Kitchen Culture | Meet the Chef - Lee McDonagh

By Lee McDonagh posted 19-02-2019 15:46



The Chef Network community brings together all chefs across Ireland. In a new regular column featured in the Hotel & Restaurant Times we will meet some of those members and hear from them what inspires and motivates them, their career challenges and opportunities, and how they believe we can improve the industry.

Here's our interview with this month's chef -
  Lee McDonagh, 2nd-year Culinary Arts student at IT Tallaght, currently working as a pastry chef at the Merrion Hotel and demi chef de partie at Shelbourne Social in Dublin. In 2018 Lee took part in the Chef Network Student-Industry Forum and spoke as part of the chef panel at Chef Network’s Kitchen Culture Seminar.

Lee McDonagh

Why did you become a Chef?

I started working in my Dad’s [chef Gavin McDonagh’s] restaurant at the age of twelve and it was a natural evolution which was aided by the passion I have always had growing up in kitchens.


Tell us about your experience and training as a chef to date

I started in my dad’s restaurant Brioche in Ranelagh as a commis chef. I then went to IT Tallaght to study culinary arts, where I am currently in second year.  For my first college placement I went to work with chef Stephen Gibson in Pichet. I then moved from there in February to work with a Michelin starred chef by the name of Andy McFadden and head chef Philly Roe Glover’s Alley by Andy McFadden at the Fitzwilliam Hotel, where I was lucky enough to get to work on the larder section. I wanted to get experience on pastry then, so I want to work at the Merrion Hotel as a pastry chef under Paul Kelly. I’m now working under top chef Dylan McGrath in his new restaurant Shelbourne Social which is just newly opened.


“constant change of environment in the kitchen and the constant ability to learn something new every day and improve yourself”


What drives you as a chef and what do you think are the most important traits for success?

One of the main things that drives me as a chef is the constant change of environment in the kitchen and the constant ability to learn something new every day and improve yourself. I’m really eager to learn new things and gain new skills, whether that be fermentation, new culinary techniques or learning the classic techniques that drive the modern technique.

Being a chef is like being a soldier, service is almost military like and the head chef is like a drill sergeant. The common goal is to succeed and work as a team so moral of the story is it is a tough but very rewarding job, work hard and the rewards will come.

Who has influenced your career or mentored you? How important are mentors and why?

One of my biggest influences in my career is my dad. He has opened so many doors for me, giving me opportunities to work with many great chefs who have cooked all over the world and worked in the best kitchens in Europe, such as Dylan McGrath and Stephen Gibson. I also had the chance to cook alongside him at European culinary week in the Philippines last September. Even though I’ve been lucky with these opportunities he has always said that I have to put the work in. It is really important to have mentors and people who will support you in what you want to achieve, but you also need to have the right attitude and ambition and work hard to get to where you want to be.

Have you seen a negative side to the industry?

No I have not, as I am one of these chefs who believes that kitchens are high octane environments and I enjoy that aspect; to progress you need to be thick skinned and not take things personally as what goes on in service stays in service.

How can chefs create a positive culture in their kitchen or business?

By nurturing young chefs and training them in a positive and progressive way.

What do you think can be done to attract more people into this career?

It’s a fact of life that some chefs work long hours that are unappealing to some and  the salary can be low when you break down your hourly rate, but instead of the media putting out this negative picture of the industry and schools and career guidance officers not recommending the industry as a career, it would be better to look at the potential opportunities it presents and promote it as I find it a very rewarding career with the ability to allow me to travel all over the world and always have work, because everyone has to eat.


“the industry needs to treat staff well and give them a positive working environment”


How do you think chefs can best attract and keep ambitious young chefs like you?

To be a great you have to want to succeed and please customers, it is almost like a vocation similar to emergency services - it’s a way of life. But the industry needs to treat staff well and give them a positive working environment, then we will keep staff and attract more people in the long-run.

What advice would you give to anyone considering this career or starting out as a chef?

The catering sector is one of the biggest employers in this country and there are many different opportunities to suit many different levels such as coffee shops, work place catering, or fine dining restaurants and even education. My advice would be to look into all corners of the industry before making a decision on what you want to do. In terms of progressing your career, you need to find something that suits your drive towards cooking and aim for that.


“to become a great chef it takes drive passion and the ability to learn on your feet”



What I love most is…  the adrenaline and pushing on in the kitchen for service that night

The biggest challenge is… my biggest challenge is trying to achieve as much as my dad and eventually be better than him!! Hahaha!

What makes me most proud is…  when chef tells you, you’ve done a good job or had a good service

The most difficult thing I have had to face is….  Is leaving a kitchen after becoming so close to everyone, it’s almost like a family

The most rewarding thing I’ve done is…. Travelling to the Philippines to cook for the European board of commerce with my dad for the European culinary week

I have learned that… to become a great chef it takes drive passion and the ability to learn on your feet

The key skills or traits for a chef are……Respect, good attitude and the ability to work on your own initiative

One small change that chefs can make to create workplace is….have an in-house laundry service because my mam is always giving out about washing uniforms!

My biggest inspiration is….Kevin Thornton because of his love and passion for Irish food and his promotion for great Irish produce


Lee McDonagh & Gavin McDonagh


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