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 Siobhán McDonagh. Siobhán grew up around cooking and has worked in kitchens since the age of 14. She has worked in kitchens all over Ireland and is currently head Chef at the Brandywell in Dromod, County Leitrim. Siobhán believes communication, attention to detail and a sense of humour are all essential traits to have working as a chef.
WHY DID YOU BECOME A CHEF?
My mother and grandmother were great cooks and being a large family (there were 8 of us) there was always some cooking going on and from an early age I was interested in cooking.
I always loved watching and helping my mother cook whether it was making her boxty loaves or cooking a Sunday roast, I was fascinated with the idea of putting different ingredients together and creating something from them.
I started working part-time in Jimmy's Bar in Dromod, Co Leitrim when I was 14, washing dishes and making sandwiches. I found that I really loved the environment in the kitchen, the buzz, the creativity, the banter. I knew almost straight away that this was the career for me. So when I realised that I could cook for a living there was no turning back for me.
WHAT WAS YOUR PATH TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?
After finishing college in Killybegs I moved to Dublin where I worked in a number of Kitchens including Arnotts, The Kildare St University Club & McGrattans before ending up in Le Coq Hardi with John Howard which was the job that has had the most influence on me as a chef. It taught me about the importance of using top quality ingredients, classic techniques and the day to day mechanics of running a restaurant.
After leaving Le Coq Hardi, I went to work for Clare Douglas in Locks Restaurant as a joint Head Chef which was a great opportunity for me to try out some of my own ideas.
After getting married in 2000, I was offered the Head Chefs position in Planxty Maguires Bar & Restaurant in Mohill Co Leitrim which gave me the chance to cook in my home county for the first time as a Head Chef.
After leaving Planxtys, I headed to Longford where I was Head Chef at The Black Olive restaurant where I designed the kitchen in this start up restaurant as well as helping design the dining room. After that I was back in Leitrim at Harkins Bistro on the banks of the Shannon which was a gorgeous 40 seat restaurant overlooking Dromod Harbour.
The Olive Grove in Athlone was my next kitchen, again on the banks of the Shannon where I had a couple of great years working with some great people. After Athlone I took a position in Howth, Co. Dublin at The Brass Monkey and at the same time was Head Chef at their sister restaurant Twenty2 in Drumcondra.
From there I moved to 8a Brasserie in Monkstown working for Donal and Teresa Gilligan in their gorgeous 100 cover restaurant.
In 2018 I was approached by The Press Up Group who wanted me to look after the kitchens in three Union Cafes. After a year I switched to another of their venues; Dollard & Co.
Unfortunately, at the end of 2019 my father became very ill and I made the decision to leave work to spend some time with him. Sadly he passed away in March 2020.
After the first lockdown ended in 2020, I took over as Executive Head Chef at The Brandywell in Dromod where we have been in and out of lockdowns for over a year.
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT INGREDIENT IN YOUR SUCCESS TO DATE?
Hard work is the main ingredient.
As children (I`m the eldest of six) we were all taught the importance of working hard at whatever we did, whether it was studying, playing sports or work. It's something that has stayed with me throughout my cooking career.
TELL US ABOUT THE TEAM YOU WORK WITH
We have a small tight knit team at the moment who were great to work with when we were open and very busy last year. We open early in the morning for breakfast and serve till 9.30pm so I have between 4-8 staff working depending on guest numbers. Because we are open 7 days a week it allows me to be flexible when it comes to rostering which means we can accommodate most requests for specific days off .
Unfortunately with the covid restrictions it has been hard to hold onto staff because of the uncertainty surrounding opening but we stay in contact with the team as often as possible just to see how everyone is doing and offer any help that might be needed.
HAVE YOU SEEN A NEGATIVE SIDE TO THE INDUSTRY?
The whole issue surrounding a satisfactory work/life balance has been an ongoing issue with the industry for as long as I can remember and needs to change.
