Stephen cooking in the kitchen at Forest Avenue with his fellow students, Niall & Nicola
Stephen originally hails from Kilmihil, Co. Clare. He completed the Professional Three Month Certificate course in June 2014. Here, he explains why he chose to do the course and what he’s up to now.
I spent eight years working as a Garda in Dublin before going travelling for a year, eventually settling in Australia in 2009 and continuing to work as a police officer in the Kimberley’s and Perth.
The town where I was based in Australia before I did the course is a ‘dry’ town (alcohol restricted) which meant that a lot of my social life there revolved around food; hosting dinner parties, attending BBQ’s and going on camping trip cook-outs. Food has always been important to me, but it took on a more central role because of this, and it provided a great balance to my policing career, which was often full of violence, tragedy and stress. In contrast, good food always puts smiles on people’s faces and brings people together in the most positive and healthy way. When I decided to takes a year’s sabbatical in 2014, I jumped at the opportunity to return home to Ireland and further explore my passion for food and develop my cooking skills.
I was looking for a full-time course that would give me a solid foundation and knowledge base across a number of different areas that I could potentially use to change careers if I ever wanted to. I was drawn to come and study in Dublin because it’s a very exciting city to be based in and has a booming food scene. Having researched cookery courses in Ireland, I found that there were only a couple of schools that offered the kind of course that I was looking for and the fact that Dublin Cookery School had just been named the ‘Best Cookery School in Ireland’ made my mind up for me. I initially signed up to the One Month course but enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to stay on and complete the Three Month course because I wanted to fully immerse myself in my cooking, and I could see that doing the three month course could open lots of doors for me if I wanted to pursue a career in food.
The thing I loved the most was the experience of making and eating restaurant quality food every day. One of my biggest highlights was the week we spent with guest chef Matt Sigler (who flew over for a week from the U.S. especially to come and teach on the Three Month course). Matt specialises in pasta making and butchery and it was an honour to get to spend a week cooking alongside him and learning from someone who is so knowledgeable and passionate about what he does. Another highlight would be the day we spent cooking with John Wyer at his restaurant, Forest Avenue. My favourite place to eat in Dublin – that’s something I’ll never forget!
I’d say my biggest challenge on the course was managing my own timing and being organised. Before the course, I just used to cook for myself and friends at my own leisure and would take my time over everything. Cooking food at the Pop-up Restaurant Nights during the course gave me invaluable experience of what it’s like to cook under pressure and is something that has stood me in very good stead since I finished the course.
Once I’d finished the Three Month course, I headed over to London looking to get some experience in a busy restaurant kitchen. Richard Gleeson (Senior Tutor at Dublin Cookery School) was good enough to introduce me to one of his former colleagues at Ottolenghi, which happened to be one of my favourite restaurants. Getting to work at a top restaurant like Ottolenghi in the city of London is very competitive and I had to undergo a face-to-face interview with one of the executive chefs and then a two day trial just in order to secure an unpaid ‘stage’ placement. I’m sure I wouldn’t have got my foot in the door of a restaurant like Ottolenghi without the contacts I made through the cookery school and the fact that the Three Month cookery course professional qualification is obviously so well regarded in the industry.
Having secured my ‘stage’ placement, I spent six weeks working in Ottolenghi’s Islington restaurant. I loved every minute of it, especially the regular tastings where the chefs would submit new dishes to Sami Tamimi (Yotam Ottolenghi’s business partner) for consideration to go on the menu. I even had the opportunity to invent and cook a dish for the Islington head chef, David Bravo, but my beetroot, black pudding and scallop combo didn’t quite make the cut!
When my placement came to an end, I had planned on returning to Ireland but just before I flew home I got a call from Cornelia Staeubli, one of the Ottolenghi directors offering me a paid role at their flagship restaurant, NOPI in Piccadilly Circus. I was absolutely thrilled at the offer – I hadn’t even gone into my ‘stage’ hoping for a paid role – I was just looking to get experience of what it would be like to work in a top restaurant and to see if it is something that I would enjoy or even be capable of. I felt very privileged that they wanted to offer me a job. I accepted the offer and worked at the restaurant six days a week from October to February before making the difficult decision to return to Australia.
A year before the course, I was in the middle of the Australian outback recreating recipes from the Ottolenghi cookbook ‘Plenty’ for my friends. It was an amazing turn of events to find myself cooking professionally for Yotam Ottolenghi himself in his actual restaurant and to hear his feedback on the food I had just served him! I couldn’t have dreamed about being afforded such an opportunity prior to starting the course at Lynda’s cookery school.
I was very tempted to stay at NOPI but the pull of my life in Australia was too much. Despite returning to the police force, I didn’t want to leave my food experience behind me and have it wither away. Through doing the course, I had become aware of the opportunities available to become a food consultant on a part-time basis. With this in mind, I contacted the Thermomix Head Office in Australia and I’m proud to say that I now have my own part-time business outside of the police running up to eight demos a month for potential customers. This involves me cooking a 7-course meal for guests to demonstrate all of the Thermomix’s functionality. I love that I still get to work in the food industry and enjoy the privilege of being able to cook for others.
Go into the course with an open mind. The course taught me that there are a multitude of food-related career avenues open to students who have done the Three Month course and is not just for people who want to work in a restaurant kitchen. The school has been great in ‘after sales service’ and keep in touch, sending me invites to pop up-nights or speciality classes, as well as notifying me of career opportunities; everything from scholarships in Spain, pastry masterclasses in Italy, private cheffing jobs in French chateaus or training in such roles as food photography or the business end of a food van business for example. And of course my other bit of advice would be just to enjoy the course, but that’ll be easy!