With an illustrious culinary career spanning over 25, Thomas Haughton has seen food in Ireland go from strength to strength.
Now the executive chef at Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links in Dublin, Thomas has previously worked at some of Ireland and the UK's finest establishments, including Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud and The K Club. Having seen Ireland go through a culinary renaissance over recent years, we decided to chat with Thomas about Irish food trends, our food scene and what's next for his career.
As you have been working in the industry for so long, what food trends have you seen come and go throughout the years?
"The biggest thing I've seen is a change in the attitude towards food. We don’t accept poor quality anymore, even from retailers like Aldi the food is much better quality now.
We have cracking people cooking in this country that are absolutely comparable to those working across the pond. The quality of food in Ireland is gathering momentum and we are now so good. The most important focus is on key ingredients: If you use a fresh piece of fish, it has to be the focus and it has to be really good. People care about that more now.
Another thing I've noticed is that people really know to cook food properly these days. It’s so basic and simple, but being able to cook with confidence is so important. Young chefs now are more exposed to information online and that’s how they gain confidence.
And then, of course, where do you start with Irish ingredients? We have some of the best ingredients in the world, bar none. I work closely with my suppliers, like Keelings to get stuff as locally as possible, usually within a five-mile radius if possible. There are guys in Swords growing their own cherries, so we’ve put them on the menu. We get some things from the west and our salmon from Killary. Our burgers come from Rick Higgins, who is a genius with meat and so passionate. All of our suppliers are so passionate and obsessed with quality, which is what helps the dish to deliver. Guests will always remember fresh, key ingredients.
We get really fresh Lambay crab and mackerel, it makes such a difference. We can actually see Lambay here from the hotel so it’s nice to know where it’s coming from. Tourists are our main market and they want to see provenance on the menu and hear the story."
What's next for you and the hotel?
"We have several different outlets here so we can accomodate everyone, from bar food to fine dining. We’re looking to make the Seaview Lounge our main restaurant and we’ve moved it upstairs so that our guests can see the amazing view of the bay while we're eating. We’re hoping to do dinners in collaborations with other chefs and with vineyards too. I want to focus on developing the menu and bringing it up a few notches."
There's a huge chef shortage here in Ireland and restaurants are starting to struggle. Tell us your thoughts about this issue.
"We have a very solid, fantastic team here, which is a big compliment to how the hotel is run, we’re very fortunate. These are tough times to try and get staff in the hospitality industry. Every day you hear of more places opening up and it’s so tough because we don't have enough chefs and people are getting burned out. In our hotel, we have people here that are happy here and they have stayed here because we’re respectful of everyone and we make sure everyone tries to stick to a reasonable 40 hour week. These are the things that benefit staff and help them to stay for longer.
The government need to get working visas and permits for people from abroad. We need to set a standard for people coming over so that we can keep up staff levels. We don’t have the staff here and, so far, the government haven't really helped. There’s a guy in Roscommon selling his restaurant because he can’t get the staff, which is something you’re going to see happening more and more. Or you’ll see people start to open for fewer hours. We’ll have to condense our teams to try and cover the days we’re open. The government need to let us look beyond our shores for staff. There are so many people out there with great training and they would be happy to come here for good money and to be treated well."
Find out more about Portmarnock Hotel & Golf links here.