Journeys in Taste Interview with Chef Daniel Lambert

The truism ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ couldn’t be more valid for chef Daniel Lambert. In January 2020, he was a finalist in the 2020 Dairy Chef contest. Organised by the French Embassy in Ireland, over 20 candidates submitted three-course menus that celebrated the best of Irish and French dairy produce. Ten ambitious chefs, grouped in teams of two, were to prepare menus for a cook-off scheduled for early April 2020. We certainly know what happened next, don’t we?

“I had to find something to keep me busy,” says the very likeable Daniel, who sure knows how to talk, “because to go from working 12-14 hour days to doing nothing is a big shock. If you’re on holidays that fine, but it wasn’t a holiday so the downtime started to take its toll on me. I’d try to keep busy, go on walks and so on, but all I know how to do, all I like to do, is cook food.”

A year later? The last time we checked, Daniel has become what we can safely say is a TikTok sensation – he has almost 300,000 followers on the social media platform  and almost three million likes on his videos. How did this happen? The girlfriend is how it happened.

“She introduced me to TikTok! Back then, all I knew about it was that it had loads of annoying songs and dances. I downloaded the app onto my phone just to see what all the fuss is about, wasn’t too impressed, and was just about to delete it when I came across some videos where people, chefs, were cooking. They were messing around, though, and didn’t seem to be doing it properly. That gave me the idea of making some short videos and uploading them. Initially, it wasn’t serious, but then it did. I started videoing food hacks and when they were uploaded they went viral, getting over 1m views.”

Cue enquiries about the provision of online content for radio stations. Cue supermarket chains contacting him for sponsorship, brands seeking him out for collaborative work, getting signed to an agency. More recently, he has been talking to television stations and programme makers and has been doing screen tests for potential shows. “To be honest,” he says with a marked degree of understatement, “it has been crazy.”

At this point, we’d be writing something along the lines of ‘far from it he was raised’, ‘hasn’t time flown by’ or some other such things, but very little time has elapsed since Daniel was studying at the renowned Killybegs School of Tourism. Currently attached to Donegal town’s Harvey’s Point Hotel (for which he has much admiration: “I love cooking there, being in the kitchen with the team and all the positive people that surround me”), there is nonetheless a tough decision to be made “next year as to whether I’ll need to take a different route. If Covid hadn’t happened, I know there’s no way I’d be doing what I’m doing now. It’s so ironic, but it changed my life – for the better.” 

Decisions and changes are all part of life’s rich fabric, of course, but Daniel’s love of fine dining has, over the past year, taken a different path. For the moment, he is allowing his online audience to dictate their preferences to him, rather than the other way around. Many people might cringe at this, but as we will see there is a method in such an approach. 

“Because of TikTok, and the audience I have on the platform, fine dining just doesn’t work. I tried it once or twice, but soon discovered that what the vast majority of people want are quick, snappy, easy to do meals and videos. It’s far removed from fine dining, I agree, but what I’ve gradually done is to introduce the audience to different kinds of food – nutritious home cooking, potato dishes and food hacks like showing people how to make homemade ice cream without having to use an ice cream machine.”

Daniel is no fool. Yes, he started off last year as the chef who deep-fried breakfast chicken rolls because he viewed what he was doing as more content creation than anything else, designed to capture follows, likes and all kinds of happy-looking emojis. He says he “definitely wouldn’t eat some of the food I cook for TikTok videos” (phew!) yet knows that because of what he cooked and shot videos of, his “audience views went into the millions and brands were coming in.”

Such a marketing/branding approach isn’t for everyone, of course, but it seems that Daniel has located the sweet spot between passion and ambition – with a side order of canny online promotion abilities. His description of such a blend? “A kind of beautiful chaos.” He has, of course, youth on his side (we’re guessing he’s in his mid-20s), and we’d hazard a guess that very well-known, older chefs would love to have a similar innate understanding of such a successful online business model. He recalls pre-pandemic time spent at Neven Maguire’s MacNean House & Restaurant at Blacklion, Co Cavan. I ask him might he also have been inspired by Maguire’s savvy self-promotional skills as much as the man’s cooking talents. “I knew that Neven was on social media and had a strong television presence, but I never really thought I’d do something like that. Back then, it was just working in a kitchen, aiming towards a head chef position, but now it’s a completely different path.”

Which is, we are informed, less about deep-fried breakfast chicken rolls and more about much healthier food. As with pretty much everything Daniel has been doing in the past 12 months, there is a cunning plan. “I’m in the process of enhancing my YouTube channel, and on that particular platform I’m going to be teaching people how to cook restaurant-quality fine dining food with simple ingredients. I reckon with the growth of the following I have on TikTok I’ll be able to bring some of that audience over to YouTube. I’m looking at it in the same way as I built up the following on TikTok, and once I hit about 500,000 followers I’ll have much more of a showcase for fine dining.”

There is a digital marketing term for that, isn’t there, Daniel? “Yes, it’s called cross-platform migration,” he says. There’s a pause, which is unusual because, as we have said, this chef knows how to talk. “Actually,” he adds, recovering quickly, “I didn’t know what that meant a year ago!”

WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA

Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland

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