Chef Profile

Chef Profile Summer 2019: Dean Coppard, head chef of the Bachus Group’s Sweet Afton Bar & Kitchen

Dean Coppard, head chef of the Bachus Group’s Sweet Afton Bar & Kitchen, talks to HRNI

I grew up in North Queensland, Australia. My mother is English and comes from Jersey Island and my father is an Australian. So, in my younger years, I was exposed to a diverse range of food. As we lived so close to the beach, my father would go fishing and come home with amazing fresh fish, which he taught me how to fillet whilst standing on a crate beside him at the barbecue. Meanwhile mum would create salads using avocados and mesclun leaves from the garden and accompaniments like a fresh mango and lime salsa, which were perfect with dad’s barbecued fish or grilled mud crab.
But then, on school holidays, we would travel half the way around the world to Jersey and I would experience dishes like whole goose, Jersey oysters and, because of Jersey’s proximity to France, I tasted snails in garlic butter; all before my teenage years.
It was a combination of the simplicity of barbecued food and then the complexity of fine French cuisine that inspired me to want to cook for a living, but it would also lead to my style of cooking, which has been described as fusion cooking.

Over the years, I’ve learnt that as a chef you are never fully qualified, the saying ‘every day is a school day’ is so prevalent to our industry; not only is the technology and the equipment that we use in the kitchen evolving constantly but our suppliers are always creating and developing new products and ingredients.
Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to have trained under some amazingly passionate chefs, but each and every one of them have emphasised the importance of learning the fundamentals at a catering college or culinary institution.
I had finished a four-year apprenticeship in Australia. However, when I moved here in 2005, I opened Uluru Bistro, an Australian restaurant in Armagh, and wanted to start an apprenticeship scheme giving my chefs an opportunity to gain a qualification whilst getting on-the-job experience. But I found my Australian qualification wasn’t recognised so I completed a day-release NVQ 3 at SRC in Newry. I also gained an A1 and an A2 Assessors Award which gave me the ability to be an Internal Verifier and later lead to my appointment as a part-time lecturer at SWC in Dungannon.

My first job I got in this country was probably the most important of my career; it led me to where I am today. I was appointed the head chef for Yellow Door’s flagship restaurant in Portadown.
After two years with Yellow Door, my father in law informed me of a small restaurant for sale in the heart of Armagh. In a whirlwind three days, we owned a 34-seat restaurant and Uluru Bistro was born. We achieved so much in our time at the original Uluru; we were the first restaurant in Co Armagh to be recommended in the Michelin guide with two knife and forks, we were one of only six restaurants in Northern Ireland in the Waitrose Good Food Guide. Along with being listed in the McKenna’s and Georgina Campbell food guides.
In 2016, I decided to relocate and move Uluru to a bigger premise and inevitably sell the restaurant.
I then took on the head chef role at the newly-refurbished Dormans Bar, owned by Henry McGlone in Magherafelt. Working for Henry was an amazing experience; his focus and his knowledge of the hospitality industry, in particular within the pub sector, gave me inspiration to change direction with my cooking style. My reputation for cooking food with big flavours is partly why I was recently appointed as head chef of Sweet Afton Bar & Kitchen.

I landed on a Saturday from Australia via a six-week stopover in Thailand and I was broke. I had just one chef jacket and four knives rolled up in a beach towel. I had heard that this local chef who owned two venues and had an outside catering business was looking for chefs so, on the Tuesday, I was asked for a two-hour trial. I arrived and presented the chef with my resume which was immediately disregarded; during my trial, I received questions about my ambitions and my previous experience. He gave me grief over my beach towel-wrapped knives but, from that moment on, Mr Simon Dougan has been my chef mentor. He has taught me about not only the Northern Irish palette, but about the importance of sourcing local produce. Simon and I, along with another chef friend Mervyn Steenson, are the reason that the Food Heartland group and brand exists.

I joined the Bachus Group in March 2019 and was appointed the head chef of the Sweet Afton Bar & Kitchen based in Linen House. The Sweet Afton is the hub of the building as we are surrounded by our other venues which are interlinked with Rita’s our cocktail bar being on the first floor, which I’m developing a concept Asian small plate menu for launching in the coming months. We also have Tutti Fruitti’s, which is on the second floor and houses our late-night pizzeria with live entertainment. We also have our rooftop garden bar The Perch, which in the coming summer months will be extremely busy and I’ve got a brand-new food concept almost ready to launch which is under wraps for now as it’s one of the first of its kind in the city. So, with all of this going on, life in the first few months has been extremely busy.

A definite pan-Pacific influence was key to my cooking; I loved taking a traditional dish and putting a modern twist on it to combine flavours and textures that give the dish a totally different style. However, in saying that, I feel as though my cooking style has changed over the years. When I was cooking in Uluru, I found myself trying to cook very technically, incorporating gels and foams etc; nowadays you will never find anything like that on my menu in Sweet Afton. The shift in my cooking is very much ingredient-based now; I try and source from local suppliers and treat the elements of the dish with respect which tends to appeal a lot more to our clientele. Big bold flavours with loads of emphasis on pairing ingredients to get the best finished dish for the diner is definitely at the forefront of my mind when I’m creating a dish now.

As I still live in Co Armagh, I try and support local suppliers from the Food Heartland, but over recent years I think most chefs have seen our local suppliers of Northern Ireland go from strength to strength with the likes of artisan cheese, cider, butter, dairy, meat, fish and rapeseed oil producers all doing amazing things and creating new products which makes us chefs really spoilt for choice.

At Sweet Afton, I’ve a team of four chefs plus myself which is a small team as we are operational seven days a week and would do an average of 150 covers a day during the week. Even on a Monday which would be notoriously slow for some, we are fortunate to have constant trade. On a weekend or a Saturday or Sunday, that can jump to 200-250 covers. So, with the new additions of concept food offerings coming, I’ll be looking to expand my kitchen team.

I think most chefs would have their favourites based on their styles. But the chef I really admire is Tom Kerridge; he cooks food from the heart, proper pub food but staying true to the ethos of letting the ingredients shine. I guess that’s why he has two Michelin stars. I recently heard him on Desert Island Discs and so many things he said resonated with me personally. He stated that his phone is constantly going and that he never has a moment to himself, which is something I can definitely relate to as my phone is relentless, whether it be notifications of specials from the likes of Keenan Seafood my fish supplier or a message from my kitchen crew updating me with upcoming bookings so I can adjust my ordering levels.
In the hospitality industry, we tend to punish ourselves both mentally and physically with long hours and the constant pursuit of creating the perfect dish. However, I’ve always tried to get to the gym and train on days off as I’ve found that helps to deal with the stress that comes with being a chef. It allows you to focus on something other than food and cooking. So, when I heard Tom say that even in the gym whilst he was training, his phone would go and he got so fed up that he switched to swimming, it suddenly dawned on me that this is why I have always liked swimming. It’s just you and your thoughts in the pool and you can switch off from the world. You can also think things through without any distractions which means that you can have real moments of clarity whilst still maintaining your fitness.

I have a young family; my daughter Mia is nine and my son Dylan is six. They have grown up in restaurants and spent a lot of time in Uluru so they understand that their dad cooks for a living, which means I work most weekends, so when I get a chance I always like to take them out and we try and go to restaurants. They love eating out as much as I love having someone else do the cooking for a change. We try and get to the coast when it’s nice weather and go surfing although I’m used to warmer water from when I surfed at home.

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