We’re declaring this as ‘Irish Month’ on our blog; sharing recipes of our updated takes on Irish classics and talking to some of our favourite Irish figures in food and travel in an interview series, shining a light on some of our favourite Irish friends. Follow the series in full as it’s published, but next up is a familiar face on the London scene. Noted for her ‘lunchbox’ column in the Evening Standard and for being a crucial link in the chain of Robin Gill’s restaurant empire in London (The Dairy, The Manor, Paradise Garage…), it’s chef Laoise Casey!
Laoise – or ‘Lee-sha’ if you’re not Irish and you struggle with our name pronunciations – is definitely an inspiration for chefs out there. A Dublin native, she began her career as a HR Manager for a large pharmacy group in Ireland, but Laoise knew a passion for food bubbling just under the surface was slowly taking over and something needed to be done about it. Having begun blogging on Cuisine Genie in 2011, juggling both job and blog, she decided a year later to pack in the day job, make the leap to London and follow her dream of becoming a chef by enrolling in Leiths School of Food and Wine.
“I completed a six month diploma [at Leiths] and started working part-time in a gastro pub, The Ship in Wandsworth,” Laoise explains, which at the time was run by another member of the ‘Irish in London’ Oisín Rogers.
“I never planned on working in restaurants…but when I started working in professional kitchens I got hooked on the adrenaline bug which hasn’t let go since. I started doing private catering, food styling and working in as many restaurants as possible.”
Only a London resident for the past three or four years, we’re dying to know how she ascended into the dynasty of Robin Gill, one of London’s most talked-about chefs with some of the capitals must-try restaurants under his command, run alongside his wife Sarah.
“Oisín actually introduced me, and I started working as a chef de partie at The Dairy as part-time cover for another chef two years ago. At the same time I was also juggling shifts at The Ship as well as doing some private catering and food styling. I quickly realised that The Dairy was where I was going to learn the most, so I left my other jobs and started working there full-time.
“Robin is a great boss to work for – he’s built up a mini empire of restaurants (beginning with The Dairy then The Manor, Paradise Garage and now a new snack bar Counter Culture in Clapham), but still stays so humble. When you’re talking to him about food it’s impossible not to get excited.
“When I started working for him he had just opened The Dairy and it’s crazy to see how quickly it’s grown since then. I feel lucky and privileged to be working with the group. While it is – of course – an extremely tough industry to work in, he’s always been understanding and supported my writing, allowing me to balance this with working in the kitchen, as around the same time I also began to write a column for the London Evening Standard on lunch box recipes inspired by my favourite London restaurants”.
The decision of moving from Dublin to London might seem like a simple, straightforward one (as the countries sit side-by-side) but we know first-hand that it’s a lot tougher than it seems. When her Dad became seriously ill, it inspired Laoise to re-think her life in Dublin and you can read more in-depth about that in her Irish Times article.
“Looking back I wonder how I ever had the courage to make the decision. It definitely wasn’t a quick one, there were so many factors at play. When my dad survived intensive care I started questioning everything I had built for myself – we were very lucky and my dad is now ok – it pushed me to question ‘was what I was doing right now what I should REALLY be doing with my life and was it making me happy?’
“Over a number of months I slowly planned the move to London. My heart made the decision first – it just took my head a little time to catch up and convince my heart that it wasn’t going crazy.
“When I left my old job I maintained the illusion that I would continue to work in HR when I moved to London. I had already got a lot of strange looks from people when I told them I didn’t have a job yet in London.” An honest declaration that we can absolutely relate to…
We hate to add fuel to the ‘female chef’ fire as a chef’s a chef regardless of gender and talent speaks for itself, but making waves as a young female chef – especially in London – is no mean feat, we wanted to know some of Laoise’s favourite moments so far? “Eeeeeek…..surviving my first day in a professional kitchen and not cutting off any finger tips! (I did that after of course) I’ve been really lucky to have some amazing experiences so far. I’ve been surprised and touched by how friendly and welcoming the industry in London has been. If you show that you’re willing to work hard, listen and get involved then there are plenty of opportunities.
