Tag Archives: Story

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.

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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.

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.

Moving away from home and an Asian Pickle Salad

So it has been a crazy few months since I last updated this blog. I left my job in Dublin, I moved to London and I have started working in an incredible Barbecue focused place here. This experience has been something that I was not nearly as ready for as I thought I was.

Moving away from your home, your family, your friends, your pets, the streets you walk every day, the coffee shops you frequent, the bars you imbibe in, the busses and trains you ride, it is a scary thing to do. You are left, as if suspended in mid-air, with not just the rug pulled out from under you, but the floorboards torn up and the entire building seemingly razed to the ground beneath your feet.

The first couple of weeks were probably the strangest, not necessarily the hardest but definitely odd. I had rented a room for the two weeks after I arrived as a way to get to know the area and have a place to search for more long term arrangements from. I ended up staying there three weeks because, as I probably don’t need to tell you, the housing market in London is bat-shit-cray.

Several times I would be on the way to meet with an estate agent only to get a curt message saying the apartment was already let, or they didn’t accept references from “overseas.” “It’s Ireland mate, it’s like a twenty minute walk from here.” That in combination with the rent prices I was looking at was a pretty daunting thing to overcome. But in the end, I found a nice little place in the East End and moved in.

The strangest feeling was that when I was leaving the first place I stayed, my mind seemed to think I had been on holiday or something. Like now that I had been away for a few weeks and was packing up my stuff I was going back to Dublin to see my life again. But to then find myself in another new apartment and new area was really tough.

The first day I had off from work after moving in, I did the only thing I know how to do when I don’t know what to do, I made a home cooked meal.

1 Red Chilli
1 Lime
2 Spring Onions
1 Bunch of Coriander
1 Tbsp Mirin
1 Tsp Sesame Oil
1 Tsp Soy Sauce
1 Tsp Rice Wine Vinegar (White Wine Vinegar will do or any white vinegar in a pinch)
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-First off you want to make up the pickle dressing for the salad. In a bowl, mix together the Mirin, Sesame Oil, Soy Sauce, Rice Wine Vinegar and the Juice of the lime.
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-Mix it well and then taste it. It should be a little sharp from the vinegar but if it is offensively strong, tone it down by adding in a little sugar and a little more Mirin.
-Next, half and deseed your chilli.
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-As finely as you can, slice up each of the halves. I like to do it length-ways (purely for aesthetic reasons) but you can do it whatever way you like. Just make sure the pieces are quite fine so the pickle easily.
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-Add the chilli into the pickle dressing.
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-Peel the spring onions of any nasty outer leaves and chop them into manageable pieces.
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-Slice them in half, length-ways and then slice them again as finely as you can. The thinner they are the better they will pickle and the better they will look on the plate.
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-Add these into the dressing aswel.
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-Pick the leaves, gently so as not to bruise them, of the coriander from the stalks.
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-Chop the stalks into similarly sized pieces to the spring onion and chilli and add them into the dress with everything else.
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-The salad can stay like this for a few days and then as soon as you are ready to serve, add in the coriander leaves.
-Pluck the salad out of the dressing and allow it to drain for a moment on a piece of kitchen paper. Then it’s ready to be placed atop anything you fancy.
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My Virgin Cheesecake

We all get that need sometimes. A powerful desire from deep in the bones for something. It becomes a necessity. Life should not, nay, could not proceed without it. One day in particular I needed Cheesecake. Now me and Cheesecake have had a very strange past, I didn’t try it for years as the idea of a chocolate cake or Victoria sponge with grated cheese on top was enough to turn my stomach. But a few years ago I ate a piece, almost by accident and I have never looked back since. However until recently I had never actually made one.

On this great day of Cheesecake need I was walking home along the quays and decided I was going to make one. My phone was dead so I couldn’t look up a recipe and I was on my way to meet my girlfriend so time was very much of the essence. I ran the aisles of a small Tesco and grabbed all of the things that I thought might go in a cheesecake. Half dozen eggs, double cream, cream cheese, biscuits, more butter than is usually acceptable in polite society, sugar, etc. Before long we were trawling though recipes in my galley kitchen trying to find something doable. We settled on a simple enough sounding one and got to it.

After a lot of messing, lollygagging and general merriment we had a fairly well put together Oreo and White Chocolate Cheesecake in front of us.

Plates, knife, slice, spoon, bite… stop.

Something was off. A sort of musty fungal flavour somewhere. I checked to see if everything was in date. It all seemed fine. Everything except the cheese. An earthy smell, not bad, just not what I was expecting. I checked the pack again and there it was, in miniscule writing on a mini green flag; “Blue Cheese and Garlic Flavour.”

I had been in such a rush in Tesco that I never even checked what I was grabbing, as long as it had “Cream Cheese” on it I was happy. We begrudgingly ate the cake. I’m not in the kind of financial situation where I can throw away relatively edible cake. It wasn’t good. Google tells me that indeed Blue Cheese Cheesecake is a “thing.”

This monstrosity was definitely not that “thing.” Take note kids, read before you buy.