Longford Lives: Gary O'Hanlon on his career so far

Jessica Thompson

Reporter:

Jessica Thompson

Email:

jessica.thompson@longfordleader.ie

Gary O'Hanlon

Celebrity Chef Gary O'Hanlon

There are no personalities in Ireland quite like Gary O’Hanlon. From the hairstyle to the passionate swearing, he comes across as ambitious, with an ego justified by the hard work he’s put in to get to where he is now.

And right now he’s one of the top chefs in Ireland, with ten years in Viewmount House, more awards than he can count and a number of appearances in national media.

Now, in his new role as Culinary Director at Baxter Storey Ireland, he’s continuing to change the food industry for the better, with a strong team of people by his side.

But he didn’t just land on his feet, and he’ll be the first to tell you that it was a long, hard graft to get to the top.

“You have to love what you’re doing,” he told the Longford Leader last Friday morning in the corner of a Longford café.

“You can’t paint a picture if you’re just a grumpy pr***,” he continued, talking with his hands to emphasise the words.

“Or you can, but it’ll be a grumpy picture. And if you wanna paint grumpy pictures, that’s grand.

“But with food? No. It’s craftsmanship. And if you don’t wanna do it and you’re not really into it, it’s a long and lonely day.”

In fact, listening to Gary’s life story, you’d be forgiven for thinking the days are long and lonely regardless of whether you love it or not... especially when you’re in a job that takes you away from your wife and kids for most of the week.

Read more: Gary O'Hanlon to call time on decade long association with Longford's Viewmount House

“I never paint a pretty picture of my career. You’re in these kitchens - especially in fine dining - with high pressure and noise,” he openly admitted.

“And I know TV glamorises it, but unless you’re cooking at the top, it’s a horrible job.

“Yes, there’s the beauty of the job and the beauty of the cooking and there are a lot of chefs out there that will give you this primadonna bullsh*t that it’s amazing and they love it and they’re so passionate.

“Listen: you have to be passionate to get to the top and you have to have it in you.

“But anyone that tells you that they don’t go through periods of weeks on end or maybe a month of doubt is lying.

“I would have confidence coming out my ears, but there are times where inside I’m dying - where inside I’m worried about not being good enough, worried about relevance. And that shows in your menu.”

And Gary knew that from the start: there were no romantic notions of what the job would be. It took hard work and a lot of effort to even get a foothold into the beginning of a career.

Gary started at the age of 15, scrubbing pots in the Rosapenna Hotel in Downings, Donegal, before spending two years preparing lobsters for free - just so that he’d be next in line for the job when the chef on that shift decided to move on.

By the time he went to college in Killybegs, he had a good grounding in culinary skills and a fair idea of how pressurised a busy kitchen could become and, when he graduated, he was well on his way to forging a colourful and successful career as a chef that others could look up to and admire.

But even Gary had to have an idol or two as a youngster. Gary Rhodes and his “mad hair dos” certainly had a strong influence on a young Gary O’Hanlon, but the man who stood out the most was Conrad Gallagher.

So, when Gary was asked to appear on Conrad’s show, ‘Head Chef’, it was one of the only times in his career that Gary was sick to his stomach with nerves.

“I’m not joking you: I didn’t sleep for two or three days,” he recalled.

“Without sounding egotistical , I was being touted as one of the next big chefs and my career was really just on a crest at that point.

“I don’t ever feel inferior beside any chef - and I mean any chef - about knowledge, about my ability. I reckon there’s an awful amount of brilliant chefs that are brilliant in their way.

“In my mind, they’re not better than me. But they’re brilliant. I don’t ever, ever for a second think that I’m a lesser being to any of those chefs - and I mean anybody.

“But when it came to that day, going to work with Conrad Gallagher, I was sick.”

Read more: Longford's Gary O'Hanlon announced Best Chef in Leinster

Nowadays, Conrad and Gary are good friends and, despite the negative press surrounding Conrad of late, Gary won’t hear a word against him.

“I never, ever, ever allowed anyone to engage in negative comments about Conrad Gallagher. In fact, I told a chef of a real high standing in Ireland to go f*** himself because he said something negative about Conrad at one time to me.

“And I just wasn’t having it. The only thing he ever did to me was inspire me. Yes, I’ve moved on to another level and yeah, he’s done some things wrong. But to me he was still the master of his time.”

As Gary's career has progressed, though, he's stopped idolising other chefs - any chef that he sees as better than himself is a mere challenge for self-improvement.

“You need to be able to recognise when you’re not as good as somebody,” he explained.

“They’re doing that better than you - good for them. Don’t hate them for it. Thank them for it.

“All they’ve done is given you an opportunity now to get your f***in’ sh*t together and work harder.

“And that’s how you have to look at your competitor - all your competitors. You have to thank them for doing something before you, better than how you did it.

“And then you have to say ‘alright, I’m gonna reciprocate that and throw it back at you; now can you go another level?’

“And you hope that they do, and then you come back. And d’you know what? The only thing that happens when that happens is everybody gets better.”

Gary is most known for his time as head chef in Viewmount House, where he won a number of awards and built a fantastic reputation for the Longford fine dining restaurant.

