This time in our regular series for cooking enthusiasts and aspiring chefs, we talk to Richy Virahsawmy from Richy’s Restaurant and R Cafe in Clonakilty, West Cork about his personal and professional journey to become a successful professional Head Chef.
WHO I AM
Richy Virahsawmy, Chef/Patron of Richy’s Restaurant and R Cafe in Clonakilty, West Cork. My restaurant has a smart casual feel for the evenings. The cafe is a laid back daytime place. Both offerings highlight all our local produce and I have a farm which grows for the menu. I am one of the resident chefs on RTE’s Today Show and TV3’s 7 O’clock Show
THE NITTY GRITTY
What type of training did you have?
I started at 14 years old, washing up at the local YMCA in Surbiton, south west London. After that I spent two years studying catering at Merton Catering College. I then worked in London at Cafe Royal and the Strand Palace Hotel. I travelled in Australia, working in Melbourne before opening Richy’s Diner in a back packing hostel, at the tender age of 19! My dad had a stroke in 1998 so I returned to London, then on to Rowhill Grange Country House in Swanley in Kent, a three AA rosette restaurant, where I was Senior Sous Chef for two years.
After that I was the Executive Chef for the Department of Trade and Industry for Tony Blair, then at AstraZenica, the second largest pharmaceutical company in the world. I cooked there in the private dining room for ten directors in Park Lane. I’ve also been private chef to American Irish dancer Michael Flatley. I’ve learned something in every job I’ve had. It’s all about learning in as many places as you can, it’s one of the most important things a young chef can do to further his or her career.
What were the challenges along the way?
I have to say the last twelve months have been the hardest and most challenging I’ve ever had in this industry. There have been long-standing roadworks in Clonakilty, so I have effectively had a metal barrier around my restaurant entrance for five months. Business has been horrendous as a result. It’s been much worse than at any time during the recession. Clonakilty on the whole has suffered tremendously.
Roadworks are ongoing so we are still facing very hard challenges in the coming months. However when Bandon got flooded twice recently and Skibbereen also flooded, Clonakilty didn’t flood, as a result of the new storm water drains and new sewage lines. Regardless of the inconvenience of the roadworks, we are still open seven days a week, providing a top class food service to everyone who comes to town.
Were there any major positives or crucial turning points in your career?
I am lucky in that I have had the good fortune to work with some amazing chefs, who have had a very positive effect on my career and way of doing things. I have learned such a lot from very talented people who have inspired me every day.
Which people influence your cooking?
All the chefs I have worked with have influenced me. Paul Whittick who was Executive Chef at the Cumberland Hotel in London and John Rogers at Rowhill Grange are two of them. John particularly influenced me in the field of Pan Pacific and Asian cooking. Most importantly, from the earliest age, my mother has had a huge impact on my cooking. My parents are Mauritian and my mother brought all her knowledge and traditions of Mauritian food with her to London where I am from. She got up every morning at 6am to cook. It was second nature to her. She made everything from scratch, as I do now.
It was my mum who taught me about the use of spices, which all the chefs are using now and which I used a lot with John at Rowhill Grange. Spices have helped shape many modern restaurants. Nowadays, you see curry spices blended with sea salt in a subtle way to enhance dishes, all that was ingrained in me from my mum’s cooking. I still have mum’s Mauritian Beef Curry on the menu at Richy’s, it’s a favourite! One thing that really stands out from childhood is a speciality called Bombay Duck, which is actually a dried fish dish. It actually stank the house out when my mother made it and I am laughing now because I saw it recently showcased as a national dish. All I remember is that it smelt so bad!
Which food styles/trends interest you or influence your cooking as a professional chef?
I do feel the importance of food in the family has been lost. The key to a healthy balanced diet is to go back to our grandmother’s day, where fresh produce was always used and mealtimes were sacred. We use all local produce, fresh fish and meat from this region. We also have our own farm where we grow seasonal produce for the menu.
