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 Janice Casey Bracken, Head Chef at Dunbrody Country House Hotel, Member of Chef Network, Member of Euro Toques, Member of Real Bread Ireland, & Food Hero Louth 2019.
Why did you become a Chef?
I started training to become a chef around ten years ago. In secondary school I really enjoyed home economics the thrill of taking ingredients and making a dish always excited me. I remember the first time I made puff pastry in school, being enthralled by it how important each fold and rest was, I remember sitting on the floor of the kitchen and watching the rise of the pastry in the oven and it was mesmerising. My dad is a fantastic baker and cook and my mum had always instilled in us the virtues of a properly set table. Dinner was never about sustenance; it was an experience.
This has always remained with me. My aunts on both sides are fantastic bakers too but we never had a chef in the family so it was not really something I would have thought about for a career. I dropped home economics after junior certificate, and I have always regretted this decision. I went onto pursue a career in the credit union and banking. After the birth of our daughter, I developed epilepsy which changed my outlook on life. When my epilepsy started to get under better control after the birth of our son, I decided to make some changes in my life, and I wanted a career I would be happy in.
I had taken some cookery courses here in Dunbrody as a day student and I thoroughly enjoyed them. I entered the Easy Food Home Cook Hero competition and got to the finals with a cook off in the Cooks Academy and a black-tie reception in the Shelbourne Hotel. I remember how nervous I was but also the thrill of each minute I was there. The judges were Kevin Dundon, Catherine Leyden and Catherine Fulvio. I did not win but it reignited a spark in me and I thought this is what I want to do. After the awards ceremony I approached Kevin and asked him would it be possible to take a tour of the kitchen in Dunbrody with a view to training. He thankfully said yes.
My first day in the kitchen I was introduced to the team and I set to work helping to make jams chutneys and relishes. Seven pm came, I was shattered but delighted, I remember getting into the car when my husband collected me and being so tired, my feet ached but I still had a rush of adrenaline. I remember thinking this is it this is what I want to do. Every Sunday for the next two months I got my husband to drive me from Tipperary to Wexford so I could stage there for the day my official finishing time was seven pm but I used to get Brendan to collect me at 10pm so I could observe the service. I remember the chefs all being so kind to me and letting me watch how each dish was cooked and plated up, for me watching them in action was like theatre, how they moved so quickly how they worked with such precision, it was a feeling id never experienced before and I wanted in. After two months the starter chef moved on, the pastry chef was moved to starters and there was an opening in the kitchen. I was offered it and I grabbed the opportunity with both hands, and I have never looked back.
What was your path to where you are today?
When I started out, I was obsessed with pastry. To me pastry is an exact science. I thought this is the bench for me. Pastry still plays a big part in my life but other sections also call out. I did enrol in college in Waterford to do a full-time culinary arts course but alas this did not work out. There were not enough hours in the week to study, take care of a family and work. Each of these activities taking place in a different county and me not being allowed to drive did not help. It was a hard decision to make stay in college or work, I choose to work. I feel that maybe I should have enrolled in a part time course in WIT while working the other days and this would have been better suited, but it’s easy to say that with hindsight. After gaining some experience here in Dunbrody, I left to go work in a new restaurant that was opening in Waterford called Loko. It was here I learned about the first Food on the Edge, a chef called Daithi Larkin told me it was something I should go to, I signed up to volunteer and it was brilliant. I heard chefs from around the world talk about their experiences, I met food producers who have become my closest friends, the passion that was in that tent was electric. I have been to every food on the edge since bar one and each time I have taken something new away. I always returned to work in Dunbrody although I have also worked in The Tannery in Dungarvan under Paul Flynn and head chef Sam Burfield, In Mikey Ryans, in Waterford Castle under Michael Thomas as well as teaching cookery school for the ICA. Dunbrody has always drawn me back - it felt like a family and I was thrilled to be offered the Head Chef post here over a year and a half ago.
What is the most important ingredient in your success to date?
My family and when I say that I mean not only my husband and kids who are very understanding but also my work family. I remember walking back in the Kitchen door here and Kevin and Catherine simply said, “welcome home”. That means a lot, that is what it’s like to work here - it’s a family.
Tell us about the team you work with;
Kevin is highly involved in the kitchen but he also offers us a different insight into the culinary world, through tv production, recipe writing, broadcasting etc. Throughout lockdown he has done a 2pm live free cooking segment - this is great to be involved in and really helps us to connect with people through food.
Together we plan the kitchen garden, what we grow goes on the menus daily when the hotel is open. It’s wonderful to feel that sense of pride when you pull veg from the garden to cook with, these are seeds we have sown and nurtured it gives the whole team a great respect for the ingredients we cook with. We are very aware of becoming more environmentally friendly and to help biodiversity we plant at least 2-3 varieties of each crop. We are also growing lentils and chickpeas this year which are two of the future 50 foods.
Rachel Erskine works our pastry bench. She’s a highly motivated chef with great attention to detail. She has worked here with three years and is well able to jump on any section should the need arise.
