Hilary O’Hagan-Brennan on Equality in the Kitchen

By Emily Carson  Photography by JP Keating

Hilary O’Hagan-Brennan is a woman of many talents. Working as head chef at 3FE on Lower Grand Canal Street, Hilary her own catering company Blás Catering and is co-founder of Athrú, a food conference dedicated to addressing inequality in the culinary arts.


3FE’s menus have consistently gone above and beyond the usual coffee-shop sandwich fare since O’Hagan-Brennan joined the team. Not only this, there has been a marked move towards sustainability with 3FE now the first coffee shop in Ireland to be accredited by the Sustainable Restaurant Association. O’Hagan Brennan has appeared on RTE’s ‘What Are You Eating’ and has a progressive and playful approach to food – 3FE hosts a weekly ‘Fat Friday’ menu to appeal to your most base foodie instincts – and she is always striving to examine how her industry works and where its pitfalls can be addressed. We cornered her to find out about how she got into cooking and why equality and sustainability need to become the status quo in modern cooking:

‘I think one of the reasons we’re not singing from the rooftops about it is that we feel that it’s something that you should do anyway.’

I know that 3FE has been exercising more sustainable practices within the kitchen but it’s not something you’re really talking about yet. Can you tell me a bit more?

It’s something we want to roll out and feel like we’re comfortable with it. In 3FE it’s myself and another lady Holly Dalton who we hired in the last 6 months and we’re both head chefs. She didn’t start as a head chef she just really excelled, but that’s one of the things at 3FE, if you’re doing really well there’s a slot for you to move onwards.

The sustainability thing is something that Holly suggested. We’ve got compost bins in and we’ve looked at sourcing ingredients and pretty much gone back to the drawing board with most things. I think one of the reasons we’re not singing from the rooftops about it is that we feel that it’s something that you should do anyway, not something you should do as an advertising campaign. It’s kind of the only way to run a food business nowadays.

 

Has looking into all these practices changed things considerably?

‘Previously we would have considered Irish to mean sustainable as opposed to whatever is within a 50 mile radius of us.’

We’ve already had suppliers that we’ve had to turn around to and say ‘look, we love your rashers but we’re moving towards a more sustainable business and we need to know that it’s free-range, we need to know that it’s organic and we want to have a lot more background on the product.’

Also with sustainability the mileage comes into it a lot, it needs to be within a 50 mile radius to be considered really sustainable so that limits us massively. Previously we would have considered Irish to mean sustainable as opposed to whatever is within a 50 mile radius of us here on Grand Canal Street.

 

Home fermented coconut yoghurt breakfast in 3FE

Can you tell us a bit about how you got into cooking, surely in comparison to all the sustainable talk now it must have been a very different era?

Yes it was completely different! Cooking was something that I always did at home, it was always a passion. When it came to cooking as a career I was seriously considering it around the time of filling out the CAO and all that craic, but it was also around the same time that Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White were knocking around on the TV and they were terrifying.

I got a little bit wobbly about it and took it off my CAO and put down Business & Hospitality instead. I ended up going to Cathal Brugha Street and doing that which I liked, but I definitely felt the urge to cook was stronger in me than the urge to go to economics and finance classes but I suppose that’s normal.

My granny was an amazing cook. She had a grocers, deli and florist in Ranelagh in the building where Cinnamon is now and I used to work, well I wouldn’t say worked because…child labour…but I was making the jams and cooking the hams and helping her with the meringues and the cakes. The kind of stuff you pick up by osmosis, so I guess cooking was always there and I always enjoyed it.

‘Even though I did slightly regret [my course choice] it all came full circle in the end.’

Somewhere in the back of my head I had regretted not doing culinary arts. I was working in marketing in an office job and I completely hated it, so I packed that in and started working for a catering company because I figured that it wouldn’t be as scary an intro as a crazy kitchen.

I started with Feast Catering and I worked my way up there pretty swiftly as far as head chef and I would work in Chapter One on my days off doing stages and stuff and I learnt tonnes of stuff in there. I started teaching in Dublin Cookery School and Cooks Academy and I really enjoyed the teaching aspect of it as well.

I had dabbled in the cooking, the catering, the teaching and then I do have a good background in marketing from my time in hospitality so even though I did slightly regret [my course choice] it all came full circle in the end because now I’m here it all really stands to me.

‘When you talk to people about food, like the grannies from these countries,  you automatically pick up the culture whereas I couldn’t read pages and pages of history.’

Is your style of cooking particularly influenced by the any of the places you travelled to?

Oh, everywhere! That’s another thing actually, I met my husband as a consequence of doing the Business and Hospitality degree so it worked out for the best!

But yeah we travelled a lot, he’s a lecturer so every summer we would pack our bags and go off for loads of mad holidays all around the world like India, Kenya, the Middle East – I love Middle Eastern food – Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore the list goes on. I’m very influenced by travel and I learn the history of a country through cuisine. When you talk to people about food, like the grannies from these countries, you automatically pick up the culture whereas I couldn’t read pages and pages of history.