When you are a young chef you are full of energy and will do all the hours you are offered because you are in a hurry to learn as much as possible as soon as possible. As you get older you really appreciate quality down time. As Head Chef sometimes you have to tell people to take some time off and I will always try to be as accommodating as possible to all the members of the team.
Team members who are rested and have a good work/life balance tend to have a more positive state of mind and in turn are ready to take on what can sometimes be a challenging environment in a busy kitchen.
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?
Be a mentor & encourage mentoring at all levels in the kitchen.
As someone who was lucky enough to have a number of Head Chefs who took the time to help me with my career, I can totally see the benefits of mentoring staff and will always try and find time to answer questions or show the chef how to do something. I`m always happy to help student chefs looking for work experience as I remember what an important part of my training that was.
Your team needs to know you are approachable and are happy to answer their questions.
It`s also important to get the rest of your team involved with mentoring as you might not always be there to help them. I find most chefs are only too happy to pass on their knowledge to a junior colleague.
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON YOU HAVE LEARNED ABOUT BEING A LEADER IN THE KITCHEN?
The importance of teamwork.
Nothing would be achieved in most kitchens without teamwork. Everything we do in our kitchen is dependent on our team knowing what is required, in what sequence it has to be done and what the end product should be. If you're not working as team things can get away from you very quickly when you are in the middle of a busy service. On the other hand, there's always a great sense of satisfaction for the team when a particularly hectic service goes well.
BEING A CHEF….
What I love most is… The creative process of designing a new dish or menu.
The biggest challenge is… Staffing is probably the number one issue for our industry.
What makes me most proud is… Watching team members going on to achieve their full potential.
The most difficult thing I have had to face is…. Having to let a team member go for whatever reason is always hard.
The most rewarding thing I’ve done is…. I`ve done a number of cooking demos over the years and have always found them to be very rewarding and great fun.
I have learned that… Everything is so much easier when everyone is pulling in the same direction. No room for egos.
THE KEY SKILLS OR TRAITS TO HAVE IN THIS JOB ARE… Communication, attention to detail and a sense of humour.
WE CAN MAKE OUR BUSINESSES BETTER BY…. Feedback is key. If you`re not listening to your team and your customers everything is so much harder.
MY ADVICE TO CHEFS STARTING OUT IS….. Find a kitchen that can help you to keep learning.
MY ADVICE TO CHEFS TRYING TO PROGRESS THEIR CAREER IS…. Keep learning and asking questions about every aspect of the business. When you think you know everything you are in trouble as a Chef.
MY ADVICE TO ANY CHEF OPENING THEIR OWN PLACE/SETTING UP A BUSINESS IS… Research everything about the business (population, suppliers, rates, insurance etc.) so you know what's ahead.
MY GREATEST MENTOR HAS BEEN John Howard of Le Coq Hardi.
MY BIGGEST INSPIRATION IS My late mother Veronica.
MY FAVOURITE JOB EVER Head Chef @ 8a Brasserie, Monkstown.
MY FAVOURITE PLACE TO EAT: Formal - Le Tour D`Argent, Paris.
Casual- The Fatted Calf, Athlone.
MY FAVOURITE THING TO EAT: As with most chefs, I love just about anything when someone else is doing the cooking. I`m quite partial to a bacon sandwich.
MY FAVOURITE DISH ON OUR MENU: That's like asking someone to choose their favourite child. I love them all equally.
MY FAVOURITE PIECE OF KIT: My filleting knife. Couldn't do without it.
SOMETHING I WOULD LIKE TO LEARN: I really would love to expand my repertoire of Asian dishes. I completed a short course on sushi making a number of years ago which I really enjoyed. Unfortunately, I haven't had the opportunity to do another one since.
HOW TO KEEP OR ATTRACT STAFF: Treat everyone as an equal. Be approachable.
MEET THE CHEF PROFILES ARE SUPPORTED BY READY CHEF
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Originally established by William Tallon Snr. during the 1960s, today his sons William and David carry that legacy and a significantly grown family business forward. From father to sons, total commitment to Quality of Produce and Service, both within the business and from our suppliers are pillars central to the Ready Chef ethos.
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