Category Archives: Non-Recipe

The Irish Times – The Story of How I Moved to London

So very recently I had the privilege of being asked to write a piece for the Generation Emigration section of Ireland’s national newspaper; The Irish Times. It was a really exciting opportunity and getting to write down the story of how I ended up living in London was very interesting indeed.

I have posted a link to the article here but the full post is below. Thanks for reading.

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I was tempted away from Ireland by a guy from Kerry making me a job offer I couldn’t refuse. My first experience of Barbecoa was during a frenzied call about whether I would be free to work at a festival that weekend. It was a Barbecue festival. All day Friday, all day Saturday and all day Sunday. I got this call on a Thursday evening. I would be managing the demo tent. I immediately agreed.

I had been working as a chef in a Mediterranean style place in Dublin but my heart had always been with Barbecue, so the opportunity to work at Ireland’s first big Barbecue festival was not one I could pass up. When I showed up the next morning I was introduced to John, the then Head Chef of Barbecoa, a high end steak and smoke house right by St Pauls Cathedral in London. He is one of the craziest, goofiest and off the wall characters you could ever hope to meet, no surprise then when I realised he was from Duagh, a place in Kerry that is not so much a town as it is a slightly wider bit of road.

As soon as we met we immediately hit it off. He was at the festival doing five or six demos a day and I was basically there to assist him in whatever way he needed. This ultimately came to him and me brainstorming all sorts of things we could do and try in our area with our few little smokers. We were making beer-can chickens and whole shoulders of pork. We cooked steaks, smoked duck breast and broke down whole lambs into primal cuts and smoked them all day. That’s not to mention the main event. A pit smoker made out of cinder blocks. This thing was huge, two metres wide and three long. Into this pit we placed a whole pig, Carolina style BBQ. It was an incredible thing to see. John had previously worked with one of the modern godfathers of Barbecue, Adam Perry Lang and had been running a barbecue restaurant for four years. So, needless to say, I learned more about smoking in that weekend than in every day of my life leading up to it.

By the end of the first day he was telling me how I had to come to Barbecoa and try the food, “Next time you are in London give me a shout, come in for dinner, see the kitchen.” The next day it had progressed to “You have to come over for a week to work with us, you have to!” That night he started saying jokingly “Well once I get you in my kitchen I don’t think I will want to let you go. You might have to stay and work with us forever.” I knew he was joking and I didn’t really consider it an offer but it stuck in my head. The final night we wrapped up the demo tent and as we were bidding each other goodbye, I asked him, “So about that job offer in London, were you being serious?” Not really knowing what answer to expect, or what answer I was looking for, I waited. For the first time all weekend, he dropped his goofy grin and looked me dead in the eye; “Absolutely.”

Cut to; Six Months Later

I arrived in London, a bag full of chef uniforms over my shoulder and my knife case under my arm. I walked into Barbecoa in a mingling state of terror and excitement not entirely sure of what to expect. The restaurant was four times bigger than anywhere else I had previously worked and it was in a discipline of food I had only really done in a very amateur setting. Also I had just moved away from my family, my girlfriend and all of my friends. There was a lot riding on this going well. I had to do a trial shift, just so the Executive Chef could see what I could do. It did not go well. Somewhere along the line, between the pressure and the new environment something clicked and I messed it up, definitely not my best day of work ever.

But thankfully, they decided to keep me. Over the next six months I worked my ass off in every corner of the kitchen I could and they soon made me Pitmaster which was an incredible honour. Now I work every day with amazing chefs cooking stunning quality food. I have met wonderful people and I continue to learn from them every day of the week. I get to spend my days basting ribs and seasoning pulled pork and slicing beef ribs and building fires. I can honestly say without an ounce of irony that this is my dream job. And that is, I suppose why I left. To find my dream job. To get out and see the world. To live in other countries and meet new people and try new foods.

Before I met John I had no idea where my life was going but I did have the thought of moving abroad in my head. Then he showed up and gave me exactly what I wanted, all wrapped up in a nice little package. Now, equally I have no idea where I am going, so who knows what the future will hold? Maybe a random encounter with another mad leprechaun is only around the corner, waiting to whisk me off on the next adventure. Till then, if you need me, I’ll be the guy in the cloud of smoke playing with meat.

The Worst Food

I used to not really like food that much. Shocker I know. I never disliked food either but up until I was about twelve I viewed it pretty much exclusively in two forms. Form 1) Fuel, Form 2) Variations of chocolate.

