Interview with Chef Dean Diplock by Tony Clayton-Lea
After the past two years of anxieties and lockdowns, rules, restrictions and a general sense of the unpredictable nature of life, it makes sense to see, so to speak, the wood for the trees. That’s what chef Dean Diplock is embracing from this year. The South African native started his professional career in 1993 and since arriving in Ireland over 20 years ago has worked his way up in an industry that is renowned for its resilience. And yet there comes a time when we all have to look at ourselves and come to a decision.
“The past few years have taught me that stress will kill you,” says Dean, Executive Chef at Breaffy House Hotel, Castlebar, County Mayo. Giving up your time and personal life for the job, he adds, isn’t worth it. “You will never get that time back and it is not appreciated by your employer, anyway, so do your job the best you can and take your deserved time off.” In the words of the well-known song, don’t worry, be happy. Dean joined the team at Breaffy House in the summer of 2021 and couldn’t be happier. “I have a great management team around me. We are ambitious but do not take ourselves too seriously. We play hard and work hard. Life balance, that’s my ambition now.”
For some, life stays the same but for others, life changes, sometimes via small ripples, sometimes by cataclysmic events. Across the years, you learn lessons that make you think twice (if not more) about once rigid or defined ideas. If the pandemic taught Dean anything it was that nobody is Irreplaceable. “No matter how indispensable you make yourself, it can change in an instant.” Other lessons that Dean has understood to be true include calculated rewards come from calculated risks (“don’t be afraid to try new things, do your homework and find out the facts before making a decision”) and the very sensible notion that the food industry as a whole, but especially in Ireland, is small. Another lesson? Don’t you dare burn your bridges.
“What you give out into the world will come back to you,” he reasons. “Some call it Karma, but I think it’s just smart business because people know people who may know you. You need to treat your suppliers, staff and colleagues with respect because you never know when your paths will cross again. Word of mouth in our industry is a valuable thing, so be careful how you leave a current employer, interact with a supplier or treat your staff. You never know – maybe one day they could be your next boss at a company that you would like to work for.”
Of course, Dean didn’t get to where he is today without having had those all-important formative experiences that gradually merged to give him not just the work ethic but also the high standards involved in doing things the right way. His drive for perfection, he admits, came from his mother.
“I was brought up to strive to be the best and do the best I can at any task I put my hand to,” he says proudly. Mentors throughout his career always encouraged him, and he says when he had learnt all he could from them, the same mentors encouraged him to progress. “They never held me back even though they were losing a good employee. I appreciated that and I pass that on to my own staff. We all need to grow, and sometimes we can’t grow any further with a current employer. As a chef/manager, you need to realise that. Let them move on, and encourage their development even if it is difficult to let them leave.”
Which is all well and good, but Dean’s experience over the years is that “a lot of younger staff are not looking to make a career out of hospitality, it’s just a stepping stone, but the principle is the same and more importantly, they need to learn to work smarter, not harder.” It is, he rationalizes, a very different world now than when he was making his way through the ranks. “Unfortunately, far too much is given to the younger generation on a plate, and they don’t appreciate it because they have not put in the hard work to attain things. There is no shortcut to becoming a senior chef. You have to put in time and effort and learn from your peers. There is no substitute for experience. Practice, look, listen and learn! Experiment and find what works for you. Unfortunately, because there is such a shortage of experienced chefs, the industry is forced to promote chefs into positions that they are not yet ready for.” Such an approach, he says, “is going to backfire in the future when we end up with Head Chefs and Sous Chefs that are not experienced enough to run businesses or train and mentor their staff.”
Onwards and upwards we go, then? There are, considers Dean enthusiastically, always new innovations, new products and new ideas. “I love finding something I’ve never tasted or seen that either makes my job easier or more interesting. The new technology coming out these days is revolutionising the industry in many ways. Computer-controlled ovens, molecular gastronomy and a whole host of new ingredients coming to market make for interesting times.”
Dean confirms that plans for this year for Breaffy House Hotel – recently accredited as a Good Food Ireland hotel – are continuing apace. These include sourcing as much local produce as possible and showcasing it on their menus, developing and implementing bespoke tours of the hotel’s wine cellar with their experienced sommelier (enhanced with matching local cheeses and foods), visiting more local producers and showcasing their products in videos for the hotel’s social media platforms, and developing exclusive ‘Dining with Dean’ evenings where local producers are invited to talk about their products while Dean hosts the evening “with my team cooking their fine produce for guests.” Under the learned eyes of its horticultural team, the hotel also plans to produce a line of homemade preserves, mustard, chutneys and jams (using ingredients grown on the hotel’s grounds,) to sell and use on its menus.
There is also, hints Dean, “a few more tricks up our sleeves that will be exclusive to Breaffy House.” They are all still in their infancy, he says, but advises to keep an eye on the hotel’s social media channels for updates. “We also have a major announcement coming later in the year that we are very excited about,” he adds. Between this, that, and every other way you can think of, how in the name of all that’s good in the heart and soul of Dean Diplock will everything be achieved? Easy does it, is the answer. And finding the time.
“That,” says Dean, “is going to be the challenge!”
No better man than Dean for a challenge, we say.
Interview with Chef Dean Diplock by Tony Clayton-Lea
I am an Irish-based freelance journalist/writer/editor who writes mostly on music, pop culture, film and travel for a variety of print and online outlets.