Sunday, 25 November 2018

Time Out from My Little French Kitchen

C'est La Vie en France

The end of the first half of my 3rd year adventure is soon approaching, and it is time for my final blog post from the South of France. Even though the whole reason for being here is the work, travelling to new places, meeting new people and tasting new food is what will really leave a mark. So, for my final French update I shall be sharing what I have been getting up to when the apron is off!

The location of Chateau L’Hospitalet, where I work and live, is far away from anything else. It’s a 15-20minute drive to the nearest town, which costs up to €35 in a taxi. The roads aren’t safe to walk or cycle on either, so it is tricky to get around. However (for my sanity) I made a pact with myself to bite the bullet and reluctantly pay for the trip to the train station every second week. I make the most of my little weekends away and manage to keep myself busy whenever I do stay here too!

The weekends I stay here are filled with hiking and relaxation. A walk through the vineyard brings you to the beginning of a gorgeous trek called ‘La Clape’. I have spent hours upon hours exploring the route, which overlooks the never-ending stretch of vineyards below, framed by the Mediterranean Sea and sunny blue skies. Having access to a route like that at my doorstep has made for some pretty amazing Monday morning scenes!


Whenever I make the effort to leave the hotel at the weekend, I usually make the most of it and take a train to a nearby town and stay overnight. This has brought me to thoroughly explore the brilliant city of Montpellier inside and out. Montpellier is seen as the capital of the Languedoc region and is a hub for students and creative young people. The winding side streets are filled with gorgeous restaurants, cafés and bars. It is the home to many artists and creators which is visible through the stunning workshops and colourful craft stores that brighten up the cobbled streets. The main square, Comédie, is always bustling with people, which is a stark contrast to the peaceful surroundings of my vineyard home! There will be Christmas markets soon which I will hopefully get to see too.


One of the highlights of my stay here has been a visit from my mother and aunty. I took a week off work and hopped into their rental car to stay with them in their Carcassonne apartment. Carcassonne is one of France’s most visited cities outside of Paris. It is small enough, but the highlight is undoubtedly La Cité, the UNESCO world heritage protected walled old city. Its tragic history now makes for an utterly interesting trip. Exploring Carcassonne off-season allows for a more comprehensive meander through La Cité, but most restaurants and places are shut down. That didn’t stop us from getting some great food though!

Having the rental car granted us the opportunity to visit places which would otherwise have been inaccessible. We visited the unusual but gorgeous streets of Pézenas and the port town of Sète. One of my favourite trips was to Lastours, home to four stunning castles, built together on a hilltop. A hike to the top gave for some pretty incredible views.




Eating out is the best treat in France. I have been lucky enough to try some of the most amazing local produce, and of course, wine. A trip to the Saturday morning Carcassonne market was a really special experience. Place Carnot, the little square in the ‘new town’ was filled with a rainbow sea of fruits, vegetables, breads, charcuterie, cheese, shellfish and more. Choosing the best of everything and cooking an entire meal using only local products was amazing. Nothing but quality, freshness and flavour!

Back at work, I have really noticed a huge improvement in my culinary skills and in my French. I won’t say it hasn’t all been a huge challenge, but I know it’ll be worth it. The past few weeks has made me a little clearer on what direction I want to take with my career too, as I have been looking into my interests with sustainable and ethical living much more, and have had the time to start my own blog ( ).

So that brings me to the end of my final French blog. If you are considering Chateau L’Hospitalet as a place for you placement I would really recommend it for pastry. However, I would be adamant about the lack of facilities and access to transport, being stuck here some weekends and feeling a bit lonely won’t suit everyone. I also recently had to move into smaller accommodation so no longer have access to a fridge/microwave which limits eating options at the weekends. Other than that, don’t let the speaking French issue put you off. If you have the basics and learn some kitchen vocab, common sense and practice will see you by. Wherever you go and whatever you do, challenge yourself and do something a bit different. This year is all about finding your own feet and learning as much as you can.

That’s it for now. I am off to Venlo in the Netherlands to study in February so shall be sharing my experience of that soon. Thanks for reading!
À toute à l'heure!

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Believe in the Slieve

Believe in the Slieve

Here I am once again writing about my journey at the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa. This time I am finding it quite difficult to figure out how to start off so Ill just dive straight into the work.

I have been trained in all areas of the kitchen which means it’s not too uncommon that I don’t know where I’ll be when I rock into work.  I tend to do a lot of shifts in the Lighthouse Lounge now that its main chef is away. This is a kitchen where you work alone. During the day it is simple foods like sandwiches soups and pasta's, easy comfort food for the soul. Each day you get to put on a special which depending on how busy it was the previous day can be really fun or a nightmare. Working alone in a kitchen however is not ideal as I feel you need someone to bounce off of in a kitchen especially when it's busy and stressful. Thankfully all the front of house in the Lighthouse are sound and fun to work with otherwise you would probably be driven demented (well me personally as I crave human contact). It is however enjoyable running your own kitchen even if you’re the only one that works it. After 6 it turns in to a Tapas menu which is easy and quick to knock up.

If I am not working the Lighthouse I am either on starters or thrown on to mains with either Iowana (who makes the nicest hotpot you will ever taste) or Donavan. I do enjoy both of these sections a great deal more than the lighthouse solely because of the company and feeling of comradery. I also feel I learn a great deal more in these sections as it is a fine dining restaurant and each dish must be presented as such.

I also fill in for Robert and Kat on pastry whenever I’m needed which is always nerve-racking but exciting as this is by far the busiest section in the kitchen. I never thought I’d say it but I kind of love pastry. I have learned so much from Robert and Kat with regards to pastry that I will forever remember and for that I am grateful. Robert has a great eye for presentation and has helped me become better even if it was just through competitiveness and Kats skills for bashing this out amazes me and they are always done to a high standard.

Lastly, we can’t forget about functions. The Slieve Donard is renowned for its functions. Last month we catered for the hospitality awards which was a function for 430 guests. This was funner than you’d expect, having all hands on deck in the Ansley room plating up what felt like a million trios of starters or poor Robert writing chocolate on all those plates for Chocolate domes. I believe it was the sense of accomplishment that made it all worthwhile. Now that we have managed to make it to November it has thankfully calmed down (a bit) and we generally only do a couple of functions a week. Working up here is crazy you do and an average of 40 hours a week but this can easily be bumped up by an extra day here and there or staying on late to help out. Saying that though I love it and wouldn’t change it for the world. Thank god Germany didn’t work out because I honestly don’t think I would be learning and doing half as much as I am here.

Okay, now that the business part is over we can discuss the people of the Slieve Donard. I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for the amazing people working in the Slieve my time here would not be half as good. I truly feel like I have made some great friends here that I will actually miss when I leave. I  have to give an honorable mention to my husband to be Eugene Rooney, one of the wedding coordinators here who is not only good at his job but also a pleasure to be around. Unfortunately, I cannot possibly list all the names of the people that I love because this blog would go on for far too long and I have already rambled enough. We have also lost quite a few members of our team since I have started here which is just the nature of the hospitality business but it does tend to affect staff moral such as when Ray left the bar for bigger and brighter things. Such is life I suppose. The hospitality industry has always been a mixing pot for different cultures, we work with many Spanish people and I also live with a couple of polish people so now I can successfully curse in 4 different languages if that’s not a win I don’t know what is.