I came from a big family and every Christmas for the big dinner it would be “all hands on deck.” As a kid with my hands being smaller than most I was relegated to the job of cutting parsley in a mug with a pair of scissors. I hated that job and the smell of bruised parsley to this day brings me back to that annoying time before I was given a real job.

Eventually I was upgraded to “here, peel that” before a bag of carrots was thrust upon me. It was truly a great day in my history.

The Cookbook Chronicles

My favourite cookbook I have ever read has got to be Momofuku by David Chang and Peter Meighan. This book tells the story of David Chang set up his first, second and third restaurants across his three year meteoric rise from west village noodle bar to a Beard award winning culinary freight train. He is now one of the most influential Chefs in America, possibly the world with restaurants in Canada and now Australia.

The book is broken up into three distinct parts, each part for each of the first three restaurants he opened. Each section tells the story of the opening of the restaurants and guides you through the recipes and dishes that were on the menu when they first opened.

Throughout the book he keeps coming back to the idea of Authenticity vs Deliciousness and which is more important.

He talks about the search for “Authenticity” as a fool’s errand. Authenticity is an un-quantifiable entity. Especially when trying to recreate something like Tokyo Ramen on the streets of Manhattan. It’s impossible, the ingredients are different, the customers are different, the cooks are different, hell even the water in the taps is different.

Instead he says that it is far more important that first and foremost, your food be delicious than for it to follow some impossible notion of authenticity. When I go out for food I want good food made well. I don’t want food made in a pastiche of a dish without any of the correct ingredients or techniques.

“Is it delicious?” should always be your first question when making a dish.

When he talks about inventing new dishes for his Japanese inspired noodle bar he comes directly up against this conflict early on when making a base for his ramen broth. Ramen broth will usually contain a very strong smoky element in the form of katsuobushi which is a dried, smoked and fermented product made from bonito fish. He talks about trying to find a similar high quality product made in the states but without much luck. He then stumbled upon Alan Benton, a gentleman who makes what is reported to be the greatest smoked bacon in the world. Dave used this smoky bacon instead of the katsuobushi as the base for his Dashi. In that dish, his philosophy was formed. To take the idea and flavour of a traditional dish, and recreate it using the best of what you have on offer to you.

That is the kind of authenticity that David Chang believes in. Authenticity to the ingredients, not to a certain way of doing things with a certain exact set of ingredients.

It is worth noting also that the recipes in this book are extremely well put together, relying a lot on ratios and feelings more than the usual exact science of recipe writing. The photos are incredibly candid and natural. Most being from Chang’s personal collection of things he and his friends had swapped over the years.

Overall the book paints a really true and honest story about what being a chef in a restaurant kitchen is really like and all of the insanity that goes with it. I love cookbooks but sometimes with the prevalence of “Back to basics” and “Easy quick dinners” books it’s hard for me to get my hands on a cookbook I can really relate to. A book that speaks to me creatively and challenges me to cook better than I did today. This book is exactly that. The story is inspirational in a way that I could see it being my story in five or ten years time. The recipes are accessible but force me to think outside my comfort zone. The photos are scenes I see on a daily basis in work.

This book feels very much like a book made by cooks for cooks about cooks.

An absolute must read for anyone who takes food, or any form of creativity, seriously.

NBP – Never Be Paolo

I was re-watching Glengarry Glen Ross the other day. Alec Baldwin with the “Always Be Closing” speech. ABC. After watching the film I started to think if there was something like that that I could apply to life as a chef? Nothing immediately came to mind but then I remembered this guy Paolo. Let me tell you a little bit about Paolo.

A few years ago I worked as a waiter for a steak frittes place in Dublin.
It was a cute little restaurant in the city center, fifty seats, a bar, open kitchen, homely.
The kind of place you go when you don’t fancy cooking for the family on a Wednesday night but equally don’t fancy TGI Fridays.
When I started there, one of the first people to introduce themselves to me was one of the long standing fry-cook’s; Paolo.
He was a super peppy, late twenties Venezuelan dude. His body seemed to be constantly in motion. A subconscious rhythm that flowed through him.
His feet tapped out a bass beat, the steel tongs in his right played the high-hats on the fryer basket and his left hand gave us the snare drum on the cloche he used to steam burger buns.
This man was the embodiment of a good mood.

Everyone loved Paolo. He remembered the names of everyone’s boyfriends and when everyone’s birthdays were.
He made a point of shaking your hand with a kiss on the cheek when you came in in the morning. The first few weeks I was there I loved Paolo too.
We riffed well with each other and would laugh constantly when on a station together.
My perception of things started to change one I got to know the head Chef a little better.