In the kitchen I use cooking techniques like sous vide, and make foams or use syphons for mousses. Sous vide means we don’t put fillet or sirloin beef on the menu anymore. Instead we use ox cheeks, short ribs, rumps and ribeyes, which are cooked slowly in a water bath then finished in a pan. I love this, because when you do it scientifically, you can still get a medium rare finish with meat cooked at a low temperature for a long time and it’s so tender. We just finish it off in a pan before serving. Our Dexter short ribs are dry aged by Michael at M.J. O’Neill’s butchers in Clonakilty and then cooked for 48 hours sous vide. They are amazing.
Why do you love your job as a professional chef?
Every day is different. There are always challenges. I love solving problems. Every guest has a different expectation, so it’s always about using disciplines and skill sets to give them the best experience. Also learning from each other as a team and looking after each other. I have a really solid team here. One staff member has been with me 14 years and another one nine years, which is really unusual in this industry where staff turnover is high.
What’s the worst thing about your role as a professional chef?
Dealing with mechanical breakdowns! Equipment going wrong and stuff. It just takes up so much time to get things fixed. You’d almost need to become a refrigeration engineer as well as a chef, because it takes time and costs so much to get things repaired. You have to know a bit about doing it yourself to keep running costs down!
Describe a typical day in the kitchen…
Every day is different. I go for a run every morning at 6am before going to work. I find the hours between 7am and noon are the most important part of my day, where I can talk to my team, sort out suppliers and deliveries and iron out any problems for the day. I also plan menu specials for that evening, working closely with our suppliers.
What are your strong points?
Great people management and identifying good produce and thinking up creative ways to serve it. Being resourceful and making lots of things from one ingredient. For example, we forage a bit for ourselves. We picked local samphire in summer so we have pickled and preserved and crisped it for later use, as well as serving it fresh in season.
Would you change anything about your journey to become a chef so far?
Before settling down and having my kids, I would probably have liked to work in more Michelin starred restaurants. The learning experience at that level is immense. At Richy’s we don’t take part in the guides thing really, except for Good Food Ireland, which sits well with us because it promotes our ethos of using local, seasonal and Irish at all times.
Who does the cooking at home?
My wife Johanna is an amazing cook and a very talented pastry chef. I met her when I worked at Rowhill House. She’s actually a marine biologist by profession. But she has been by my side here at Richy’s since we opened. She’s the driving force behind the business. She cooks at Richy’s and also does the books and manages the marketing. I couldn’t do it without her.
Often when we get home we are still working, whoever is cooking! It is sometimes hard to switch off because you’ve got the issues of the day and we could be discussing them till midnight. We have to stop ourselves letting it be all about work! We have three beautiful girls, so I try to be home for them in the evening to cook and give them dinner about 6pm, because they go to bed early for school.
Any advice for anyone on how to become a professional chef?
Go and learn the craft from like-minded professionals. Don’t settle for a college course and think you know all about it and are capable of coming out and being a Head Chef. Cooking is about multi disciplines – everything from pastries to starters, mains, fish, meat, sauces. You need practical experience in a variety of places with good people. Get as much experience as you possibly can.
I find the most successful Chef Patrons are very experienced and don’t cut corners because they have learned to make everything from scratch. I am a purist in that sense. I can’t stress the importance of experience strongly enough, that is the best piece of advice I could give to any young person wanting to become a professional chef.
What’s your favourite/most challenging dish or recipe?
I am a good all round chef so I am not challenged by many recipes! I find it quite easy to cook most things. But I would have to say that one of the most satisfying things to do is to learn the science behind making really good puff pastry. We use it here for desserts and also for a traditional dish called Salmon Coulibiac. It’s a dish from Russia, which we served on our Christmas menu. It’s salmon in our own puff pastry, layered with a mix of mushroom duxelle, hard boiled eggs, wild and white rice, and spinach. It’s an absolutely delicious winter dish.
If you enjoyed reading about Richy Virahsawmy from Richy’s Restaurant and R Cafe then why not try out the rest of our how to become a chef series here! Don’t forget to check out our fun infographic on The Journey To Becoming A Chef