From scrubbing pots in Dublin to chef school in Cape Town
WILDGEESE: EMIGRANT BUSINESS LEADERS ON OPPORTUNITIES ABROAD:Liam Tomlin, Cookery school owner, Cape Town
A CURSORY glance through Liam Tomlin’s CV reveals that being “hopeless at school” is not always the setback society deems it to be when it comes to making your way in the world.
The Cape Town-based Dubliner says his parents would only entertain his desire to leave the classroom behind at the tender age of 14 if he found a job, so he took himself off to Dublin’s now closed Royal Hibernian Hotel, where he was hired as a pot washer in the establishment’s kitchen.
“At an early age I decided I was hopeless at school and I didn’t want to go back, so my parents said if I was going to drop out and live at home, I needed to pay rent and do something productive.
“So the day I left school I got a job at the Royal Hibernian scrubbing pots,” he recalls as we sit in his Chefs Warehouse premises in Cape Town, “and, three months later, I was offered an apprenticeship as a cook. That’s where my career as a chef began.”
From there Tomlin went on to gain experience in some of Ireland’s and Europe’s leading kitchens and to carve out a career as a top international chef. This has taken him around the world.
He moved to Australia in 1991 and opened Banc Restaurant, where the cuisine he produced won his establishment the “Restaurant of the Year” award in 2001, as well as a plethora of local and international accolades.
Among other things, Tomlin was one of 10 professional chefs selected as a finalist at the inaugural World Master of Culinary Arts awards in 2001, a major global initiative to find and honour the world’s leading chefs.
After 15 years in Australia, though, Tomlin got itchy feet and decided to move to South Africa in 2004 with his wife, Jan, where he first established a consultancy business Beyond Food.
More recently he has set up Chefs Warehouse and Cookery School, which caters for members of the public who want to learn the secrets of fine cuisine in a laid- back atmosphere.
“I guess like anything, being a chef is great if you are successful at it,” he adds. “I’ve travelled extensively with the job and, as long as you provide value for money, people will always come and eat. The recession has made life more difficult for people in this industry, but it has also helped to weed out establishments that aren’t up to scratch.”
Tomlin believes that even in the current economic climate, a career in cooking can take you around the world, as you are sought after if you have the right attitude and work ethic.
“No matter what country you are in, restaurants are always crying out for good staff. I know in Ireland most people who work in the hospitality industry don’t view their job as a long-term profession, but it is very different in places like the US and Canada where it can pay very well at the top end,” he says.
Aware that many Irish people in the industry may be contemplating moving abroad, Tomlin advises that even if you have been successful in Ireland, trying to translate that experience into instant success abroad can be dangerous in a business sense.
“I would advise people to go to a place and work in the industry first so you can understand the market. There are opportunities available, but ploughing your hard-earned money into opening a restaurant somewhere should only be done after extensive market research,” he warned.
When it comes to Cape Town, Tomlin says the restaurant business is similar to Ireland’s in many ways, but there are also subtle differences.
“If you are going to set up in Cape Town, you will find it can be a little frustrating at times as the standards and grading in relation to produce that you have in Ireland is not in place here. This can lead to inconsistency in your product, which is not a good thing.”
He also advises anyone in the hospitality sector thinking of seeking opportunities in South Africa to be prepared for a culture shock, as life here can be very different from the one they leave behind.
“You really need to come here with your eyes open. The poverty and begging you encounter in South Africa is not found on the same scale in Ireland, and this can be very upsetting for some people.
“But on the flip side, South Africa is amazingly beautiful and there is a real edge to it. There is a feeling of possibility and opportunity here that is probably lacking in Europe at the moment.”