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Hunger is key factor for young chefs

Aged 14, Carl Johannsen had caught the bug. He may have been young, but working in a Michelin-starred restaurant, the teenager quickly realised where his future lay. Spending all his weekends and spare time working in the Peat Inn near St Andrew’s, he eventually went full-time when he turned 16.

“I decided that cooking was what I wanted to do,” said the head chef of the Bar+Grill at James Street South.

“I moved to Glasgow and went to university to do Hospitality Management and worked in a restaurant called Rogano during that whole time.”

He spent a further three years working at the luxury hotel Gleneagles before spending a year travelling, taking in South-East Asia and Australia. A further year was spent in Nantucket, a small island 30 miles south of Cape Cod before he came to Belfast in 2001 when his girlfriend of the time wanted to move home.

“I went to St George’s Market Exchange for about three years but it wasn’t really my thing – the market downstairs was brilliant but the clientele was all show clientele and pre-theatres – a busy Saturday night and that was about it.”

After spending six years with Botanic Inns, he travelled to France, Spain and Italy where he spent eight months driving with a tent in the back of his car, visiting wineries.

“A lot of people asked me what I was going to do driving around the wineries of France, and I didn’t really know what my main aim was but I did it and I learned a little bit more wine.

“But I also ate in amazing restaurants, worked in some amazing restaurants in the south of France and it’s just an education that you just can’t get anywhere else. You have to get out and you have to do it. If you’re young and hungry to do well, go to America, London, Asia. Go there, see it and do it.”

Johannsen was born Swedish but moved to Switzerland then Guernsey before settling in Scotland aged nine. The family moved so often because they went where the work was for his boat-building father.

As someone who became engrossed in the world of food at an early age, he believes that young people need to have that drive and enthusiasm if they’re going to make it in the industry.

“We have a couple of good young guys here at the minute. Aaron started in here and he’s now in next door with Niall for a while; he’s amazing for an 18-year-old. Another guy called Kevin is 19 and they have the want to do it, and they’re willing to put the hours in and to stay extra to see more and learn more.

“One of the problems is that everyone saw a TV programme with Jamie Oliver sliding down a staircase and driving a moped around London and he has millions in the bank, but that doesn’t happen that often in this industry.

“I’ve been in the industry 20 years now and you see people that shouldn’t be here, but there’s also youngsters who come in and don’t have the right drive for it. They don’t ask the right questions, to them it’s all about their time off. I think at a very young age, you have to say to yourself that you’re not going to get many weekends off and you have to try and forget about it, that’s one of the hurdles you have to get over. Once you’re over it you’re fine.

“The whole thing is about food, but it’s your mind-set to it too. In 20 years I’ve never had enough, I’ve never wanted to stop learning or try something different. Sometimes it goes wrong, sometimes it goes perfectly right.”

And with the Bar+Grill at James Street South open over a year now, Johannsen believes the restaurant hit the right market at the right time.

“I think we’re going through a phase now where everyone wants comfort food. I don’t know if it’s financial pressures but people want a really good meal at a certain price and they very rarely venture out of that and I think we’ve hit the market perfectly with that, whether that comfort food thing carries on I don’t know.

“The way I look at it – we’re like old faithful, people will say they’re going to try this or try that but more times than not over the period of a year they’ll eat more here than they will anywhere else and that’s what we’re aiming for.”

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