How to Become a Chef with Ken Harker
Tue, 6th Sep 16
Who I Am
Ken Harker, Head Chef of the Lady Helen Restaurant at Mount Juliet. I’ve been here six years as Head Chef. During my time here we got our first Michelin Star three years ago and a third AA Rosette. We also became members of Good Food Ireland.
The Nitty Gritty
What type of training did you have?
I’m from Sunderland in the north east of England so I went to Tyneside College to study architecture, fine art, graphic design and maths. Like all students I was broke so I got a job in the wash up in a local Italian restaurant. I really loved it and started to bunk off college to work in the restaurant instead. Eventually I started to fall behind with college work because I was spending so much time at the restaurant, so I announced to my mum that I wanted to give up my course and learn to become a chef.
She was a bit shocked but she supported me and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I worked in the UK before coming to Ireland 11 years ago. I started working in small hotel kitchens here, before I heard about the job at Mount Juliet. I’ve been very lucky because things have just fallen into place here and we’ve gone from strength to strength.
What were the challenges along the way?
There has been a lot of personal sacrifice over the years. In the early days I couldn’t go out with my mates because I was always working. I couldn’t really see my family much. The hours were long and work was hard, but that’s normal when you’re in this job! All those things were a lot easier to deal with when I was single, but now I am married and I have a three year old daughter. I don’t see her that much so sacrificing family life for my career is very hard in that sense.
On a professional level, I’ve found it so hard to get staff over the years. It’s always a struggle to get good staff that will work with you as part of the team. I have a good group of chefs with me now, but the staffing problem is an issue all over the country. To find good dedicated chefs is tough. I have a fantastic young sous chef and he is brilliant, very passionate about his job and that’s very important, We are lucky here because we have a great place to work and brilliant local suppliers so this is a good job for any chef, working to high standards with the best ingredients.
Were there any major positives or crucial turning points in your career?
Leaving my first proper cheffing job to go to Gleneagles in Scotland was a major turning point. I had wanted to go to London originally, but it is very easy for a young eager chef to get lost on the London scene. So I went to Scotland instead. It was a great decision. I got to work in a very disciplined and organised kitchen and that experience has stayed with me. It’s a massive help in your career to work in a good kitchen with the right people.
Which people influence your cooking?
My mum firstly. She always made sure we ate good proper home made food . There was never any frozen foods or ready meals. She cooked for us every day so I grew up with that ethos. I like my own daughter to have homecooked food every day the same as I did growing up. Professionally, I love Sat Bains. He is the Head Chef of Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham, which has two Michelin Stars . He is someone I look up to. I love his work. I think the internet, Twitter and other social media has been brilliant for professional chefs because we can see what the other boys are up to and they can see what we do. Whereas before you’d have to go to a restaurant before you would know anything about it. Today we have access to information about chefs from all over the world, so you can see who’s doing what at any time. Which I think is brilliant.
Which food styles/trends interest you or influence your cooking as a professional chef?
Well we tend to do our own thing at The Lady Helen. We have a mixed style but always a very high level of cooking and cuisine. I will only use trendy techniques if it suits the dish and enhances it, not for the sake of it. We use a lot of sous vide cooking which is great for meat. Trends are good but they only work if they suit the food you cook. I will do mousses and foams if the dish will be better for it, but not if it won’t.
Why do you love your job as a professional chef?
Comraderie in the kitchen is really important. We rely on each other as a team. There is no better feeling than when it all clicks and you’re enjoying working with other chefs who also love their jobs. I feel very blessed here. We are so lucky, we have a great kitchen with great suppliers and small organic growers and farmers. That’s why I love my job!
What's the worst thing about your role as a professional chef?
I mentioned the sacrficies already, but I suppose the major downside is not being able to see my daughter and my wife. My daughter is in bed by the time I get home and my wife is nearly there! So I make sure I get up early to spend time with them before I go to work. At work, there’s nothing I really don’t like. Even the paperwork is manageable once you get your head round it!
