Me&MyJob: ‘I once cooked for Bill Clinton in Australia’
Gordon Smyth, Head chef, Redcastle Oceanfront, Golf and Spa Hotel
What does your job entail?
I could just say cooking but that does not quite cover it. First of all there is the glamorous side: creating, designing, autograph-signing and award-accepting — well maybe not so much of the last two! But then come all the other equally important if not quite so sexy parts: managing, budgeting, administrating and even some cleaning.
Two kitchens, 15 staff, 85 weddings, umpteen christenings, birthdays and of course breakfasts, lunches and dinners – all in all a pretty varied job I think.
Is it 9-5?
Never! It is whatever the business level requires but generally I am here to cover both lunch and dinner and in my spare moments to prepare for the day and week ahead.
How did you get into this line of work?
I can’t pinpoint when or how I knew I wanted to be a chef but I knew I wanted to be in a job that allowed me to be creative, I didn’t want a job with regular hours and to be confined to a desk all day.
My grandfather owned a butcher’s shop in Eglinton and I worked there during the school holidays and any opportunity I could. I learned a lot from my time there and it started my interest in food and being creative.
It also gave me an understanding of the origins of our food and the importance of knowing your source. My grandmother was also a cook and I always took a keen interest in what she was doing in the kitchen.
What qualities are required for your job — personal and professional?
I believe that it is a combination of many qualities, ones that would probably help you in any job: motivation, passion for what you do and want to achieve, leadership, creativity, understanding of your business and definitely patience.
Knowing when to keep it simple and knowing when to walk away. Personally it is being able to walk away for a while and take a break even if it means having a few unfinished recipes under your arm.
What is the best advice you ever received?
“You only get out what you put in”wise words for both cooking and life.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love going to the gym, playing golf, cycling, anything that keeps me active. I also love to travel and planning new places to visit. And, of course, the chef-nerd in me likes to get up to speed with anything new in the industry so I do admittedly lose myself in a cookbook or culinary website on occasion.
I also love to steal home to visit family as often as I can.
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.
I once cooked for Bill Clinton in Australia and I played guitar in a rock band many moons ago
Who has inspired you most in your life?
I am inspired on a regular basis by my family, friends, colleagues and, just, people I have met along the way. Someone more famous who has inspired me would be Marco Pierre White.
Tell us about your qualifications/training.
From my grandfather’s butcher shop in Eglinton it has been a varied and interesting path. I started working as a commis chef, progressing to the pastry section in the Beech Hill Country House Hotel in Derry at the age of 17 and, I suppose, you could say I have been learning ever since.
It got a little more glamorous over the years with time spent in Marco Pierre White’s three Michelin-starred restaurant in Knightsbridge and sister restaurant The Criterion in London, Castle Leslie in Monaghan and The Yellow Door in Gilford.
A spell in America gave me the opportunity to work in establishments run by such esteemed chefs as Charlie Trotter and Daniel Boulud.
My travels and my continuing learning curve took me to Australia where I was lucky to work in the five-star Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas and also under the acclaimed Japanese chef Tetsuya Wakuda in Sydney.
Travelling home from Australia through Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia gave me the opportunity to sample the many different cooking styles and food available, that trip inspired me in many ways.
In 2009, I had the opportunity to work a stage in two other Michelin-starred restaurants: Shane Osborn’s Pied a Terre and Hibiscus.
Back home, a spell working as sous chef in the five-star Lough Erne Resort under acclaimed Irish Chef Noel McMeel was followed by my move to the Redcastle Hotel on the magnificent Inishowen peninsula.
To be given an opportunity to work as Head Chef in a progressive and innovative hotel so close to where I started was something I could never have envisaged back in the mid-1990s.
And now to the awards well, no chef worth his salt can deny having an ego!
In 2002 I was Head Chef at Arbutus Restaurant when it received the Flavour of Northern Ireland award and in 2004 I won a fabulous prize as recipient of the Santa Rita Chef
Competition which included a trip to Chile and a visit to the Santa Rita vineyards where I cooked for the directors of that prestigious wine company.
So there it is in a nutshell, the highlights so far on a journey of learning that I hope will continue for years to come.