Chef Profile October 2019: John Whyte, head chef at Armagh City Hotel
John Whyte, head chef at Armagh City Hotel, talks to HRNI
WHEN DID YOU FIRST GET INTO COOKING?
I started cooking with my mum at home. She was also a cook and made meals every day in a local special needs school for children. I loved helping her make scones, breads, buns, apple pies, puddings, Sunday roasts and stews. All these smells and flavours are now like a time machine and bring me back to when I was a child. I loved the social aspect of cooking as it brings family and friends together.
HAVE YOU ANY CULINARY QUALIFICATIONS?
I have the old style 706/1, 706/2 and 706/3 chef qualifications. I have also provided culinary lecturing. I have won a few culinary awards and medals in cookery competitions over the years. This year I was awarded Best Hotel Chef of the Year by the Institute of Hospitality NI, which was a big achievement for me.
WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND?
My first real cooking job was in The Copthorne Tara Hotel in London in the very early 1990s. I came home after about a year and then worked in Belfast Castle. After that I worked in The Terrace Restaurant on the Lisburn Road for about four years. I then made the decision to go and work in The Europa Hotel. I worked there for over 10 years with many other chefs who helped shape my future. I then took the decision to move to work in the Armagh City Hotel. I have now been working as head chef and living in Armagh for 15 years.
HAS ANYONE INSPIRED YOU THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER?
The trick to being a successful chef in a fast and changing business is to work with as many inspiring chefs, business owners and managers as possible. It helps when you are planning your future jobs to have a five-year plan to achieve your personal goals. The chefs that helped me grow the most would have been Gerry Risotto (Europa Hotel) and Marius Cleary (The Terrace Restaurant).
WHAT STYLE IS YOUR COOKING?
My style of cooking is a mixture of classical and modern Irish cuisine. I am from Co Armagh, so I want to cook and serve ingredients that tell the stories and history of this beautiful region of Ireland. I am spoiled for choice as I have a long list of artisan food producers on my doorstep which is also known as Food Heartland #FoodHeartlandNI. Co Armagh is packed with many award-winning producers and ingredients. Long Meadow Cider, Armagh Bramley apples, Burren Balsamics vinegars, Harnett’s Oils are just a few of the award-winning ingredients that I use regularly on my menus. It is so nice to know the producers personally and to tell their stories to hotel guests. Guests from outside Ireland find these stories fascinating.
WHAT IS YOUR FOOD SOURCING POLICY?
The ingredients on my menus change with the seasons. I will also buy ingredients that are locally produced in Armagh to help the local economy. Chefs now have to buy produce that is sustainable and have a low environmental impact. Less travel and delivery miles are important. With a long list of local artisan food producers, within 10 miles of the hotel, I am spoilt for choice when creating my menus.
WHAT SIZE IS YOUR STAFF?
I have a team of 14 chefs and eight cleaning staff. Teamwork and communication are very important in a busy hotel. The kitchen should choreograph like an orchestra with everyone knowing their part and when they should play. Respect and gratitude are also important in a job that is unsociable and very stressful. It is all worth it at the end of service when I can take the time to speak with customers. Good and sometimes bad feedback keep us motivated.
WHOSE CAREER WOULD YOU WISH TO EMULATE?
I’m a huge fan of Keith Floyd. I love his food philosophy and passion for sourcing ingredients and world culture. His charisma and personality were infectious. When you watch food TV documentaries today, it just shows how far Keith Floyd was ahead of his time. I remember when I was young watching him going to other parts of the world cooking food in strange places while sipping wine. I think he would have loved to have come to Armagh’s Food Heartland and Food and Cider Festival. I think he would have really enjoyed cooking with some of our award-winning ingredients and Meet the Artisan producers. I would have enjoyed sipping cider and cooking with him. I was so sad when he passed. I tip my chef hat to him!
HAVE YOU ANY INTERESTS OUTSIDE OF WORK?
I love traveling in France. I love the French way of life and their culinary history. My wife Colette and my kids visit as many vineyards, cider producers and local artisan markets around France as we can. This year we went to Normandy. We would travel around in a caravan. The cider and food were excellent. Although Armagh cider is better! It has more character, like its people and places, our Food Heartland.