Women Of The Irish Food Industry – Mary Farrell, Executive Chef
Not many of you will have heard of Mary Farrell. Unless you, yourself, work in the food industry in Ireland.
A while back, I asked for ideas as to whom I should interview over on my Instagram page. The resounding answer was Mary Farrell. Please talk to Mary Farrell. So for once in a while, I decided to do what I was told and I asked Mary to participate in this series. If you read through, you will understand why she was recommended to me. Her passion seeps from the page and I am DYING to meet her.
I’m talking to women the food industry. How did your career path bring you here?
I grew up in a large family, where I was the oldest of eight children on a very industrious beef farm and export business. Food and cooking were central features of our daily life.
I was a very academic and ambitious student, with an aptitude for maths and science, and quite frankly, a chef career never even crossed my mind. My computer science degree proved to be a poor choice, to say the least and after 6 years working in a public service job that I was ill suited to, I quit.
Much to the horror of my family, I packed my bags and headed off to France in my Citroen 2CV. I spent a year and half travelling around France and Holland, working my way around in various catering jobs and that was the bug that never left me. I enjoyed the food, the business, the craziness and variety of places I worked in and the people I met.
I came back and continued to work in kitchens in Dublin while I completed a degree in History and Politics and finally a masters in Politics. I then headed to Australia and kept working in catering enjoying the fusion food experience that Melbourne had to offer.
On returning, I set up my own vegetarian business, my naivety pushed me forward and the challenges, which were considerable, made me stronger. For 12 years I cooked, taught and successfully ran the business. Following 3 very difficult trading years at the height of the recession, I woke up one day and realised I had to make some hard decisions: keep going or change direction.
I was exhausted, I had also fulfilled my potential in the business and, to be perfectly honest, I was bored with it. In December 2011, I closed my business and breathed a sigh of relief. While working in hospitality roles as restaurant manager and then head chef, I was perplexed by the resistance and negativity that I, as a woman, confronted. I was furious that this continued to exist in 21st century Ireland. I decided to research the topic of gender inequality by undertaking a PhD on the subject in DIT (now TUI) to comprehensively understand the problem.
At the same time, I took up my role as executive head chef in Mortons Food Store in Ranelagh. Combining a stressful full-time management role with a self-funded academic research project while sustaining your personal life, is challenging, of that there is no doubt. This is offset by having an insider’s knowledge of the workings of the industry, a very supportive employer and work colleagues, and understanding friends and family. For that I am truly grateful. It has been an adventure of working and learning that I have truly enjoyed.
How does your career fulfil you?
My career is multifaceted and having worked in the industry for over 25 years, I am now in a senior management position. I am focused on continually improving the kitchen working conditions for my staff while also bringing in production efficiencies for the business, in order to have a high quality food offering for our customers. I aim to make the kitchen more sustainable in very way.
When I see I am making progress, that’s when I am very happy. This also helps me to think through my ideas on how to bring about meaningful and sustainable change for women in the industry and how this could be scaled up to possibly create a new organisational model for professional kitchens in the future.
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Mary Farrell?
My professional ambitions now focus on my research which seeks to advance gender equality in the chef profession. As a chef, I continue to work with food, it’s never too far from my mind. In my adopted home of Wicklow, I hope to spend more time refocusing my interests combining research with a new food project possibly, and maybe I can live happy ever after in the garden of Ireland! We’ll see…..
In your opinions, what challenges women face in the food industry in Ireland?
There are many, and they should not be underestimated, but there are plenty of women in the food industry so let’s celebrate them while changing the industry.
The biggest problem is that the industry was built by men for men: men are perceived as the experts in the industry and they are considerably advantaged as a result. Women are less valued, women are not paid equally, they do not have equal access to leadership roles. The industry expects a commitment to long hours and this converges with women’s socially ascribed care-giving in Ireland, which in turn limits career progression for these women.
Symposia, competitions and awards are dominated by men reinforcing men’s expertise and maintaining women in their less valued positions. A macho culture and unequal power relations in the hospitality industry feeds bullying and sexual harassment as a real contemporary issue for women.
Changes are afoot and women are fighting hard to make sure changes are made for the long term. We insist on being equally valued!
Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistently inspire you and why?
There are so many women in the industry, educators, food and drinks producers, chefs, food tour operators managers etc, who are working on a daily basis. I take my hat off to all these women!
