Two little known chefs fell under the glare of the spotlight at the recent Restaurants Association of Ireland awards in Dublin in May. Mark Murphy, Senior Lecturer in the Culinary Arts at Institute of Technology Tralee, and Mark Doe, Owner/Head Tutor at the Just Cooking Cookery School in Firies in Co. Kerry, beat off stiff competition to pick up the National Local Food Hero award at the ceremony.
Since 2012, the two men have organised and run the groundbreaking Apprentice Chef programme, currently open to transition year students in Cork, Kerry, Waterford, Dublin and wider Dublin area. Between them, they have created a working model that has already reached a large number of secondary schools and is set to go nationwide. In the last six years, the pair have succeeded in cajoling support, judges and chef mentors, not to mention giving generously of their own time to oversee all the stages of the programme since it was established at IT Tralee.
They have done all this quietly, for the love of food and the commitment to an industry in which they have both worked for many years. When the limelight finally fell upon them during the 2018 RAI awards, it wasn’t a moment too soon. Six years of hard work and dedication from two unassuming men, rewarded in front of a room full of the brightest and best in the Irish food industry today. The big round of applause they got was rightly deserved.
In an industry struggling to get homegrown chefs, the work of Mark Murphy and Mark Doe may well prove to be a saving grace for the Irish food industry. At the cook off final of this year’s Apprentice Chef programme, Liam Edwards, publican, restaurateur and current President of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, commented as the winners were announced that from what he had seen in the kitchens “The future of Irish food is in very safe hands”.
The final 26 teenagers left standing in the competition cooked their hearts out for their Home Economics teachers, their families and their own self worth. And, boy did they do themselves very proud indeed. Everyone was a winner on the day.
An All Round Learning Programme
Speaking during the final cook off, Mark Murphy said: “Apprentice Chef is about more than just encouraging youngsters to come into our industry. It’s a rounded programme teaching them about sourcing local seasonal produce and how to use it, and includes nutritional work. Every student in the final has to supply a concise and comprehensive folder with an explanation of their dish with its nutritional values, recipes, plus the inspiration for the dish and what they hope to achieve in the future.”
Mark Doe added: “It’s very much about learning outcomes, what they have learned since they started the programme in September, how the dish they have chosen to make progresses through each stage. It’s about their total involvement in what they are doing, planning and learning from mistakes. We use ‘dynamic learning’ methods, with reliable sources of information from 300-400 videos and YouTube clips to access, plus practical work in teaching knife skills, cooking methods and kitchen technique.”
Nutritional Therapist Susie Cox was on hand to teach the kids how to balance ingredients for a nutritionally healthy meal, very pertinent to today’s food industry where calories count on menus and allergens must be highlighted. She said: “It’s especially important for students who are doing desserts, we try to give them healthier alternatives to refined sugar. Desserts are harder to get nutritionally balanced, but we want the students to think in that way as they learn.”
On the day, every student cooked at a level that any professional chef would be proud to achieve. Foams, mousses and dehydration techniques were all included in the range of dishes. Presentation skills were second none. As the programme progresses, groups of students are assigned a working chef mentor who will guide them, every step of the way, to getting all elements of their dish right. Louise Brosnan of Solas in Dingle mentored this year’s winner. She explained the mentoring process: “We get assigned groups of kids in about November and this gets whittled down with cook off rounds. We mentor by email and with practical hands on workshops as the competition moves on. Parents are also vitally important because the kids practice their dishes at home and they send us photos so we can see what they have done and give ideas for making it look better or adding something to make it stand out. We guide them and are on hand 24/7, whenever they want to email. Sometimes, they need very little mentoring. You will find a few naturals among them!”
Other mentors this year included founder Mark Doe; Head Chef Bart Sullivan, from Seaview Lodge in Waterville, who had six students in the semi final and three in the final; and Mark Staples, Head Chef of Hayfield Manor Hotel in Cork city.
Those who had the pleasure of tasting all the dishes then doing the difficult job of deciding on a top three were John Murray, retired Senior Lecturer at IT Tralee, joined by Dan Browne and T.J O’Connor, both senior lecturers of the Culinary arts department. They had their work cut out to choose three dishes that stood out from the rest. “It was an impossible job, the standard was so high,” said T.J. O’Connor on the day.
Still, a top three had to be chosen. Jack Granville of McEgan College Macroom, Co. Cork took third spot with his rack of Shandangan lamb, red wine jus, tian of courgettes and lamb croquettes with hasselback potatoes. Runner up Isabelle Lynch from Mercy Mounthawk Secondary School in Tralee produced a flawless dessert of dark chocolate mousse, raspberry sorbet, honeycomb shards, shortbread crumb and filled profiteroles.
But it was Natalia Leane who was named Supreme Apprentice Chef, with her perfectly cooked Skeaghanore duck with sweet orange glaze and roasted butternut squash ravioli. The dish swayed the judges, for its technical competency and balanced mix of flavours and textures. Natalia won €1000 of prizes and an Apprentice Chef Team workshop for her school, a full set of professional knives from McDonnell’s and an Ambri Chopping Board, plus the opportunity to enjoy a food styling session with Easy Food magazine in the summer.
Commenting on the event, Michael Murphy, sales representative for Flogas Ireland, said: “Flogas has supported the Apprentice Chef programme since 2015 and we’re always blown away by the standard of young culinary talent on show each year. We’d like to congratulate all the participants on their creativity and dedication, and we wish them the very best in their future careers.”
Oliver Sullivan, Hospitality Manager at Fáilte Ireland, added that the competition was a fantastic opportunity for young people who want a culinary career to showcase their talent and potential.
“Fáilte Ireland is delighted to be involved again this year in the Apprentice Chef programme. Throughout this year’s competition, we have seen our apprentice chefs produce cuisine of the highest quality and taste. The competition is an excellent way for younger chefs to set a standard and define their own style and I’ve no doubt that today’s winner, and indeed all those who entered, will find a rich and rewarding career in Ireland’s hospitality industry.”