How to Become a Chef with Ryan Stringer

Ryan Stringer, Executive Chef, Ely Bar & Restaurant
Ryan Stringer, Executive Chef of ely Bar & Brasserie and ely Wine Bar. We serve a smart casual menu driven by ingredients we get from the owner’s own farm in Co. Clare. The farm produces organic beef and lamb in the Burren region, and also sources all our other meat requirements from other farms.  
What type of training did you have?
I went to college for three years in Tyrone where I am from. I studied a classic French cuisine NVQ levels 1, 2 and 3, which was based on larder work and some pastry. As we progressed we also got to know about floor serving and front of house, and in the last year we concentrated on management and the financials of the business. When I left college I worked in a few small restaurants in Tyrone, then went to the Pittsburg Hilton in the States for two months, which is where I got some big hotel experience. I also worked in other big hotels here, before travelling to Sydney, Australia. I worked in a place called the Quayside Brasserie which is just beside the Sydney Opera House. I worked there for a year under an Irish chef, and that’s where I really got the taste for fine dining. 
I met chefs from all over the world and the produce was absolutely outstanding. Every other morning we would go to the fish market to get our fish and have breakfast there, then stroll through the Chinese market. This was back in 2002/3 and they were really ahead of the game there by then. We are doing things in this country now that they were already doing when I was there.
When I came back from Oz I went straight to work for Michael Deane at Deane’s in Belfast, as Senior Chef de Partie and Junior Sous Chef under Derek Creagh, who is now Head Chef at Harry’s in Donegal.  I became Head Chef of Deane’s Deli for three years. Then I moved to Sardinia with my then Italian girlfriend. I worked there in a restaurant for six months, and that was extremely different to anything I had done to that point. It was very rustic, using traditional old recipes with absolutely no changes – if the recipe said there was twelve tomatoes, there was twelve tomatoes, no more or less! No one spoke English in the kitchen, so I had to learn enough to get me through the orders and the menu. I started with numbers and words for different ingredients and went from there. I speak a little Italian now, mainly based on food!
When I returned to Ireland in 2006, I joined ely Brasserie which had just opened, so I have worked my way up through Sous Chef and Head Chef to be Executive Chef. I have learned something from everywhere I have worked, and I have also continued to do stages (short unpaid internships) in kitchens abroad. I went to Le Manoir au Quat’s Saison in the UK to work with Raymond Blanc’s team. I also cooked at Cakeboard Cellars winery in the Napa Valley in California. My latest trip was to Noma in Copenhagen in January this year. I stayed six weeks and learned so much. I’ve been learning all along the way in my career, from when I first went to Australia. I came back with an intense buzz to want to do better and work in really good places. 
What were the challenges along the way?
I think moving away from your family and friends and people you know to say ‘I am going to do this and I am going to do it on my own’ is very challenging. It’s hard to travel and go away from everything you know, but you have to do it to learn. When I went to Noma, I was supposed to be going for ten weeks but I really missed my wife and son who was five at the time, so I came back early. It’s so hard to leave the family. We are due a second baby next week, so it will get harder!
There are so many challenges to travelling, having to pick up work and maybe even learn a new language, but it’s so good for a chef to do it. You learn about new styles and foods and ingredients, you get inspired, and then you can come back and mix that knowledge with your own style.
Were their any major positives or crucial turning points in your career?
Going to Australia was a massive turning point. I had just been to America and see how the big hotels work, so to go to Oz was a completely different experience, working with so many fantastic and unusual ingredients. Working for Michael Deane was also a big turning point. I walked up to his back door and asked for an interview, I eventually got an interview with his chef Derek Cray who took me on.
In those days I was working with Mark Abbott, who has recently been on the Great British Menu series on BBC, and Danni Barry, who got a Michelin star at Deane’s Eipic, they were both above me in the ranks! Working with those guys was amazing and look what they’ve gone on to do. It’s fantastic.  
Which people influence your cooking?
When I was about 14 or 15 I used to watch Ready Steady Cook on tv, and I really liked James Martin, who made little tuiles and stuff. I always used to try to make them, so I suppose he was the first chef that influenced me. But since then, there are so many chefs I have worked with who have made a difference in my life that I couldn’t just name one or two. Everyone I have worked with has taught me something. 
Which food styles/trends interest you or influence your cooking as a professional chef?
I like certain techniques which are good for the food and add to the taste. I taught myself how to cook sous vide. I got someone to build a handmade water bath out of an old bit of kitchen and we had two wells, so we taught ourselves how to cook sous vide properly. It’s especially good for cooking lamb shanks and beef cuts etc. We also smoke our own meats, fish, and veggies. I’ve got into the compressing thing as well, which is a technique where you put fruit or vegetables into a vacuum bag and reduce the pressure, so it changes the composition of the ingredient. We also do a lot of infusions and oils. 
