Friday, April 12, 2013

The Chef Diaries - Gary O'Hanlon

Now this going to cookery school and getting restaurant experience is all well and good, but what's it really like to be a Chef? 

Head Chef, Gary O'Hanlon lets us into his kitchen. 

And tells us why if he wasn't a Chef he might have been a rally driver. Just don't forget the sparkling water in his section...

I got to know Gary last year and his encouragement is part of the reason I'm on this crazy journey, he has a lot to answer for!

In a recent review, Lucinda O’Sullivan of the Irish Independent christened him ‘Captain Fantastic’. But he’ll answer to Chef too. 

Head Chef of Viewmount House Restaurant in Longford, Gary hails from Donegal originally. He’s the man who, amongst other things, put Longford on the culinary map and made peanut butter gourmet.  A beautiful dessert of peanut butter parfait, apple jelly, apple meringue, bee pollen, raspberry gel, coconut and chocolate.

Having featured in the 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland and the Restaurant Association of Ireland Awards for a number of years running, Gary is definitely deserving of the Captain Fantastic accolade.

Peanut butter parfait

The beginning

As a kid I often stayed with my aunt when my uncle-in-law was working nights. His mother was an incredible baker. The smells always caught my attention. I'd stand on books to reach the counter and taste whatever she was baking. More often than not I was licking raw ingredients from a wooden spoon. I was hooked from then. I was probably around 5 or 6. 

How did you become a Chef?

My aunt Dette is the Head Chef of the fabulous Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Resort in Donegal. After years of being knee-deep in oysters, whelks and mussels with my father I was mad to get into a professional kitchen. Plus it was much warmer. On the night I finished my Junior Cert and the day before my 15th birthday my dream became a reality. Into the vegetable prep and pot washing section I went. By the end of my first summer I was promoted into the pastry section then sauces. I never looked back. I spent every weekend and holidays working in the Rosapenna before hitting the Tourism College in Killybegs and here I am. 20 years later!

How would you describe your style of cooking?

Evolving is the only word for it. I don’t have a style as such. I try as best I can to stay ahead of the trends and that takes a lot of doing. I do love putting twists on classics and I like my food to be delicate but most important of all taste fabulous. Too many heroes these days concentrate more on style over substance. Food should first and foremost taste incredible. Your next objective is to give a customer something that they’ll struggle to re-create at home and at the same time be confident in the fact that your team can re-produce it, when in the weeds at 8 pm during a busy service. It all boils down to consistency and reaching the highest possible standards with the team you have. And make money doing it!

How would your team describe you?

Fair.  Angry.  Calm.  Mental.  Generous.  Crazy.  Caring. Nuts.  Disciplinarian.  Moody.  Great craic (I hope).  Serious.  Impossible to please.  Grateful.  Lucky to have them (I am). Perfectionist.

A day in the life of a Chef

Every day is different but if committed you're working every single day. Even when you're off you're 100% involved - if you care.

For me though it’s generally gym then work. Starting with office work to see what's happening on that given day, then the rest of the week. Run through reservations. Meet with the crew. Have a little chit chat with them all individually to see where their heads are at. Check on the mise en place. Delegate jobs. Sort out my own section.

Gary with Salty and Pepper
Cook for the staff (yes I normally do this). Clean down the kitchen prior to service. Then it’s Rock’N’Rolla time.

Go home. Chill with Netty, play with my pups. Watch football news until my eyes close and sleep (only if it was a good service!).

Gary on whether it helps to be a little bit mad to be a Chef...

Yes and no.

It certainly helps to be a good business person, committed, talented, fit, organised and mature. We may be mad to be doing a job that most people would hate but the Chefs at the forefront of the best restaurants love what they’re doing. We often hate it but I think that’s normal in any walk of life. Everyone has a bad day.

What is the most common misconception about what Chefs are like? 

Most people think we're mad.

Maybe we are. It’s a high pressure environment. It’s loud and perfection must be delivered in real time. Seconds count. At the end of the day it’s only cooking. Lives aren’t being saved but a good Chef is obsessive about impressing a customer.

What annoys you in your kitchen?

Bad timing. Fingerprints. Watermarks. The smell of cigarettes. A Chef answering back. My word isn’t gospel. I'll always give a person a chance to argue but only after service. During service only one person makes decisions - Chef. A dirty Chef, an un-ironed uniform. No sparkling water in my section :-) 

What is your signature dish?

