This much I know: Garry Hughes, head chef at the Shelbourne Hotel

The first series of filming The Shelbourne felt like having the police in the building, says Garry Hughes.

We were all on our best behaviour. After a couple of weeks we began to forget that the cameras were there. By the second TV series, we’d forgotten entirely.

School wasn’t for me. I left at 15 and spent a summer washing pots and preparing veg in The Shelbourne Hotel. It is a fairy tale that, twenty years on, I’m its executive chef.

I got the cooking bug when I was six. I spent a lot of time with my granny. She made the most amazing soda bread. My first attempt at cooking ended with the fire brigade being called. I got sugar everywhere and set the stove on fire.

I grew up on a council estate. The feeling that I wasn’t as good as others drove me on to prove that, actually, I was. My dad was an army man, hugely motivated, and I have his work ethic. My first memory of food is eating rice pudding together in the army kitchen at Baldonnel.

The most important trait for cheffing is being a hard worker. And you need to be a little selfish. I parked my personal life for years for the sake of my career.

My wife Susan is a saint. We met when we were kids. I married my best friend. She does all the cooking at home, except on Sundays. 

She has had the harder job, with our four kids. Killian, 21; Danielle, 18; Emma, 11 going on 21, and Lily, nine.

I used to work from 5am to midnight every day.

One night I came home and I’d missed Emma’s first steps. I realised everything was passing me by. I’d missed so much of my life from 15 to 35, living in kitchens.

I vowed to make a change in how I worked, and in the culture at the hotel, so that I could have a life. Now, I work nine hours a day. I have a team of 40 chefs and they do a 40 hour week, early’s or late’s, no doubles. I’ve been there 10 years and so have 32 of them. So I think it’s working.

I don’t know who I haven’t cooked for! I was personal chef to Bono and The Spice Girls. I’ve cooked for Michael Bublé, Bruce Springsteen, Jacques Chirac, Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama — with an armed guard standing over me.

My worst fault is that I’m very fussy, maybe a bit OCD. The TV series showed us measuring each salmon with a ruler for a function of 300 people. My friends couldn’t believe that we really do go into that amount of detail. 

Everything in the kitchen has its place and all labels need to be facing out. I’m the same at home. Susan won’t put away the shopping as she knows I need it to be done my way.

I’m very determined and I expect a lot from my team.

The trickiest thing is having to have words with one of my staff. As we are a team, and so many have been with me for so long, it can feel like a family.

I live outside Naas and leave at 5am to be in the city by 6.15am. I go for a run around the sleeping streets, or hit the hotel gym, before work.

I party hard at weekends. You can never drink enough champagne. Monday is my day off. I spend it with Susan, usually we go training together.

I went to London when I was 20 and wet behind the years. I hated it. It wasn’t about cooking — it was about aggression and learning to stand on your own two feet. 

When I came home, I swore I’d never treat anyone as badly as I’d sometimes been treated. There is no need for aggression in a kitchen.

When there is pressure my mottoes are ‘it’s only food’ and ‘you control the heat, don’t let the heat control you.’

The highlight of my career was winning Global Chef of the Year for the entire Marriott company.

My biggest challenge has been losing friends my own age and coping with my dad falling down the stairs and being left in a wheelchair.

So far I’ve learnt that you never know what life is going to throw at you. 

Susan makes me kiss her on the head before I sneak out of the house at 5am each morning. In case it is the last time.

Garry Hughes is Executive Head Chef at The Shelbourne Dublin, A Renaissance Hotel

www.TheShelbourne.ie 



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