Journeys in Taste Interview with Hazel Chu
“Pasta! I cook a lot of pasta mainly because I have a three-and-a-half-year-old who loves her pasta. My mum frowns about this and asks me why am I not making her rice. But she likes pasta, so what can you do? I grew up with a lot of rice, and many dishes that had rice, so I came not to like it. I passed that on to my daughter. Aside from pasta, I cook a lot of noodles because I love them and I cook them fresh if I have the time. Right now I have a chicken broth on that has been slow-cooking for 12 hours, and I’m hoping to make some dumplings from scratch to go with it.”
By the time you read this, Hazel Chu will have vacated Dublin’s Mansion House and will no longer be Lord Mayor of Dublin, but such uprooting won’t stop her from continuing to do the best she can to make the world a better place to live in. In the meantime, between one gig and the next, we are talking – as they sing in Oliver! – food, glorious food. Hazel’s background is steeped, soaked, drizzled and drowned in kitchens, she says. She grew up in them, she admits.
“I would have been sitting on a bag of rice doing my homework while my parents worked in their first chip van and then their first takeaway. I was working at every job in the kitchen, from being a dishwasher and the feather plucker to doing the packing and then cooking. So, yes, you could say I’m quite well acquainted with the kitchen.” Was there anything she had to do that she really didn’t like? Two words: grease traps. “I didn’t like cleaning them out, not my favourite thing at all, to be honest with you.” Everything else was fine, she says, pragmatically. “You grow up in the environment of a commercial kitchen and so you do it all.”
Of course, from such a young age are characters formed, personalities defined, inherent disciplines forged. When Hazel looks back on these formative years she sees the hard work involved, yes, but also how well the lifestyle trained her for the future. “Some people would say that I didn’t get to do as a child what other kids would do, but I got to a lot more in that by the age of 16 I knew how to run a restaurant business, I knew how to cook and I knew every ingredient that went into a dish. It was mainly because it was part of home – when my parents were working late they made sure I was with them, and even when my brother was born he would be looked after by a childminder and I would be working in the kitchen with my mam and dad. That was natural for me.”
One might have thought the foundational experiences of knowing how to run a restaurant would have paved the way for a career in the food industry, but Hazel’s mother had other ideas. “My mammy’s background and story are not any bit unusual for most migrants. They come here, they meet here, they work hard, they build a business and sometimes their sons or daughters take over their businesses. In a lot of cases, however, what will happen is – especially with migrant families, and you can see this all over the world – they want their children to do something else. It’s funny, but in the past 15/20 years, ever since I started making money, I would take my mum out to restaurants to try out different foods, and she always found it odd that people worked in the area more as a vocation. Even though she loved cooking, the restaurant was a business for her; she knew what to do in order to make a living from it, cooking was just a means to an end. When she came to Ireland, what she wanted was for me to get an education and a different career path.” Cue studying politics and history at UCD and then a legal diploma and barrister-at-law degree at King’s Inn. “When I said I was going to be a lawyer, she was delighted. When I said I was going to be a politician, she was definitely less delighted! Her thing is that a stable job is good.”
Speaking of stability, with restaurants now back and functioning as fully as they can under present pandemic restrictions – and now that Hazel has, perhaps, a little bit more time on her busy hands – where will be she be heading to for an (ever so slight) return to normality? Number one, she says, not even having to think for a micro-second, is Chapter One.
“Without sounding super posh or notion-y, I really want to go back there. I can’t afford to be a regular customer but for a special treat I love to go to Chapter One, and it’s not because it’s a Michelin star place – it’s because the team there are lovely. Next? In Lahinch, Co Clare, there’s a gorgeous pub that I can’t recall the name of, but it’s on the main street across the road from the hotel. When I used to go surfing I would go in there and have the most incredible seafood chowder. I love seafood and I love a really good seafood chowder, so after being battered about in the Atlantic on the surfboard, there was something about going into a warm pub and having a bowl of their amazing chowder. And then there’s Easkey, Co Sligo, and Pudding Row. I used to drive from Lahinch to Strandhill and then to Easkey for their cakes.”
And what about closer to home? Hazel suppresses a laugh. “Is it okay to say that I’d love to go to my mother’s restaurant for a meal? I haven’t been able to do that for a long time! She has been able to do only takeaway and more recently outside dining, but I feel bad going along to sit outside because I’m taking up a seat for a customer. But, yes, I’d love to go to Hakka Choi in Monkstown and eat dumplings. And my final choice is Michael’s Mount Merrion, because this year Gaz Smith has been really good to us, a trooper. Any time we have received online abuse he’s right there, and he also feeds us, so that’s great.”
WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA
Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland