A life on the move proves a recipe for five-star success
WILD GEESE: Brendan McGowan, executive chef at the St Regis Hotel in Doha, Qatar: Dubliner Brendan McGowan has travelled widely in building his career
WILD GEESE: Brendan McGowan, executive chef, St Regis Hotel, Doha, Qatar Dubliner Brendan McGowan has travelled widely in building his career
Long before Brendan McGowan moved to the luxurious five-star St Regis Hotel in Doha, he had a taste for the finer things in life.
“My Dad used to send us down to Howth pier at weekends to meet the boats. We would hand out cans of Guinness to the fishermen and in return they would give us a huge bag of fresh Dublin Bay prawns,” says McGowan, originally from Baldoyle. “We’d take them to school in our lunchboxes for the rest of the week.”
But it wasn’t until he went on work experience, aged 16, that he realised he could make a career out of his love of food.
“I was sent to do a week at the North Star Hotel in Dublin’s Amiens Street. I literally buttered mountains of bread for ham sandwiches and tried not to burn the Yorkshire puddings. It was like something straight out of the Riordans.”
Through a family connection he landed an interview with the general manager of a new hotel opening off Grafton Street: the Westbury. Despite his cheap suit he got the job.
“I spent nine months washing pots,” says McGowan. “The sink was right beside the pastry and sauce stations, so I picked up a lot just by observing.”
After being overlooked twice for promotion, McGowan finally secured a position as a pastry chef, before moving on to preparing fish, meat and, later, salad and appetisers.
But Dublin started to feel small, so when the opportunity came to move to London he took it. His willingness to work 14-hour days to learn did not go unnoticed, and he was offered work at the stunning Eastwell Manor, a stately Kent home converted into a hotel.
“The executive chef was fantastic and had great vision. We had our own herb garden and the restaurant did really well.”
A year after opening, over a game of cards on Christmas Day, the chef told McGowan he was moving on. “I think I had abandonment issues and was a little angry he was leaving, so I decided to move to the States.”
In 1993 McGowan landed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and spent four weeks making his way to California staying on friends’ couches along the way.
“I picked up a copy of the Zagat guide and sent letters to as many chefs and restaurants I could find.”
By the time he reached San Francisco, McGowan had arranged an interview with the Ritz-Carlton. He was offered an entry-level commis three position. It was well below his capabilities but he took it, eventually working his way up to number two in the kitchen.
“It was a great experience. I got to cook for U2 and even made scrambled eggs for Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones. He ordered breakfast at half one in the afternoon, with a side of Bloody Mary.”
After four years in San Francisco he was offered a position at Ritz-Carlton’s new hotel in Dubai. “I hadn’t a clue where Dubai was so I bought a copy of Lonely Planet Middle East. The half page on the UAE had a picture of a nightclub, showing two expats dancing, but that was about it in terms of information.”
In August 1998 he boarded a flight and began his Middle East adventure. There he met his Russian wife-to-be, Irena, and the couple had two sons, Luke and Jean-Paul. In the years that followed, the family moved wherever McGowan’s job took them, including Istanbul, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Now aged 45, he lives in Doha, where the Irish expat community continues to grow. “It’s not for everyone but I like it. The Arabs and the Irish are more alike than most people realise. Religion plays a huge part in both cultures. They have a saying in the Muslim world, inshallah, meaning ‘God willing’, which I think is similar to what the Irish mentality was pre-Celtic Tiger.”
McGowan oversees more than 100 staff of 15 nationalities. “You have ‘Doha haters’ but that’s because people expect things to be the same as they are at home. Things move a lot slower here and the rules and regulations are very different to the western world.”
Qatar might not to be everyone’s taste, he says, but with 365 days of sunshine a year and little or no tax, it certainly whets the appetite.
Wild Geese is a weekly interview in the Business supplement with Irish business leaders abroad. This article appears in the newspaper today, and in the Business section of the website here.