There’s no one way to become a successful chef. Some people in the industry tell stories of growing up in the kitchen at their mother or father’s knee and never veering away from it; others are thrown into the restaurant environment through part time jobs or work experience, having never previously thought of themselves as ‘food people’, and begin to excel. For James Robertson, however, it was a mix of both, as after a series of twists and turns in his working life, he now finds himself as a chef de partie at Ardtata Country house, working in just the type of kitchen he’s always dreamed of.
Passion for cooking and working in the food industry came early for James. ‘My grandmother is a fantastic chef and I’ve always had a great relationship with her, so she was a big influence in that regard. I was very eager to get out and start working when I was younger. My uncle owned a restaurant in Balleygawley and when I was thirteen myself and my cousin worked there as kitchen porters, working for a couple of years, scrubbing dishes, chopping vegetables and learning a lot of basics.
Despite his passion, however, a long term career in the industry was never an obvious path. ‘I loved being in the kitchen, but at school I started following the academic route, because teachers were advising me to. I was happy enough following the crowd in that regard. I went to university, studied a few courses, and had multiple jobs. I enjoyed all of them, because I’ve always enjoyed grafting, working and taking on new challenges.
I’ve always wanted to own my own restaurant one day, and I began to ask myself, “what am I actually doing to achieve my goals?”
‘I worked as an energy consultant for a while, worked in a bank for almost five years, and was even a classroom assistant at a time when I was thinking about teaching. But I was always cooking at home and there was always the idea at the back of my mind that I’d love to own my own restaurant one day. So even though I was working all these different jobs I still had my eye on the catering industry, and I even worked in a pizza place for a while, which reminded me of the craic and the enjoyment of working in a kitchen, which is something I’ve always really enjoyed.
With dreams of getting into a top class kitchen never far from his mind, James decided to take his first steps back into the industry. ‘I enjoyed working in the bank for several years, but I knew there was never going to be a lot of progression for me there, and it made me wonder about what I really wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to own my own restaurant one day, and I began to ask myself, “what am I actually doing to achieve my goals?”
‘Peter Waterson, at South West College, is actually a friend of my grandmother’s. She told me he was the man I should speak to about getting into the industry, and sure enough, when I went to an open day at the college he was able to tell me everything I needed to know. Peter said there was a one-day-a-week fast track course which was perfect for me, and explained that he knew some people in the industry that would be able to offer me the opportunities I wanted.
‘It moved quickly from there. Peter put in contact with a chef here at Ardtara House and I’ve been here ever since. It’s been great. It’s all happened very fast, which has been brilliant for me, because I feel like I’m making big leaps and bounds within the industry really quickly.
‘It’s all been great so far and South West College was fantastic for me, because without the tutors I wouldn’t have had the connections to get into a restaurant like this. I have nothing against the vast majority of restaurants, but most places do a totally different style of service to what we do here. They’re catering for the masses so understandably some corners have to be cut and not everything can be made from scratch. But I wanted to learn and experience making things from scratch; I wanted all the skills that come with that. So this is the perfect place for me and I’m grateful for the role south west college played in getting me here.’
Despite not working on all aspects of cookery in this job, my time at the college means I still have the all-round foundation and knowledge.
So far James’ passion for the kitchen, his talent and hardworking attitude have taken him far, but he plans to add to his skill set further by returning to study at a higher level.
‘At the moment I only have my level 2 NVQ, which is really just the basics of the kitchen. That’s been great in terms of giving me an all round sense of the kitchen, because as a chef de partie and head of cold starters and pastries, I don’t always see a lot of the other cooking going on in the kitchen. I don’t work with meats that much, don’t work with certain vegetables on a day to day basis, so the college has really helped fill in those gaps for me. Despite not working on all aspects of cookery in this job, my time at the college means I still have the all-round foundation and knowledge.
‘Looking forward, Level 3 would be that step up which would expand my knowledge and allow me to go on and look at sous chef jobs. I’m hoping to also go on and study Level 4 after that, which is about how to run a kitchen, how to do orders and be a head chef, and how to own your own restaurant which is still my ultimate goal.’
With his obvious ambition, James is enjoying the perfect time to make his move in the catering industry, as Northern Ireland food continues to thrive.
‘The Northern Ireland catering industry is crying out for chefs and that’s because business is booming. There are more tourists coming to Northern Ireland than ever before, especially with events like The Open which took place in this part of the country. The skies the limit in this industry. When everyone is crying out for chefs it means you can go anywhere and do anything, as long as you put the effort in. if you really knuckle down and make a name for yourself – and you can make a name for yourself – you could find yourself working in a Michelin star kitchen and learning from the best in the business. After that, there’s nothing you can’t do.’