Friday 15 November 2019

Meet the female Irish chefs cooking up a storm

Tomorrow, eight Irish chefs will battle it out to be the Euro-Toques Young Chef of the Year. The two women still in running tell Katy McGuinness about their road to the final and why the industry needs more female role models

The heat is on: Grainne Mullins, one of Ireland's most promising chefs. Photo: Frank McGrath
The heat is on: Grainne Mullins, one of Ireland's most promising chefs. Photo: Frank McGrath
Alison Tierney, one of Ireland's most promising young chefs. Photo: Frank McGrath
Grainne O'Keefe
Jess Murphy
Danni Barry
Dervilla O'Flynn
Katy McGuinness

Katy McGuinness

Tomorrow, chefs Alison Tierney and Grainne Mullins will compete in the final of the Euro-Toques Young Chef of the Year competition. Alison works at Dax on Dublin's Pembroke Street, a restaurant that is among the best-regarded in the city. The 23-year-old first became interested in the idea of cooking for a living when she had a job behind the bar in Dublin restaurant Fade Street Social as a student.

"At the time, I was studying business and marketing but I decided to change course and go to Tallaght to study cooking. So I moved from the bar to the kitchen at Fade Street and I worked full-time there during my course - in the evenings after college, on Fridays as work placement and at weekends, too. After college I spent a couple of months at Chapter One and then a year and a half at Roberta's in Temple Bar. I came to Dax last year."

Grainne is the head pastry chef at Danny Africano's Lignum in Loughrea, Co Galway, her home town. It opened just a few weeks ago and early reports suggest that the restaurant will be a contender for Michelin Guide recognition when the stars for 2021 are awarded in October next year.

"My first job in food was during transition year," says the 25-year-old. "I did work experience at a local café in Loughrea. I loved it, and when the week was over they offered me a part-time job after school. When the head chef moved to Glenlo Abbey, I went with him. I studied science in NUIG, but every Friday I'd get the bus to Ashford Castle and work in the kitchen for the weekend.

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Alison Tierney, one of Ireland's most promising young chefs. Photo: Frank McGrath
Alison Tierney, one of Ireland's most promising young chefs. Photo: Frank McGrath

"I took a year out to see whether I wanted to pursue science or cooking, and went to a one-star Michelin restaurant in Aix-en-Provence, where I stayed for two years. I never did go back to science. When I returned to Ireland, I worked at House at the Cliff House, then Ox and now Lignum."

Alison's boss, Graham Neville, is a former commissioner general of Euro-Toques Ireland, the organisation co-founded by the late Myrtle Allen in 1986. Its members are committed to an ethos that prioritises sourcing ingredients from local artisan producers, and promoting and preserving Ireland's culinary heritage.

"Graham encouraged me to enter the competition," says Alison. "It's for chefs under the age of 26 and I was the only one in the kitchen young enough to go for it. I'm thrilled to have got this far."

"Danny saw the competition on social media and said, 'you should do this'," recalls Grainne. "I said, 'I'm a pastry chef, it's not for me'. But Danny encouraged me to go for it - he said I had nothing to lose."

Graham and Danny are Alison and Grainne's mentors in the competition.

Although Grainne has done short stages in restaurants on sections other than pastry, and cooks for family and friends at home, she has never cooked professionally other than as a pastry chef.

In contrast, Alison has trained in every section bar pastry, having done her time on garnishes, cold starters, hot starters, meat, fish and sauces. Neither comes from a family steeped in culinary tradition.

"Growing up, my family had a garden and grew vegetables and made everything from scratch," Grainne tells me, "but there are no chefs in my family. I grew up with good ingredients, not fancy food."

Alison says she has a similar background. "Mine isn't a foodie family either, although my dad makes a good spaghetti Bolognese. I was a very fussy eater as a child, I used to say no to a lot of things. It's only since I became a chef that I started to eat everything."

The secretary general of Euro-Toques in Ireland is Manuela Spinelli. (If her name is familiar, that's because she was often seen at the side of Giovanni Trapattoni when he was managing the Irish football team, as she was his official interpreter.)

"The competition is open to all young professional chefs, working in any type of restaurant, awarded or not," Manuela tells me. "Mentorship is a very important element, and our members are very open to working with young chefs from outside their own kitchens; there is a real community aspect to the competition that we encourage."

To enter the competition, each young chef was asked to take a photo of a VIP (Very Important Producer) and post it on social media by way of an expression of interest.

"That was all they had to do to go through to next stage," she explains. "We want to be as inclusive as possible. This year we had 40 entries, the highest number yet."

For the next stage of the competition, each chef had to submit a recipe based on their VIP's product and cook it; some were then invited to come and discuss the recipe at interview.

"We interviewed as many as possible," says Manuela, "because some are better on paper than others. We have to remind ourselves that it's a cooking competition, not a writing competition. At the interview, they had to explain why they'd chosen that particular producer over another."

Alison's dish was blue-fin tuna with beetroot purée and basil purée, with the vegetables coming from the McNally Family Farm in North County Dublin.

