I’m talking to women the Irish food industry. How did your career path bring you here?
I’ve always worked in food, mostly butchers/deli and the odd stint in cafe/restaurant by accident rather than design.
I wanted to leave school early and after many arguments at home it was agreed that if I had a full time job( I always had part time jobs), then I didn’t have to return to school in September. I might also add that, at this time, it was considered an achievement to obtain the leaving cert, there was never any discussion of going on to third level.
I got a fulltime job in the local supervalu, on the shop floor. I admired from afar the staff working on the deli/butcher counter, with their crisp clean uniforms they really stood out! I badgered and begged until I convinced the owner to let me cover a couple of late night shifts on the meat counter. And I loved it!
From there, I went to the butcher counter in Dunnes Stores, when The Square in Tallaght opened. Then, my next door neighbours’ son opened a butcher shop and asked me to come work for him. I met Michael,my husband, there and we decided to open our own butchers as we wanted to do things differently.
How does your career fulfill you?
I genuinely love it, no two days are the same. I get great satisfaction in putting out a display that will entice or influence what people will choose to eat. Plus the never ending chats with customers about food, recipes, cooking methods etc. I like the interaction on this level, even if its something as simple as a chicken curry, no two people will do it the same. You really are at the coalface of food, how and what people are eating every day. You have the power to influence what people are feeding their families and that’s very rewarding, especially as I’m around long enough to remember when people bought the lesser known cuts and I can advise them now as I’m seeing a return to this way of cooking and eating lately.
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Sarah Kelly?
I’m very excited at the shift ive seen happening in the last eighteen months or so, people really do want to connect with the person who supplies their food again. They want to shop with the butcher who is making her own sausages, curing her own bacon etc.. who can tell them where and who the meat they are selling is from. For me I’m hoping to spend more time doing that, returning to the traditional methods but with more of a culinary modern twist, keeping it interesting and bringing more of a seasonal and local food vibe to it. Ideally I’d love to return to full nose to tail butchering. So making terrines/pates, pressing and cooking tongue meat etc. Charcuterie, curing, brining, the possibilities are endless and thats why I love it! No food waste essentially.
In your opinions, what challenges women face in the food industry in Ireland?
For me it’s just being in the minority so the oppurtunities are just not there, we need to be seen and heard more. In my own industry there is an edge of aggression and competitiveness that needs to be balanced out. There are so many challenges, physically I am not as strong as some of the men, historically organising childcare will fall more on women, a lot of the time this will also be because the men have better earning potential! So not being paid equally is another. I don’t want to be treated the ‘same’, I am different but I want to be treated equally, I want to have equal oppurtunities and pay. But I want those oppurtunities to allow for the fact that I am female, I may get pregnant and take 9 months maternity leave, I will have years where I have to balance childcare and work. And I can do an excellent job and still be a commited and valuable member of society and the workplace while doing it. If I have someone working for me who really has that passion and is bringing something to the team, I will do anything to hold onto them. I am a family friendly employer, I know the stress of balancing a family and work so I will always see how I can make it work for that person. I find they give that flexibility back to you in truckloads when you do.
Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistantly inspire you and why?
Initially, I would have felt very isolated in this industry so it’s only lately as I’ve been connecting with other women in the food scene that I’ve realised the power of lifting each other up. There is no one in particular, I’m in awe of a lot of women who are putting themselves out there. I assumed they were extremely confident and had no self doubt, however they do have doubts and are nervous but do it anyway!
Currently i’m applauding you, this series is a fantastic example of women supporting women. You are tireless in that regard and we are so lucky to have that. You are giving a voice to women who are working and achieveing quietly in the background as is the norm. You are bringing us front and centre and we owe you a thanks for that!
What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?
We need more of this please. Every food event, panel, festival etc must absolutely insist on being balanced fairly with reqards to showcasing both male and female profiles. They have to strive to make it 50/50! It should be the norm, and we must continue to call it out when its not!
What was the proudest moment of your career so far?
To be honest I’m really proud of what we do every single day. I don’t have off days, I feel the same passion for what I do every day. Getting awards like the McKennas Guides is a nice feeling. Every little mention in print or online makes me proud and happy and humble all at the same time. My oldest daughter is butchering in Melbourne and will eventuallly return to work with us so I’m hoping there is lots more proud moments to come.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Mmm, this is tough. I suppose just to believe in myself, not to waiver. Don’t worry about the mistakes, that’s called experience, that’s how you learn. Slow down, enjoy the journey, it’s not just about the destination. Let go of the negative people sooner, ask for help when you need it. Be flexible. Don’t be in such a rush, timing is everything. Stop tiptoeing around mens egos!
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
A passion for food, just like cheffing. It’s not just a job, it’s a career. It takes a lot of skill and craft and is constantly evolving just like the food scene.
Its also a tough fast paced long day! It’s hard work, not your typical 9 to 5! You have got to love it. And the customer deserves that experience.
What is a simple trick to make tough meat more tender?
Give it more time to cook, it’s as simple as that!
There is no such thing as a bad cut of meat, it just takes the right cooking technique. Certain cuts require cooking low and slow to break down the sinews and soften the meat. Beef cheeks for example, cook for 6 to 8 hours and you’ll end up with beef that will simply fall apart with the gentlest of prodding from your fork, or pork shoulder 4 to 5 hours later you have a piece of meat that can be pulled apart, and these cuts have such fantastic flavour, are cheaper and great for cooking for a crowd!