If you’ve visited Dublin in recent years and have eaten at the star-studded The Merrion hotel, or Michelin-recognized restaurants like Pichet and Bastible, chances are you’ve tasted some of Gráinne O'Keefe’s food as she worked herself up the kitchen ranks.
For O’Keefe, becoming a chef was always the plan.
“I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a chef. From watching cooking shows and reading books, I was sure that it would be what I did as a career...” said the now twenty-something chef who enrolled in culinary school at the age of 17. “...I couldn't imagine doing anything else. I'd rather work 80 hours a week doing something that I love, than work 40 hours a week doing something that I hated.”
Not only is the Ireland-native a head chef (for Clanbrassil House in Dublin), but she’s also a culinary director and a restaurateur for two separate fast casual concepts that recently opened in Dublin and London this year.
One of the fast casual concepts is called Bujo. The name is a combination of the words ‘burger’ and ‘joint’ together. The restaurant serves up burgers with ingredients sourced straight from local Irish farms with the ultimate mission to reduce its impact on the environment.
The other concept is called Saucy. This fast casual concept was opened by both George Wells and Gráinne O'Keefe with the goal to bring classic Italian pasta dishes (but with a twist) to the fast-casual, health-conscious consumer. The pasta can be traditional or made out of spiralized vegetables like butternut squash, beetroot, celeriac, or even carrot. The dishes are customizable and made to order.
We caught up with the young determined chef to find out what it takes to successfully take on so many exciting projects.
The Quick Six:
Foodable: You are involved with three different restaurants as a chef, culinary director and restaurateur. That’s a triple threat, in my book! How do you find the time to manage all your responsibilities for each and how does your work ethic play into everything you do?
Gráinne O'Keefe: When all three restaurants were still being set up and had not yet opened, I split my time between Dublin and London and worked every day most weeks for about six months. Coincidentally, all three restaurants ended up opening within two weeks of each other which was never the plan, just how it worked out.
Now that all three are open, I dedicate the majority of my time to Clanbrassil House where I work five days a week (we close Sunday Monday) and split the rest of my time between BuJo and Saucy. Both BuJo and Saucy were set up in a way that once the menus, recipes, training and everything else were finalized, they would be able to operate without the need for me to be working on them full-time.
I have a strong work ethic and, by choice, spend most of my days working in some form. Saying this, it's also important to me that I make time to see friends and family and go try out new restaurants. While I don't have much free spare time at this very minute, I do believe that working this hard now will mean that I can take some time off comfortably in the future.
Foodable: What is your take on sustainability and sourcing?
GO: Sustainability is very important to me, with BuJo being a prime example. BuJo is independently verified by the Sustainable Restaurant Association in the U.K. and we have a three-star rating (the highest possible and one of only two restaurants in Ireland to have this rating).
All of the food packaging in BuJo is compostable, and all of the electricity is green electricity.
In BuJo, I personally visited all of the suppliers, farmers and factories and ensured that they were adhering to the most sustainable and ethical practices.
In time we hope to introduce compostable packaging in Saucy and look to join the SRA, once we are up and running for a few months and have time to dedicate to it.
Foodable: Tell us about your sacrifices as well as the rewarding experiences you get from your work. What is the hardest thing about opening a business in a different country?
GO: The most noticeable sacrifice is time spent with family and friends. I do tend to miss a lot of special occasions like birthdays and get togethers but my family are very understanding and have always supported my career. I suppose, in a way, that is also the most rewarding part of my career, that my family are proud of what I have achieved so far.
The hardest part about opening a business in a different country is not having the same contacts as I would at home with the likes of suppliers etc. But industry people are very helpful with those kind of things.
Foodable: How did you and George land on the idea of opening a fast casual "pasta bar"? Why Pasta?
GO: Saucy was George's idea and he was already developing the concept when he enlisted my help. We had been friends for a couple of years and he asked if I could help to develop the recipes and the concept with him which evolved into a business partnership. George had the idea for Saucy for a few years, with a plan to take a fresh, healthier approach to pasta while keeping flavor and quality.
There aren't many quick service pasta places around that offer good quality dishes that caters to the needs of people living healthier lifestyles— vegetarians, vegans and coeliacs as well as people who enjoy fresh pasta done in a quick environment.
By making the pasta fresh in store every day, the cooking times are less than that of dried pasta, which means that the food can be served quickly without compromising quality. It's convenient for people who don't have much time to spend queuing and for those who want something different.
Foodable: What was the appeal for opening a fast casual restaurant in London?
GO: Fast casuals globally are on the rise and for good reason. London is a fast paced city and people generally don't have the luxury of time, especially during their lunch hour in work or on their morning commute so fast casuals are a good option for people who want their food fast, not fast food.
Foodable: Your hard work may serve as inspiration for many aspiring chefs and restaurateurs out there that have a concept they wish to turn into reality. If they were to ask you for some advice, what would you say?
GO: Working with the right people is key. Everyone involved in each project needs to be 100 percent committed and passionate about what you are working towards. Aside from that, my advice would be to prioritize your time and make sure to spend some time away from work now and again so that you don't get burnt out. Sometimes you need to take a step back and realize that you are more productive when you have had some time to relax and sleep.