Robbie Burns talks about his journey to becoming a professional chef and owning his own establishment.
This time in our series of blogs set to inspire readers who want to cook for a living, Robbie Burns, Executive Chef/Patron of Essence Bistro, tells us about his journey to becoming a professional chef.
WHO I AM
I'm Robbie Burns, Executive Chef/GM/Patron of Essence Bistro in Swords, together with my brother Owen who is also a chef and my brother in law who works front of house. It’s a family business! We launched Essence five years ago. Before opening my own restaurant I worked in a lot of kitchens. I was Head Chef at Fallon & Byrne, where I learned a lot about Irish food.
THE NITTY GRITTY
What type of training did you have?
Being a chef was always something I wanted to do. It was planted in my head from a young age. I did a professional chef’s course at the Catering School in Cathal Brugha Street, Dublin, now the Culinary School at Dublin Institute of Technology. But it was hard to get jobs when you had no experience in the kitchen. So I started as a butcher and learned how to butcher meats properly. It’s a skill that’s missing in a lot of chefs these days.
What were the challenges along the way to becoming a professional chef?
Well the hard work and long hours are always challenging, sacrificing holidays because I worked in kitchens to get experience. You can’t watch the clock or worry about those things in this job. You have to just get your head down, but it is worth it in the end.
Were there any major positives or crucial turning points in your career?
I was working in Dublin hotels and then I went to do a trial in The Commons Restaurant on Stephen’s Green. It’s not there anymore, but it was Michelin starred at the time. It really brought home to me what could be done with food and made me see I had so much more to learn. It was a big eye-opener. Then I worked in the Conrad Hotel for a while and the Head Chef there really made me believe I could be a chef. That was where I realised I was actually good at it.
Which people influence your cooking?
I really like the nose to tail approach to cooking, so I am impressed by Fergus Henderson of St. John’s Restaurant in London. I like to use offcuts and lesser known cuts.
Which food styles/trends interest you or influence your cooking as a professional chef?
I’ve been eating a lot of tapas in San Sebastian in Spain and have been really inspired by the style and culture of sharing food together. So it’s been a great influence on me and we have just relaunched with our own Tapas menu. Personally, I love to eat that way, so I am mixing the food cultures of Spain and Ireland to make our own unique tapas experience at Essence. Our tapas use local Irish ingredients.
Why do you love your job as a professional chef?
I actually love cooking and I get paid to do it! I remember as a kid, when I said I wanted to be a chef, my friends would be laughing at me, saying ‘oh that’s a job for a woman.’ But I’ve got a few male friends now who like to cook at home and they ask me for tips. I get paid to do what other people do as a hobby. And I absolutely love it.
What's the worst thing about your role as a professional chef?
The unsociable hours! Well they aren’t exactly unsociable if you have other friends in the business, because you’re all in the same boat. But I work in the kitchen with my brother, Owen, so it’s hard for us to attend family occasions, because one of us always has to be here. And when the family use the restaurant for special celebrations, we are always the ones working and can’t join in till afterwards. But I still wouldn’t swap my job!
Can you describe a typical day in the kitchen?
Anything can happen! Actually my role now is as Executive Chef and GM, so I am front of house some of the time. But I always have to be prepared to jump in to the kitchen if necessary to help with prep or if we get really busy. I start about ten every morning. The first thing I do is check on the lads in the kitchen, make sure they are up to speed for lunch service and as I said, I’m ready to help them if they need it. I miss being in the kitchen full time, but I find the combined role very satisfying and challenging as well. My chef’s whites are always at the ready if I need to cook.
What are your strong points?
I think I am really good at teaching. All the chefs we have here were complete beginners and we have trained them ourselves. And that is really satisfying when you start to see them progressing and reaching high standards. You know you’ve had a very strong part to play in their development.
Any early cookery disasters you want to share?
I’m sure there were a few – you’d have to ask my family because they were the ones that had to endure all the experiments!
Would you change anything about your journey so far?
No I have been very happy with the way it has gone. I knew what I wanted to be from early on, so I have worked hard to get there and tried to live the dream and learn something from every role I’ve had. I knew I always wanted my own place eventually, and I’m glad it has worked out. I was able to make the big jump from being employed to having my own business and that’s been an incredible experience so far.
Who does the cooking at home?
It’s shared between me and my girlfriend. She’s actually a good cook, teaching herself, sometimes with guidance from me. Which isn’t always appreciated! She’s also coeliac so I’ve actually learned something from her and we do a lot of gluten free stuff on our menu because of that. She’s a very good guinea pig for my new ideas.
Any advice for anyone who wants to become a professional chef?
Get the head down and work. Always look at the next level, look at the person who is above you and strive to get there. When you’ve achieved that, go for the next step up. Put in the hard graft and don’t get disheartened with the knockbacks. There will be some, but they’re all part of learning.
What's your favourite recipe/most tricky recipe?
One of the things I love to cook at home when we have people round is Chicken Hongroise. It’s an old classic chicken dish from Escoffier’s time and I absolutely love it. Based on a Hungarian recipe, it’s cooked with paprika and tomatoes, a bit like a goulash. Delicious and you can serve it out at the table, it’s a really tasty dish for a family gathering.
Don't forget to check out our fun infographic on The Journey To Becoming A Chef