Gary O’Hanlon reminisces 20 years behind the stove

gazza vm berry compote

It doesn’t actually feel all that long ago that I walked into the kitchen of the Rosapenna Hotel in Downings to start my first proper “paid” job scrubbing pots and prepping vegetables but on paper it’s an awful long time and my oh my have I had ups and downs along the way.
Haven’t we all.
I’ve many fond memories of that first day. Most notable was taking the top off my left thumb whilst mucking about with a little red handled knife slicing through green beans. I soon learnt there was a time and a place for showing off knife skills and it was probably three or four years from that first day. I made the famous Rosapenna Dauphinoise potatoes that day. A recipe i’ve never tweaked to this day and it featured on my Wedding Menu! Gorgeous.  I worked with Lobster for the first time. I ate “green” broccoli!! Yes I know it’s all green but the fact of the matter is none of you grew up in Ramelton at the hands of my Mothers cooking. Homely yes, fancy No!! I met two great guys, Joe & James who’d teach me the ropes and two crazy cats who were a few years ahead of me on the Chef ladder, Vinny & Eugene. You really didn’t want to get on the wrong end of Vinny & Eugene. Two local boys who looked upon the KP’s ( Kitchen Porters, A.K.A. Pot Wallopers) as their personal slaves. Very annoying but great guys deep down and as the years went on became good work colleagues and friends. I experienced butter being added to cooked vegetables, a.k.a. flavour and I got to stuff my face with Black Forrest Gateaux in the Pastry kitchen because I opened a case of cream for Helen the Head Pastry Chef. A job I took on on a daily basis as she hated doing it and I knew I would always be her first stop with any sneaky pieces of cake or desserts that made it back to the kitchen. Plus I figured early on, keep your head down, do what your told, go the extra mile and get yourself to the head of the line and nab the first commis chef job that becomes available because washing pots is 100% the worst job in a kitchen.
Another striking memory from day one was the girls. The dish washing enemy at the opposite end of the kitchen. Two of them, Joanne & Sinead.
As a pot walloper you were always envious of the “easier” cleaner job the girls had. Slotted nicely in beside the starter section they got to help plate up some starters and gulp on orange segments when the boss wasn’t looking. They were right next to the dining room doors so they got all the banter from the waitresses.
To me this was prime location.
I, on the other hand, was at the very back of the kitchen sweating like a pig, miles away from the action aside from the loud barks of Eugene and Vinny as they fired pot after pot at the sink. You only lifted your head to glance inside the next pot in line and within seconds you could determine if it was an easy one or a 20 minute job. Eugene was an evil sod so when he lobbed one beside you chances were it was gonna take some elbow grease.
I walked the length of Downings beach that summer’s night and up the steps that led to the pier road then up Murlog Hill and home to my Auntie’s house and I can safely say I was the happiest man (Boy ) alive.
I’d always dreamed of becoming a Chef. Every man, woman and child i’d meet though would try to talk me out of it but I loved the idea. My first day just confirmed I was right.
The buzz was electric. It was loud, fast paced, controlled, precise, demanding and fun. I was Hooked on Food.
Back to the girls!!
Joanne & Sinead. Two wee bossy boots. Didn’t have a soft spot for a Ramelton boy at all at all. A Rival parish and all that but I was well able for the two of them.
Sinead was the sarcastic, dry witted one who didn’t give an inch.
Joanne the scarier and more bossy of the two but like Sinead, I wasn’t overly worried. I’d an inner confidence but I knew my place so I only dared pop over to their section after a few days/weeks until they eventually gave up trying to break me down and get on with the fact that I was going nowhere and we were all stuck there for the summer.
As it turned out, we did many many summers there together.
As the years passed we went our separate ways and on to different colleges.
We’d meet again though.
By then Joanne had experienced an incredible high with the birth of her beautiful baby girl Sophie and not long after the death of the very charismatic Henry. Sommelier of the Rosapenna, Joanne’s boyfriend and wee Sophie’s Daddy. An awful experience for anyone to have to deal with, let alone a young mother with her whole life in front of her.
99% of us would not have coped but Joanne happens to be in the one percentile!
My career brought me to Galway and a Head Chef Position at the tender age of 19.
I needed help though and low and behold who just happened to be living in the same estate only smart ass dish washer Sinead and cranky bossy boots Joanne. Bingo.
Sinead wanted part time work and I needed a trustworthy friend to be in my kitchen on the odd Wednesday night when Man United happened to be playing a European game. Everybody won. Joanne had a ready made baby sitter in me whenever she wanted living practically next door and life was great.
The girls aced college ( no surprise) and once again we went our separate ways. Boston for me to push on with my career but Sinead must have missed me as she appeared looking a job for the Summer whilst on a J1 Visa.
No brainer for me. I had her in a kitchen earning good $$$ within days. Her American boss loved her, just like every Boss that’s ever had the pleasure of calling her an employee I imagine. I love Sinead and she’s still a dear dear friend. I could trust her with my life.
Joanne pushed on with her career and really made waves. As well as being an incredible mother to Sophie she met the lovely Tom, got married, set up her own company (Media Box PR)  and had wee Bobby. What a woman.
Today I thought about the girls and Joanne in particular.
It’s fitting that today I finished shooting the dishes for our cookbook for Bluebird Care “Food for the Soul” 20 years on from first meeting Joanne ( Sweeney-Burke)
It was an amazing feeling. There’s plenty of wee details to finish yet but it’s edging ever so close.
Had I not known Joanne I may not have met Eddie, Brian or any of the amazing crew behind Bluebird Care.
I’ve put my heart and Soul into the book and loved every second of it. Fingers crossed I get to meet some of you  as we tour Ireland in  the Fall with George Hook and the rest of the Bluebird Care team or at my many cookery Demo’s across the country.
I hope my next 20 years behind the stoves are half as much fun as the last.
Happy cooking,
Chef Gary.