Donegal’s new food ambassador has an almost life-long passion for food that makes him the perfect person for the new role.
Gary O’Hanlon has been appearing regularly on Irish television in the last few years with appearances on Four Live, MasterChef Ireland and The Restaurant.
But he is much more than just a high-profile name and has a detailed knowledge of the food industry which he hopes will help new businesses in the county.
The strategy is a five-year plan which hopes to create start-up businesses in the county by developing the relationships between producers, chefs and the consumer.
More and more people are interested in where the food they are eating is produced, he says. “Bord Bia have produced a survey which shows that 75 per cent of consumers are definitely influenced by where chefs are sourcing their ingredients so if people are growing it in Donegal, chefs - quality allowed - should be buying it.
“That’s all I have ever done anywhere I have cooked in the world. People can be lazy and pick up a one-stop-shop. If you look at the supplier list at my restaurant there are maybe 20 or 30 different suppliers there. It takes a lot of time but there is a lot more credibility with it.”
Speaking to the DPP/Democrat, he said there are already chefs in Donegal working that way - such as Joe O’Hora in Castlegrove House, Raymond Moran in Harry’s restaurant and Brian McMonagle at Sargasso - and their practices can encourage others to do likewise.
Other chefs in the county that Gary rate include Gerald McFadden at The Bridge Restaurant in Ramelton, Martin Anderson of the Crest Catering Company and community chef Brian McDermott.
“Everyone loves good food and everyone loves to know where it is coming from. There is arguably not enough being done to create new products or shouting about the great products that are out there. When other chefs start to see the success of the likes of Castlegrove, Harry’s or Harvey’s Point, then they are going to follow suit.”
The plan will work around putting together a directory of suppliers and chefs.
“If everyone is pulling in the same direction for each other, there is no doubt about it, in the next five years I can see Donegal being at the forefront. As a strategy and an ambitious plan they really are trend-setting here.”
Although aged only 34 he has built a huge amount of experience and collected awards in the US and here.
A native of Ramelton, he fell in love with food when he was very young and from age six, knew that he wanted to be a chef.
His influence came, to a degree, from a relative, Anna Buchanan - the best baker he has ever come across.
“I always wanted to cook and I put my family through some very bad scones. I had a love from a very young age of that smell from baking.”
As a student at St Eunan’s College in Letterkenny he was very aware of the success of one of the stars of the culinary scene. He would stare in awe at newspaper clippings posted on a school notice board from local newspapers that would chart the career of Letterkenny chef Conrad Gallagher. “I used to be glued to the clippings. It was at the time he was making big waves in America and then came to Dublin and was walking out as the youngest chef to win a Michelin star. Conrad Gallagher was a god to young chefs at that age.”
One of the highlights of his career was the invitation from Conrad to appear on his TV3 programme. “For one of my idols to be ringing me up and saying ‘I want you to be on the show,’ - that meant an awful lot to me.”
He began his career in the kitchen of the Rosapena Hotel in Downings where his aunt, Bernadette McLaughlin, is the head chef and he worked there from the age of 15 during his summer holidays. After that there was only one thing he wanted to do.
From there he went to the Killybegs Tourism College and then working for a year La Cave in Dublin before a year in the Stormont Hotel in Belfast.
He went for a chef’s job at the Salthill Hotel in Galway and ended up getting the job of head chef - probably the youngest head chef in the country at the time. “That was the start of it all then. I wanted it and as far as I was concerned I was cocky enough and confident enough that I could do it.” He brought in some chefs that he knew and he was aware of the importance of having a good team around him.
The next stage of his career, and probably the most formative, happened by accident. He was in Boston on holiday when he was put in touch with restauranteur Colin Devlin who asked him to do the catering for an inauguration party for the mayor of Boston at a private house.
“By the time the night was finished he had offered me a colossal contract to leave Ireland and take over the opening of a new restaurant. I had just gone 21 and I was the head chef at Devlin’s and it was onwards and upwards from there.”
His time in Boston was a huge learning experience. Colin Devlin was a Michelin-trained chef and was a great mentor to the young Donegal man .
He said, “No matter what - from menu-writing to sourcing ingredients - Colin Devlin was a master craftsman and he was over my shoulder for the six years I was there and he was a massive influence. I realised that running a restaurant was not just about food - it started at the front door to the music, the lights, the staff, water marks on the glass. So many factors came in and the American efficiency was taught to me there.”
He spent six years in Boston, returning to Ireland to work at the Galway Bay Hotel in Salthill. When he came back he was attracted by a project in Longford and he committed himself to running the restaurant at Viewmount House. Over the last four years he has poured his two decades of experience into running the VM restaurant where he grows a lot of his own produce on the grounds of the magnificent Georgian House which was has been renovated by owners Beryl and James Kearney. It was named best hotel restaurant in Leinster in 2010.
“We don’t have all the answers but if someone told us we were going to have the success we have had in the last four years in the middle of a recession - we would have taken the hand off them.”
Gary is getting married in March and sees his future in Longford in tandem with the new role in Donegal. “All being well, fingers crossed, it will keep going the way it is going. I want to have a great restaurant that stays busy and keep feeding people and keep making them happy. I hope in five years there will be more start-ups in Donegal and more people working in the agri-food sector and if we get to that stage I will be a very, very happy man.”