This week in our series How to Become a Chef – Advice from the Pros, we talk to Ed Cooney about his personal journey to becoming Executive Chef at The Merrion Hotel in Dublin. Ed is a former Good Food Ireland Ambassador of the Year, and one of our network’s leading chefs in representing Good Food Ireland at events and exhibitions. At the end of this month, Ed will be travelling to the USA with Good Food Ireland, where he will take part in the Breeder’s Cup Taste of the World food showcase, at this important event in the world horse racing calendar.
HOW I BECAME A CHEF
WHO I AM
Ed Cooney, Executive Chef at The Merrion Hotel Dublin for 18 years. I started cooking straight from school. During my career I left Ireland for 14 years, to work in London and elsewhere. I returned to Dublin in 1997 as Executive Chef at The Merrion,setting up the Cellar Restaurant and other food services at the hotel.
What type of training did you have?
Straight from school I went to Rockwell College in Tipperary when the cookery school was there. It’s gone now but it was part of the National Training Agency. I did a two year professional cookery course, with a summer placement at Acton’s Hotel in Kinsale.
What were the challenges along the way to becoming a professional chef?
Wow! I’ve had numerous challenges! But I suppose the biggest one has been to open a five star property at The Merrion, with a five star food offering. Sourcing quality ingredients was always a priority but when we started we would get things from London and France. It was challenging to find the ingredients we wanted in Ireland at that time, the diversity and availability just wasn’t there. It’s very different now of course. Our menu is Irish driven and seasonal.
Were there any major positives or crucial turning points in your career as a professional chef?
Coming to The Merrion was a crucial turning point. The owners were great at communicating what they wanted, and we all wanted to create a five star hotel and food offering that could stand up against anything from London or anywhere else in the world. That was our clear goal. We’ve been fortunate to have long term staff who had the same vision and were able to share it and make it happen.
Which people influence your cooking?
I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to cooking. I pick up things from all over the place! I follow the big cookery names, and always read books and food magazines. And if I see something I like, I start thinking ‘oh that would be good for the restaurant or the bar menu’ and thinking how I can interpret it. Each of our food service areas has a clear concept so dishes are designed specially for where they will work best. I think that’s really important.
Which food styles/trends interest you or influence your cooking?
I think it's very important to have a clear idea and concept as to what you are trying to achieve in the kitchen. That always influences my cooking. I am constantly looking at what is happening in food trends, eating out a lot when I’m not working, and always looking at ways to make new things work for us here. Some food trends I have to say I think are absolutely bonkers!
Why do you love being a chef?
I never wanted to be anything other than a chef. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to cook. I love watching young chefs develop in the kitchen, to become their own people – men or women chefs in their own right. I get a kick out of that, which is underpinned by my own passion for the job. I consider myself very lucky because I am one of the few people I know who loves what he does! I don’t think there has ever been a day when I have not wanted to go to work – you might have days when you are tired, but there’s never been a day when I have dreaded coming into the kitchen.
What's the worst thing about being a professional chef?
Losing touch with reality! When you’re a chef you live in this little bubble and it’s easy to forget there’s actually a world out there, which other people are living in and having lives outside the kitchen!
Describe a typical day in the kitchen
No two days are ever the same but I like to have a bit of structure. Breakfast is always busy and I oversee it, but I tend to let my breakfast chefs get on with it for the most part – they are very good at it. About 9.45am we will have a team daily briefing, dicussing the business of the day, needs of guests, any VIP’s in house, any functions or special requirements, menus and specials etc. After that we usually have a Food and Beverage meeting where again any special requirements are discussed. Good communication with staff members is crucial to the efficient running of the kitchen and food service areas. We’ll go into lunch service then, followed by afternoon tea. From 2.30pm – 5pm I’m usually in meetings. I will be in the restaurant for evening service four nights a week in general, depening on what’s going on. Administrative work takes up a lot of my time as Executive Chef. But I like to work on the pass in the kitchen in the evenings. It keeps me in touch with the real job of being a working chef.
What are your strong points in your role as Executive Chef?
Having a clear vision for what we want to achieve with our food. Good organisational skills.
Any early cookery disasters?
I remember back in my college days, we to had work in teams to replicate a proper kitchen, with a cold larder , starters, meat, fish, dessert sections etc. There was five to six of us in each team. We were supposed to serve lunch for our tutors at 12 noon. But during the prep it became apparent that the Chicken Consomme we were responsible for was not going to be ready. I had rescue it, cool it down quickly and clarify it in the traditional way with egg whites. It wasn’t really my fault this happened, but it made me realise that you can never assume anything is going to plan. I always think now that if I want to know the state of play with something I will check it myself! Also, I like to think that with experience and professionalism you learn to stay calm and fix things when needs must! I always teach my chefs to be honest if something has gone wrong – even as far as customers are concerned. If we have made a mistake, which thankfully is not too often, we will go out to the customer and apologise. It’s surprising how well they take it and appreciate the honesty. It adds the human touch – we all make mistakes from time to time!
Would you change anything about your journey to becoming a chef?
No. I’ve loved the experience of doing a job I really love.
Who does the cooking at home?
I do. I love cooking to the point of being boring! If I am at home with family, friends or the kids around, I will always cook. Of course I cook more simply at home. I like to have good ingredients and let them speak for themselves. I get a great kick out of cooking for people at home or at work.
Any advice for anyone who wants to become a professional chef?
Follow your heart. Do not underestimate how difficult this job is. Get used to the antisocial hours and the fact you will lose touch with your friends who are not chefs. Don’t expect to take part in any team sports that need regular training ! I had to give sport up when I became a chef! On the positive side, all i can say is that you will develop new friends and comrades in the hospitality industry, and they will be kindred spirits facing the same tough challenges as you. And if you work hard this job is hugely rewarding with fantastic job satisaction. If you put in the commitment and the passion you will have a wonderful career.
What's your favourite recipe/most tricky recipe?
I love Lemon Tart and to make it right can be tricky. You need to stick to the recipe and it will work fine. Any recipe, depending on it’s context, has technical challenges. But simplicity in cooking is key to success. My own instinct is to keep things simple and focus on the quality of the ingredients first and foremost for any dish or recipe I make.
Read more advice and insights on how the best chefs in Ireland became chefs right here – How To Become A Chef. Learn from their stories and find out if you're cut out for it!
Don't forget to check out our fun infographic on The Journey To Becoming A Chef