How to become a Chef with Pat McLarnon
Who I Am
Pat McLarnon, Head Chef of Brooks Hotel in Drury Street, Dublin. I’m originally from County Antrim and in my career I’ve worked in Donegal, Dublin, Derry, and abroad in Germany, Switzerland and France. I’ve been at Brooks for 18 years. We serve breakfast and dinner in Francesca’s Restaurant, and a casual bar food menu in the Jasmine Bar for lunch and dinner.
THE NITTY GRITTY
What type of training did you have?
I started training to be a chef when I was sixteen. It took three years. First I went to a technical college in Ballymena, County Antrim for a year, then on to catering college at Portrush to do classical French training. I went straight from college into a kitchen and have been lucky to be working ever since. There’s always something new happening in food , so you’re always learning in this job!
What were the challenges along the way?
Aside from the social aspects of the long hours and not seeing friends and family, I think the biggest challenge is your own personal challenge to find the right space for yourself and the right style of cooking. It could be in a restaurant kitchen or opening your own place, cooking in a daytime cafe or even cooking in a big industrial kitchen or director’s dining room attached to a business. There are lots of options. I’ve discovered I am happiest in small hotel kitchens like the one we have at Brooks. There are only six chefs here to look after every aspect of the food offering for the hotel. Which I like because it means we are very close to one another and we work together as a team.
In the early days, the professional challenge was also huge. I fell in love with cooking in the 80’s when there was no minimum wage expectations. Chefs had to work their way through the ranks from apprentice and commis chef upwards. That was the only way you progressed professionally and earned more money. So you had to be dedicated to working hard and doing your best in order to get promoted to the next level.
Were their any major positives or crucial turning points in your career?
Travelling was the thing that probably helped me more than anything else. I had worked in a hotel in Donegal, which was a small family run hotel and a great business in provincial place, serving traditional Irish food with local produce. Then I moved to a large hotel in Dublin which was part of an international chain. From there I went to Germany, France and Switzerland, where I picked up languages and got a deeper sense of appreciation for food. These countries were very proud of their regionality and local produce, and the cooking gave a real sense of the place. It was good to see the hotels promoting the produce of the country.
When I eventually came back to Ireland, it was an eye opener to fully realise what great produce we had here as well, and that it was all seasonal. We took it for granted back then and weren’t really using that angle media wise. But after travelling I realised that Ireland had great quality meat, dairy, fresh fish and seasonal vegetables that were on a par and more than equal to anything any other country could offer. It was a very positive thing in chef terms to see the difference between home and abroad and realise we also had great produce to work with, be proud of and promote.
I then went to work in a beautiful country house hotel in Co. Derry and that was a crucial turning point because it was the first time that I was able to write the menus myself. Cooking in a country house is a very different experience and I was able to develop my own personal style. It also got me into using fresh seasonal produce grown at the house and foraging and picking from the wild, which I love. I had free rein at the house and devised all the menus there for three years, during which time the restaurant won two AA Rosettes. That was a massive benchmark achievement for me personally.
Which people influence your cooking?
Well I had to think carefully about this question because there are chefs I admire, obviously. But one person outside the world of food that I would admire is Alex Ferguson who used to manage Manchester United. Which will surprise people since I am a die hard Arsenal supporter! But Alex Ferguson has been a bit of a role model for me professionally, because he always had the ability to build a team and rebuild when he had to and he always achieved results no matter what. And there are huge similarities between a soccer team and a kitchen team in that you do have to keep building and rebuilding and still be able to perform at the highest level. As the old saying goes, you’ve got to be able to take the heat. I sometimes wish Arsenal’s manager Arsene Wenger was a bit more like Ferguson was - we might actually win something!
Also Mark E Smith, founder member of the band The Fall is another man I admire because he is adaptable. He’s been known to say ‘if it’s me and your granny on bongos then it’s The Fall.’, and he was known for substituting band members if someone didn’t show up. And that’s what it’s like in the kitchen. You can’t tell a customer there’s no starters today because the chef on that section didn’t turn up. You have to be able to adapt and step in to make the service happen.
Chefs I admire would include Derry Clarke at L’Ecrivain, and Ross Lewis at Chapter One. They are Irishmen who have worked really hard at their careers for many years. It didn’t just happen overnight for them. I think Ross is a great facillitator of people. He’s the epitome of a good chef who has built a temple of food because of his ability to cook well and manage his team to get the best from them. I also admire the chefs I have worked with along the way because they have taught me something and made an impression on my career.
Which food styles/trends interest you or influence your cooking as a professional chef?
I don’t follow trends but I do try to set them! I must say I love the wild food thing and have done for a long time. Working at the country house in County Derry really made a big impression on my career in that sense, and it got me into foraging in a big way. I often pop to the Wicklow Mountains with Marvin our Hotel Concierge, because he loves foraging and fishing as well. I pick wild mushrooms, elderflower or blackberries whatever wild food is around depending on the season, and which I can use on the menu at Francesca’s. We also catch mackerel but I can’t use that on the menu because of legislation surrounding fresh fish! So we take that home. Wicklow is an amazing place to go because it has everything from mountains to woods and the sea, and it’s only a short drive from Dublin.
Why do you love your job as a professional chef?
I love cooking, simple as that! Always have loved it and always wanted to be a chef. It’s a very tactile job and I suppose I am a very tactile person so I enjoy the hands on connection with the food. It fulfills that part of me. Also people say being a chef is anti- social but actually it’s a very social job. But the people you socialise with are normally other chefs because they are working the odd hours that you work. You become a family with other chefs. Also it makes a great talking point when you’re out and people ask what you do for a living. When you say you’re a chef everyone wants to talk to you!
What's the worst thing about your role as a professional chef?
Paperwork! Who likes that?! But seriously, there’s always going to be a percentage of difficult challenge in any job. Oddly enough, in my head the higher up you move in your career, the percentage becomes greater because you have more to think about and everyone else’s problems become your problem! It’s just the nature of it but I do look back at previous weeks to assess how smooth they went for us in the kitchen, and what we could do better. There’s a pattern to it in that you will have a period that runs smoothly, then something will happen, then it will smooth out again. In practical terms, there isn’t much I really don’t like about my job.
Describe a typical day in the kitchen
Because we are a small team here, I am usually in at 9am to help out with the breakfast service. There is only two of us in the morning, which means I also have to help clean down after service and get the kitchen ready for lunch. We all do everything! At 11am every day we have a departmental meeting to discuss the business of the day, what’s happening, early breakfasts or groups for breakfast take aways for the next day, any special menu details, bookings and dietary requirements. Just general stuff we all need to know about. After that I will run through the orders and get ready for lunch. About 1.30pm I liaise with my sous chef for the evening menu and service. I work a split shift, so I leave at 2pm and then come back at 6pm. We finish up anywhere from 10pm depending on how busy we’ve been, then clean down and get ready for the morning.
What are your strong points?
I’m creative. I also have a specific taste and a good grasp of how something should taste. Which might sound funny but it’s very important to have a good palate for taste and to be able to always bring out the best flavour of an ingredient. My technical skills are good and I have good people power to manage and motivate.
Would you change anything about your journey so far?
I sometimes wish I had been braver and perhaps gone to London as a young chef. That was where it was all happening. Instead I spent those years in Donegal, where we went to the beach and picked mussels and learned about ‘terroir’ which is the buzzword in food now. In Donegal I learned about the land that creates the food and what influence it has on the taste of ingredients. So when you look back at the links in your career, I realise now I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn about that aspect of food in London back then, when high level kitchens were dominated by classical French cuisine and a lot of ingredients were brought in from abroad.
The one thing I do wish we’d had when I was a young chef was the internet. There weren’t very many tv cookery programmes or cookbooks around in the 80’s so you had to wait for information to filter through. The internet has introduced us to chefs and restaurants and kitchens from all over the world, places that we may never be able to visit but we can learn about what they are doing. Access to the internet really has given us a wider knowledge and appreciation of what is going on in food today and that can only help us to develop the way we think about and serve food here in Ireland.
Who does the cooking at home?
Me! I cooked at home from an early age. My mum died when I was young so I got the job of cooking and that’s probably what started me wanting to be a chef. I love cooking so I really don’t mind cooking at home as well as at work!
Any early cookery disasters?
Lots of things! All the things that go wrong when we are learning but we just have to get through it and learn from it and move on. One thing I do remember vividly is going to New York in 1996 to cook for a Patrick’s Day feast and I forgot the temperature conversion differences between Farenheit and Centigrade. I put something in the oven at 150F instead of 150C and wondered why it was taking so long to cook!
Any advice for anyone who wants to become a professional chef?
I think firstly it's essential to go on a good cookery course. Either a college course or privately if you can afford that. If you get the basics from a course, then when you go out to work in a real kitchen it will be easier to learn. My three words of advice for any young chef is Look Listen Learn. I think they are the most important words you will ever hear in a kitchen.
Another piece of advice I would give is to ‘find yourself’ as quickly as you can. By that I mean find the environment where you are happiest working, whether it be in a hotel kitchen, a restaurant, your own place or wherever. Try out different places and get experience to get your own style, and work with like minded people. There is something for everyone who wants this job once they have the commitment and dedication to the job. But you do have to be happy with where you are and happy in your head, because if you are not in a happy place with yourself you will not cook good food.
What’s your favourite dish or recipe?
Favourite recipes for me involve memories. For example, ingredients that I might have found when I have gone out foraging and come back to the kitchen to preserve them for later use. We preserve seasonal ingredients for by pickling, freezing or drying. So in November, you might be using an ingredient you preserved from the summer, and it brings back the memory of the day you found it and who you were with. I love cooking dishes that bring back a memory like that. I said earlier about being happy with yourself in cooking,and you have to do whatever you can to pull out that happy feeling when you are cooking if you want to cook well. Good memories are a great way to do that.
Favourite dish at the moment is a dessert made with wild elderflower which I foraged. I have it on the dessert menu as Crushed Meringue, Local Strawberry, Elderflower Zabaglione, which is really simple, lactose and gluten free and really sums up the summer season.
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