Ken Harker is the head chef at Michelin star Lady Helen Restaurant at Mount Juliet Estate in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny. Along with his team, Ken produces some of the country’s most exciting food and we were lucky to get the chance to catch up with him to talk about his career and his passion for what he does.
What inspired you to cook at the beginning of your career?
I fell into this job by chance and was quickly caught up by the passion and team work of a good kitchen. I was originally training to be an architect and only took a part time kitchen porter job to help pay my student bills. But within a short space of time I realised my future was in food and I left architecture behind and enrolled in catering college.
What keeps you motivated now?
The love of the job and the team we have. I have always been creative and I am always inspired to create new dishes.
What other chefs and restaurants do you admire?
I admire all chefs that are honest to the food at any level of cooking.
You recently retained your Michelin star at Mount Juliet, how important are awards and accolades to you?
We work very hard to produce the best food we can and the awards and accolades are great as it lets us know that we are getting it right.
How has food in Ireland changed in the last few years?
Hugely. People are very knowledgeable about what they are eating and people expect a higher standard of food in every restaurant.
How does Kilkenny rank in terms of culinary destinations?
It has to be up there with the best. It has two Michelin stars as well as many other top quality restaurants and that’s before you start on the endless list of local food producers.
Who are the best producers who supply Mount Juliet?
We’re very lucky to have great suppliers many of whom are local to us so it would be hard to pick one.
What is your favourite ingredient to use?
Good quality butter.
And your least?
Sage, can’t stand the stuff!
Seasonality is very important to you as you are constantly changing the menus, what is your favourite
season for ingredients?
Autumn has to be my personal favourite with game prominent and all the amazing root vegetables.
What is your favourite cooking technique?
The good old fashioned pots and pans cooking by looking and feeling. That’s not to say we don’t used modern techniques as they do have their place in the kitchen.
What has been your most memorable meal?
Per Se in New York. It’s a 3 Michelin star spot. I think Thomas Keller has an influence on every chef at some point.
What is your food guilty pleasure/off duty comfort food?
I love nothing more than a good quality roast chicken and a fresh crusty loaf.
What was your favourite meal as a child?
Growing up in the North East of England it had to be mince and dumplings. My Mum cooks it and I still have it when I get home.
What is in your fridge that might surprise us?
A spirit level – we use it make sure the terrines are pressed level!
What is the most important thing you teach in your kitchen?
Taste everything. And make a list, you have to have a list.
Any other advice for young chefs staring out?
It’s not always like you see on the television. Be prepared for many years of hard work.
How about words of wisdom for a keen home cook?
Always get the best ingredients you can afford.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?
Something arty I’d say or design based.
How do you think food bloggers are influencing the industry?
That’s a tricky one. Anyone can call themselves a food blogger these days but not everyone is influential. But that’s not to knock all bloggers. Many of them are well informed and their blogs are brilliantly written. But blogging is just another channel and they influence as much (or as little) as other well considered reviewers in traditional media.
What is the secret to the success of Mount Juliet?
It has to be the team. They’re all amazing – front of house and kitchen.
What has been your proudest moment?
Keeping the star this year was pretty special.
What are your hopes for the future?
My hopes are that we get stronger and push on and keep producing good food.
Ken Harker is the head chef at the Michelin starred Lady Helen Restaurant in Mount Juliet Estate, Kilkenny. Here a variety of international dishes are prepared using local produce and fresh herbs, picked daily from the estate’s own herb garden.
The Michelin Star restaurant enjoys panoramic views over the estate and River Nore. Gourmet dining and superb service are complemented by the opulent ambience of dining in the Lady Helen.
Alison has been writing since she could hold a pen, which came in handy for her degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies. She has been working in media since graduating and is the latest features writer for TheTaste.
Writing for TheTaste allows her to combine her passion for the written word with her love of food and drink. Find her on Twitter @AliDalyo