Irish chef in France: I spent the best part of six years failing at everything

Patrick Lee on his journey from Belfast to three Michelin star Les Prés d’Eugénie and the people who helped him get there

We're fine here. The Landes area in southwestern France isn't too badly affected by Covid-19. We had our last service last Thursday night, froze what we could and went in on Friday to clean out all the food. We gave the hotel guests a "goodie bag" of a meal we had prepared and a "bag from the market" of fresh fruit and veg. There was very little wastage, which was great to see as we had a lot of occupants last week as it was mid-term here in France.

The crèche our son Finnegan goes to will stay open so we can still give our heads a break a few hours a week. It is important for him to still have a chance to play with other kids during all this. And sure my partner Gillian is only delighted I’ll be around. It’s not all bad. We’re restricted to 1km unless essential travel. We are in a remote enough area, so there will be plenty of walks and local farms to get our veg, chickens, pork.

Here are my reflections on how I got here.

Paul Flynn, the chef and owner of the Tannery Restaurant in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, has given me many memorable quotes over the years, only one of which I feel comfortable sharing. He told me that one of his ambitions in running a restaurant was to see chefs move on "to bigger and better kitchens". I didn't appreciate it then, but it showed a true glimpse of his selfless character that the very best in our industry share. I hope I can do the same.

I had spent the best part of six years doing what I still regard as failing at everything

Seven years on from starting work in the Tannery, myself and my fiancée, Gillian, travelled to the Michelin three-star restaurant Les Prés d'Eugénie in Eugénie-les-Bains in south-west France to meet the owner Monsieur Michel Guérard and discuss me working there.

Since leaving school in 2007, I had spent the best part of six years doing what I still regard as failing at everything. I tried different college courses, trades and apprenticeships. I didn't have a clue where I was going. A cousin mentioned a restaurant in Waterford and the chef who ran a cookery course there. That is how I ended up doing a cookery course at the other end of the country from Belfast, where I was living.

Up until then, food was not a part of my life. We had an amazing mam who was working full time and still putting three-course meals on the table. But me? I could make a tinned tomato pasta dish, but that was about it.

The first real memory I have of food blowing my mind is from that time. On the course I tasted pea soup and freshly-picked crab meat from Helvic Bay, avocado and chives just bound together by crème fraiche with a touch of lemon juice and fresh ground white pepper. There were chive flowers from the Tannery garden and a pinch of Maldon salt. This dish was cooked by Paul. I couldn't get my head around the crunch and burst of saltiness from the Maldon flakes. Texture can be just as important and memorable with food as taste.

Fast forward another two years, another attempt (and fail) at college, a few dodgy Jamie Oliver 30-minute meals, some split mayonnaise, yet with a lasting, impression from my four-day cookery course, I decided I was going to be a chef.

It was peak summer season when I arrived and I was working seven nights a week

But how do you become a chef, I wondered. I didn’t have a clue. So I contacted 17 restaurants in Belfast. I got one reply from Tony O’Neill who was then executive chef of the Merchant Hotel in Belfast, He agreed to meet me and with hindsight I see how much I owe him for that simple gesture.

He invited me to come into the kitchen at the Merchant to see what it was all about. For days I would go in and stand in the corner and watch. This led to four months’ work in two kitchens in Belfast and two years after I went back to the Tannery. I was to work on the pastry section, yet I hadn’t even heard the word “meringue”.

I worked for Paul and Máire Flynn for three years, laying important foundations for my career and also my life -my fiancée Gillian is from just outside the town. But those bigger kitchens Paul had spoken of were attracting me.

I spent just under two years working for Ross Lewis in Chapter One before eventually moving to The Greenhouse, also in Dublin, to work under Mickael Viljanen. I made that move because I had been told he was a tough chef to work for. I will never criticise that especially in this current climate. You have to be tough to survive in the industry. I was privileged to be the sous chef when the restaurant was awarded two Michelin Stars in October 2020.

Spend time working for Viljanen and you can walk into any kitchen in the world. That’s how good a teacher he is. Working alongside him made me love food. I remember the first time we discussed me moving abroad. We were in the middle of a service and it was a bit of wishful thinking from me, sure I was only dreaming, but he wasn’t. He talked about where I was going to work and when.

Les Prés d’Eugénie, where I now work, has held three Michelin stars for 42 years. It is considered one of the world’s great restaurants of the world and Monsieur Guérard is one of France’s greatest chefs. Gillian and I visited in February this year. I don’t think I spoke to Gillian that morning, I was so nervous. And then we were greeted by this incredibly humble, gentle individual who took time out of his day to meet us and ask about us as a family.

It was decided that I would move over and Gillian and our young son Finnegan would follow in six weeks. Three days before they arrived, the temporary accommodation I had organised fell through. Organising new accommodation in a new language, in the heat of the summer and still having to go into work for a 90-cover Friday night, I nearly turned into one of those crazy wavy-arm inflatable men in the middle of the road here.

It has been difficult. Exhaustion from work, sleepless nights of doubt, loneliness, the stress of your child hitting the terrible twos, plates of frozen chips for dinner. Every single conversation in a new language was difficult.

It was peak summer season when I arrived and I was working seven nights a week. Two weeks after Gillian and Finnegan arrived we had our first night together as a family. Finnegan was jumping on the bed and hit his teeth on the headboard. I was excused from a Saturday night service so we could bring him to the hospital. Four hours in A&E and a drive-through Burger King on the way home was our first evening together as a family in the south of France.

The work has been easier for the past few months. Gillian asked me on my second week whether it was busy. And I realised I had no idea whether the services were considered busy or how many people we served. At the start I would talk to another chef and wait until they had stopped before replying Oui and D’accord, which is definitely the wrong response when you have no idea what they have said to you.

We are slowly getting there. Finnegan is in a local creche and will soon be speaking better French us. I am the now the chef de partie of the garde manger section with three other chefs working underneath me. Gillian is already working and planning what we are doing next. Yes, we will be home some day. And yes, I collect baguettes and croissants aux amandes from the local boulangerie on my morning off. I still haven’t put them under my arm though.

This move to France has taught me a lot. Your relationships are all that matters. My parents gave unconditional support, so did the chefs who taught me in Ireland. Gillian's commitment to our family has completely humbled me and now Monsieur Guérard and Hugo Soucet, his chef de cuisine, have accepted me into the kitchen knowing I had little French. That is an incredible act of trust and patience.

What is the best way to say thank you to people like this? Get the head down hard for them. Do your job well and pass on everything they taught you.

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