How to Become a Chef with Duncan Blair
WHO I AM
Duncan Blair, Head Chef at Blair’s Inn. I work with my brother Richard at our longstanding family pub and restaurant. Richard looks after front of house. We are the second generation to work in the pub where we grew up with our parents working here. Blair’s Inn is a characterful old pub with a contemporary gastropub menu. Our food is traditionally Irish but with a twist.
THE NITTY GRITTY
What type of training did you have?
I was slow to come to cooking as a career. I grew up in the business with my parents running the pub. Blair’s Inn was one of the frist to start serving food in the country. My parents didn’t really want me to go into the business. I studied Spanish and Economics and a bit of French so I travelled in France and Spain. That’s where I first made the connection with food. I remember eating beautiful tomatoes with dressing and it was a revelation! My mum is a good cook and my granny as well, but they did everything they could to discourage me from cooking! I worked behind the counter of the pub and loved it. After college I went into web and graphic design. I travelled in Oz and that’s where I started working in kitchens. When I came back I did a post-grad in Computer Science. I finished that I went straight to Ballymaloe Cookery School to the do the cookery course. It was fantastic, I came out full of go! But I still felt I knew nothing about working in the industry and was desperate to learn more. We had good chefs at Blair's Inn at that time so I learned from them. Then there was Catherine who’s been here for 20 years. She took me under her wing. Catherine is the continuity between the old pub and the pub we have today. She is still a major driving force behind me. Eventually I started to make stuff for the markets. I’d get up early to do fresh breads and chutneys and then continue through the day working in the kitchen. It went from there really.
What were the challenges along the way?
Every chef will say the anti-social hours are the biggest challenge but i guess it comes with the territory! The trade-off is a small price to pay for doing something you love.
Were their any major positives or crucial turning points in your career?
Going to Ballymaloe Cookery School was a crucial turning point. It brought me right back to my granny’s kitchen. It was like a funny realisation that the kitchen was where I should be. Then we won a big Pub of the Year award in recognition of us standing alone as a kitchen producing great pub food. That was a major positive.
Which people influence your cooking?
When I go to mum’s house for dinner, she puts all this stuff out on the table and she’s done nothing, but she’s done everything. I love watching her produce a meal. She was making broths before they were ever a thing. Mum makes food that makes you feel good. I love that.
Which food styles/trends interest you or influence your cooking as a professional chef?
I like a lot of the French classical stuff. Simple food based on good ingredients. I love watching the molecular gastronomy trend but I feel food is about getting the basics right, the flavours, the ingredients. It’s very important here because we are feeding real people who want real food. We are big into the zero waste thing and we do a lot of dehydrating and messing around with things like fish skins and so on, which fascinates me. But I love local ingredients and I want to go micro-local as well, like Kevin Aherne of Sage Restaurant. I think its fantastic what he’s doing and I would really like to do that here. I also love Paul Flynn of The Tannery in Dungarvan. If you’re talking to him he’s quite traditional about food but its always all about the ingredients.
Why do you love your job as a professional chef?
I love the buzz. I love the milestones you reach as you get better. So you look at each milestone and push yourself again and you’re terrified, but you do it anyway. Recently we did a party where they wanted all our popular dishes but they wanted it all in mini versions. They wanted to eat standing up. It was the first time we’d done something like that. They absolutely loved it. So I think it’s when you do something you think you can’t do and you get the team behind you and you do it, that’s the best feeling. I love to change things a bit as well, so it’s great when a regular customer will try a new dish. It means you’ve done something right! I also like to try to get out to meet other chefs. There’s always lots to talk about!
What's the worst thing about your role as a professional chef?
Well there’s nothing in the kitchen I don’t like doing. But I do miss the family parties or birthdays of friends. I also miss my kids bedtimes, but it’s just the way it goes. So that would probably be the worst thing about the job.
Describe a typical day in the kitchen
I normally take the kids to school, so I arrive at work at about 9.30am. I start by making the breads. I do alot of baking in the mornings and then check the slow cooked things like our lamb shanks, which we cook overnight so they are ready when I get in. I’m always thinking about the next service rather than the one I’m doing that day. I cook a lot of fresh fish, we get deliveries in four times a week, so I have to attend to those as well. Then I check emails and do any orders then get ready for lunch from 12 noon. We serve right through then till 9.30pm, seven days a week. Depending on how busy we are, I’d usually get finished at about 10.30pm.
What are your strong points?
My main strong point is that I never think I have learned enough. I am always keen to learn more. You can never know it all.
Would you change anything about your journey so far?
Looking back, I would love to have started sooner. My uncle owned a hotel in Dublin and I was offered the opportunity to work there aged 18 but I didn’t take it. I sometimes wish I had. I would have loved to have met and worked with young chefs and had that connection.
Who does the cooking at home?
I do the cooking at home. To be honest, I always love cooking no matter where I am. We had a new baby recently so particularly when my wife was pregnant I did a lot of the cooking. She’s well able herself, but I think I annoy her in the kitchen because she thinks I look funny at her food. I am sure she would say I am a bit of a pain! I actually really love when she cooks for me. I also love cooking with the kids, showing them how to make breads and stuff. I want them to learn how real food is made and they love doing it.
Any advice for anyone who wants to become a professional chef?
Don’t be afraid of hard work. Get the basics right. Never think you know it all. No matter how much you think you know, you are always learning.
What’s your favourite dish or recipe?
I love our Slow Cooked shank of Lamb and our Short Rib of Beef which I cook with beef broth and sorrel. It’s glazed and served with caramelised gnocchi. I also love seafood. If I was entertaining at home I would do a big Seafood Platter with loads of fresh shellfish like prawns, scallops, crab and stuff.