A young Donegal girl who has always had a passion for cooking and creating new culinary masterpieces has just had the experience of a lifetime, one that many in her profession can only dream of - and yet she is only 22-years-old.
Donegal woman Joanne McCallion is a Professional Cookery student at Derry’s North West Regional College (NWRC) and last month she was named exceptional young chef of the year. As a result she was awarded two weeks work experience at one of England’s top restaurants, Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons, the two Michelin star restaurant owned by culinary legend Raymond Blanc.
“It all happened so fast - on Thursday we were busy with the competition and by Sunday I was on the plane to England,” Joanee said.
Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons was opened by Raymond Blanc in 1984 after many years as a small bistro owner in the student town of Oxford.
The affable chef who has catered for both student paupers and budding kings eventually opened his high quality restauraunt and added a school of culinary excellence to it. Almost immediately it was awarded two Michelin stars and it is the only restaurant to have retained these coveted awards for such a long period.
Joanne found her time there very rewarding but it was also daunting, and challenging at a level that she had not previously experienced.
“It was really hard work mentally, physically and emotionally,” she said. “I wasn’t prepared for the level you have to work at but head chef Karl and the team at Le Manoir welcomed me and made sure I got the best from my two weeks there.
“The chefs work in each station for six months, getting fully trained before they can move on. I was lucky because they let me work in each station during my visit, so I got to see how it all works.
“The days are long. You start at 8 am and work through until 11 pm, but even when I got a break I couldn’t wait to get back in. There was so much to do and so much to learn.”
Joanne continued, “The kitchen was so organised and everyone was very friendly - they all made sure that I knew they saw me as part of their team.
“At the beginning and end of each day, they all shake hands. No-one ever raises their voice in the kitchen.
“The idea is that if people are shouting over each other, they won’t hear instructions or calls for orders to go out. It’s a very effective way of working, and nothing like I imagined such a busy kitchen to be.
What did this young Buncrana girl bring back with her to Donegal?
“I’ve come back with a very different outlook and I really want to keep bettering myself - I now know what it is possible to achieve.”
Needless to say, meeting culinary legend Raymond Blanc was one of the highlights of Joanne’s visit.
“I was asked to bring a meal upstairs,” Joanne said. “I didn’t know who it was for. I took it to an office, and there he was. He invited me to sit down and we talked for ages. He chatted about his family. It was surreal, but he was very nice and down-to-earth.”
Feast or Famine
Emmett McCourt is one of Joanne’s lecturers at NWRC and is behind the Donegal & Derry food heritage project, Feast or Famine.
Emmett said: “I have heard on the grapevine that Joanne did really well at Le Manoir. It sounds as if she made a very good impression.
“I have seen her excel in terms of standards and achievements over the last few years. She was one of the students involved in the recent World Skills showcase in London, where NWRC gave a presentation of traditional dishes typical of the North West of Ireland.
“She has the world at her feet now and it is so well deserved”.
Joanne is part of the team at the Railway Tavern’s Firebox Grill in Fahan and plans to continue her studies with a degree in culinary arts.
What is particularly remarkable about Joanne is that she manages to combine her work and study with being a mother to her four-year-old son.
Emmett McCourt said “Joanne is a great ambassador for young women and young mothers. She works very hard at everything she does, and is an absolute star.”
Joanne McCallion’s star is only beginning to rise, but expect to see it shine for many years to come.