Women Of The Irish Food Industry – Grainne O’Keefe, Head Chef And Culinary Director
Grainne O’Keefe is the Head Chef in Clanbrassil House and the Culinary Director in Bujo.
If you’ve not gotten to her restaurants, you can often find Grainne O’Keefe at festivals, doing pop-ups and collaborations, where she’ll be grilling massive slabs of her Teeling infused beef and there will be a solid queue looking to get fed.
It’s good to see that some women have had an easy career and fairly direct route to the top (fuelled by clear determination and buckets of hard work of course).
I’m talking to women in the food industry. How did your career path bring you here?
I started when I was 17, just after my leaving cert. I always wanted to be a chef but didn’t know anything about the industry so I went to DIT. I started working full time in a kitchen soon after.
I didn’t eat any fancy food when I was young, I had never really gone to a proper restaurant until I went to college, but I used to watch cooking shows and get cookbooks from the library. I had no idea what was going on in either of them, but I wanted to know what this all was, and how it tasted. I really had no idea. Everyone was really surprised, they thought I’d be a hairdresser or something. I loved seeing the kitchen environment on TV and I wanted to make a career out of it.
A lot of chefs have these lovely stories of picking berries when they were young and they’d come home and their ma’ would make a berry pie, and the smell of the berries made them want to cook and for me, it was a case of, ‘nah, I kind of want to just do this’.
I remember watching Hell’s Kitchen with Marco-Pierre White or Ready, Steady, Cook. I just loved watching chefs in the kitchens – which is funny because that’s probably when young chefs were most getting abuse and it seemed like a bad environment, but I thought it looked great. I was in awe of what they were cooking.
I worked hard in kitchens like Il Segreto, The Merrion, Pichet, Bastible and now Clanbrassil House where I’ve been head chef for 2 1/2 years.
How does your career fulfill you?
I’ve always said that I would rather work 80 hours a week doing something that I love rather than 40 hours a week doing something I hate. I enjoy my job, I’ve built my life around my career and live to work rather than work to live.
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Grainne O’Keefe?
I want to travel and work. I want to see the different cooking styles of the world and learn from different chefs. I don’t want my own restaurant just yet. It’s a huge commitment and I’m still quite young. I’d love to have my own restaurant one day but it’s a while away yet.
In your opinion, what challenges do women face in the food industry in Ireland?
Personally, I haven’t encountered any challenges in the industry that stemmed solely from being a woman. As a chef in general, the challenges are the same for both men and women. I think there’s a belief among people who don’t work in the industry that it’s a brutal environment to work in, for women especially, but in reality, it’s not.
Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistently inspires you and why?
Technically, she’s not in the food industry, but without her I wouldn’t be so I’m counting it. My sister, Siobhán. She pretty much raised me and has encouraged me through my career. She’s the hardest working person I know, a wonderful mother and sister and she inspires me every day. Without her support (and my brothers Peter and Anthony), I don’t know where I would be or what I would be doing now.
What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?
I don’t think it’s that the women in the industry aren’t visible, there just aren’t many. I think raving about ‘female chefs’ because of their gender rather than talking about their food etc. is counterproductive. It’s placing women in a separate category and then later asking the question of why there are different categories.
What was the proudest moment of your career so far?
We got awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand in Clanbrassil House a few months after we opened. That was a nice moment. Also the opening of BuJo, which was the culmination of 2 years’ work prior. And the day BuJo was awarded the highest rating possible by the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Only work with people who care about what they are doing. Recognise when it’s your time to move on. Don’t get comfortable. Travel.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
Strong work ethic, patience and a love of learning. Self-explanatory really.
What’s your tipple of choice?
Depends on where I am. Beer is Peroni and Wicklow Wolf. I love Teelings whiskey (so much so that we age our beef in Clanbrassil House in it). Champagne. Always champagne.