In 2017, Tallaght chef Anna Haugh stood on stage in Galway and told a story about working in a London kitchen that left the audience moved.
Anna, who worked with Derry Clarke in l’Ecrivain, and Gordon Ramsay, Philip Howard and Shane Osborne in London, spoke about a particular case of bullying that she witnessed behind the scenes of a high end restaurant.
A kitchen porter who didn’t speak English, was “unusually small”, had a disfigured face and a club foot was singled out by a chef (who, incidentally, wasn't any of the aforementioned chefs) simply because he was “the wrong colour”, Anna said.
“[He] took a very big dislike to him and would make a mockery of him at least three times a day,” she explained.
“[He] used the fact that he didn’t speak English against him so he’d make a mockery of him... where he would ask him questions about his sexuality or whether he preferred to have sex with children or animals... The chef would fall around the floor laughing and some of the lads would laugh with him, and this ate away at me. This caused more stress than I ever experienced as a chef.”
The chef, who was not the head chef in the kitchen, would take the piping bags of purée left over from the day’s service, and “pretend to ejaculate all over him, making loud moaning noises and laughing his heart out”.
The victim, the kitchen porter, “worked faster, harder” than any kitchen porter she’d met before.
“He dried the bowls – what kitchen porters dry the bowls?... He was just brilliant.”
And yet, despite his excellence, he was ridiculed every day by this chef. The bullying was always done when the head chef wasn't in the kitchen.
“Lots of the chefs were very uncomfortable with what was happening, and they weren’t brave enough to go ‘no, that’s not OK’.”
Anna, a junior chef at the time, tried to get the chef to stop but this went against her.
“I would get into trouble, I scrubbed a lot of stoves, I got a lot of silent treatment. Once [that chef] is ignoring you, everybody’s ignoring you, and that was very, very hard.”
Mental health is a huge issue for young chefs, who can burn out quickly in a high-pressured career that often entails 70-plus hours a week, no sick days, and no annual leave.
And Anna's speech at Food on the Edge 2017, a two-day symposium on food, appealed to chefs that they have a responsibility to lead by example and demonstrate how people deserve to be treated.
“In the end we remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” she told the audience.
Today, in her own kitchen at Myrtle restaurant in Chelsea, London, which she opened last month, Anna looks back on that time when she first came to London as a steep learning curve. Though the city offered her many opportunities, the atmosphere in some of the kitchens was the opposite to what she’d been used to.
“I was so lucky that I got to work for Derry [Clarke, in Dublin], I learned a huge amount. And when I was there it was 50pc women - from the head pastry chef to a young demi chef and commi chefs who were girls and who were ambitious and talented.”
“Then I went to London and I’m going ‘where are the women?’ The chefs were going ‘women can’t cook'.”
“London was a bit of a cruel beast when I came over.”
“I’d say for the first five years I cried a lot. It took me years to mention the fact that I cried to anyone. I see chefs cry all the time. When it goes all wrong, you cry really hard because you’re passionate but also because you’re tired and someone has shouted at you.”
Anna says she is now happily working 100-hour weeks, having achieved the dream of opening her own restaurant - self-financed after years of saving.
“It’s going absolutely amazing in every single way. I feel like everything’s different now that I have the restaurant. It’s been my lifelong dream. From the minute I became a chef, all I wanted was to have my own place. I wanted to be my own boss, cook on my own. I felt that if I had an investor I’d have a boss [so she saved up instead].”
“It’s such a gorgeous little restaurant and far exceeded what I hoped it would be.”
Anna's cooking is modern European food with an Irish influence. Clonakilty pudding, Burren Smokehouse salmon, Burren beef and potatoes from Ballymakenny farm in Louth all feature on the menu.
“I will bore you tears when I talk about the produce that we’re growing in Ireland, it’s amazing."
She adds: "A lot of the stuff is about us going back to the way our food was years ago. Before we had the potato, we lived off the land; when we got the potato we stopped looking for food, we stopped foraging and all of that food knowledge has just died.”
Chefs like JP McMahon, who founded Food on the Edge, are helping to revive these skills again, she said.
“Food on the Edge is the best kept secret in the world. It’s genius, I’ve never been to a food event like FOTE, it’s the most friendly, inspiring food emporium.”
Myrtle is partly a nod to Myrtle Allen, the late doyenne of the Irish food scene. The restaurant interior features lots of nuances linking it to Anna's old sod like lamps from Tipperary, Galway crystal champagne glasses, and Mullingar pewter water goblets.
Would she ever be tempted to move home and open a high-end restaurant here?
“[The food scene in Ireland is] incredible. If my boyfriend wasn’t from the UK I’d be running home," but she added, "people are really excited about the idea that the Irish restaurant has something to bring to here.”