Mike was also a really great guy but as soon as he put on his whites he was just as much of a hard ass as any other chef worth their salt.
He ran a tight ship in that kitchen. Six cooks, three KPs. But he seemed to have a soft spot for Paolo and let him away with a lot more shit than he ever should have.
You see, despite the fact that Paolo was super peppy and friendly and made strong connections with people, despite the fact that he taught me how to question the virtue of someone’s mother in Spanish, despite all of this, Paolo was terrible at his job.

Don’t get me wrong, the guy could cook most people under the table when it came down to it. He could give you the internal temperature of a 10oz Fillet from across the room and brunoise a carrot into a near microscopic dust.
But while all of that is a fantastic asset for a kitchen to have, that’s not the whole picture. He was great at the work, he just wasn’t a great worker.

He came to work late constantly. He couldn’t keep up with his prep before service. He Never sharpened his knives so was always knicking them from other people. He would go days without changing his apron, thank God we had a laundry service for our whites.
He would never label his containers of sauces or herbs correctly, if at all. He would come in hungover at least one morning a week, when that happened the guys in the kitchen couldn’t count on him for anything.
And I think that’s what it came down to. Not being able to rely on him. Having no faith that he could do they job they needed him to do.

Life in a kitchen is a bit mental. Hours. Heat. Cuts. Burns.
With customer requests and waiters shouting orders at you and a docket machine incessantly clicking away in the corner all night long it’s no small wonder that it attracts an odder set than most professions.
In that kind of crucible you need to know that the guy to your right has your back. You need to know that you can lean on him when the orders are piling in and there seems like there is no end in sight. You need to be a team. And you just weren’t with Paulo.
He was too concerned with being the friendliest guy in the room. With having everyone like him. And also, as I only found out later, with badmouthing everyone, behind everyone else’s back.
He never had a good thing to say about management or the hostess or the bar tender. This kind of two facedness is something that eats away at a kitchen team.

Mike the Head Chef had a soft spot for Paolo because if nothing else, Paolo was clever.
He never bad mouthed to Mike, he would do a much better job when Mike was watching and no matter how bad you are at your job being the (albeit apparent) whirlwind of positivity is a great way to get kept around.
Eventually though it just became too much. Too many shifts that were almost ruined by his lack of preparation. Too many complaints from other staff that they didn’t trust him. Too much time spent wondering, “He is talking to me about so and so behind their back but what is he saying to them about me behind my back.”
Mike and Paolo had a confrontation. Paolo decided to leave. Everyone was sad. Paolo left. Everyone was not so secretly relieved.

We got a new guy in, fresh off the boat as it were from Brazil. Showed to work on time. Smashed out his prep in the morning and kept his pace during service. Nice guy, but genuine. I don’t think anyone really noticed the effect Paolo was having until he was gone but everything seemed to flow a little easier after that.

So that’s the story of Paolo, The Not-So-Great Great Guy. And this is how I came to my all-encompassing theory about being a good line cook.
N-B-P. Never Be Paolo.
Come to work on time. Have a clean uniform and groom yourself well. Keep your knife kit sharp and well maintained. When you get in to work get your prep done and boxed off. Label everything correctly. Fill out your HACCP sheets regularly and accurately. If you do come to work still reeling from the night before, push through it, p
rove that while you are human and have a life outside of the kitchen you can still push out the work when the time comes.

But most importantly of all, try to be a good person. Be a team player. Pull your weight so that everyone can pull together. Every day Mike came in he would worry about Paolo.
Was he on time today, would he come in at all. Were fries being blanched, did he have everything backed up, he usually didn’t.
Paolo was a drain on the head Chef; he MVP of every kitchen team. You never want to be that guy. NBP – Never be Paolo. You want to be like any of the other chef in that restaurant that Mike never had to think about. He never stood on the line wondering if Leon had his stock reducing, of course he did. Did Lucas have his Mise En Place for the special done? Always.
Does Paolo even have salt on his station today? Maybe not? NBP – Never Be Paolo.

Life in the kitchen can get pretty shitty at times. Quite often one of the only things that gets you through that is the team, the guy to your right, the chef calling your dockets, the kp bussing your pans. You know they have your back. They knows you have theirs. Everyone is all about the Team. Paolo wasn’t. NBP. Never Be Paolo.

My Trip Home

So I’m just back from my first real trip home since I moved away in January. It was a hell of a few weeks, rounded out very nicely at the end with a little referendum you may have heard of.

