Third time lucky is a cliche for a reason. That’s not to say Conor Halpenny was any more confident that entry number three to the Euro-Toques Young Chef of the Year competition would prove more fruitful than the previous two. As he stood waiting for the results to be read out at Dublin’s Intercontinental Hotel in Ballsbridge, he wasn’t holding out much hope.
“It was my third time entering so I expected it to be the same again,” Conor told ThisIsArdee.ie on Monday. “I knew I’d done well, I knew I cooked well and I knew I’d done the dishes right but when I heard my name called out, I didn’t know what to do.”
It was the fact he knew exactly what to do in the kitchen – and not on the stage – that mattered however. Undeterred by two previously unsuccessful attempts in the competition, Conor admits he didn’t need any persuading to go again. “I love the competition – everything about it.”
Up against five of the best young chefs in Ireland, Conor was judged best of the lot on Sunday evening, with his success announced at a glitzy gala dinner in which – after a gruelling last day of competition – the contestants provided the desserts.
Conor’s own dish – Buttermilk and White Chocolate Mousse, Passion Fruit Cuinneog Butter Shortbread and Dark Chocolate Cream – delighted those in attendance. But the cherry on top, the one that mattered, came when he was crowned Ireland’s best young chef shortly after 10pm. Not bad for a young lad from Ardee.
The 22-year-old has been cooking since he was 16, and doing so in the home alongside mum Nora since he was little. Having spent time working locally as a commis chef in Dooleys of Edmonstown, Conor studied professional chef training at Crumlin College and previously worked at Brabazon at Tankardstown before starting his current stint as chef-de-partie at Dublin’s Chapter One.
He has also spent time at two Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurants – Downstairs in Clontarf, Dublin and The Courthouse in Carrick, the latter where he recently finished up a year long spell.
No wonder, with that breadth of experience already under his belt, that he felt fell up for the challenge of not one, two but three entries into the Euro-Toques competition. So what changed this time around? What worked in his favour?
“I was in the final in 2015 and I learned what from I did wrong. I tried to do too much. I put too much on the plate,” he said today. “And I didn’t get through at all last year, I didn’t get past the interview stage. It grounded me. I thought ‘Oh yeah, I was in the final last year – I’ll definitely get through.’ It made be appreciate getting to the final this year more. I worked hard for it this year. I put a lot of hours in. I knew what to expect a little bit more. That was a big benefit.”
It helps that after initially being encouraged to enter by Brabazon Head Chef Rob Krawczyk, his first experience was good so Conor decided to come back again. And again. This time he was more ready than ever.
“I’m more mature but also I went back to the The Courthouse in Carrick last year, for a year and a bit. I was taken on as a sous-chef. It matured me quicker. I’m not as naïve,” he says. “My cooking style has got a lot simpler. I don’t just throw ten things on a plate – I do five and do them really well.
“I’m more mature and my skills have improved as well. Obviously, in two years cooking, you’re going to get better at it.” For Sunday’s final, the Ardee Community School alumni had to produce a main course and dessert – within a timeframe of two and a half hours. The theme for this year’s competition was Back to Basics – Old School Cooking.
Conor’s winning dishes were, for main, a savoury dish of beef, cabbage, bone marrow and colcannon, and, for dessert, a sweet dish of set rice, fermented apple, yoghurt and malt.
“Flavour is key. It’s all about flavour. I get the flavour first and then work on presentation. It was really really simple. There were four things on the plate but it was all flavoursome.
“The dessert was the key dish. The judges all loved it,” he recalls. “They all wanted more. It was different, smart. It was not just what everyone else done. The last time, the dessert lost it for me.”
We speak to Conor on Monday afternoon, shortly after he joined renowned chef Richard Corrigan for a demonstration for the competition sponsors La Rousse Foods. With a stage at Corrigan’s Mayfair restaurant to look forward to as part of his prize, it’s certainly a busy time for the young man.
That’s not to say the last month hasn’t been either. Coupling starting at the city centre Chapter One restaurant with his competition preparation, Conor and his fellow competitors flew to Italy ahead of the final. Seeing and tasting new things are, Conor says, what it is to be a chef these days.
This year’s competition theme, as mentioned above, was Back to Basics cooking. He feels that theme worked to his advantage and says it’s something he thoroughly enjoyed getting to work on. Conor’s life was always revolved around food, his family are steeped in it. He gives immense credit to his mother and girlfriend for helping him chase his dreams.
“My uncles are Hickey Bros,” he tells us. “I worked on the farm and in the farm shop. I’ve been around growing veg since I was a child. I would spend weeks in the summer on the farm. I’ve always wanted to be a chef. It was the only thing I wanted to do. I’ve always loved food.
“Even as a child, I always wanted to eat off the adults menu – not the kids menu. I wanted to taste the new stuff. My mother, Nora, is a huge inspiration to me. Home cooking is her thing, she’s really good,” he continues.
“Growing up, it was just me and her at home. And cooking dinner with her was a huge thing. I had to help her, it was only the two of us. I didn’t mind. She taught me how to peel a potato – all the basics. She encourages me and my girlfriend Molly encourages me too so from a young age, I’ve had that.”
When asked whether this year’s theme helped him, he agrees. “It helped pay off in the end. It was a tough theme this year. As young chefs, we tend to go with the trend at the minute. They were trying to take us away from that. Chapter One hasn’t really gone that way – it’s more classic.
“But there’s some young chefs coming out of college that don’t know how to make a puree without using a chemical. I took inspiration from dishes I had growing up. It was a different flavour but it still brought back the same textures.”
He had some help, admittedly. If you worked with the chefs at a place like Chapter One, you’d be foolish not to tap into their expertise, experience and culinary know-how. Conor reserves particular praise for owner and head chef Ross Lewis – “Ross Lewis is Ross Lewis. Anything he says is going to be good” – and executive pastry chef Darren Hogarty too, “Darren is amazing.”
“Chapter One is a totally different environment to work in. I’ve never worked anywhere like it. As much as the chefs I’ve worked with before have been amazing, this is different. I learn different kinds of techniques,” Conor, who says his own style focuses on simple cooking and bringing out flavour, says.
“They’re very pro-helping everyone. They want to teach the next generation of chefs. There’s no one in that kitchen – from the top to the bottom, from Ross down to me – who wouldn’t answer a question. They’d explain it, show you and tell you why something is wrong. There’s a wealth of knowledge, coming from all different places around the world. French, Czech, Slovakian. They’re all bringing their own ideas.”
We spoke to Conor a little over 12 hours since he was named Young Chef of the Year and afraid of jumping a little too far ahead – he is only 22, of course – we inquire about whether someday, the aspiration is to open his own restaurant. Silly question.
“That is the plan, absolutely,” he says resolutely. “I’m 22 and I have been cooking six years already. By the time, I’m 30. you’re talking 14 or 15 years cooking and you’d be thinking of opening up.” They might have to wait, but that’s good news for local foodies.
“There’s no place I’d want to set up my own place bar where I live. I love Ireland and I’m not moving. Ireland is my home, Louth is my home. I’m proud to be from Ardee. I’d love to open a restaurant in Ardee, or Drogheda, or Dundalk, wherever.
“I love Louth, we have great produce in Louth and the surrounding counties are great. Obviously, I’m in Dublin at the moment but I need to work in Michelin star restaurants. I’ll start as a head chef first.”
One step at a time.