But he's very quick to point out that no chef can ever claim full credit for the successes of his restaurant - “if he does, then he's a liar”.

In the case of Viewmount House, it was all down to the fantastic teamwork that was valued in the kitchen.

And, with such prominent chefs such as Daniel Skukalek, who opened the Nine Arches in Ballymahon last year, and Bronagh Rogers, who was in last year's Euro-Toques Ireland Young Chef Competition, it's no wonder he's so full of praise.

“When I hired Daniel, I hired the man; I hired the person; I hired the personality. I only ever saw him make coleslaw,” said Gary.

“He was late nearly every day for the first while. I dunno how I managed not to fire him at the start. I just loved him. I was very fond of him from day one.

“He was probably the best looking chef you ever saw. He spent a lot of time looking at himself,” he laughed, but the pride he holds for a chef he trained was evident.

The ten years Gary spent at Viewmount were very special to him and, if he was ever going to leave, it would have to be for something amazing.

Enter Baxter Storey Ireland and a man called Andrew Noonan, who is the Managing Director of the company.

“Andrew approached me last year to become Culinary Director at Baxter Storey. We provide high-end hospitality to large companies and high end fine dining hospitality as well. So it’s basically fine dining in the corporate world,” said Gary.

“Andrew is a real visionary. Just a guy that I met and impressed me - not that I needed to be convinced. I was talking to Andrew for two or three minutes and I knew right away in my hearts of hearts…

“Because it was going to take something really special to make me leave Viewmount House. I loved it there.

“So I said if I’m gonna go, now is the time. This is a new industry for me - with really exciting projects coming up and an awful lot happening.”

Things are certainly moving forward for Gary who is thrilled with his new position. But, having left the job that held him for a decade, he can't help but reflect on the successes and what he deems 'failures' over the years.

Not getting a Michelin star was a huge disappointment to Gary, but not getting his own TV show, he said, was an insult.

“How, after all these years, RTE haven’t seen enough to give me my own series - for all the free content, all the free shows I've done for them - TV3 the same,” said Gary.

“And honestly, I’m actually at a point where I find it really, really disheartening.”

In fact, he added, he was almost the host of Masterchef at one point, but was passed over - something which he said broke his heart.

Another insult, he said, was the fact that Irish Times food critic, Catherine Cleary, never came to try his food.

“I love Catherine. She’s amazing. And maybe it’s the fact that I think she’s the best food critic in Ireland… I just was maybe more insulted that she never felt that I was worthy for her to eat my food,” he said.

“And to this day, I’ll never get over it. She was always the one I really admired. Because she’s tough. And I love tough.

“I treat my craft so, so well. You’re not going to find fault here.

“But I wanted the best of the best to judge me. That was my benchmark. Catherine Cleary was my benchmark.

“And I don’t hold that against her. She may read this, she may not; and she may not know her significance to me. And that’s a compliment to Catherine Cleary because I don’t really rate many people.

“When I read her words, they mean something to me. But I never read her words about my food, which forever will maybe annoy me. The insult will live forever,” he said.

Gary has been working in his new role for a few months now and said he couldn't be happier with the move.

As a chef, he found himself working incredibly unsocial hours, with late nights and long days keeping him away from his family.

But, in this new role, he's working Monday to Friday, and only some weekends, leaving him with plenty of time to spend with his kids and his wife, Annette.

Read more: Longford pays tribute to Viewmout House chef Gary O'Hanlon as he announces his departure

While Gary was working at Viewmount, the minding of the couple's two kids, Cora and Ollie, frequently fell onto Annette's schedule, which Gary said was quite hard on her, as she herself works full time as a teacher.

“I’m not gonna be all romantic about it; it’s hard. Life is hard and work is hard and kids - it’s tough. If children actually slept all night, it’d be easy,” he said.

“The one thing I will say about Annette: she never, ever, ever held the job against me, which other girls did through the years, which was ultimately why they never lasted.

“She never once told me I had to leave Viewmount or fine dining.

“She had bad days, obviously; we all did about me not being there or not being there enough. There was always that. But she never, ever told me to leave it. Ever. Which to me was everything - whether she knows it or not.

“Netty’s gorgeous. She’s brilliant, she really is. She’s top drawer.”

Now, with most weekends free, the couple are spending more time together and sharing the job of minding the kids.

“When there’s two people, it’s just easier and then you can actually enjoy whatever it is you’re doing.

“You’re not doing it so that the the kids can have a good Saturday. We’re also having a really good time because we’re together. So for us, it’s been brilliant.”

There have been plenty of ups and downs in Gary's career to date, but there's no denying it's been a fulfilling one, with more successes than failures.

And, with this new venture, Gary is excited to see where this next step will take him.

“I’m utterly immersed in Baxter Storey Ireland now and bringing them to a whole new level and, as far as I’m concerned, in the next five years, everyone in that industry will be looking up at Baxter Storey Ireland as how it should be done.

“It might sound bold, but if I’m not that ambitious, my development team aren’t that ambitious, and all my head chefs aren’t that ambitious and all our operations managers aren’t going to be that ambitious.

“So that’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s gonna be.

“I’m gonna immerse myself in it.”

Read more: Food for Thought: Longford's Celebrity chef Gary O'Hanlon reflects on his rise to the top