How to Become a Chef with Warren Gillen
Tue, 18th Oct 16
Who I am
Warren Gillen, Head Chef and owner of Cistin Eile in Wexford Town. We opened in May 2010, serving a casual dining menu based on ingredients from the area. Local produce and seasonal ingredients inspire our menu every day. We serve lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday and close on Sundays.
The Nitty Gritty
What type of training did you have?
I’m from Dublin originally, but my parents bought a pub in Wexford when I was a teenager. They had no experience in the food area, so I used to go into the kitchen to help out from when I was 15. This is where I learned the basics, prepping up veg & salads and opening oysters etc. I had an early baptism into the industry! I was very shy and reclusive so the kitchen suited me completely, I had my own space there. I did a CERT cookery course when I was 18 which involved a residential professional cookery course at the hotel school in Rosslare, before finishing off at Tallaght Regional Technical College in Dublin.
When I finished, one of my lecturers, Margaret Ryan, helped me to get into Roly’s Bistro in Dublin, and that was a major start for me. I did some culinary competitions with the guidance of Tom Meaney (Tallaght RTC) and won medals during that time. My next job was working with Derry Clarke in L’Ecrivain in Dublin. Cooking is all or nothing for me, I always wanted to work at the very highest of levels. I did interviews in other really good restaurants in Dublin, before taking the job at L’Ecrivain. Derry is a great educator and my time working with him was amazing.
What were the challenges along the way?
I was very young when I first started cooking so that was a challenge in itself. I think what’s important and challenging for any chef is keeping yourself fresh and interested. I am a naturally motivated person and my challenge all the time is to remain current, while working at the very highest levels. I am hugely competitive! I opened my first restaurant in Wexford when I was very young (24) in 2001, and had that until 2007. We won many awards but we didn’t make much money! We were into the economic downturn when we closed but we paid off all our suppliers, which actually allowed me to start again a few years later with Cistin Eile.
When we opened in 2010, Wexford was still on its knees economically. But the opportunity came along, and I had a good reputation with local suppliers. They were really supportive, telling me I could pay them when I made a few bob. I paid them all as we went along because I didn’t want to start like that. We made it work in a difficult time by offering great food at a good price. I used my skills and cookery techniques to make the most of cheaper cuts of meat like topside of beef, which we braised for ten hours and served with a beautiful sauce. It was a challenging time but it built our reputation.
Were there any major positives or crucial turning points in your career?
All stages in my career have been crucial, from getting the job at Roly’s Bistro to going to work with Derry Clarke at L’Ecrivain. That was a massive turning point. I did a stage with Richard Corrigan in London as well which was brilliant, but Derry’s input into my career has been hugely important and influential.
Which people influence your cooking?
All the chefs I have worked with have influenced me. My training was in French Haute Cuisine. We have a picture of Auguste Escoffier on the wall in the restaurant, an amazing chef and the godfather of French cookery, which forms the basis of professional training to be a chef. I love to use his classic sauces and techniques which have been lost over time. I like the thing of bringing the old into the new.
Which food styles/trends interest you or influence your cooking as a professional chef?
Ingredients influence my cooking. I like to treat ingredients with respect. I also like to marry Irish food with the techniques and style of French Cuisine. The two cuisines work very well together. Dairy produce I think is the foundation of Irish cuisine, and is also very prominent in French cookery. I had a vegan customer in the restaurant recently. I have absolutely no problem cooking for anyone with special dietary requirements. We do it all the time here. But I was just curious, so I got talking to her and ended up saying ‘would you not just try it?’ about a dish with dairy in it, but she said no. I didn’t manage to persuade her!
Why do you love your job as a professional chef?
Every day offers a new challenge! When I ride my bike I don’t just go for a cycle, I like to go for distance and ride up hills and push myself. It’s the same with being a chef. You’re pushing yourself always to be the best you can. I love the variation of the job, and dealing with natural products and seasonal ingredients. No two days are ever the same in this job. We are cooking seasonally and I love the challenge of that.
What's the worst thing about your role as a professional chef?
Sitting at a desk working through all the bureaucracy and paperwork. I love the kitchen. I would rather peel a thousand spuds than do paperwork.
Describe a typical day in the kitchen?
I get here about 7.30am so I can get the baking done early. We also have to butcher our meat and get it on for roasting for lunch. About 10am I get chance to relax for half an hour, catch up with things and attend to phone calls like this one! We order our fish every day, so it arrives usually about 11.30am and we need to prep that and then the menu will be done. We start serving lunch at 12 noon through till 3pm, when we close and start prepping for the evening.
We open at 6pm for dinner, but before we open, we dress the tables with cloths and put out the candles, spruce the place up a bit for the evening. I usually come out of the kitchen later in the night to talk to customers and get their feedback. I like to do that. We finish up about 10.30pm on a normal night, or it could be 11.30pm if we are very busy.
What are your strong points?
My strong point in the kitchen is making really good sauces. I am a complex thinker so making a good sauce and getting all the flavours to balance really suits me. I really shine in that area, and it’s my signature style now. I like to pay respect to the classics and am hugely passionate about using your skills and techniques to make good food. It’s good for the brain, very stimulating!
Would you change anything about your journey so far?
I don’t like to take a retro view, but I suppose looking back, I was probably a bit too young opening my first restaurant. I was only 24. My mum always says you can’t put an old head on young shoulders. She continually says it and she is so right. She is actually brilliant at advice and is my go to person for all advice, not just professional advice! I was in my thirties opening Cistin Eile and I think that has made an emormous difference. I don’t regret opening my first restaurant, it was a great experience, but I was a bit too young I think. When you have your own restaurant, you’re not just the chef, you are a business person, an employer and many other things.
Who does the cooking at home?
I cook at home. I am a single dad and my three kids come during the week. They are 10, 12, and 13 and they all have completely different tastes. So I usually end up doing three different dinners.
Any early cookery disasters?
Small things but nothing on a grand scale! Like setting temperatures wrong and stuff. It’s funny, but as you get more experienced you develop your senses so you know about those small things like a sixth sense. I think it takes ten years to become a good cook, and even then you never stop learning. You need a good decade to get to know the chemistry of food, to learn how certain dishes and ingredients react, and college doesn’t really teach you that. The best mistakes are your own mistakes where you can learn from them. By that I mean when you get out of college and start cooking and making mistakes in a working environment, that’s when the real learning starts.
Any advice for anyone who wants to become a professional chef?
Go to work in the best kitchens and see food at its best. You will know where you want to be as a chef, but you need to work in the best kitchens then you’ll really know about food and cooking. Work at the highest level. Dont settle for second best. Find out what you’re made of. Push yourself. I push myself every day and I also push the guys here. They find it hard but it’s good for them.
What’s your favourite dish or recipe?
At the moment we are getting fantastic Irish wild venison. It’s very seasonal so we are excited about using it while it’s around. I use the tougher cuts to cook hearty dishes with stout, herbs and spices for the lunch menu. Then for the evening menu, the premium cuts and steaks are roasted off and served with a sauce perhaps made with a local craft beer and a Wild Garlic puree. We will also be getting wild pheasant, and it works well with autumn vegetables and robust savoury flavours.