Grainne, meanwhile, submitted a recipe for a celery financier with poached pear, buttermilk mousse with celery, and brown butter ice cream, using Cuinneog butter and buttermilk.

The judges - including Domini Kemp, Kevin Aherne, Ali Honour, Kwanghi Chan, Gearóid Lynch, JR Ryall and Gareth Mullins, the current commissioner general - interviewed 18 young chefs, and selected 14 to proceed to the semi-final, which was held in the Dublin Cookery School in August.

This was the first point in the competition that any of the contestants would actually cook anything.

The chefs spent the first half-hour producing a sabayon mousseline to a recipe from judge Shauna Froydenlund, of Marcus at the Berkeley Hotel in London - the equivalent to the technical challenge in the TV show Great British Bake Off - and then an hour and a half preparing a dish from a mystery basket of ingredients, which turned out to be monkfish and cockles, with a choice of vegetables available for garnish.

Neither Grainne nor Alison had any trouble with the sabayon, and were both happy with the way their dishes - monkfish poached in herb-infused oil with salt-baked carrot for Grainne; and pan-fried monkfish with cockles, Ballymakenny purple potatoes, baby turnips and salt-baked onion with a black garlic crust for Alison - turned out.

Did they find cooking in front of the judges stressful?

"It's more apprehension than stress," says Grainne, "because you don't know what's coming, you have no idea what you are going to be asked to cook. But five minutes in you know where everything is, and it's what we all love to do, you just get it done, like you're at work. Danny taught me different techniques and I did lots of practice."

"It was fine, because you could pick whatever vegetables you wanted," says Alison. "On the day I just shut everyone out, pretended no one else was there and did what I do every day. Graham was great in the run-up to the competition. He told me to stay calm and keep focus. It's all about the way you work, working clean, having pride in what you do."

Out of the 14, eight made it through to final after much deliberation by judges including Gareth Mullins, Jordan Bailey of the now two-star Michelin Aimsir, Anna Haugh of Myrtle in London and Shauna Froydenlund. The competitors were judged on how they worked, their technique and the flavour of the finished dish.

For tomorrow's final, the contestants will cook two dishes, one based on chicken - they will be given a whole bird, with the brief to use as much of it as possible - and a second dish, which can either be a starter or a dessert using buttermilk, Jersey cream and honey. The judges will be Michel Roux Jnr of Le Gavroche in London, Margot Janse, formerly of Le Quartier Francais in Franschhoek, Paul Flynn of the Tannery, and Gareth Mullins.

Over the past few weeks, Manuela has taken the finalists on a day trip to Italy, to a workshop at Aimsir, and to masterclasses with Kevin Thornton and Kevin Burke, as well as inspirational trips around Ireland to meet producers. Both Grainne and Alison have found being involved in the competition hugely rewarding.

Restaurant kitchens are notoriously tough places to work, but neither Grainne nor Alison has experienced gender discrimination.

"If you are in with a good team with a good head chef who you can speak to if you have any issues, you're grand," says Alison. "We are a bit outnumbered, but there are more girls coming through. We definitely need more females in the industry as role models."

Grainne adds: "I've been working in kitchens for nine years now, and I've never had any issues. I might ask for help to lift a stock pot, but the lads are happy to help. You're like a family - you spend so long working together you have to get along, you know their ins and outs, and they know yours.

"There are good and bad places to work, and kitchens can be intense, but I have never heard of anywhere being specifically bad for a woman to work."

Neither woman yet has a family of her own, but they are encouraged by the move towards a four-day working week for chefs and the improvements to work-life balance for men and women that they see this bringing.

"Restaurants will keep staff if they treat them well," says Alison.

"A shorter week makes people happier and more creative," says Grainne. "There's time for research, producer visits."

Manuela says that Euro-Toques has never really engaged in the conversation about women in kitchens, but that the organisation would like to make an impact by doing rather than by talking, and for Euro-Toques kitchens to be known as good places to work, regardless of gender.

In terms of long-term plans, Grainne envisages staying at Lignum for the foreseeable future, while Alison says that prior to the competition she had been thinking about working abroad for a while, but has been inspired by the competition to explore the possibilities that exist in Ireland. "I've done Dublin, so with the amount of stuff going on in Galway, I might head over there."


Four top Irish female chefs

⬤ Grainne O'Keeffe

Grainne O'Keefe

Head chef at Dublin's Clanbrassil House (holder of a Bib Gourmand) and culinary director of burger mini-chain Bujo, soon to open its second branch in Dublin.

⬤ Danni Barry

Danni Barry

Held a Michelin star at Eipic in Belfast and is now cooking at Overwood at Balloo House in Killinchy, Co Down.

⬤ Jess Murphy

Jess Murphy

Chef proprietor of Kai in Galway, which holds a Bib Gourmand.

⬤ Dervilla O'Flynn (photo by Christopher Michel)

Dervilla O'Flynn

Head chef at Ballymaloe House in East Cork, where the late Myrtle Allen once held a Michelin star.

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