Describe a typical day in the kitchen
I usually start about 9 to 9.30am, I spend the first hour in the office and checking deliveries, which arrive between 9.30 and 10.30am. We get all our meat, fish and veg in then and it all has to be checked. I always make the breads for the restaurant. We make six different breads every day so I start them about noon. There are other certain jobs that need to be done during the day, like our stocks. We make brown and white chicken stock, veal stock, prawn stock for bisque and mushroom stock so we have to get those on, whichever we are making for the day.
We serve Afternoon Tea so we will be looking after preparation for that as well. We have our staff tea at 5pm which we cook here and we all sit down together to eat. Then we have a staff briefing at six, with the chefs and the floor staff. This covers all aspects of that evening’s service, any dietary requirements and allergies, evening menu details etc.
Our amuse bouche, soup and breads change every day as well, so the floor staff have to be informed on those. We serve from 6.30pm to about 9.30pm, and by the time we clean down the kitchen after service and get out, it could be anywhere between 10.30pm on a quiet night to 11.30pm on Saturdays.
What are your strong points?
I’m easy to work with and a hands on chef. I would not ask any of my lads to do anything I won’t do myself. I have no problem digging in to do any of the ordinary tasks they have to do, like passing the stocks or picking winkles out of the shells! I do the lot and I think my team respects that about me.
Would you change anything about your journey so far?
I think I would have liked to have travelled a bit more. I’ve worked in a lot of places in the UK and here as well. But I think before I had a family I would have liked to work in a wider sense in Europe. To see a bit more of it and learn the different styles of cooking. I think it’s majorly important for any chef to get as much experience as possible and travel if they can.
Who does the cooking at home?
I do it. My wife is brutal in the kitchen and she won’t mind me saying that! So I cook in advance for my wife and daughter to eat at home. I really want my daughter to have the good home made food I had as a kid. We have a very well fed three year old who will eat anything, including things like mussels. She’s very good. I am so blessed with this job because I live just outside the Mount Juliet Estate. I have a twenty minute walk through the estate to work every morning and it’s brilliant. I really enjoy that and it’s a good time to think through things, plus I don’t have far to go to get home at night!
Any early cookery disasters?
Once in Scotland when I was a young chef I was in charge of making the game consomme. I was doing a split shift, so the idea was to make it in the morning then turn it down low and go back in the afternoon to finish it. But this day I forgot to turn it down and I went off from my shift, and when I got back it had burnt on the bottom of the pot. It was a massive stock pot you could nearly climb into, and it held loads of consomme, which was totally ruined! I was so scared to tell the chef and I got into massive trouble, but I was young and you learn by those mistakes. God it was atrocious, it still feels bad even talking about it!
Any advice for anyone who wants to become a professional chef?
You have to be prepared to give up a lot for this job! It’s not glamorous and it’s hard work. You can look at TV chefs like Neven Maguire, who I know quite well, and not realise how hard they have worked to get where they are. People don’t realise that. On the positive side, being a professional chef is very rewarding. It keeps you on your toes and challenges you every day.
If you love this job it can take you anywhere in the world and you will always have work in a kitchen. This industry finds it very hard to compete with other industries in that it doesn’t pay great at the start, conditions can be tough and you will be working weekends and long days as a given. But if you can stick at it and learn then you can go anywhere and get paid to travel and see the world. My advice is also to go to the best kitchens you can. Learn from the best. That’s essential if you want to be a good chef.
What’s your favourite dish or recipe?
I like cooking Black Sole with a really simple garnish. We have a dish on at the moment where we take the sole off the bone and serve with a reduced chicken jus. A light jus which is half white and brown chicken stock. Chicken stock works very well with fish. I finish the sauce with a splash of Pernod and a little knob of butter to enrich it, only a little bit. It’s so simple but amazing!