Women Of The Irish Food Industry – Janice Casey Bracken, Chef and Teacher
Janice Casey Bracken is the 2019 Louth Local Food Hero.
Janice Casey Bracken is a hard grafter. I love the story of how she came to a career in cooking. It is a great example that if you don’t get. She is clearly a strong supporter of small producers and Irish food. As a member of Eurotoques and as a teacher, she is a fantastic all rounder.
The one thing I really didn’t like when I first read Janice’s is the fact had the actual cheek to ask her, at an interview, whether she was done having kids. Not only is that not on, it’s also no legal and is discrimination and against employment laws.
So if you take one thing from this article, is that nobody has the right to ask you those questions. If they do, report them. Plenty employers will be happy to employ a woman and appreciate her work instead. Women are not vessels.
I’m talking to women the Irish food industry. How did your career path bring you here?
My career path has varied greatly, in school I really enjoyed home economics, but was swayed in my choice subjects by job prospects. After college I was working in the bank and developed epilepsy when I was pregnant. It took a while to get my head around it but I did and I choose to have a career I enjoyed instead of one that just paid the bills.
I entered the easy food home cook hero competition and got to the finals, during the reception in the shelbourne hotel I asked Kevin Dundon (one of the judges) for a tour of his kitchen in Dunbrody and he agreed. I got the tour a month later and stayed back afterwards to help make jam and chutney. I came back every Sunday to help out for a month, and when one of the chefs was moving on and I was offered a commi chef job, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and have never looked back since.
How does your career fulfill you?
I feel cheffing really gives me a sense of community, when I was training we had a herb garden, fruit garden and veg garden in work, milk came from the milk woman, spuds from the spud man, veg from the local veg man, it really instilled a sense of “support local” and treat ingredients with respect. This has continued throughout my career. I firmly believe in building relationships with local producers, knowing what’s around the locality you’re working and living in and helping out in the community.
Working in kitchens has often meant I’ve spent more hours with the team I work with than my family at home, this is hard I won’t deny it, but working with a team built with respect makes it a little easier. I know that we have each other’s backs forever, we have seen each other at our best and worst times and always support each other, you don’t get this type of relationship with your co-workers in most environments apart from kitchens .
I love giving back, be it training chefs or teaching in cookery school, to awaken a passion someone hasn’t realised they have is amazing, seeing them grow and their confidence grow, watching their ideas come to fruition is amazing.
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Janice Casey Bracken?
What’s next for me, who knows I’m currently quite busy, I teach cookery school for the Irish Country Women’s Association in an Grianan in county Louth. It’s the largest women’s association in the country so it’s a huge privilege.
We have a 60 seat lecture kitchen and a brand new hands on kitchen so it’s all go at the moment. There’s a long history of cookery in the ICA and these amazing women have done so much since the association was founded. Many of our members have farming backgrounds themselves so my ethos of using local produce suits here very well.
I was also thrilled to win local food hero for Louth in the rai awards but to be fair the heroes are the actual growers like Maria in Ballymakenny farm, her passion and produce is amazing and she’s always got the kettle in for a cuppa and a chat, she’s made Louth a home from home.
In your opinions, what challenges women face in the food industry in Ireland?
I remember being asked in an interview “are you finished having kids?” It shocked me. Being asked “yeah but can you actually do the hours being a mammy?” I need a full team here all the time”. I’m not going to lie that sickened me, I really don’t think I would have been asked those questions if I was a man. I have never missed a shift unless it really was a hospital situation.
Actual working hours would greatly help working mothers out be it a 8,10 or twelve hour shift just say out so we can arrange childcare.
Also don’t ask a woman about her choice to have or not have children this is very personal question and I don’t believe should be asked.
I think women are coming together in a supportive way in the last few years that’s just unreal, chefs, mentors, lecturers and producers getting out and meeting each other, supporting each other and helping each other it’s brilliant, it’s much better to build each other up and lay good solid foundations for the women coming up. We are here to stay.
Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistently inspire you and why?
I’m not being funny I actually can’t name just one there are so many doing it in their own ways.
Maria Flynn Ballymakenny is showcasing the reality’s of a being a small producer and keeping seasonality real.
Christine Walsh has unreal skills can’t wait to see her pop ups amazing Irish talent.
Jess Murphy kai is doing so much for integration in our country and industry, sharing ideas recipes and opportunities with people worldwide.
Eva Milka Gaelic escargot has so much drive I wish I could bottle just a fraction of it. She just bubbles enthusiasm and knowledge and always willing to share and educate
Niamh Barry is a chef i really enjoy seeing going from strength to strength her sugar work skills and pastry skills are sublime.
Kate lawlor Lyne is a chef I have great respect for, I remember once when I thought about giving it all up she was the one who sent me a message and kept me going. She really is missed but I wish her the very best in her new home.
Bird Torrades is a fountain of information and encouragement always willing to listen and lend a hand any chef would be lucky to have her as a mentor.
What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?
I think having more gender balanced panels is a great idea, it’s still shocks me how many chefs are not getting the recognition they deserve. There are amazing ladies doing stunning work that’s not getting recognition, maybe something to focus on rising stars. In the mean time I believe in supporting and encouraging ladies in the industry who deserve recognition, out of small acorns grow big trees. Let’s continue to support these women and the industry will listen.
What was the proudest moment of your career so far?
Proudest moment was before a demo, my kids were looking at the veg display and asked keelings if the display were local Irish vegetables because my mammy said that’s all you should have!! The veg display was all Irish producers 🙌🏻🙌🏻🙌🏻 But I love the way the kids are questioning it ❤️❤️
What advice would you give your younger self?
Trust your instincts, they are usually right, hard work pays off and there’s never such a thing as a stupid question.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
Communication, without good communication you have nothing, be it learning from someone or teaching someone good communication is vital.
Organisation is the key to life, at work or at home I love a good whiteboard and a list, they make me so happy. Keep a note book on your beside locker, you would be amazed at flavor pairing ideas and dishes that run through your mind at night.
Understanding, sometimes in the kitchen I’m in chef mode sometimes I’m in mammy mode often in the kitchen I’ve been in both modes at the same time, always be aware of the bigger picture be there to listen to someone after or before service you would be amazed at what listening to someone can do to keep positive mental health, encourage people.
Always remember every day is a learning day the day you fail to learn is not a good day.
What’s your go to Sunday meal?
I usually work in Sunday’s so our Sunday dinner gets changed to Monday it’s usually good comfort food, beef cheeks or pork cheeks a bit of veg we are have grown in the garden and creamy buttery mashed potatoes. Simple honest food, cooked slow and with love, everyone gets a job the kids pick, wash and peel the veg and help out, this is really important to me, it’s not a family meal to me if the family haven’t helped, himself loads the dishwasher (apparently I’m shockingly bad at that 🙈🙈) the kids know where the food comes from and it’s ideal time with no technology to chat, set a table properly and enjoy the company the kids are 13 and 9 now so it’s great to see their confidence and skills grow.