“Topsy-turvey,” is how Chad Byrne describes the past 15 months. “I made the most of it and am thankful for what I have achieved during that time.”
In fairness to the Executive Chef of Killarney-based The Brehon Hotel (and, lest we forget in these times of turmoil, the brain behind the Hungry Donkey, one of Ireland’s pop-up foodie success stories of 2021), it has been a rollercoaster year and a bit for everyone. All things being equal, it’s a wonder we are all still standing, but Chad gives the firm impression that he has always been a man on a mission, and because of that, he has maintained equilibrium because that’s what people on missions do, right?
“I set up a team of chefs to cook ‘meals on wheels’ in the Tralee and Killorglin area. I was working with many amazing chefs I hadn’t met before as well as with the remarkable team in Ballyseedy Gardens where we produced the goods. It really showed what’s best about our industry, and the way that people selflessly giving their time for free.”
That wasn’t all, however. Chad ran a six-week series of ‘Chef vs Chef’ battles on Instagram Live, which highlighted local artisans and food suppliers. “It was a kind of a Ready Steady Cook,” recalls Chad. “It was a huge showcase of our artisan producers with some of Ireland’s best chefs highlighting their produce in their one-on-one battles. Great fun!” Another area to which Chad gives of his time and expertise is the Ability at Work, which empowers people with various levels of disability to gain experience in the workplace, and also helps young adults with numerous life skills. “I teach them cooking classes every two weeks. It revolves around simple and tasty recipes for which I give ingredient lists a week prior, and then we do a live cook-along. It has been going on since well before the first lockdown, and it’s a wonderful thing to do and be a part of. I adore doing projects of worth like this. It helps people and also helps me. Covid-19 has had many effects on people, including myself. Some days were better than others, but the ability to help can lift your spirits, and this certainly did.”
Another thing that boosted Chad’s spirits into the higher reaches of the skies was the purchase earlier this year of a horsebox. Back in February, he posted a video in which he shared his ambition to convert the box into a working kitchen (by this point named the Hungry Donkey). Chad also mentioned a stumbling block: having already purchased the box, the bank loan he had applied for to make it fit for purpose didn’t come through. He set a target of €15,000 on a crowdfunding platform, but within 12 hours that figure had been eclipsed. To say he was gobsmacked is an understatement.
“I was shocked but in a brilliant way – I just couldn’t believe the uptake for it. It was amazing to reach the target in the space of 12 hours. I remember that I had put in a timeframe of six months for the total to be reached, but to get it within half a day was unbelievable. So many people from the industry jumped on board, and that made me really proud because I’ve always given the industry my all.”
For the past five months, the Hungry Donkey has been, you might say if you were so inclined, kicking ass on the menu front with all manner of swiftly cooked takeaway fare such as tacos, spice boxes, and hot dogs. In a ridiculously short space of time, the venture has nabbed plaudits from TheTaste.ie (that’s us, by the way), Irish Times, Sunday Independent, and McKenna’s Guide. The box itself, says Chad, has its pros and cons, the latter mostly involving storage room.
“All kitchen equipment is usually square or rectangular,” he explains. “When you have such limited space and when 30% of that space is curved, it’s not the easiest for storage. Looking back, I was naïve enough to think that I’d just be cooking away and everything would be grand. A horsebox, however, will hold food and containers for about 50 people max, so realistically you’re going to need some kitchen space and prep kitchen space right beside you. If you don’t, you’re in trouble regarding food costs and other financial outlays such as wages, insurance, and so on. In other words, if you’re only serving 50 people per day then you’re not making money, so it’s something of a pointless exercise.”
In parallel with the Hungry Donkey, Chad continues to work at The Brehon Hotel. His day starts at around 5am, when he decides what specials to conjure up for the truck. “Myself and the two chefs I work with would go through the choices, make them up, and have a taste test. We make sure we’re happy with them and that we can cook them fast – that’s central because if you can’t cook the food quickly then people won’t come back, and that’s the reality of it. When that’s sorted, I come into The Brehon and start my day there. When that’s done I head back to the Hungry Donkey. That’s virtually seven days a week. What can I say? Cooking is a vocation.”
And what about the differences in the fare devised and cooked in the truck and the food that, as Executive Chef, he prepares and cooks at The Brehon? Chad has little time for such questions, and he’s right. “Good food is good food, simple as that, and if the customers trust the chef then that’s all that matters. The Brehon and many other hotels like it have a certain customer demographic, a certain marketing strategy. They know what their customers want and they provide that brilliantly. The Hungry Donkey has its own client base, too. As I say, good food is good food, so for me, it’s a win-win.”
We circle back to Chad’s “topsy-turvey” year, and what it has been like for him. “Like so many people, there have been ups and downs,” he admits. “The latter was being out of work last year, but the former included spending time with my daughters and then volunteering and working online promoting different parts of our industry.”
The most significant thing Chad has learned in the past year or so “is not to sweat the small stuff anymore. I now know what’s truly important, and if I can maintain the balance of time for my family and time for work for the next year or two then that will be great. I have a target, and I’ll work my socks off to achieve it. I think what many people learned from Covid is that there’s a bigger picture out there, and I for one now have a much better perspective on life.”
WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA
Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland