Women Of The Irish Food Industry – Janya Lyons, Restaurateur
Janya Lyons owns Kin Khao Thai in Athlone and Maynooth.
Janya Lyons is an established restauranteur in the Irish midlands. She is a well travelled woman with a wealth of professional knowledge and experience. She relishes seeing generations of the same family come through her door and she is passionate about bringing authentic regional Thai food to Ireland.
After reading this interview, I double dare you not to want to go to Kin Khao Thai and eat rings around yourself. Because i know I will.
I’m talking to women the Irish food industry. How did your career path bring you here?
Growing up with the family food business in Thailand I had no choice! From a very early age I was interested in cooking. I watched my mum do everything and I soaked it up. I went to Sydney to study Business Management and worked part time in Thai restaurants to pay my fees. I ended up staying there for 13 years working in the corporate world but still helping friends in their Thai restaurant. We moved to Ireland with the plan to open a Thai restaurant in Feb 2003 and we found the premises in Athlone and KKT launched on 23rd Oct 2003. Kin Khao Thai Maynooth opened 9 months ago.
How does your career fulfil you?
When our customers appreciate our cooking and realise the effort that goes into each dish. That is the happiness I get. There is a great feeling inside when someone can tell the difference between real deal Thai cuisine (the Kin Khao Way) and all the others.
The other fulfilling aspect of Kin Khao is seeing the next generation come in through the doors. We have girls and boys who started life in the highchair and now they are all grown up and dining with us with their boyfriends and girlfriends!. That is very heartening.
For me the fulfilment I get is having long term relationships with suppliers especially our local ones. People like Morgan Maguire and Sean Dunning who between them supply all our meat. Our veg man Mark Lennon who always goes above and beyond in sourcing the best and freshest vegetables for us. Even our Asian grocer who knows exactly what we need and always has it in stock for us and when we run out at the last minute he jumps in the van and gets it to us. They’re the relationships we have on a day to day basis and they are so important to me.
And of course, our staff. Running a business is about the people who work with you. Most of our staff have been with us for years. We have the children of staff who now work with us. All my kitchen are Thai and “Thailish” (Thai mammy and Irish daddy) and we have a shared culture, language and a sense of place. Adam (my hubby) says it is sometimes like a Thai community centre😊
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Janya Lyons?
To educate customers and bring Thai food to another level. There are so many styles of cooking and dishes that are not available in Ireland. Our aim in opening Kin Khao Thai Maynooth is to bring the North Eastern style of cooking to Ireland. It is from Isaan region and its gutsy and fiery and really different.
In Kin Khao Thai Athlone we have been experimenting with the menu. My philosophy is that nothing remains the same. The food we cooked 16 years ago is not the same as now. I am always looking at what my family and friends are eating at home. My mum is always remembering the old recipes she used to use. It is about tradition and respecting the old ways.
In your opinion, what challenges do women face in the food industry in Ireland?
I think nowadays women have been accepted more than ever in the food business. A Thai kitchen is quite a physical environment. For example, wok’ing (working on the wok section) is a very physical job and repetitive strain is very common with female chefs. So we need men in there too! But the importance of women is that in my experience female Thai chefs bring a greater knowledge of their mothers cooking to the kitchen and a certain finesse.
In an Asian kitchen in the past a woman would still face some discrimination but mostly from the older generation. That is less common now. We have proven by our actions that we are equal to men. Most men get it now.
The same I believe can be said for all kitchens not just Thai.
Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistently inspires you and why?
Dee Adamson, Head Chef in The Fatted Calf in Athlone. I first met Dee when she came back from travelling and she came to waitress in Kin Khao Athlone. She had an amazing work ethic then. Dee worked in several kitchens over a period of 10 years and ran her own restaurant in Glasson. She is now Head Chef in The Fatted Calf which continually wins awards. Dee has always been hard working, dedicated and passionate. She has never stopped learning her trade and she deserves the recognition.
What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?
• Learning at home from your parents. This gives you a confidence and knowledge and may result in a career in cooking.
• Aim high. Have a vision to learn from the best and be the best.
• Never stop learning.
• Stay out of that comfort zone!
• Don’t give in to bullies.
What was the proudest moment of your career so far?
After 16 years many of our regulars know exactly what to order before entering the front door. We challenge them to try new dishes that they’ve never tried or are afraid to order. Then to see their faces filled with a delighted expression. That moment pays off for all the effort our kitchen has put into our new menu. They’re the proudest moments for me.
What advice would you give your younger self?
To work in the food industry, it is hard work and long hours. You don’t have the same day off or bank holiday as others, but this will pay off if you have passion and are willing to work hard. Don’t be afraid to ask, give your opinion, help others and always working as a Team. Travel/work and exposure to the world with different cultures & cuisines, this experience will move you forward in your career.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
To understand flavours, ingredients and the story / origin of each dish. Work very closely with your team especially young chefs who might not know the authenticity of the dish. To be able to find original ingredients to serve if not find the fresh local product as close as possible. I’m the one who makes the final decision when creating our new dishes.
What’s a simple thing to do that we can do at home to “thai up” our cooking?
My top tip for a perfect curry every time. Use a good quality coconut cream. Don’t shake the can. Open it gently and take out two spoons of the thick cream at the top. Don’t use any other cooking oils. Add your curry paste to this and cook on a low heat until you can smell its aroma. Add your meat and cook for afew minutes, only then do you add the rest of the coconut milk, then the veg for afew minutes, taste and add a small amount of fish sauce. If you need more spice add paste. If you need it saltier add fish sauce. This sounds simple and it is, but I see many of my farang (Western) friends overcomplicating things.
I have learned how to cook by helping my mum and grandmum from the age of 8 and cooked most dinners at the age of 14 for the whole family of 5. I am confident when it comes to cooking thanks to my mum. Not only did she teach me all her tips but also told all my siblings to always praise me and say my cooking was wonderful even when it was not! As you imagine I thought I was a Michelin Chef in my childhood and only found out couple years ago from my sister and brothers that mum told them to say so 😊