The big highlight for me was making my (now annual) pilgrimage to east Cork for the Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine. An incredible three days of talks and demos from a huge array of people from all walks of the culinary life. From the First Lady of Slow Food, Alice Waters to London Restauranteur Mark Hix, to New York Chef April Bloomfield. It really is an amazing weekend.

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Last year was a huge eye opener for me. I had only recently begun working a lot more on the new blog and pushing myself with the photography end of things aswel. Going down to Ballymaloe gave me a huge push to pull the finger out and work harder and harder at it. This year however was different. I learned a lot more about style and audience and what kind of cook I want to be.

After coming back up to Dublin for another few days I got to spend some time horse-riding with my sister. One of my secret terrors but thankfully she mercifully gave me the littlest pony she could find so I didn’t feel too petrified.

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Afterwards we headed up into the Wicklow mountains a little to Powerscourt Waterfall for a bit of an afternoon Barbeque. I made up a quick marinade for some chicken and a couscous salad. It was a delicious little dish, perfectly framed by the epic backdrop of the falls behind us.

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But I am back in London now and far away from that idyllic Irish countryside. I’m not sad though. I really am loving my new life in this awesome city. It is tough being away from home but I do also consider this home now. I have two homes. The place I am from and the place where I live. And that is a very cool thing indeed.

Borough Market – My Happiest Place on Earth

This weeks post isn’t a recipe so much as it is a day in the life kind of thing. I am still fairly new to this city. Still finding my way around and figuring out my favourite places to go and things to see. One of the first things I fell in love with and one of the first things I started doing regularly is going to Borough Market. This is one of those places that is pretty high on the list of anyone interested in food or anything for that matter.

It is an incredible sight to behold and the atmosphere there on a sunny afternoon is immense. Here are just a few of the photos I have collected over that last month or two of the stalls and some of the surrounding area. I hope it gives you some send of the grandeur, elegance and character of this culinary mecca.

The Cup of Coffee

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My head hangs close to rim of the disposable cup. The steam is bitter. The heat both blessing and curse. I am pouring what is left of my will into this coffee and in turn it is holding me up for one more day. That’s all I need, eight more little hours. Then rest.

I have been working for nine straight days. Somewhere north of one hundred hours and what sleep I steal between those is haunted by calls for two sirloins on eighty four, firing, one eight ounce mid rare, two rumps medium, to follow three Rib eye’s all rare, Lets go!

I can feel every minute of those hours in every inch of my body. My knees creek like a man four times my senior. My arms dangle from my shoulders like scarves from a hook. Someone has poured concrete into my fingers. The skin flakes and peels from every shattered nails edge. Blisters line my forearms.

A lot of people say that while you are young you feel invincible but I can tell you now that my body has never felt more mortal than sitting at a faux antique bar in Costa. The coffee remains the only thing holding me aloft.

Through the shop window I can see normal people living normal people lives. Suits, briefcases, phonecalls, taxis, newspapers. What did I do to be shunned from that normal life? Nothing I guess. I remember that this is what I want to be doing. It seems insane at this moment in time but it is. This is where I belong. If it’s not, then at the very least, at this stage, in the words of Joseph Conrad; I must be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.

After my shift today I am free for an evening and a day before I head back into the smoky, shining steel, gun deck of a kitchen where I earn my humble keep. Forty consecutive hours of not being shouted at or burning myself. It might only be a short about of time but I feel inside like I am about to take three month cruise around the Bahamas. It is a welcome reprieve from this job that seems to demand so much and offer so little.

That thought takes a little of the pressure off the coffee as my sole source of support and I stand to walk the three minutes down the road and into the restaurant. The sun is low and seems intent on tearing a hole in my retinas. It’s going to be a warm day. A fresh wave of envy hits me as I think again about the normal people getting to enjoy normal people things, like a sunny day and fresh air and bones that don’t feel like swizzle sticks.

The coffee diminishes. The day passes. I’m about to leave. I make a smart ass comment to the chef. The guys on the grill laugh. Chef tells me to fuck off home and get some sleep. I smile and feel better than I have in days. I’m beaming as I change back into my civvies and head to catch a tube home. Either out of sleep deprived deliriousness or a genuine sense of feeling at home there, I start to look forward to going back into the kitchen in a few days time. I’m still smiling as my eyes grow heavy and sleep takes me there on a rush hour Piccadilly Line tube. I miss my stop but it was the soundest sleep I had had in weeks.