Photo cred: Hugh McElveen
You have an excellent reputation for producing fine cuisine. What was your inspiration and what lead you to the K Club?
I’m not sure why I wanted to become a chef, but perhaps it comes from my mother. She wasn’t a great cook, but before she died, I wanted to become a great chef out of self-defense. In reality, she had a recipe card system, and I loved flicking through it!
She did have a talent for baking, and I loved the aroma of her bread and butter puddings. I remember distinctly the smell that would greet us when we came in the house from playing football, a scent that is ingrained in my memory.
We were poor when I was a kid, but we always had fresh food. We had cabbages the size of houses, and carrots and potatoes. It was always cooked fresh even though it might have been poorly cooked.
To this day, the people in Ireland still hunt the land. My dad would fish, and we’d catch trout in the river. We’d have rabbits, hares, and pheasants. We might have never understood what we were eating, and we were always told that a pheasant was a chicken. It was always that kind of food at home.
My mother used to work at this small motel not too far from County Kildare. I remember going there to peel potatoes for free, and I did it for six months in my spare time. They used to have meats hanging in the fridge, and for a small hotel, that was crazy.
I wanted to learn how to do things the right way from a young age and at 16, I went to Dublin Institute of Technology for two years. I had a lecturer named Jimbo, who would cook during the lectures. When I was 17, I remember that Jimbo gave me an application form to work at the Savoy Hotel in London. He told me to fill it in and send it off. Being a kid, I never sent it off! One day he said to me, “Did you fill it out?” I told him, “Yeah I sent if off.” However, it was in my bag. He said, “Oh jeez don’t tell anyone that I gave you that application!” The good news was Jim was getting me to London, but he was in a bit of hot water over it.
Tell us about your time at the Savoy Hotel in London.
It was a life changer for me, and I worked 80 hours a week. Every area of the kitchen had different stations. You might be making the pasta, the soup dishes, or the jellies. There was a cod fish station, and the meat station had 14 chefs working it. There were a lot of line people with a lot of different structures. I’ll never forget it as it seemed maddening! I remember when The Queen came for dinner, and we felt massive pressure.
When I was 19, I became the youngest saucier in 105 years. I had 14 people working for me and was already learning how to run a kitchen and deal with people. Despite the pressure and expectations, I just went with the flow of whatever was expected. When I did well, I gained a bit more respect and started developing confidence in myself.
I was there for about three years and was getting homesick. In 1992, before emails, I remember sending a letter home to my mates. One of them wrote back and told me about a new hotel restaurant opening in Kildare, and although Kildare wasn’t my top choice, I decided I would go and meet them after all, and I have been here ever since.
How have things changed here over the last 20 years?
It’s quite a bit different now, as the conditions were just barely acceptable at the time. I have to run a business in the proper fashion, including understanding all appropriate laws. In London, I never liked the yelling and shouting in the kitchen where egos sometimes got in the way of even fighting over an onion. None of that in my kitchen! In the modern day, a chef won’t last long with that kind of behavior. I run a quiet kitchen, and my staff only turns over every five or six years. We’ve created a system and procedures here, and it makes things run smoothly.
How much has the menu changed from when you since first started here?
Completely. When I came back here, I brought the London thinking back with me, and it was quite modern. What we’re doing now is considerably better, taking advantage of water baths and pressure cookers. Back then, we only cooked in ovens, and now it’s far more structured with water baths. Water baths (sous vide) allow you to finish your dishes more efficiently, and you’re not worried about oven temperatures. Everything is more relaxed.
How long have you been using sous vide?
I was probably the first in the country to start using water baths over twelve years ago. I can see the benefits of it, and we use the best quality proteins whether it be fish or meat.
You are very proud of your suppliers, tell us about that.
One of the most important things for a chef is building a relationship with your suppliers. My meat supplier has been with us for 16 years, our fruit and vegetable provider for 16-20 years, and the fish vendor for 25 years. They are all proud of their produce and their long relationship with K Club.
Is there a lot of competition with suppliers?
Well a lot, yeah. I give the most of the local producers a go. If I hear about some new artisanal cheese in the area, I will ask them to bring samples, and if the product is good, I will use it. If the quality is not consistent, it is gone.
How has the restaurant changed?
We used to be an exclusive, niche 39 bedroom hotel with one golf course. That was a different time. Our owners have a vision for K Club and a strategy to get there. Our business model has changed multiple times in the 20 years that I’ve been here. For example, we had a 40 cover restaurant with a Michelin Star, but now our restaurants are much bigger, but the philosophy of the food is the same.
What Chefs have inspired you?
Thomas Keller. I have his book The French Laundry and love his philosophy and simplicity.
Do you have any mentors you would care to mention?
Well, you have put me on the spot now. Anton Edelmann was my first real mentor; he was the first real chef for whom I worked a long time ago in London at the Savoy Hotel. He was the Gordon Ramsay of the 80’s and 90’s. I can’t say he inspired me, but he just frightened the bloody hell out of me, and I certainly learned a lot about food from him.
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