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 Susan Bell, Operations Manager at Wowburger
Why did you become a Chef?
Ever since I was young, I’ve always been passionate about cooking. My mum and nana were both very good home cooks and so I would spend a lot of time with them in the kitchen. Whenever we would go over to my nana’s house on the weekends, she would always have a batch of scotch tablet or coconut ice made for us. Both of my parents worked and during the week it would just be me and my sisters after school. I would always volunteer to cook dinner, I always loved looking up recipes and trying new dishes. By the time I was 14 I was adamant that I wanted to go to college and train to become a chef.
What was your path to where you are today?
All my sisters went to university and with both of my parents being schoolteachers, it was decided that if I wanted to pursue cheffing as a career I would need to take a more ‘safe’ approach. This is how I ended up studying catering management in college. Determined to become a chef I decided to pursue a cheffing qualification alongside my diploma. I would work part time in a kitchen at weekends and use the experience to sign off on practical work for the course. The college were very supportive and helped me pursue both options.
By the time I was 18 I had decided to move to London. Coming from Coventry this was a big change for me, but something I felt I needed to do. I had it in my head that I needed to work in a high-end hotel at a 5-star level in order to be the best. I was offered a position to work in both The Hyde Park Hotel and The Savoy, at the time Hyde Park seemed less daunting and so I chose to start here, the additional accommodation for staff also helped make the move easier.
After 6 months of working in the banqueting kitchen at Hyde Park I was approached by a member of Marco Pierre White’s team. He had a 3 star Michelin restaurant in the hotel at the time and wanted me to come and work for him. I started working for Marco when I was quite young and had little to no knowledge of fine dining. Although I only stayed for a year, the amount that I learned in that time was huge. I loved the discipline in the kitchen, the attention to detail and I think this would go on play a very large part in making me the chef I am today.
From Marco’s restaurant I move to L’Oranger with Marcus Waring. This is where I gained a huge amount of skills, not only in the kitchen but also on how to lead a team. Marcus was a very good mentor to me and taught me so much about how to treat your staff. It was a tough decision to leave but I knew I wanted to travel, and this was the right time.
Myself and my partner first travelled to Ireland, where I worked for Kevin Thornton in Portobello. We ended up never travelling past Ireland, as we both loved it so much. During my time with Kevin I learned so much and received a huge amount of support from him when I decided to make the move back to the UK. After returning home I worked in a variety of establishments including returning to Marcus Waring, Petit Blanc in Cheltenham, a brief stint in Cotswold and eventually working for myself at the local farmers market making desserts.
I took a short break from the industry during which time I had my first child. Shortly after we made the decision to move back to Ireland and settle here. Over the next two years I started working in corporate catering. Later we went on to have our second child and after spending just over a year at home with him I decided to look for another job. I found myself applying for a role with The Butler’s Pantry as their head pastry chef.
We went on to move to Wexford and back to Dublin over the next few years and I changed jobs a few times in the process. Eventually ending up in Howth Castle Cookery school before being approached by the Press Up group to take on my current role in Wowburger. Ironically, I have never eaten a burger in a fast food restaurant until I started working here.
“There’s a great belief that anything is achievable with the right team”
What is the most important ingredient in your success to date?
I’m passionate and I care about what I do. I’m lucky enough to be in catering now for 27 years and I still love it as much today as I did when I started all those years ago.
Don’t ever stop learning. You are capable of anything you put your mind to. Whatever role I’m in I always give it my best, it doesn’t matter what I do, I do it to the best of my ability. Mistakes happen, that’s okay but learn from your mistakes. Make them once, don’t make them again.
“Learn from your mistakes. Make them once, then don’t make them again”
Tell us about the team you work with.
I’m lucky enough to have an amazing team that we’ve spent the last two years building. I like to know that my team are capable. At the moment I oversee 6 venues, I like to work quite closely with the teams, one day I could be in meetings with head office and the next I could be on the line with the crew so it’s important for me to know that my teams are capable of keeping things moving while I’m away. Which they do, we have some truly amazing staff.
I always want our staff to feel like they have an opportunity to progress with us. Everyone is given an equal opportunity to grow, we’re always looking for the potential in our team. We like to cross-train our teams, meaning that everyone is trained on all aspects of the restaurant, from serving to cooking and everything in between. There’s no front-of-house and back-of-house, we’re all one team.
Have you seen a negative side to the industry?
Not as such, for me the days of staff being screamed at by the head chef and things being thrown at you are long gone. I’m disgusted in this day and age if I hear rumours of it still happening. It’s hard work but you don’t go into catering for any easy life.
“The team need to know that I’m in it with them”
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?
Building a positive and encouraging environment I think is one of the most important factors in the kitchen. All staff deserve to be listened to and their feedback taken on board. Half the battle for me as a manger is the team seeing me working with them, I find even if it is 2 hours a month on a busy lunch then it gains me huge respect from my staff. Also making sure managers roster fairly, that their staff are getting in rotation the weekend off or get to go early, so it’s not the same person all the time to do everything.
If there is an issue or a bad atmosphere, I would approach the team and get straight to the point. Pinpoint where the friction is coming from. More often than not the problem is something that’s easily fixed, the bigger issues come up when the problem is allowed to build. It’s important to check in with your team and see how they’re feeling.
What is the most important lesson you have learned about being a leader in the kitchen?
The most important thing for me about being a leader is to lead by example. If I’m asking a member of my team to do something, it’s something I’ve done in the past. Don’t expect your team to do work you wouldn’t do yourself. The team need to know that I’m in it with them, I’ll often come into the restaurant and work on the line if that’s what the unit needs that day.
You need to have a good overview of your team and who works best doing what. Don’t employ someone for the sake of it, wait till you get the right person for your team. I always look for people that have a good attitude and people skills, these are things that are hard to instil in a person but are vital to a team.
While you need to look after your team you also need to look after the needs of the business. Otherwise they will be out of a job. For the team to be at its best everyone on the team needs to feel comfortable speaking up. Point out the issues you see arising so that we can work on them and move forward together.
BEING A CHEF….
What I love most is…. that you learn something new every day.
What makes me most proud is… seeing a member of my team grow and do well.
The key skills or traits to have in this job are… discipline, attention to detail and the ability to care and work hard.
We can create a better workplace by… caring about our team and their work/life balance.
My advice to chefs starting out is… Don’t give up, the bad days are far fewer than the good days. Always be open to learn.
My greatest mentors have been… Marcus Waring, Kevin Thornton and my current employers
My biggest inspiration would be... My work colleagues
How to keep or attract staff… ensure there is career progression if that’s something they want. Treat them how you would like to be treated yourself. Work on your own people skills. I often find staff who want to move up are struggling to do so as they lack the people skills. They find it hard to read other staff or members of the team. This is a vital skill for anyone who wants to go on to lead a team. Ensure you are always training and supporting staff to be the best they can possibly be.