 Lastly, I would like to discuss the beautiful scenery of Newcastle Co. Down where the Mournes meet the sea. It is honestly so picturesque up here and living in the staff house here means that the beach is my back garden and the mountains are only a quick stroll away. My favorite thing to do here (other than Quinn’s) is to go to the beach be it morning, noon or night. There’s something about having the sand between my toes that just relieves any stress that was ever built up inside me. Myself and Robert also managed to get a day off together, which is extremely rare so we packed a picnic and headed off up the mountains in our skinny jeans and doc’s. we didn’t manage to make it up the top due to extreme winds but we did get half way up to Narnia, played with some sheep, explored an old ice hut and had a picnic at a waterfall so in my eyes that was a perfect trip to the mountains.

I believe that is all for now, thank you for reading my rambles and hey if you only skimmed it I don’t blame you. Farewell, auf wiedersehne, do widzenia, adios agus slan, Saoirse.

P.S Sorry for my terrible photo placement I am not great with technology. Believe in the Slieve, peace out.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Shake Up at the Slieve.

Shake Up at the Slieve.
So it has been about 4 months since I last updated you guys on the situation at the Slieve Donard Resort and spa. A lot can change in 4 months. If I come across as negative in this blog post it's unintentional as I am still enjoying my time here, but without a doubt, it's become less enjoyable than portrayed in my last blog.

A lot has changed in the hotel as a whole. The Kitchen has had a new executive chef start by the name of Kelan McMichael. Which is fantastic and is teaching us new techniques and he has also really improved the HACCP standard and cleanliness of the kitchen. Which before he started was pretty bad. Kelan is great and has a great passion for cooking with local products and I think the standard of food has risen as a whole. Between the executive and head chef, they have drafted a new restaurant menu, lighthouse lounge menu, and afternoon tea menu, all that has been implemented thus far is the afternoon tea menu which has had a drastic overhaul. Which in my eyes was needed.
As with all of the hospitality sector, there has been a massive turnover of staff throughout the hotel, especially in the kitchen. This is due to illness and just working conditions in general which is a massive problem as more people leave the conditions and hours get worse causing the effect to snowball, also people are very unhappy with the rate of pay, which I would also be but as a student I’m glad to be being paid hourly and not just given a token paycheck.  But I’m lucky as pastry has only lost one person since I started and to be honest it wasn’t much of a loss. But something is going to have to be done about the staff shortages, God help them when the three of us leave after Christmas .
Another positive to happen to the hotel was the hiring of a new general manager, Michael Weston, he along with Kelan seem to want to change what the staff have become accustomed to and change the hotel for the better. Mr Weston met with all the staff in a meeting to introduce himself and to hear what the staff wanted to change about the hotel.  He's a great manager and is very charismatic, his hiring has left an overall sense of ease in the hotel and I believe the hotel is working a lot better.
I’m sure a lot more has changed but I can’t really think of any more. The constants are still there. We are still doing functions for a ridiculous amount of people probably the craziest was the northern Ireland travel and tourism awards which we catered for 450 guests all being served at once. We physically didn’t have enough space in the kitchen to plate up the 450 desserts so we had to use the Ansley room which is a large conference room close to the kitchen. The dessert chosen for the function was a Bushmills and honeycomb chocolate mousse which in itself is tricky to make but to make 450 of them is especially tricky. The only way I could capture the sheer scale of the production was in a panorama photo. but saying that it was probably the smoothest and well-organised function the hotel pulls off as all sections are focused on a single function as the rest of the hotel is pretty much closed. it was by far my favorite function to work for. heres a little taste of what the night was like for the guests

Other than that function we are slightly winding down with functions with only maybe one or two a week (compared to maybe 8 during the summer months). November is always a slow month here and we are gearing up for the crazy Christmas period. Which I'm sure will be interesting. 
i have pretty much became the a la carte pastry chef and have changed the presentation to be in keeping with the rest of the menu. One of my favourites is the chocolate orange tart with orange and coconut ice-cream. which I do useing my old vinyl turntable.
I also get thrown into starters every now and again and really enjoy doing the amuse bouche which allows me to experiment a tad. below is compressed watermelon with crispy parma ham and feta cheese.

