From College to Industry – The Journey of a New Chef

By Niamh Barry posted 17-09-2019 12:30

  
I graduated from DIT with a BA in Culinary Arts last year, so I have been working as a chef full time for just over 1 year. While I did a lot of my learning in the kitchens of DIT, I feel that some of my greatest developments as a chef have been in the many kitchens I have had the privilege to work in along the way.
 
Niamh Barry

DECISIONS, DECISIONS
I didn’t always want to be a chef, in fact, I thought I would be a Garda or a home economics teacher for a little while in secondary school. I have always had a passion for cookery and food. When I was still in primary school, my mam who had been an accountant decided to train as a chef and started up her own catering business. This meant while my friends were watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, I was in the kitchen with my mam making chicken curries and pavlovas for events. Cooking every weekend was the new normal for me. I eventually decided to become a chef when my Leaving Cert home economics teacher encouraged me to take part in cooking competitions. I realised how much I enjoyed the buzz of cooking under pressure and the satisfaction of delivering something high quality that I could be proud of.

Of course, there are many pathways to becoming a chef. I chose to go to college as I felt that was the best option for me. I knew that I wanted the security of having a degree, and I knew the various aspects you learn during college would provide me with a flexible skill set that I could use for other career paths should I decide to move on. I felt going to DIT to study meant I was getting a really diverse education, where I could try out many different areas of cooking and I could specialise if I wanted. I was especially aware that sometimes a career in the kitchen can take a toll physically and I may need to evolve beyond the kitchen in the latter end of my career, and this would be easier to do with a degree behind me.


THE COLLEGE LIFE
Fortunately, I got to college and fell in love with the course. As soon as I had done my first-year placement in La Bohme in Waterford, I knew right away that a career in the fine-dining end was for me.

I have always had a predilection towards Pastry. The pastry modules in college were always the ones that I was eager to go to and never felt like work, even the tedious aspects like costings or recipes came easy. Pastry is definitely the area that fascinates me the most. It’s what I read about, it’s what I enjoy outside of work. However, I try not to pigeon-hole myself into just working in desserts, I love making sauces and have worked on starters to keep my options open. Competing in competitions like Eurotoques Young chef have helped push me to learn more about all aspects of cooking.

I think one of the most important things for developing as a chef is the hands-on experience in kitchens. Leaving college wasn’t as daunting for me as it was for some of my peers, who hadn’t spent as much time in working kitchens. For example, the time I spent working in the Bay Tree Bistro was hugely important as a learning experience for me. When I started there as a commis chef, the restaurant had just opened with everyone on the team starting at the same time. It really allowed us to grow together. Potentially, the most important part of my experience in the Bay Tree was that I as 2nd year student chef and only 20 years of age, landed the role of Pastry chef. It really allowed me to gain the confidence to put myself out there as a chef.


DIVING IN HEAD FIRST
Another eye-opening experience was when I got to work with Danni Barry in Eipic for a stage. I was fortunate enough to meet Danni at the RAI awards, which I had won tickets for and we got to chatting. I was so impressed with what she had achieved and really felt like she was someone who I could look to as a strong woman doing amazing things in the kitchen. On my week off from the Bay Tree, I headed up to Belfast on the bus for my first taste of a Michelin star kitchen.  I cannot emphasise enough, how much I got to experience on the stage. It was a fantastic experience and it was definitely not the daunting environment I had envisaged on the bus on the way up.

By this stage, I had committed to throwing myself into my career and I had an insatiable appetite for learning as much as I could about cooking in fine dining establishments as possible. In my final year at DIT, I began working at Richmond in Dublin under Head Chef David O’Byrne. It was a rewarding experience to work in Richmond in such a tight-knit kitchen cooking some amazing food. In Richmond, I worked on starters and garnish, Dave’s attitude had a big impact on me and he really grew my confidence as a young chef. The following summer after my last set of exams I applied for another stage. This time it was in world-renowned Fat Duck restaurant. There was quite a sense of trepidation and excitement in travelling over and working in 3 Michelin starred restaurant, however, I knew it was important that I seize every opportunity that came my way. I feel like being so willing to put myself out there and not being afraid to fail, was an important factor in my development and growth as a chef and has really helped me prosper.


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FROM THE PAN INTO THE FIRE
Following college, I was fortunate to begin working in the kitchen of the Michelin-starred Lady Helen restaurant in Mount Juliet. This was a massive step, to go from working as a student chef to working full-time as a chef. Embracing industry for the first time as a professional chef, really imbued me with a confidence in my own abilities and allowed me to grow as a person. I learned how to say no. Sometimes as a student chef, you can feel as though you’re lacking in authority or standing, and that refusing a request might hamper your relationship with the rest of the crew. I know now, that this is just insecurity talking and that I can wholeheartedly trust my own abilities. My experience working in the kitchen in Mount Juliet, where things are fast-paced and pressure is high, has made me a cleaner, more efficient and organised chef.

Just recently, I was granted the extraordinary opportunity to move up to Ashford Castle to work with another strong female kitchen hero, Paula Stakelum. Again, the opportunity to work in Ashford was something I just couldn’t pass up. With a pastry section as large as Ashford’s there are so many opportunities here to work in diverse parts of pastry. I have discovered in all the places that I have worked in, Ashford especially that it’s not necessary to strive for perfection every time but to always get better. Evolve as a chef and never miss an opportunity to learn and exceed your own standards every day. Always aim to continually improve. Be better every day.


HINDSIGHT IS 20/20
This is just a slice of my journey into transitioning from a student chef to a professional chef. Every experience I had in a kitchen has influenced the chef that I am today, from working as a waitress in café at 16 to observing a 3 Michelin star kitchen in full swing during dinner service. If I were to offer advice to any young chef, either beginning their training or just leaving college it would be to get yourself first-hand experience in a restaurant. Throw yourself into the deep end, even if it’s scary at first. Trust yourself and don’t be afraid to take risks and put yourself out there. If you want a stage in a particular restaurant, apply for it, most chefs are delighted to see young chefs coming up interested in what they’re doing. Try everything, there are so many different arenas where you can be a chef. Take diverse roles and if it doesn’t work out, keep going until you find your niche. I have even worked in a burrito bar before I realised that fine-dining was for me. The best way to learn is through experience. If I can attribute the trajectory my career has taken to anything I would say that it comes down to saying yes to opportunities and pushing myself outside of my comfort zone in order to grow as a chef. I’m going to continue to do this for the foreseeable future.


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