Why do you love your job as a professional chef?
I love being in the kitchen, learning new things and teaching something I’ve learned in the past to someone else. The knowledge you gain and pass on to people is satisfying. I’ve always had the ability to understand something quicky, so it’s great to be able to pass that on to someone else and help them learn.  I also love the push of the service and the drive of it. 
What's the worst thing about your role as a professional chef?
The hours! Not just the working hours, but the days when you put something on a plate and it’s absolutely perfect, but then you realise how long it has taken you to get to that point of perfection, the hours you’ve spent to get to that stage. Chefs put a lot of hours in to get results. Also the long working hours and long days are part of this job. But we like to make sure our chefs get breaks regularly and get their days off, so they have time to rest. I think if there is ever going to be a restaurant owned by me in the future, I would adopt the five day week that some chefs like Sat Bains have done for their restaurants. That means the restaurant closes for two days together so everyone is off, and then it’s five straight days where you’ve got a consistent kitchen team and everyone is rested. It’s not possible at ely, but I am very conscious of making sure the chefs don’t get overtired. 
Describe a typical day in the kitchen
I usually get up around 7.45am and have breakfast with my wife and son, then take my son to school. I get the train in to work at around 9.30am. As soon as I get in, the guys will have put the deliveries away, so I go through the dockets to check that everything that should have been in has arrived. Then I talk to the chef on each section, so we all know what’s going on and what needs to be done. I go between the two ely kitchens and I float in each one, which means I do some of the hardest jobs to help them out. I will also set up the pass and work on it myself during service, or with the Head Chef in either place. I split myself between the two restaurants most days, finishing up about 10pm, except for one day where I finish at about 5pm. 
What are your strong points? 
I am a people management person, very good at getting the best out of people. I am also a quick learner. I have the ability to put some very simple ingredients on a plate and make them look extraordinary. I am visual.  I can’t draw a straight line but I can plate food and make it look great! 
Would you change anything about your journey so far?
I don’t think so really. I’ve got to a point where I like what I’ve done and where I am. I suppose if there was one thing it might be that I should have spent more time in London. I did a couple of short stages there but maybe it would have been good to spend a year and get some Michelin star experience behind me when I was younger. But working in London just didn’t appeal to me back then. I would also like to spend more time in Scandinavia in the future. 
Who does the cooking at home?
My wife does the cooking on a daily basis. I will cook if there are friends coming round. And on Sundays, I always like to do either a really good breakfast at home, or a Sunday Dinner.
Any early cookery disasters?
I have two I can recall! One was when I was a young chef working at a golf course at home. We were doing a big dinner for the President’s Day, and there was chicken curry on the menu. The golfers came in and we served up, and about half way through we started getting complaints about the curry tasting strange. I realised I had totally burnt the bottom of the pot and it had affected the whole curry. I still get slagged off for that by a chef friend I was working with at the time, who is now cooking in London. Whenever he sees anything written about me he says, ‘hey, did you ever tell them about that curry you burnt at the golf course!’ 
The other occasion was when I was invited to cook for an event and they wanted me to make salmon with a chorizo sauce. I am so used to getting cured meats without plastic on them, that I didn’t notice the chorizo had a plastic coating, so I just chopped it up and put it in the dish. I ended up having to strain the stew to just use the sauce and chuck everything else out! They are the biggest disasters I can remember and thankfully it doesn’t happen that often! 
Any advice for anyone who wants to become a professional chef?
Well there are two ways of entering this profession. You can either go to college full time for three years, or you can get straight in at the bottom and learn to cook that way. I’m not sure these days that college is the right way to go. I don’t think they are totally up to date with things in the industry. Wheras someone who comes in from scratch and works hard in a good kitchen will learn through practical experience how things really work. But I would say to anyone wanting to be a chef, keep the head down, work hard and travel. Travelling is the only way you will learn to understand the different food cultures and ingredients, so you can expand your knowledge and experience and mix that with your own style. 
What’s your favourite dish or recipe?
I love anything with pork. We have a dish on the menu with pork tenderloin, cooked pink. Some people don’t like pink pork, but in Australia, if the pork was cooked more than pink it didn’t make it across the pass! So we cook pork pink and I like to serve it on a parsnip puree with caramelised outer leaves of brussels sprouts which are in season now.  It’s on the menu in the Brasserie at the moment, with turnip puree underneath the pork, which is also very good. It’s a warming dish which has very seasonal flavours. 

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