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INTERVIEW Westport Chef Eoin McDonnell talks

Passion and flair

Chef McDonnell - A Culinary career uncovered

Ciara MoynihanCiara Moynihan

Eoin McDonnell, Head Chef at The Wyatt Hotel, Westport, has moved around a lot. In fact, that’s one of the factors that he reckons has contributed to his success. And without a shadow of a doubt, his culinary career has certainly been successful.
Eoin gained his qualifications as a professional chef from the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, having trained in the Newpark Hotel, Kilkenny, and the Earl of Desmond Hotel, Tralee.
Eoin then travelled to Switzerland to gain more experience, and he worked in the Hotel Berner Hof in Lucerne. When he set out on his travels, he had planned to stay in Switzerland for just one year. As it happened, he found himself still in the country nine years on, having risen through the ranks to become Head Chef in Restaurant Wassergrat in Gstaad.
Eventually the pull of home proved too much, and he accepted the Head Chef position in the renowned Brasserie in Monkstown, Co Dublin, in 1990, where he stayed for two years. Eoin spent the following 12 years as partner and Executive Chef in the QV2 restaurant in Dublin, which was famed for its modern Italian fare.
In 2003, he decided to move to Westport, where he took up his current position in the Wyatt Hotel.
Eoin’s culinary drive has also taken him out of the kitchen. He has successfully represented Ireland on numerous Culinary Olympics teams (including the winning team in 1992), and is regularly asked to judge international cookery competitions. He served as National Secretary of the Panel of Chefs Ireland before being elected Chief Executive Officer in 2004 – a position that he held for three years. He is currently Vice-President of the panel.

When did your love of cooking start?
My interest in cooking started back when I was 15 years old. My brother used to work as a restaurant manager in the Hibernian Hotel in Dublin, and I used to visit him there. That’s when I really started thinking about restaurants and food.

How did your time in Switzerland influence you?
I started out as a commis chef and worked my way up to head chef while there. It was great experience. The Swiss strongly value organisation, which is so important in a kitchen. During my time in the country, I picked up on that, and my organisational skills were well honed. I also learned a deeper appreciation of modern European cuisine.

Westport is a long way from the bright lights of Dublin. What prompted your decision to move to the town?

The decision to sell QV2 was made in 2003. This gave me the opportunity of changing my life and possibly living in the country. I knew I wanted to try life outside of Dublin, but I hadn’t settled on where. After talking with the Wyatt Hotel in Westport, I knew it was somewhere I’d be interested in working. It has great character, and the owners were keen to update their restaurant menu so that it offered modern cuisine while remaining loyal to the principles of value and quality. These are all principles that I believe in too, and so the decision was made. 

The restaurant certainly has an expansive menu. What’s your favourite dish to cook?
Definitely the braised lamb shank. It involves a long, slow and utterly traditional process – half a day’s prep, slow cooking and lots of basting to fully bring out all the flavours. Simple and delicious.

What’s your favourite dish to eat?
Fresh sole on the bone. I love it. It’s often on the specials menu.

Being a head chef in a large restaurant is said to be one of the most stressful jobs in the world. Would you agree?
Sure, it can be stressful. Diners are out to enjoy themselves, and you have to get it right. That said, I see it as enjoyable pressure. It’s really more of a vocation than a job. The days are long, but they’re varied. If you want to be a chef, if you have a real passion for cooking, the hours are not going to be an issue for you.

What would you say to anyone thinking about a career as a chef? Any tips or advice?
I would definitely recommend speaking with someone who works in the industry early on. Seek their advice on colleges and ask them whats it’s really like to work in a kitchen. Above all, I’d recommend spending at least a year abroad. It really broadens your horizons. It really is an absolute necessity.