Emmet O Neill works mainly on starters, he buzzes with great ideas and is always trying new things and looking to improve. Emmet has worked here before and we are delighted to have him back.
Susan Drought is our Breakfast chef, she has worked here more years than she would like me to say her breakfasts always leave guests happy and she is an integral part of the team.
Paul O Leary is our KP and an integral part of our team, we wouldn’t make it through a night without him.
Pawel Malecki works with me on Mains. Pawel has been working here three years. He’s a hard worker who loves to try new things and learn different techniques.
John Mason is our gardener, but we consider him a vital part of the kitchen team. Without John’s help we wouldn’t have so many home grown ingredients to work with.
Julien Clemot is our developmental chef. He’s often found in the main kitchen with us but is primarily responsible for the cookery school, he’s a ray of sunshine and has been here for 13 years.
We look forward to welcoming two new comis chefs when the hotel can reopen.
We have meetings and chats everyone gets stuck in all chefs work in the garden.
Have you seen a negative side to the industry?
Like every industry there are positives and negatives yes. The hours can be long but for me it’s a job I love to do it makes me happy. I have heard stories of bullying in kitchens, this is something I won’t stand for, nobody has the right to bully anyone.
There is a huge positive side to the industry too, there are so many chefs always willing to give advice when needed they have helped me along my journey and I continue to look to them for inspiration, Jess Murphy from Kai and Christine Walsh from Ean always have a kind word and inspiration, I love what they both do and enjoy seeing their dishes and community involvement.
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?
Giving equal respect.
Everyone here has a voice in the kitchen no one’s voice is louder than anyone else’s everyone has the right to be heard and treated with dignity and respect. We have daily meetings, and everyone can air their opinions and ideas we discuss it all as a team this goes for people’s ideas for dishes too. Simple words like thanks, go a long way. I do not believe in berating someone in public it does no good, it doesn’t help anyone, if something needs to be said say it in private you never know what’s going on in someone’s life.
What is the most important lesson you have learned about being a leader in the kitchen?
Listen to advice.
Listen to your fellow colleagues, having a working environment where people communicate properly leads to a happier kitchen and a happier team.
BEING A CHEF….
What I love most is… all of it the growing the prep and the rush of service.
The biggest challenge is… being able to switch off.
What makes me most proud is… seeing the other chefs in the kitchen smile when they accomplish something.
The most difficult thing I have had to face is…. Managing work life and health balance.
The most rewarding thing I’ve done is…. Changing our kitchen to a more environmentally aware kitchen reducing waste plastics and increasing our biodiversity in our fruit garden, herb garden and kitchen garden. I have learned that we are lucky to have our kitchen gardens.
THE KEY SKILLS OR TRAITS TO HAVE IN THIS JOB ARE… be organised, listen, and have a passion, a passion can’t be taught.
WE CAN CREATE A BETTER WORKPLACE BY listening, listen to your supplier and framers, listen to the staff.
ONE SMALL CHANGE try to sleep a bit more.
WE CAN MAKE OUR BUSINESSES BETTER BY reducing the number of plastics we use energy we waste and water we waste.
MY ADVICE TO CHEFS STARTING OUT IS work somewhere where you feel happy, somewhere where you want to be.
MY ADVICE TO CHEFS TRYING TO PROGRESS THEIR CAREER IS reach out to others to learn, loads of chefs have great knowledge and advice and are willing to share.
MY ADVICE TO ANY CHEF OPENING THEIR OWN PLACE/SETTING UP A BUSINESS IS good luck, I wish you every success, don’t forget to factor in your own time in your costings and if it doesn’t succeed the first time it’s not a failure it’s a learning experience.
MY GREATEST MENTOR HAS BEEN Kevin Dundon
MY BIGGEST INPIRATION IS Jess Murphy
MY FAVOURITE JOB EVER right here right now
MY FAVOURITE PLACE TO EAT: For an adult meal: Campagne in Kilkenny that is a regular haunt on a rare night off or One Pico in Dublin; it was great when we went at Christmas and Patrick Guilbaud was an amazing experience. Closer to home and with the kids we love LOKO in Waterford.
MY FAVOURITE THING TO EAT venison, lobster, rabbit, foie gras or truffles - it’s impossible to name one thing.
MY FAVOURITE DISH ON OUR MENU before we closed at Christmas it was the venison, sauce grand veneur, roast onion and chestnut and eryngii mushroom puree.
MY FAVOURITE PIECE OF KIT my knives and a good pan.
SOMETHING I WOULD LIKE TO LEARN there is so much, I don’t think I will ever stop learning, we do a lot of ferments here, we make our own vinegars, mead, kombuchas, kefirs, salami and air-dried beef. I love fermentation and using ingredients available on the estate. I’d like to up my foraging game I’m not great on identifying mushrooms.
HOW TO KEEP OR ATTRACT STAFF: be kind if it is a good working environment people will want to work there.
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