None really. My food and style of food changes so much with the times that a dish I love today will seem too simple and irrelevant to me in a years time. But one bond that will never be broken is the one I have with Duck Confit. So simple but 95% of Chefs make a mess of it. FACT. I love our Duck Confit dish. The elements we serve with it often change but the curing and cooking process of the duck never will.

Do you like other people cooking for you?

 Oh yes. No matter what it is, if someone other than me has cooked it I’ll appreciate it.

What is the best thing about being a Chef?

I love my life. I’m in control of how good or bad I want to be. Be lazy, get bad reviews, have an empty restaurant and make bad money. Or work hard, cook as best I can, have the respect of my peers and be able to hold my head high in my community knowing that people respect you for your work. The choice is yours. I hope people look at me as having taken the latter option.

What is the worst thing about being a Chef?

The stress. The fear of a bad review. The fact that people expect you to be in the restaurant every second of every day. It’s very difficult. Not being able to make plans. EVER.

What do you typically eat when you’re not working? Banshee Bones is not an acceptable answer Chef.

Just married 
It’s been well documented what I eat when I’m not working but I genuinely plan on making drastic changes to that. I have a wife now, a new house almost built and what I hope will be a family to look forward to in the near future. I have a responsibility to be alive and providing for them until they are old enough to look after themselves. The days of Red Bull, Haribos and Banshee Bones are coming to an end. Not just yet but it’s close. Very close.

What has been the toughest moment of your career?

My previous job just before taking over at Viewmount House. I've never really talked about it to be honest. A management company had head hunted me for the job. By the time I worked a three month notice where I was, they had been replaced and a new company had taken over. I was on a high salary, instead of being professional and asking me to leave as they couldn’t afford me they decided on bully tactics. 

I’m made of stern stuff though so in the face of things I took it on the chin but privately I was breaking down. I take my work to heart. The last words from one of them was “maybe in nine or ten years time you’ll be ready for the job” Truth be told it nearly killed me. I smiled and moved on. I went at Viewmount House like a man possessed. I like to think I’ve proven my worth.

And the best moment?

The day I met James and Beryl Kearney. The owners of Viewmount House. I owe so much to them for just letting me do what I do.

How do you feel during service?

Focused and nervous in equal measures.

How do you feel after service?
Pepper in her finest

It depends on the service. These days it’s usually great but the first three years were hell. My team are incredible now so it’s a very rare occurrence to have a bad night. When I do though having the pups to come home to has been a major help. Lots of my Chef pals say that when they became parents it helped hugely after a bad service to come home to their children. For now though Salty and Pepper will have to do.

Are professional kitchens the way we see them on TV – full of roaring Chefs?

They're full of ONE roaring Chef! Depending on the restaurant but in most cases they are louder and even more hectic than what you see on TV. 

What advice would you give to anyone who dreams of becoming a Chef?

Be sure it’s what you really really want. It's a great life but it’s a long long road to success. It’s not nearly as glamorous as it looks and 99.9% of chefs will never be on TV. It’s not a ticket to stardom and it's incredibly tough to succeed. But if you want it you will get it and you'll reap the rewards.

Remember...Luck is the direct result of HARD WORK.

If you weren’t a Chef what would you be doing with your life?

Probably teaching. I love teaching and I have huge respect for teachers. In my dream world I’d be a rally car driver or a pro footballer.

If I could do it all again I’d still become a Chef. The only change I’d make is to work with Marco and Ramsay when I was a Commis (trainee) Chef. I will regret not trying to do so at a young age forever.

What do most people not know about you?

I plan on getting a truck licence and a rally licence this year or next. I love cars, trucks, engines and every type of machinery imaginable. 

And finally, can you do me a deal in Viewmount for my wedding?

I'll see what I can do :-)
A special thank you to Gary for answering the questions and his photos. Here's to Viewmount going from strength to strength.

Liked this? You may also enjoy:
A taste of reality in L'Autre Pied
The Non-Expert Cookery School Survival Kit 


  1. Came across the blog from the Irish Times piece. This a great insight into the life of a chef, really enjoyed reading it!!

  2. Thanks for your comment Sarah! I'm delighted you found the blog and enjoyed Gary's interview :-)

  3. Having met both yourself smd Gary I went and stayed at Viremount and sampled Gary's food... And it was really good. every dish looked and tasted delicious. lovely place to stay too.

  4. Hi Rhona, thanks for your comment :-) I've a treat in store for me next working with Gary for the weekend...I can't wait! Luck you going to Viewmount :-)