I’m excited to work on the new menu with hazel and Kelan whenever we do implement it and work through the plating and flovours.

Other than work its great since my last blog post we’ve got a new Ba student join us and another person to have adventures with. Working in the hastings group allows us to stay in the sister property’s for a greatly reduced price.  Áine, Sáoirse and myself stayed in the newly opened grand central hotel in Belfast and had a brilliant night. It’s great to see what the groups offer and the hotel is amazing. It’s also perfectly situated to head to see Shrek the musical and then enjoy Belfast’s nightlife and 90p drinks.

Of course I couldn’t live and work at the base of the Slieve Donard mountain and not go up at least once. It’s a magical place and I see how the Mournes inspired C.S. Lewis when creating Narnia. Unfortunately due to the wind and encroaching inclement weather we only got half way up the mountain. But it wasn’t a wasted day  we had a lovely little picnic beside the glen river waterfalls.

Other than that life is pretty sweet I work 5 or 6 days a week and take it easy on my days off 
In other news I’m officially accepted into the culinary management program in Humber College so that’s gonna be my next adventure after Christmas I just have to survive probably the most crazy Christmas of my life.
Until next time 
Rob Condren

Thursday, 8 November 2018

If only my teeth were as white as my legs in the winter… #BanffLife

Lake Louise October 2018

For those of you who just started following this blog but don’t know me I am Tom.  For the first part of my international year I choose the Fairmont Banff Springs Banff, Alberta, Canada. Like my colleague Derek I am also working as a pastry chef at this property. Banff is a town located in the heart of the Rockies in Banff National Park.
Since my last post we have seen quite a change in weather. The start of October brought approximately 40 cm of snow. This snowfall was unprecedented and broke records set back over 100 years. Autumn fell on a Tuesday, I think,  then straight into winter. Since the end of September, the day temperature has not reached above 10 degrees Celsius, most days barely above 0. The lowest night temperature so far has been around minus 16, with the average around 0 to minus 4. Preparing for winter comes at a significant cost, this is something you have to take into account before coming to the mountain region. You have to buy winter boots which cost me $180 and then your winter layers which can cost up to $800. A key thing to remember is one coat doesn’t suit everything. You have to have insulating, windbreakers and high-water resistance jackets. You also need thermals and fleeces. It is vital to have all these layers for maximum warmth.  If you want to do winter sports such as skiing, or snowboarding a season pass costs approximately $800 for a midweek pass (Monday to Thursday). This does not include equipment which can be rented or bought for additional costs. For example, a second-hand pair of skis can cost about $300. I decided not to buy a ski pass as I am only here till the start of January. Day passes with equipment rental costs about $150.
New Deck Oven with Sourdough 
The start of September brought a very different kitchen scene. Lots of colleagues left to go back to college or because their visas were up. This finally opened up the opportunity for overtime. Almost everyone in the pastry shop was doing six days, and overtime other days. This was great as it allowed me to save extra money and also made the time go a little quicker. I find the days seem to go slowly but the weeks fly by. The end of October gave me the opportunity to move into the overnight bake shop which was the only area of the pastry shop that I had not worked in yet. I was delighted to be given the opportunity as I am interested in breads and doughs. The bakeshop produces lots of different breads daily. These include brioche, ciabatta, sourdough, rye, baguettes and many more. The volumes of bread being produced is also vast. For example, we produce approximately 50 loaves of sourdough every day. I have learnt a lot about dough feel, different starters, breads and techniques. Working the bake shop shift challenges me as there is a lot more responsibility. Flipping my sleeping pattern also came as a challenge. This took a while to get used to and still causes difficulties especially after days off. I am enjoying working bakeshop and hope to stay here till I finish my internship, however, I would not do my entire placement on bakeshop as you can become very isolated in terms of having a social life. At the start of October, the bakeshop became a whole lot easier with the installation of a new deck oven (Which was meant to be installed in April). The deck oven contains four decks and increased our bread production from 12 loaves at a time to 48. This means that we can bake most of our bread for the day in two batches. It is very interesting to get used to using a deck oven. It requires a little more attention as they are not as sophisticated as other ovens in terms of technology. I have yet to use the deck oven for pastry items but according to my colleagues the end result is also of a very high quality.

