When Grainne O’Keefe was 15, her future ambitions weren’t extravagant or outlandish. She wanted a few moderately achievable things to occur in her life: to be happy, to live somewhere pleasant and decent with good friends, and to be gainfully employed as a chef.
That hat-trick has been achieved but not without hard graft and personal sacrifice. “My work ethic is probably one of my most important attributes,” she says, “and it’s gotten me where I am today. I’m focused and passionate to a fault – I focus 95% on my career and try to pull the rest of my life together with the remaining five.”
Currently Head Chef at Clanbrassil House and Culinary Director at BuJo Burger Joint, it’s fair to say that Grainne’s achievements have been hard won. She paints the picture and its background scenes with extraordinarily well-defined brush strokes, creating vivid images that will be familiar to people who grew up in busy households that couldn’t afford to visit restaurants. “Any meals out of the house were usually a basket of cocktail sausages and chips from the pub. I can still recall the sickness that follows a day of eating crisps and drinking red lemonade.”
Grainne says she grew up with “basic” food and “generally didn’t look forward to eating dinner at home.” Her sister, standing on a kitchen chair shoved tight by the stove, would often make spaghetti bolognese, spooning in sauce from a jar. “I remember seeing on TV that you could make your own tomato sauce for pasta… I was shocked at how little I knew about food and how much I wanted to learn.” On a separate level, she sensed the structure of a kitchen – its organisation, its rules, its teamwork – appealed, somewhat ironically, to her. “Growing up, I didn’t go to bed at a certain time, didn’t eat breakfast, and pretty much did what I wanted up until I moved out at 17. Working in kitchens gave me the discipline that I needed to progress in life past a certain point.”
She had “dreamt for years” of eating somewhere swish like Chapter One, but didn’t have the money. When she was in her first year of college, however, she pushed the financial boat out and booked a table at Ross Lewis’s exquisite arena of the senses. “That meal was a big deal for me,” she admits, and you can sense the evocative authenticity of her words. “In a strange way, I guess eating in restaurants is about far more than just the food or experience to me – it constantly reminds me that you can achieve anything you want if you put the work in.”
The effort continued during and after college with stints in smart, high-end restaurants such as Il Segreto (RIP), The Merrion, Pichet, and Bastible. What crucial life and career lessons did she learn while working in these places? The first arrived quickly enough: that she was going to have to work the cotton socks off her feet if she wanted to succeed. Grainne drags up the unwelcome memory of being in college full-time, and working full-time, and not having two 50 cent coins to rub together. “I remember having to walk home from work late at night because I couldn’t afford the bus, and I vowed to never be in that situation again. Having nothing to fall back on was terrifying, and failure just wasn’t an option.”
Another essential lesson and turning point was the understanding that she didn’t need to please everyone. In her late teenage years and early 20s, she remarks, she cared much more about what people thought of her and her career. Latterly, however, “there are a select few people whose opinions matter to me, and I learned to just not care what the rest think. This gave me more freedom to be creative and make choices that would benefit me personally instead of making choices for the benefit of others.”
Steadfast in her opinions, assured in her choices, Grainne’s titanium-like backbone was clearly forged at an early, developmental age. She says she has never really taken well to “people telling me what to do” and that she is staunchly independent. “It took me a long time to realise that asking for help of any kind is not a weakness but a strength. When I was younger in the kitchen I would lift massive stock pots on my own just to prove that I could, that I didn’t need the lads to help me. Eventually, I realised this was incredibly stupid and that a bad back wouldn’t be a good look.”
She also isn’t in any way fearful of people. “Having some angry man shouting at me about lamb would go right over my head. I will always stand up to people and tell them what I think of them. As a chef, however, especially when you’re young, this can go against you and be seen as a flaw.” In what appears to be the best life lesson of them all, Grainne’s observation that “surrounding yourself with good people translates to all aspects of life” is so on the money it should win the Euromillions jackpot. “I always completely cut out toxic people, both in my personal life and professional life.”
The add-on here is her personal, subjective key to success. In parallel with her durable mantra of working hard is “working with the right people. By that, I mean people who genuinely want you to succeed and who will help you achieve your goals.” Success as the end result is different for every chef, she adds. “The goals keep changing. Success seems like an end goal, but I don’t think I’ll ever see myself as having achieved it.” Why is that? Because once you reach the end, she posits, what comes next? “Do you just stop?” she asks with as much an exclamation as a question mark. “I’ll never stop working towards something.” This is what it all boils down to: as in every aspect of life, you get out of it what you put into it. As far as Grainne is concerned, anyone who thinks different is wrong, wrong, a thousand times wrong.
The spectre of the times that are in it looms large, and so an obligatory question is asked: what are the biggest challenges facing her and Clanbrassil House this year? All restaurants, she says with a decisive tone, will struggle in 2021. “Covid-19 has destroyed the industry and it will take time to rebuild. The challenge is figuring out what is the best way to progress.” She doesn’t like to admit it, but she finds the thought of wishing away the rest of this year gloomy, to say the least. Which means she isn’t going to.
“Instead,” says Grainne O’Keefe, a person you’d definitely prefer to have on your side than not, “I’m creating positives. I’m also taking the opportunity to push myself, to figure out where I want to be in 10 years, and how do I get there.”
For further information: https://www.clanbrassilhouse.com/
WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA
Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland