Chad Byrne tells Marjorie Brennan how a small act of kindness led to him becoming a top chef and how the days of being aggressive and abusive toward staff are numbered.
When Chad Byrne was 16, a single act of kindness changed the direction of his life.
Byrne had left school at 14 and was working as a kitchen porter when some words of encouragement from an older chef gave him the kickstart he needed to embark on a professional career in food.
“I left school when I was 14, I didn’t know where I was going in life,” says the 39-year-old Dubliner.
“When I left school, I worked in a Chinese restaurant in Sallynoggin. I didn’t have any direction. I left there and went to work as a kitchen porter in a steakhouse.
"When I was there, I met a chef who said, you’re 16 now, you’ve been washing pots for two years, go do something with your life, otherwise you’ll be at this for years.
"He put me in touch with a great chef in Buswell’s. I stayed working there for a year, then I went from there to the Merrion Hotel, which really opened my eyes.
“That’s when I thought, wow, this is actually a career. The level of discipline there that I never had in life, in anything, was infectious.
It is a gesture that has never been forgotten by Byrne, now an award-winning head chef at The Brehon hotel in Killarney, and has inspired him to use his own experience to help emerging culinary talent.
A year ago, he founded Chef Collab, which pairs apprentice chefs with established chefs as mentors.
The apprentices spend time in the top chefs’ kitchens, where they learn new skills and also create a special dish with their mentor, which they then present at a Chef Collab event.
The next Chef Collab will be held at Olivo restaurant in the Cork Airport Hotel in Cork on July 15.
Although it has only been in existence for a year, Chef Collab has already been a huge success, giving more than 40 trainee chefs work experience in top restaurants at home and abroad.
Byrne is obviously delighted by the impact of the project, and while he says it happened organically, it is clear that he thrives on the energy that collaboration can bring.
“I used to do a lot of pop-up restaurants, and I absolutely loved them. I’ve been a chef for 25 years but when I do a pop-up, I still feel that energy afterwards.
"I did a pop-up and I had two commis chefs from my kitchen helping me and they came back all buzzed up.
"So I asked some other commis chefs if they wanted to do a pop-up, they did it with four different hotels, did a course each, in a local pub, great music, good vibes and they were the stars of the show.
"After each course, they came out and spoke a bit about the course. It was amazing. When they came back to the kitchen, they had a new lease of life. That gave me a great buzz.
“I thought if my lads were like that, this would be brilliant for everyone to do, so we did it again. We keep it as rustic as possible.
"It’s not about table plans or fancy place settings, it is so organic, it just works — one knife, one fork, one spoon for the entire meal. You can feel the energy.”
While attracting and retaining new talent is one of Byrne’s aims with Chef Collab, he does think the industry itself needs to do more in this regard.
“I think the industry has to look within itself to tackle the problem. I don’t have a problem getting staff.
"If you look at the industry as a whole, if people say it’s badly paid, if it’s been like that for 25 years, whose problem was that?
"You don’t cry over spilt milk — we need to change it. There is great progression, opportunities and diverse paths you can take in food.
"You have to look within before blaming others. How are we helping the industry?
"If someone says, ‘we’re a great employer, we pay fairly’ — that should be a given, or ‘we work 40-45 hours a week and you get holidays’ — that should be a standard.”
Byrne was a big fan of the late lamented Anthony Bourdain and his ground-breaking book Kitchen Confidential, which took readers behind the scenes into kitchens which were hothouses of aggression, bad behaviour and staff hopped up on stimulants.
However, he says all of that is changing and kitchens will find it hard to hang on to staff if there isn’t a good ethos from the top down.
“I recognised all the people in that book ... I won’t lie, I’m sure it is there in some kitchens but I think a lot of it is gone.
"The mentality in general has changed. You need to be at the top of your game. When you come in to work in the morning, you need to know what you are doing, you need the energy and positivity, especially if you are running the show.
"You create the atmosphere. If you are working in a shitty environment, you will see it on the plate.”
He admits, however, that early in his career, he was in danger of becoming the stereotypical control freak chef himself.
“My first job as head chef, I was probably far too young. I was an anti-Christ, I’d be like ‘this is wrong, the parsley should be at 12 o’clock’. Ridiculous carry-on. But with maturity, I developed.
"Any of the kitchens I’ve been in, or working with on Chef Collab…that Gordon Ramsay era is gone, it needs to be gone.
"Cook good food, care about it, be disciplined, have respect, taste — these are simple ideologies and the basic fundamentals of cooking.
“The camaraderie should be there as well — you form friendships in the kitchen. It’s not like 15 years ago where you’re out having a few pints every night — half of my lads are going to the gym before they come to work now.”
There has also been a huge shift in eating habits in recent years, and while the phrase “special dietary requirements” may be met with a groan by some chefs, Byrne certainly isn’t one of them.
This year he participated in Veganuary, where people commit to eating vegan for the month of January.
“I kept at it for six weeks, I went full vegan. It was probably the best learning experience. Before, I was like, okay, we need a vegan dish, will we give them a curry.
"It was boring. We have a six-course vegan tasting menu that is running all the time now — it has to be on the money, I want to make something special and different.
“The limitations make you so creative, it’s unbelievable…. to realise there are about 32,000 grains out there. I missed the milk on my cornflakes, that was the biggest thing,” he laughs.
Byrne loves life in Killarney, particularly working with the supportive and encouraging community of chefs there.
“Killarney is the best town I’ve ever worked in. There is a hotel across the road, The Lake Hotel, the head chef is Noel Enright — I didn’t know Noel before I moved down there, now I’m going to be best man at his wedding.
“If he is stuck for a chef or kitchen porter, we will swap around. There is Rory (Gabriel) up in the Great Southern, same thing, Alan McArdle down in Muckross Park, the same, if anyone is stuck for anything, we’ll help each other out.”
He says that while before, work would have ruled his life, in recent years, his focus has shifted to spending more time with his family; he has three children, aged two, nine and 12, and he is conscious of giving his staff that same balance.
“It works really well for me. I don’t kill myself and I don’t expect anyone else to either. I was in a meeting yesterday and someone said it’s not about work-life balance any more but work-life harmony.
"Work will take over sometimes and that’s the way it is. For me, it is about harmony.
“I have a good team, great owners, I don’t want to be working every weekend, and I don’t want the lads to be working every weekend. I want to live as well.
"That has only happened for me in the last five or six years. Before, I would have thought you were weak if you needed the weekend off.
"Maybe that has come with maturity, I don’t know.”
But when it comes to switching off, Byrne is in no great hurry to escape the stove.
“I enjoy cooking at home, it’s a bit of craic,” he says. “I don’t do the baking though because I wreck the gaff.
"I need to taste stuff right now, I can’t do that waiting malarkey.”
Chef Collab is at Olivo Italian Eatery at the Cork Airport Hotel on July 15. Tickets at www.eventbrite.ie