“Being able to hold my own and work alongside chefs with many years of experience. Landing a column in the London Evening Standard and subsequently the i (the Independent’s daily paper), and I also interviewed two of my culinary heroes – Michel Roux Jr and Alain Ducasse – I actually still can’t believe I managed to do this!
Also, more recently being included in Hot Dinners’ 2016 list of the ‘Murphia’, the group of Irish names in hospitality in London! ”
(Obviously, GastroGays missed that memo…… 😒)
We’re really guilty of living here and not exploring and appreciating every single aspect of the city, let alone the breadth of the food scene, so what does a successful young chef get up to on her days off in London? “When I first started working in kitchens I spent my days off lying in bed recovering! But last year I realised that there is no point in working all those hours if you just spend your days off being lazy; I try and eat out as much as possible and as much as I can afford as there’s so many restaurants in London sometimes I feel like my head is going to explode trying to fit them all in…but I’m doing my best. When I’m not out and about I love curling up on the couch with a cookbook – simple pleasures.”
So from one capital to another, what was growing up like for Laoise? “I was a terribly fussy eater when I was a little kid. When my mum made spaghetti bolognese I’d only eat it if I could have the spaghetti in one bowl and the sauce in another. When I went to boarding school in France my host family soon learned they could make me eat most things by telling me it was just ‘poulet’.
“Luckily I’ve grown out of that phase! My first cooking memories were making trays and trays of mince pies at Christmas with my mum. My mum always says my granny’s cooking gene skipped her and went straight to me.
“My granny was a star baker in Mallow, Co. Cork where she won a local cake making competition so many times that she was eventually asked not to take part so that someone else would have a chance to win.”
Where does Laoise think Irish cookery is today? “Since I left Ireland in 2012 I feel like I’ve missed a lot on the Irish cooking scene. I try to keep up to date through social media and visiting restaurants when I get home. For me, I love seeing how traditional Irish cooking is being elevated by some exciting restaurants in Ireland, e.g. Forest Avenue, The Greenhouse.
“I think over the last few years us Irish have come into ourselves rather than trying to emulate other countries.”
She cooks, she writes, she blogs, she devises recipes, what’s Laoise favourite aspect of these complementary elements of her career? “My favourite has always been and always will be the actual cooking. Like I said, I never planned to work in restaurants. Then on my first stage at the Michelin-starred L’Autre Pied I picked up the bug. It’s never left me since…
“Yes it’s hard. It’s tough. It’s tiring. You work long 16-hour days, but when you’re in the middle of it the minutes and hours fly by and it’s the best feeling. While I love writing about food and cookery I feel that I need to justify that with hands-on kitchen experience. Standing in a kitchen cooking is where I feel like I’m really me.”
As generation Emigration is forever in the headlines back home… is the Emerald Isle calling Laoise back anytime soon or has London got its grip on her for the forseeable, we wonder? As many of our interviewees have echoed, Laoise says “Ireland will always be my home.
“I think when you move abroad there is a tendency to see Ireland through rose-tinted glasses and forget why you might have chosen to leave in the first place. Like London, it has its good and bad points – my family and friends are still there and while I am happy in London right now I think Ireland is in my future”.
Back to the here-and-now, what’s next for Laoise? “At the moment I’m enjoying combining working part-time in Gill’s newest venture, Paradise Garage in Bethnal Green with writing. I’m also starting teaching a cooking class at Leiths – my old cookery school – in July based on recipes from my Evening Standard column of lunch box recipes inspired by my favourite London restaurants. I’m also working on ideas to set up my own food business at the moment which is very exciting.
“A part of me wishes that I’d made this career move 10 years ago…but I’m making up for lost time as much as I can.”