The Walk to Banff Town Center September 2018

Sustainability is becoming a huge part of the hospitality industry. Recently one of my colleagues has embarked on an eco-ethical venture in the form of a platform called EachtBia ( venture aims to help change how we view the planet we live in, by adapting lifestyles to save it. It is our duty as chefs to take into consideration our practices and how our choices affect the food we produce. A part of Fairmont’s ethos is to promote the healthy and sustainable production of food. This involves sourcing produce locally from Alberta and surrounding provinces. They have also introduced targets for the reduction of waste being produced, this involves weighing all the food waste from the kitchens and recycling as much as possible. One recent change within Fairmont was the change from using non-degradable cloths to using bio degradable cloths produced entirely from flax plants. Although, these practices have been introduced Fairmont is like most other hospitality businesses where the customers want comes first. This means that seasonality is very lightly taken into consideration. A lot of the winter menus have been launched but still contain ingredients such as raspberries, cherries and other fruits that are not in season. These ingredients cannot be locally sourced so therefore the distance the food travels offset the locally sourced produce. It has to become acceptable not to have certain ingredients throughout the year.

Lake Louise before the Slip and Slide
One of the big advantages for working for Fairmont is the access to the benefits scheme. My benefits started the middle of September approximately 3 months after starting at Fairmont. As I am only on my internship till January the benefit scheme is particularly lucrative to me, as you get the same amount of benefits as staff that are permanent. Some of the benefits available are $230 towards glasses and contacts one pair of orthotics and matching shoes, $500 towards massage and chiropractor, $1500 towards physical therapy. As a resident in Alberta you automatically have free health care but the Fairmont benefits scheme covers any prescription you may need. If you are an employee for one year you become eligible for dental and hearing benefits.
Again, I can say the experience has its ups and downs but it is generally positive. I have  some new skills; however, I feel the smaller restaurant or hotel moves at a faster pace which keeps the adrenaline flowing. I miss having live service, where the buzz you get from working in this industry comes from. I still feel that quality can be passed in exchange for quantity in the larger hotel. I am enjoying the outdoors, but have learnt all about wearing the appropriate footwear for the season after a hike that ended up being a comic display of someone trying to stand on ice for the first time or discovery of the fact that being on your back is a great way to look at the sky. (I ended up sliding down the mountain on my backpack). I wasn’t deterred by this and am very excited to try out winter sports, I’ll just put mountain rescue on speed dial….

Sunday, 4 November 2018

My Canadian journey......

It’s hard to believe that my journey in Canada started just over 5 months ago. A journey in which I didn’t know what was in store. I’m so happy that I chose to come to Canada even though it has it up and its downs, it was the best decision I could have made.
Some people asked me before my departure if I was running away from my problems in Ireland. I didn’t really know what to answer them. I said I wanted a change, I need a break from this country. I feel sad when I say that, we shouldn’t get tired of the country and home we come from but sometimes change is good. I guess another big part of the reason why I wanted to come to Canada was the fact, since moving away from home for college I always wanted to go on a summer J1 which I never got that opportunity to partake in. I longed for the chance to just up and go and Canada was calling me.

Canada is such an open and accepting country. Being an openly gay man back home in Ireland sometimes scared me. Here absolutely nobody cares what your sexual orientation is, they care about you being the person you truly are. I recently attended my first ever gay pride in Calgary. It was such an amazing experience. The streets of down town Calgary were filled with all walks of life, so many families with their young children letting them embrace everything within the LGBTQ community.  The Canadians in general are so friendly, they go out of their way to say hello to you, to ask you how you day is going even if they know you or not. This is something you experience here at The Fairmont Banff Springs, everyone is friendly and caring know matter how busy or stressed other people may be. Something a lot of people back home I think need to learn. It doesn’t cost anything to be kind.

