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 Sarah Caldwell. Sarah has been a chef for 16 years. She has been mostly self taught, but recently graduated with a BA in Culinary Arts from TU Dublin in 2020. She has worked in many situations as a chef, but now specialises in pastry and owns a small café, Velvet Cafe, in Portmarnock soon to open a second one in Baldoyle. Sarah is passionate about food and works very hard to achieve her dreams.
Why did you become a Chef?
There was never any one moment where I decided to become a chef. I fell into it, but it felt like such a natural progression, that I never really questioned it.
I have been lucky enough to grow up in a family who understood and appreciated good food. My mother was an exceptional cook, and her dinner parties were such fun – we would help with preparation and eating the leftovers. She would cook with us for fun and we would do interesting things like making candy and fudge. She also made us fabulous birthday cakes, which must have been where I got my love of cake decorating. She trained in Ballymaloe in later years which led her to some private catering jobs.
Both sets of grandparents had incredible vegetable gardens with the best homegrown raspberries I have ever had. They would pluck the turkey for Christmas at the kitchen table, we would eat artichokes and homegrown spuds, and there were hens in the garden producing fresh eggs. We would eat pheasants and plenty of fresh fish too. This may sound very posh, but there was a peach house and a nectarine house in the garden too.
Our holidays on Valentia Island every summer meant catching and eating sacks full of fresh mackerel and we would gather mussels from the bridge. Occasionally Dad would catch a salmon or trout on the lake, and when the adults treated themselves to lobster, we got to have a tiny taste of the leftover bits.
So, you can see I was so lucky to have grown up with food all around me, so the odds of ending up as a chef were quite good…. It did take me a while to get there though!
What was your path to where you are today?
I left school incredibly young, just turning 17 as I sat my leaving certificate. I had a desire to train as a beautician, so I did a year’s diploma course with Bronwyn Conroy School of Beauty. During this time, I got my first waitressing job in a local pizza restaurant.
Once I finished my diploma, I had decided to become a make-up artist, so I went to live in London to try and make it! I didn’t!
When I returned to Dublin after a couple of years, I was trying to build my makeup career, but it was not to be, unfortunately. The work was not plentiful enough, so I was working managing a local restaurant to make ends meet. After three years in the restaurant, I moved onto a career in event management for three years, which I left after having my first daughter.
I bumped into the owner of the local pub. He mentioned that he had an empty kitchen in the pub and would I be interested in doing the food. For some reason, this seemed like a really good idea! I went for it and started my own business. So, at the age of 32 I became a chef! It was hard. Very hard. And to make it harder, my second daughter came along within the first year of business. The pub relied on summer business, so in the winter was virtually impossible to make any money. I had to call it a day after just under two years in business. The pub is still serving food and they have been very busy ever since, so I still feel that I achieved something. The experience was worth it!
I tried a few more things, but I needed a steady job because the kids needed some stability, so I worked as a chef in a creche for 3 years. All of this was good learning and I taught myself plenty of new techniques and recipes, even if most of my customers were under the age of 5! I also topped up my chef skills by helping a friend with cookery classes and I used to drive up to Tankardstown House on Sundays and cook breakfast for their guests when they first opened to the public.
My kids had started school, and I had a brainwave – what if I could get a job in a school which would leave me with the luxury of school holidays off? Becoming a Home Economics teacher would take too long to study for, but luckily I knew some people in a local private secondary school. I asked them to put in a good word for me to become their chef. I pitched my services to the school, and I got a trial in the summer of 2010 cooking for a couple of hundred foreign students during the summer school. This went well because they offered me the contract and I started in January 2011. I stayed for seven years.
I learned so much during this time, about being a chef and how to run a kitchen. There were plenty of learning curves, and I continually tried to upskill. I ran supper clubs and cookery classes in my house at the weekends to learn how to cook with more refinement and share food with likeminded people. I would cater the 6th form graduation each May, for over 200 people which I loved doing. I was running my own business, and all was well.
I was, however, getting a little bit bored, and an opportunity arose which seemed like the perfect next step, to manage and tutor in a cookery school. I applied for the job and it was offered to me starting in January 2018. About two months in, I realised it was a terrible mistake. Things went from bad to worse and after 6 months the business had been bought over and we were made redundant. I was a separated mum of two with no job. It was a disaster. My mental health took a hammering. I still struggle with bouts of anxiety, but I have learnt how to cope using meditation and breathing techniques.
They say, “if you are going through hell, keep going”. This was my mantra. I kept going. I signed up to do a BA in Culinary Arts in TU Dublin, Tallaght from which I graduated in 2020. During my first year of studying, I opened my first cafe. After 2 years in business, I am about to open a second café. Things are on the up again, finally!
What is the most important ingredient in your success to date?
Tenacity. Drive and the desire to learn and always be better. Things can always be better. It helps if you realise that everybody else is winging it too!
Tell us about the team you work with:
My café is tiny so there is only room for two people. Jackie started with me in the first week and has stuck with me since. It is hard to be in such close proximity each day, but we get by with good chats with the customers and have a bit of a laugh along the way!
Have you seen a negative side to the industry?
My experience has been quite a bit of a solo run, so I haven’t had to deal with much negativity from the restaurant/chef trade. I did have unpleasant experiences in the past where I felt subjected to bullying and misogyny on occasion which was difficult. I can imagine that it is still difficult for women and for others who are subjected to verbal abuse and bullying. I know from studying for my BA that mindfulness is a big part of chef training, so hopefully things are changing for the better in the workplace.
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?
Once I get my new café open, which will have a proper kitchen, I intend to create a very positive workplace. Once Covid has been managed and we can all go out again, I intend to have staff get togethers and implement mindfulness on a daily basis.
What is the most important lesson you have learned about being a leader in the kitchen?
To stay calm. Even if every part of you is telling you not to, take a deep breath and STAY CALM!
BEING A CHEF….
What I love most is… food – eating it, shopping for it, cooking it, selling it!
The biggest challenge is… believing in yourself. Keep putting one foot in front of the other
What makes me most proud is… how much I’ve achieved on my own. My BA was a big achievement and validation of all my hard work.
The most difficult thing I have had to face is…. Dealing with severe anxiety & panic attacks.
The most rewarding thing I’ve done is…. everything, but I’m not finished yet!
I have learned that… I can do anything I want and usually my dreams do come true, because I work very hard to make them come true.
WE CAN CREATE A BETTER WORKPLACE BY…. Being nice to each other.
ONE SMALL CHANGE WE CAN MAKE OUR BUSINESSES BETTER BY…. Providing a safe, welcoming environment for the next generation.
MY ADVICE TO CHEFS STARTING OUT IS….. stick with it. Every day is a school day.
MY ADVICE TO CHEFS TRYING TO PROGRESS THEIR CAREER IS…. Keep learning, you’re only as good as the last good thing you did.
MY ADVICE TO ANY CHEF OPENING THEIR OWN PLACE/SETTING UP A BUSINESS IS… don’t listen to people who tell you what you ‘should’ be doing. Stick to your guns. It’s never going to be perfect from the beginning. Let it grow organically. Enjoy it.
MY GREATEST MENTOR HAS BEEN – myself! The tutors in TU Dublin Tallaght were a great support too.
MY BIGGEST INPIRATION IS – my family.
MY FAVOURITE JOB EVER – the one I have now.
MY FAVOURITE PLACE TO EAT: 777 on Georges street.
MY FAVOURITE THING TO EAT – fresh lobster and mussels on Valentia Island.
MY FAVOURITE DISH ON OUR MENU – my macarons.
MY FAVOURITE PIECE OF KIT – my Kenwood
SOMETHING I WOULD LIKE TO LEARN – how to master chocolate
HOW TO KEEP OR ATTRACT STAFF – not sure about this one just yet!
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