Swapping my HR heels in Dublin for chef’s whites in London
I thought I knew how to cook, but I quickly realised I hadn’t a clue. Here’s what I’ve learned after three years in a professional kitchen
Laoise Casey: ‘Cooking at home back in Ireland, I’d think I was only marvellous having small dinner parties for friends with ooohs and aaahs over my cooking. Sure didn’t I know how to cook already? I hadn’t a clue.’
My days were once consumed with emails, appointments, spreadsheets and procedures. My wardrobe was a formation of pressed suits in dark shades blending into one another, with perfectly matching heels below them in their boxes. Obsessed with having flawless and manicured nails, I’d repaint them when I detected the slightest chip. On my sparse work desk all items were neatly arranged, flanked by an orderly stack of reference books. I clutched my Blackberry in my right hand as I marched from desk to car, unable to be separated from it for even the shortest of time, a safety blanket between me and my work.
Looking up from my spattered Birkenstocks (what is that on them I wonder), I eye up another delivery landing into the kitchen and wonder where we’re going to find space. Already every inch of the stainless steel benches are cluttered with boxes, chopping boards, plastic containers, and now this wobbling tower of fruit crates. It’s hot in the kitchen and I’m frantically trying to remember where I stashed our fans. A distant memory of an air-conditioned office flashes into my head, I push it away. Time to unpack the delivery and get back to work.
This transition from corporate world to kitchens started three years ago. I’d always been somewhat obsessed with food. In my former life as a HR manager in Dublin I’d bake at home, always making too much, bringing the leftovers into work the next day. I fed my colleagues breakfast with scones and biscuits; a white and dark chocolate cheesecake laced with Kahlua was a particular favourite.
Having always been more academic than practical, I went straight into college after secondary school, studying psychology then a Master’s in business, before starting work in a large retail pharmacy group.
I genuinely loved my old job, and as I climbed up the ladder I hid the thought of doing something else. My mum of course knew better (don’t they always), and would often say that I hadn’t found what I should be doing. Dismissing this I would focus on the next big project in work.
But when my father survived a critical illness, my life was turned inside out and I began to question everything I had built for myself. Around this time I started a blog, where I began to pour out my fixation with cooking. I’d stay up late at night writing it and at weekends I’d wake up early and spend two days in a cooking and baking frenzy. This continued for a number of months and eventually the opportunity to move to London came about a month before I turned 30.
For a while, I maintained the illusion that I would continue to work in HR when I moved abroad. It seemed easiest to answer questions with this rather than admitting I was finally going to try and follow my dream to become a chef and writer.
It was then that I realised how much you can let your work define you. When I first moved to London I didn’t work for a number of months, having saved in my old job. I had become so used to saying, “I’m Laoise, I’m a HR manager”, that when meeting new people and having to introduce and talk about myself I felt I had little to say. But moving to London rather than starting over again in Dublin made it less complicated to “re-invent” myself. In London I was anonymous, but I quickly found there were connections to be made here too.
As is often the case with the Irish abroad, I’ve ended up working for an Irish person. Robin Gill set up The Dairy restaurant in Clapham in 2013, and it has since won many awards, including the Good Food Guide’s Chef of the Year award for Robin himself. Last year he opened another restaurant The Manor, closely followed by his farm shop, The Delicatessen early this year and his fourth site Paradise Garage a few months ago. With his teams, he has created beautiful restaurants which make their own bread, butter, and charcuterie like pork and fennel salumi, guanciale, goose ham and lardo. At The Dairy we even have a rooftop garden complete with beehives, looked after by Dean Parker, head chef at The Manor.
Having an Irish connection in London has certainly helped me and I’ve been overwhelmed by how supportive the industry is here. Once you show a willingness to learn opportunities open up to you, and I’ve met a number of Irish people who echo the same sentiment.
I went to cookery school and completed a professional diploma, during which I started working in a pub kitchen to gain hands-on experience. Moving from a background of a constrained and always politically correct HR environment to entering a kitchen where anything goes, was refreshing.
Cooking at home back in Ireland, I’d think I was only marvellous having small dinner parties for friends with ooohs and aaahs over my cooking. Sure didn’t I know how to cook already? I hadn’t a clue.
In a professional kitchen you are faced with every task being amplified. You’re not dicing one onion, you’re dicing 20. You’re not making a small bowl of mayonnaise, it’s a vat, and you just know this is the time you split it, over and over again as you stutter “honestly I know how to make mayonnaise”. You’re not peeling one potato, it’s a sackful. You’re not plating up four dishes, it’s hundreds. Now think of doing that over and over again, every lunch and dinner service and doing it consistently to the same standard.
In a domestic kitchen you can easily control the environment, your equipment, your music, no distractions. Now enter the professional kitchen where you may be surrounded by one or more of the following: loud music, deliveries arriving, other chefs working around you all wanting to use the same equipment at the same time, suppliers ringing, front of house staff calling out cheques, crashing trays, dishes, pans, basically loud sounds all the times, your work space being invaded by other chefs, equipment, more deliveries. The list goes on.
You might think that being an organised person is a vital part of being a chef, and yes it is definitely important, but it can also be immensely frustrating, as you’re working in an environment that is often chaotic.
Before I started learning how to cook professionally I imagined I’d glide elegantly around the kitchen in my Birkenstocks, stirring sauces, sipping stocks, adding a pinch of salt, another sprig of thyme, a sprinkle of cracked black pepper. I would be serene, smiling sweetly as I conjured up another batch of pomme purée.
How wrong I was. Here are a few things that have stood out during my very brief experience of professional kitchens so far.
Blue paper: You will develop an unhealthy obsession with blue paper. It has so many uses. A new roll seems such an abundant thing. But where does all the blue paper go? It’s an unanswered mystery.
Rage issues: An uncontrollable rage fills you if someone uses a chopping board without blue paper underneath to secure it. Or worse still they’re using blue paper but it’s not damp. An Incredible Hulk type rage consumes you when you don’t have a spoon when you need one, or can’t find a spatula.
Backs: You’ll shout “backs” more times in a day than is humanly possible. “Backs! Backs Baaaaaaaacks!” Soon you’ll begin to chant it like a little refrain in your head. When you leave the kitchen you may bark this out at strangers who spend more than five seconds moving out of your way.
Your nemeses: cling film and tin foil: These everyday food coverings may seem useful at first, but they are in fact evil beings which will conspire to become stuck to everything. You will spend more time than you really should cursing them. But when you manage to unravel them you will feel victorious (enjoy it, it’s a temporary feeling).
Respect for spoons: Before working in kitchens, I wouldn’t have given the humble spoon a second thought. Now it is a prized gemstone. Find yours. Keep them. Never let them go. Ever. Ever. They are magical objects that disappear only to reappear at the end of service.
Kleptomaniac tendencies: On the bus home you’ll wonder what that is digging into your back pocket. Three tasting spoons. Two dough scrapers. Plus some blue paper.
On the long days: When you’re aching where you never thought possible and you’ve entered a whole new level of tiredness, you’ll wonder why the hell you ever left your office job for this crazy world.
On the best days: And then someone gives you a one-word compliment on a dish. It is the best feeling. You’ll wonder why the hell you didn’t leave your office job sooner. That’s why you go home, sleep for four hours and get up and do it all over again.
I long stopped caring about my nails, and laugh at the old me that endlessly repainted them and actually cared the day she first had to cut them to cook. My wardrobe now has a new work uniform: mismatched jeans, a row of white t-shirts on a spectrum of white to grey or cream following many cycles in the washing machine. The heels are long gone, replaced by an extensive sock collection, perhaps a tiny nod to my old life.
Laoise Casey is a chef at The Dairy and The Delicatessen in Clapham, London and also writes regular columns for the London Evening Standard and Independent about one of her favourite subjects, lunch. Laoise first wrote for Generation Emigration in 2013 about leaving Ireland to cook up a new life in London. She blogs at cuisinegenie.ie and tweets at @cuisine_genie.