Stephen Holland is Executive Sous Chef at Lough Erne Golf Resort. In part one of his interview with Way out West he talks about the role of education and travel in his career, and the impact that world class local produce is having on food in Northern Ireland and beyond.
With his obvious passion for the trade, his knowledge and care for all aspects of the industry around him, and his ambitions for the future, it’s fair to say that Stephen Holland epitomises many of the reasons that the culinary scene in Northern Ireland is currently thriving. From day one, it seems as though he never wanted it to be any other way.
‘My passion for cooking stemmed from childhood and my great aunt and my mother, who were both fabulous cooks. There was always baking going on at home; one of my earliest memories is the soda bread coming out of the oven in the mornings. Mum was a great cook and I think being around people that enjoyed cooking and enjoyed creating good food instilled the passion in me that led to a career in catering.’
It’s no surprise then that as his education progressed, Stephen was attracted to a career in catering. He began studying in the East Tyrone College in Dungannon in 2002.
‘The old college in Dungannon was a pretty old style building. I think it might have been thirty or forty years old at the time and the equipment was quite dated. But the lecturers were top class, and once we moved up to the South West College building then we had the equipment and the food produce to match the quality of the teaching.’
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‘My time at South West College prepared me for real life hospitality and real life kitchens. A lot of young chefs today can suffer from bad tutelage or get a bad experience in a kitchen, but my experience with South West College was excellent. Lecturers treated you like a chef, not a student, which means you were already prepared when you go into the workplace.’
The nature of cooking means that leaving college is never the end of your culinary education, and Stephen is very much of the mindset that as a chef you have to be ready and willing to learn every day. After finishing his studies at South West College, his next choice of education was to travel.
‘I left South West College in 2007 and also left the job I had in Castle Leslie in Monoghan. I enjoyed my time there, but having finished my studies and obtained what I felt was a good foothold in the industry, I wanted to travel.
‘Over the course of about two and a half years I went to Australia, New Zealand and America. I wanted to learn cultures, I wanted to learn food and I didn’t particularly care where I was as long as I was working. I met great people, cooked great food, and I still have friends to this day patched all over the world. That’s one of the great things the hospitality industry can give you: a passport to travel the world and cook anywhere you want to.’
‘It was a massive experience for me, it took me from being something of a home bird to being out on my own and having to do my own thing, make my own way in the world. It’s a stage of my career that to this day I can look back on and cherish.’
The impact travel has had on Stephen and his willingness to incoperate it into his cooking is reminiscent of the impact travel has had on Northern Ireland food in general. Lessons and inspiration from overseas have played a huge role in recent changes to Northern Ireland cuisine, with cultures from as far off as Asia affecting the attitudes of local food suppliers, chefs and customers alike.
‘If you look at the Asian culture, it’s all about using local produce: giving it to the local public, and then transporting it further. Travel leads to education, and people in Northern Ireland are more educated about their food than ever before, and are now making conscious decisions to stand by their local suppliers, to promote them as a great supplier in their regions. This means that when the product is up to world standard, which it very often is, then we’re seeing Northern Ireland produce on the world stage, which is amazing.’
This passion for local produce is felt across the industry in Northern Ireland, as food suppliers work tirelessly to provide chefs with the best possible ingredients, and chefs in turn endeavour to do them justice in new and imaginative ways.
‘Irish cuisine today is in great shape, we have great suppliers and great chefs who are telling great stories. It’s all about telling the customer about the food, but also the person behind the food: who is the supplier and what do they do? Because most of the suppliers we have in Northern Ireland are driven by their heart, they’re not driven by a corporate machine, and it’s about us promoting them as people and promoting their product.
‘Beyond that it’s about promoting tourism in Northern Ireland; being able to say we have great food in Northern Ireland and using that to attract people here. It’s so relevant here in the Fermanagh Lake Lands. If we promote great food culture here in Fermanagh then it’s a create pull for tourism and that’s what we want to create here.’