You soak it up through the cooking and that’s where my influence has come from the most and trying to put an Irish spin on it. You’ve probably noticed in 3FE that there’ll be something you’ve never heard of on the menu or maybe a spice mix that wouldn’t be very common and it’s because I was just on my holidays somewhere and I’m really into it at the moment…and then I’ll get bored and then it’ll be something else.

It really suits me because I have a short attention span and that mode of cooking really suits me, it keeps me going.

 

You mentioned being scared by the portrayal of Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White as dominant male chefs, let’s chat a bit about Athrú, was this idea of an aggressive male chef one that spurred you on to creating it?

I’m always really careful and cautious about what I say in that respect because I love cooking and I love this industry. I’ve had some unbelievable mentors over the years and even though on the face of it people think that that’s what it’s like, I think I would be doing it a disservice by saying that’s the reality because it’s not.

‘I have had male and female head chefs that have been equally empathetic and compassionate.’

There was a lot of talk around the time that we did Athrú about compassion and empathy and how these are naturally female traits and not necessarily male traits but I would completely disagree. I have had male and female head chefs that have been equally empathetic and compassionate.

I do think though that within this industry there is an underbelly of aggression and I’ve seen it myself but have chosen to walk away from those circumstances. If you know that it’s unacceptable you leave those kitchens but there are a lot of people who have come across it early on in their careers and have maybe accepted it as how it is.

Only about 10% of women stay in kitchens, so we’re losing them along the way.’

Gender inequality must exist because in colleges when chefs train it’s about 60% male to 40% female and then when they come out there’s a complete change in those numbers. Only about 10% of women stay in kitchens, so we’re losing them along the way. Athrú was supposed to be an investigative symposium and I think it was six weeks that we managed to pull it together in, myself and Holly and Jess from Kai in Galway and Lisa Regan who is in PR specifically for food.

Over the course of the two days over 200 people attended, men and women. We got so much stick though! I found that really insulting because we were trying to do something positive and I don’t think they really understood what it was about.

 

Jess Murphy, Gill Cartoll, Lisa Regan, Hilary O Hagan-Brennan – Photo Credit: Martina Regan

So what was the main driving point of the conference outside of looking at inequality?

We wanted to empower women to stay in the kitchen. We felt that these people were training and then they weren’t progressing into kitchens, they were falling out of it and we wanted to ask why? What’s going on in the industry that means people don’t want to stay? Is it a training issue, is it a lifestyle issue, is it a pay issue?

‘A matter that’s so important was the chef award and the female chef award, which is in itself so sexist and tokenistic.’

I also don’t think that the industry has a lot of time, there are such long days and hours, and turnover is so fast so you don’t necessarily have the time to give to these issues. It’s important that people step back and say to themselves ‘well what can we actually do about this?’ So yeah, empowering women to get back into the kitchen, to stay in the kitchen and put themselves on the map in the same way as their counterparts on panels and cooking shows etc. was important to us. We also had break out sessions both days and one of the things that went a bit off-piste but is a matter that’s so important was the chef award and the female chef award, which is in itself so sexist and tokenistic. It drives me mad, it’s outrageous.

Do you think that there are more women opting to go for roles in catering or cafés or places that are more kitchen-adjacent?

For sure and that’s what we found out. I didn’t even know this but a lot of times when you go into a kitchen as a woman people say ‘grand, let’s stick her on pastry.’ Historically, that comes from the fact that women used to go into kitchens, they would have a family and they would need to be home to mind the kids so there would be a dessert trolley.

‘When you go into a kitchen as a woman people say “grand, let’s stick her on pastry”.’

So the whole set-up of the dessert trolley was made because women were on pastry and they’d be able to then leg it at 3 o’clock so the desserts were already made and they wouldn’t have to stay on for nighttime service. You were automatically stuck on pastry because that’s just how it was. I didn’t know that.

Can you tell us a bit about your suppliers now and who you’re really impressed by?

We’ve got Dave Heffernan who grows all of his own micro herbs and I love the fact that he just followed me on Instagram and was like ‘your food looks cool’ and he just came in to the café and said ‘my name’s Dave, here’s my stuff, would you like to use it?’ It’s not the cheapest but it’s really good, it’s sustainable and he grows it around the corner.

Dave Heffernan from Little Cress who supplies all 3FE’s micro herbs.

Are you finding that more suppliers are looking at it from an entrepreneurial stance and might not have a background in agriculture?

Yeah I am, because Dave doesn’t have any background in it and he took to it like a duck to water. He just started following loads of guys in the States. You know if you’re putting a business model together and you can say if it’s happening in New York then it will soon be happening in London and then eventually in Ireland.

So he’s jumping in there and looking at what’s happening in the States and the kind of shoots that they’re growing over there he’s taking inspiration from. In fact in some areas we’re actually getting stuff and doing stuff with micro herbs that the restaurants in London haven’t even cottoned onto yet.