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'On my first day I chopped off my thumb': 3fe's Hilary O'Hagan Brennan shares 5 things she's learned

Hilary has worked in “every element” of the food industry, and is now executive chef with 3fe and Five Points.

HILARY O’HAGAN BRENNAN IS a powerhouse in the Irish food industry.

It’s not just her CV (she’s executive chef with 3Fe and Five Points in Dublin’s Harold’s Cross) or her public accolades (she featured on RTÉ’s What Are You Eating? and was named Food&Wine Magazine’s Rising Star last year) that make her stand out from the rest.

Hilary has worked in every part of the industry and despite some initial trepidation, she has a long-held passion for food:

I went to college and did hospitality and business management, but I always wanted to do the cooking thing. I remember Marco Pierre-White and Gordon Ramsay and those kind of guys were on the TV at that time and they terrified me! I thought there was no way I wanted to do that, it looked awful.

After going away to college, then later leaving her job and taking up a role in a kitchen, Hilary’s “back door” journey to cooking began. She worked her way up, putting hours in at a wedding catering company, a few bistros, and even stages in Michelin restaurants like Dublin’s Chapter One.

“I’ve done every element of cooking in that respect,” says Hilary, who is one of the team behind the new 3fe cafe, Daniel, on Dublin’s Clanbrassil St. “Now I cook for a company that essentially serves coffee and brunch and we are really passionate about our food.”

Despite a career change early on, Hilary’s business management background has stood to her:

My job as executive chef, or the logistics of it, is a lot like what I studied in college. My job is less about cooking now and more about development, developing the food brand with 3fe across all their cafés, and also hiring staff and training them.

So what has she learned along the way? Well, these five things, to start with…

1. Not all chefs start out as chefs

You don’t have to take the traditional route into cooking, going to college and then starting as a commis. You can take a different direction into it. A really good example is our head chef in Five Points, Katy, who studied veterinary nursing before doing the Ballymaloe three-month course. We just trained her up and within a year she was running the kitchen. Her food is amazing.

2. You will make mistakes (like chopping your thumb off)

“On my very first day, I was chopping veg and I was so nervous I chopped the top of my thumb off. My first ever boss still reminds me of it to this day when I meet him! It is good if you find someone who believes in you and is able to help you. He took a chance on me, but knew that I was hungry for it and that I would work really hard.”

3. Kindness gets the best out of people

I’ve worked with different personalities over the years. I’ve always found kindness is the best way. You always get the best out of people. There’s lots to navigate when you’re working in a kitchen, and the energy is different depending on the mix.

4. There’s no room for sexism in the kitchen

“I have been in situations in the kitchen that have been very male dominated and the jokes and things could be sexist at times and I just stuck my head down. These days, I know that’s not acceptable and that I don’t agree with it at all. You can still have fun and conviviality but it doesn’t have to be at the cost of women. There are certain circumstances that I regret not speaking up when comments were made or when someone was being picked on, but I was young. Don’t be afraid to speak up for the right things.”

5. Skip the 16-hour days every once in a while 

“Don’t be afraid to take a break and say, ‘I need a break from this’. I don’t work a 16-hour day anymore. I don’t work weekends all the time. I take holidays and time off – and I mean time off that is relaxing and recuperating rather than going out every night. I come back feeling refreshed. It’s a really long game and this industry is all-consuming so it’s important to mind yourself.

More: ‘If I opened this restaurant in Japan, it wouldn’t be unique’: Cork chef Takashi Miyazaki

More: ‘My idea of vegan food before was just loads of pulses’: Food writer Holly White>

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About the author:

Dee Laffan

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