'I can do any day except Saturday, I have a Communion that day," Niall Hill says the minute it's suggested that he do this interview at his home.
It was a telling comment, because no matter what, Niall was not missing that event. Niall is all about family. Family and food. And his home, which he shares with his wife Joanne and their two daughters, bears that out.
As executive chef and director of The Butler's Pantry, it's to be expected that Niall would be particularly proud of his kitchen. But he's as proud of his daughters' girlie bedrooms, their playroom and their big playhouse as he is of his 'top chef' cooking toys, including the induction wok and the teppanyaki. "I know a lot of chefs who've never seen their children's first steps or heard their first words" but, he says, "time with family is very important. It's about the work-life balance, isn't it? I'm lucky, Butler's is a great brand to work for."
The twin guiding lights of family and food may be the reason Butler's is so successful, because Niall's goal is all about providing good home-made-like food for people who just don't have the time to prepare their own.
"We use all fresh products, no stabilisers, lots of fresh herbs and we deliver fresh to our own nine shops, twice daily. Our clients are the empty nesters, the working mums, the young working-hard types," Niall says. "The food isn't too cheffy. It's delicious but it's such that a person could pass it off as their own. It's more sophisticated than the food I grew up with. Food was fuel in those days."
Originally from Dun Laoghaire, a short walk from where he now lives, Niall is one of three children. "My dad was a mechanic and my mum was a good cook but she ran a tight household," he says. "You knew what you were having each day of the week. I have no nostalgia for the food we had. Except maybe my mum's jam roly poly, it was the first thing I can remember baking," he adds with a laugh. "My dad loved to fish and he'd come back with a wild sea bass and lay it on newspaper. I had no appreciation for that at the time."
That changed when Niall and one of his best friends got part-time jobs in a cafe called Chaplins that belonged to the uncle of the friend. "We were there to wash dishes," Niall recalls, "but the chef there, Mark Deegan, was a really nice guy and he used to let us help him cook and I just caught the bug. I knew then what I wanted to do."
It was also where he developed a crush on a girl who worked locally, and the nice chef also helped him in furthering that particular interest. "Joanne is my childhood sweetheart," Niall says. "It's a funny story. The chef said, 'There's a young girl down in the hairdressers. She's sick, bring her down this drink.' I think he was setting us up. He knew I liked her."
After school, Niall decided to train as a chef and had the good fortune to work under some of Ireland's culinary stars, including Colin O'Daly who, at the time, had a restaurant called The Park in Blackrock. At the same time Niall took classes at Cathal Brugha Street.
He also worked under a French chef called Guy Urbin in Wheelers restaurant in Dun Laoghaire. When Niall and Joanne decided to go abroad, Guy, who had spent time in Canada, suggested they go there. Niall got work in one of Canada's top restaurants, Auberge de Pommier in Toronto, which helped him to develop his repertoire.
"Suddenly, I was using ingredients I'd never seen before. Canada is so multicultural, it opened my eyes to so many cuisines," he enthuses. He and Joanne loved the life so much they stayed six years in total.
It was family that brought them home in 1997. "We loved it there; we became Canadian citizens, but we decided we needed time with the parents. Joanne's dad passed away in 2004, mine in 2010. So, I'm glad we had that time with them."
On returning to Ireland, Niall got work immediately in Rathsallagh House. Then after three years there, he moved back to Dublin and, in 2001, he joined Butler's. When he started they had three shops, now there are nine.
The company has 100 employees, 40 of whom are in the kitchen. For the last number of years, the company has had a high profile at Taste of Dublin festival and Niall has done very successful demonstrations there. Last year, he was sandwiched between two big stars - Michel Roux and Tom Kitchens who has a Michelin-starred restaurant in Scotland - but he wasn't intimidated. He modestly says that because the ingredients in this country are so good, he can afford to keep the recipe simple and let the flavours speak for themselves.
It's the way Niall cooks at home too; he's a bit of a health nut and big on running marathons for charity, so he mainly cooks fresh fish and lots of vegetables in his stylish kitchen. He loves his island and the fact that it's big enough to have the girls Nyah, nine, and Zuri, three, helping him while he cooks.
Niall and Joanne bought the house when Joanne was pregnant with Zuri. "We bought the house because we loved the 180-foot garden," Niall says. "We had a three-month window to get the house right before the baby arrived."
Built in the 1950s, the house, which has four bedrooms, hadn't been touched since it was originally built, and so had to be totally renovated with new wiring, new heating, new windows and new floors. The internal walls downstairs were knocked to make one big L-shaped open-plan space. It was a lot to undertake given the circumstances, but family came to the rescue.
"My sister-in-law, Aisling, and her husband Brian project-managed it for us," Niall says. "Aisling is really talented, she designed the garden too. They were both great."
Niall's family even played a part in the actual buying of the house. "We weren't absolutely sure that it was the right house for us. Then, one day we were visiting my dad's grave. We were walking down one of the laneways in the graveyard," Niall explains. "Suddenly, we both looked to our right, and there on a gravestone was the name of the family we had bought the house from. We knew then we had done the right thing."
The Butler's Pantry is the official caterer for corporate bookings at Taste of Dublin. The 'Sunday Independent' is official media partner to Taste of Dublin, celebrating 10 years this year and taking place in the Iveagh Gardens from June 11-14.
For more information and ticket sales, see tasteofdublin.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine