The hot and cold of chef school
Colleges and cookery schools around the country are drawing in students of all ages. So why is there such a shortage of chefs going to work in Irish kitchens?
Looking to build a career in food: Culinary arts lecturer JJ Healy of the department of tourism and hospitality in Cork Institute of Technology giving a demonstration to secondary-school students at the college’s open day
Who’d want to cook for a living? All over Ireland, a plethora of cookery schools – from the Dublin Cookery School to Ballymaloe Cookery School to Ballyknocken House – are drawing in students of all ages for courses that run from one day to three months and more. But it’s the larger institutes of technology, particularly the Dublin Institute of Technology, that provide the vast majority of chefs for Irish kitchens. So what’s the difference?
The DIT school of culinary arts on Cathal Brugha Street, just off O’Connell Street, is a maze of staircases and industrial-sized kitchens, with more than 800 full- and part-time students on a range of courses, including the flagship BA in culinary arts and the certificate in professional cooking.
I visit on a morning when a group of students from the college’s baking society have set up a stall selling buns and cakes. They’re right next door to the college’s bakery, where students and members of the public can pop in and buy some top-notch – and very cheap – breads and cakes (I got a perfect baguette for just €1; it’s just inside the entrance on Marlborough Street).
Upstairs, Paul Kelly, executive pastry chef at the Merrion Hotel in Dublin and a judge on TV3’s The Great Irish Bake Off, is leading a masterclass with a group of slightly star-struck students. In another room, a fully-functional bar has been set up, and students are learning everything they need to know about the finer points of cocktail-making. Later in their course, they’ll have to sample their own cocktails; for obvious reasons, the college schedules these classes in the late afternoon.
The French style
Dr Frank Cullen heads up the school of culinary arts and food technology. “Our culinary education instils the knowledge, skills and ability to adapt and transfer to different positions within the wider food industries and life experiences. This can’t be achieved by cooking alone, so our programmes are underpinned by a theoretical framework that produces food business graduates as well as professional chefs, founded on the French classical style.”
There’s a level of technical precision behind every decision DIT makes. Down in the bowels of the building, for instance, are two pastry kitchens where the temperatures are tightly controlled for baking bread and cakes. DIT students go on placements in Irish and international restaurants; some have worked in Copenhagen’s Noma, regularly voted the best restaurant in the world.
In recent years, the college has been focusing on culinary science and molecular gastronomy as well as increasing the number of PhD students and researchers.
Those attending culinary arts programmes at DIT, Waterford IT or Cork IT are, in most instances, just out of secondary school and looking for guidance in how to build a career, whereas many of those who attend private cookery schools are aged 25 or over and looking for a career change.
Dublin Cookery School
Lynda Booth, author of From Lynda’s Table, runs the Dublin Cookery School, which was awarded best cookery school at the Irish Restaurant Awards in 2013 and 2015. Booth worked as a chef at Ballymaloe House for two years before working in Canada, England and Italy.
“Our three-month course is intense and people are cooking every day,” she says. “But I don’t believe that any single course, whether it’s at DIT or here, can fully train a chef for life in the industry. It’s a stepping stone, because what people really need is to train in the industry under talented chefs. There is no better apprenticeship.”
Booth regularly brings in guest chefs, including Sunil Guy of Ananda, Paul Flynn of the Tannery Restaurant and Neven Maguire of MacNean House. “We’re at the cutting edge of what is happening in the food industry,” says Booth.
One recent graduate, Fiona Stevens, has worked as a chef in Brother Hubbard, a hugely popular cafe on Capel Street, and now works as a chef in the Pig’s Ear on Nassau Street. Other graduates have gone on to work with Neven Maguire and in Chapter One; one, Stephen Ryan, worked with Yotam Ottolenghi – an internationally renowned chef with a distinctive Middle Eastern style and a heavy emphasis on vegetables – at his London restaurant, Nopi.
“It is a tough industry, but those who are in it have a strong passion for what they do,” says Booth. “This is better than anything else I could do. I love it.”
In a real sense, however, this is all academic. There’s now a serious shortage of chefs going to work in Irish kitchens. It’s starting to really hit Irish hotels and restaurants and, if it continues, the public can expect lower standards when eating out.
Restaurateurs say students are not being properly taught and that the institutes of technology need to step up their game and get with the times; third-level colleges say restaurants are not doing enough to encourage people to become chefs.
Later this Food Month, we’ll look at what’s causing the chef shortage, who’s to blame, what can be done and ask: does cheffing have a dark side?
CHEF IN THE MAKING: ‘IT’S A TOUGH INDUSTRY’
John Burchill (20) is a final-year student on the bachelor of business in culinary arts course at CIT
“I grew up on a farm in Finure, Co Cork, and was surrounded by fresh food and produce. Home economics at secondary school confirmed it for me: I want to be a chef. My course looks at both business and cooking. We learn about contemporary and classical cooking, pastry cooking and larder, but we also learn how to run a business, whether that’s a restaurant or a bar.
“There’s a stereotype that cheffing is a tough industry. And it is. You can’t be afraid of hard work. That said, restaurants are looking after their staff: Hayfield Manor, where I’ve worked as a chef and front of house, has been good to me. Hayfield is Cork’s only five-star hotel and, with two restaurants, a bar menu and afternoon tea served seven days a week, we’re a busy kitchen.
“Yes, I want to be a chef when I finish college. I want to travel the world and experience other cultures and foods. I feel it is an important part of any chef’s training.”
CULINARY COURSES: WHAT’S ON OFFER
DIT, WIT, CIT and IT Tallaght are among the institutes of technologies offering culinary arts courses at levels 6, 7 and 8 (diplomas and honours degrees). Students can apply through the CAO. DIT has the largest number of students, with about 250 graduating each year from its various food programmes.
Outside the CAO, the Dublin Cookery School and Ballymaloe House have strong international reputations, and Dunbrody House and Cook’s Academy are among the other private cookery schools.
At postgraduate level, one of the more innovative third-level food education courses is the new Master of Science course in applied culinary nutrition at IT Tallaght. It will have a strong emphasis on nutrition, and its patrons include Derry Clarke and Domini Kemp. It’s open to people who are already qualified chefs and is offered part-time. The college says it is the first course of its kind in the world.
November is Food Month in The Irish Times. You will find food-related content in all of our sections. We will also have reader events, competitions and lots of exclusive content at irishtimes.com/food