner during the week, except for Saturdays where we open for lunch and dinner. We’re open 5 days and then closed for two. Everyone gets Sunday and Monday off.
The hours aren’t as heavy as a lot of other restaurants would be either, so we try to give some balance to the chefs and the front of house in the morning times before they come in. The 2 days off together, it’s nice for everyone, especially after Saturdays because it’s a longer day. Everyone is happy leaving, and everyone is fresher coming in to work in the morning.
BEING A CHEF….
What I love most is… I think it’s just that I get to do something I love all the time, instead of doing a job I’m not passionate about that doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve never wanted that. I know chefs work longer hours than a lot of other jobs, but personally what I prefer is to work more hours doing something I love rather than to work less hours but have to do something that I don’t enjoy.
The biggest challenge is…Deciding what your career path is going to be.
I’m only 28 and people are always asking ‘are you going to open your own restaurant?’, ‘are you going to have a family?’, ‘do you have a plan?’ ‘where will you be in 5 years’ time?’. The truth is I don’t have a plan. I stopped making plans, because I feel if you have a plan in your head, you can’t get side-tracked. You miss out on opportunities that come up because you’re so focussed on what you want to happen. And a lot of the time it doesn’t, so I made a conscious decision to just see what happens.
What makes me most proud is…Probably that we got a Michelin Bib Gourmand a few months after we opened. Being in the Michelin guide is something that is a nice award to get for the whole team. It was a nod to all the hard work that everyone has put in and the hard work that I had put in prior to this in my career. To get an accolade like that so early on was probably the proudest moment I’ve had in my career to date.
My advice to chefs starting out is…Go and work in a kitchen that you would inevitably like to own. Go into that restaurant and see if you like it. There’s a chance that you won’t, there’s a chance that you will. I think a lot of people don’t realise what it’s like to work in a kitchen. Even studying in college can’t be compared to working in a kitchen. I think what happens to a lot of young people is they go into college and they’re taught a lot of things that aren’t relevant to them, then they go into kitchens and realise it’s not what they want. It’s not the atmosphere they want, it’s not the same as college and then they kind of feel like they’ve wasted their time.
Do you think doing a stage is beneficial?
Yeah, doing stages is very beneficial. Especially as it’s really good to gain experience in places that you would never have dreamed of working in. I did very brief stages in Le Bernardin and Atelier Crenn. Both have 3 Michelin stars. I’ve never wanted to work in a 3-star permanently, as it’s not the type of cuisine that I would want to cook for the rest of my life. However, experiencing that and seeing how those kitchens are run and the difference between those kitchens and the ones I’ve worked in has been eye-opening.
That 3-star experience, did you take much from it? Small elements that you could take and implement in your own kitchen?
100%! The funny thing about working in a restaurant like that is that you think it’s going to be them using ingredients you’ve never seen or using methods you’ve never seen. But they’re using tomatoes, they’re using artichokes, they’re making stocks. A lot of it’s the same but things are done in different ways and they have a lot more staff. I’d encourage anyone to go and do some stages.
My greatest mentor has been…I’d say Barry Fitzgerald. Barry owns Clanbrassil House & Bastible. He was the Head Chef in Bastible when I started there, and his style of cooking was different to any other style of cooking I’d seen before. Really simple, clean flavours. He also ran his kitchen in a way that was a nice environment to work in. He was all about showing people how to do things. Barry and Claire Marie gave me a chance, they gave me the opportunity to be head chef here. They could have gotten someone with more experience, but they gave me the chance and have helped me all the way along.
My biggest inspiration is…I really like Tom Kerridge. I think Tom Kerridge’s food is the best example of really simple, good cooking, just elevated to the best level. For example, he has The Hand & Flowers which is a 2-star but it’s a pub. I just think what he has done with food is just amazing and he’s be one of my biggest inspirations.
My favourite job ever …Clanbrassil House, for sure.
My favourite place to eat…Smoking Goat in London, it’s amazing, casual but amazing flavours. I like Sabor in London, the food there is stunning, and they got a Michelin star last year. In Dublin, The Greenhouse, Mickael’s cooking is quite sharp but also incredibly tasty. And M&L, up O’Connell street for Szechuan, it’s so tasty!
My favourite thing to eat…I love toasted sandwiches. Toasted cheese sandwiches.
My favourite dish on our menu…We have a Sausage on the menu that we make here, boudin style with buttery potato puree and a chimichurri. Charred greens dressed in lemon juice and a jus gras. It’s really simple but so tasty. It’s one of those death row meals.
What’s something you’d still like to learn?
I have so much left to learn, I don’t think any chef should say they’re done, that they’ve learned everything. You never have. you could walk into any kitchen or any restaurant and learn 10 new things, within an hour of being there.
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