I would like to mention one young chef, Dearbhlá Moriarty, who I had the pleasure of working with, as part of the team who cooked the banquet dinner for the Oxford Food Symposium in 2017. She impressed me as a young chef with a strong character. Dearbhlá was determined, focused on her cookery and had a strong work ethic. Importantly, she was also independent and self-aware. I noticed her again only recently at the Ireland Skills Live apprentice showcase in March. I was reminded that she will set her own agenda for her success and career development in the food industry.
I think it is so important to shine a light on the women coming up, raise their profiles and help the younger generation of women chefs gain credibility in the industry. We have to help each other in the food industry, and it is imperative that we encourage and support those that come after us. This is one critical factor that helps progress gender equality in the food industry.
What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?
I have seen a huge increase in coverage of women in Irish media in the last two years in particular. Print media has been effective here, it is encouraging and a vital part of the process which challenges the stereotype that men are the experts in the food industry. Women are equally capable and talented in all aspects, and media must reflect this by actively seeking out women and sharing their stories with the general public to help change cultural perceptions of male superiority and dominance at all levels.
Competition panels and symposia are male dominated affairs and this is simply not acceptable. All chef panels and symposia should be gender balanced, 50/50, as a matter of course. There are plenty of women in their industry, organisers of such events need to find them, encourage them, and provide financial support for them if necessary as a display of commitment to gender balance. This shows that men and women are valued equally for their expertise and that organisers are committed to gender equality. This in turn permeates the cultural ether of the industry and should slowly bring about lasting change.
What was the proudest moment of your career so far?
Definitely, my culinary involvement in the Swift Festival in 2017 that celebrated Jonathan Swift’s 350th birthday. Myself and 3 of the chefs from Mortons moved out of our comfort zone to cook a banquet from the 16th century manuscript cookbook of Hannah Alexander, an ancestor of my very good friend Deirdre Nuttall.
Researching and trying out the dishes was fun: eel and tongue were not everyday ingredients in work. The banquet took place in St Patrick’s Cathedral where Deirdre gave a talk on Alexander’s culinary knowledge.
For me it was the celebration of the culinary food knowledge of a 16th century housewife: a recognition that women have always cooked, their knowledge and understanding of ingredients, food and cooking is the bedrock of our culinary heritage and it’s about time we revisited women’s much overlooked expertise.
A close second has got to be my inclusion as one the 100 women in Parabere forum international network, which is working to advance gender equality in the food industry. All the hard work pays off in the end and recognition is important to keep you motivated.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t be afraid, speak up and stick to your principles, don’t be deterred from your goals and always seek to work with people who respect you and all others that you work with.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
I need three interconnecting skills: interpersonal skills, good business acumen and an ability to organize.
I need finely tuned interpersonal skills in my management position in a professional kitchen. This is essential to create and maintain a sustainable working environment for staff and the business. Working with staff in a busy kitchen you need a high degree of awareness of the diversity of your staff’s personalities, abilities and needs. Therefore, while I am the manager, I work in the kitchen most days which helps to remove the hierarchy of authority and separateness: I get to know the staff, their abilities and limitations, while I may also notice issues that need to be addressed. I need to be approachable and credible so that when issues arise I can address and resolve them immediately and comprehensively, so that we can all continue to work together. This has really helped me address issues all along, that otherwise could have festered into larger problems. Here, you need to have the courage of your convictions, not be afraid to tackle problems head on, which means staff will take you seriously. Different personalities interact differently together for a number of reasons, this has to be managed so that we can all work together accepting our differences and not treat staff unfairly.
Once you have a good working environment for staff half the battle is won! After that you need to have excellent business acumen, awareness and understanding of your market, ability to adapt to remain relevant and a tight rein on financial management. Years of working in diverse food businesses, including owning my own business, has given me a deep insight and understanding of the industry. My knowledge and skills are transferrable and adaptable to different food business models, you just have to understand the business.
Organisation skills are critical to create a sustainable work environment for staff while also delivering on the business goals. It takes time to work this out but you cannot have one without the others. Anyone who thinks they can is very mistaken in my view!
If you could teach just the ONE thing about cooking, which would it be?
Use your senses to guide you through your cooking. Do not be fooled by elaborate techniques or the latest fad. Techniques are simply learned skills that can enhance your culinary sensory experience. You can adapt your cooking to current trends to make it more fashionable and exciting for the customer. However, your senses are the ultimate judge of your food. If the food that you cook pleases your senses, then you can learn the skills required to elevate your food to the level of Michelin star or neighbourhood casual dining or café. The choice is yours but you have to put in the hard work to learn and remain true to yourself!