 The Summer Season at The Fairmont Banff Springs

Keeping busy here in Canada has made my time go quick. Summer here in Banff was amazing, endless hikes, canoeing and breath-taking scenery. The summer season here at The Fairmont Banff Springs was incredibly busy. There was never a dull day, with an average 95% occupancy just under 1400 guest per day every day of the season it truly was a busy summer. Working long hours is something that I’m very used to back at home, but over here there is a different attitude. The working hours within the culinary department are very strict, being only aloud work 8.5 hours a day with some 30-minute break 5 days a week with overtime having to be approved by a sous chef or executive chef. However, as business levels have significantly increased Since mid-July most of the pastry team have been working 6 days a week plus overtime hours. 

Alongside working at The Banff springs, at the start of July myself and fellow class mate Tom started working a second part time job at the Banff Gondola owned by Pursuit. Working with the Fairmont hours and pay it was hard to live comfortably and try save something on the side. We both decided that we needed a second job ASAP. We had a connection with somebody who worked with us in the pastry shop who got us the job. We both worked as a pot washer which didn’t bother us, a job is a job. It worked out that were coming out with an extra $1000+ every two weeks plus tips and that’s on top of our full-time wage. It was a great experience not everyone can say they have to take a gondola to work every day. Unfortunately, we had to quit that job as we discovered we couldn’t work for a second employer on the visas we have as it states our employer “Fairmont” as they sponsored our visas.

At the start of July, I was asked by the Junior Sous chef and Executive Pastry chef to create and execute from start to finish a new selection of pastries for the STOCK café which is in the lobby of the hotel.  Stock Food & Drink was recently renovated last year with a new alpine market feel with locally sourced farmed ingredients.  I’ve never been given an opportunity like this, I was hesitant and unsure at first. This opportunity did come with some back lash from other colleagues complaining that I was given an opportunity over somebody who had been here longer then I had. Complaining that they weren’t given the opportunity but at the same time not showing their own initiative to do such a task. Attitude which I don’t appreciate or like. I don’t like to be discouraged from achieving goals.

Blackberry &  Orange frangipan tart
Strawberry & Chocolate cheesecake
Chocolate sable 
Salted dulce de leche & Valrohna Manjari ganache eclair tart

Ireland will always be my home no matter where I go in the world, since moving to Canada its opened my eyes that the world is a big place with some many amazing opportunities waiting to be discovered. I haven’t really missed home that much except for a few things by dog, my mother and Irish produce especially dairy. I was so fortunate that my mother decided to come to Canada to visit me in august alongside my brother Chris and my best friend from home Sarah-May. Canada is somewhere my mother has always wanted to travel to but has never talking the opportunity to do so. I was so happy I could be a part of it.  We decided to do a bit of a road trip to see as much as we could in the time we had. We started our journey in Vancouver for two days before travelling on to whistler and Kamloops. Vancouver was the first city I landed into when I came to Canada, it’s a place I feel at home.                                   

                                                                       We then travelled to jasper from Kamloops where we stayed for two nights in a log cabin, checking out some of the incredible scenery jasper national park had to offer. We then drove to Banff stopping along the way to check out lake Louise and some other top sights. I wanted to spend as much time with my family as possible, showing them where I’ve called home for the last 5 months. it was such an amazing road tip see so much if this beautiful country. Seeing my family was a break from the constant work life of the past 5 months, a refreshing start.  It was hard to say goodbye again, but it won’t be long until I see them again. It’s not goodbye, it’s see you soon.

Canada is stealing my heart one piece at a time.

For now I think that's all I have for my Canadian journey, the next chapter awaits..............soon!