THE BIG INTERVIEW: The Alchemist’s culinary director Seamus O’Donnell talks kitchen chemistry

Seamus O’Donnell, culinary director 1

The Alchemist is a master in the dark arts of molecular mixology, but its kitchens are also winning acclaim for the gastronomic magic they create before diners’ eyes. Prior to the temporary shutdown of the hospitality sector, Andrew Seymour met with culinary director Seamus O’Donnell to discuss the juggling act of keeping chefs motivated, kitchens equipped and customers satisfied.

He’d be too humble to admit it himself, but Seamus O’Donnell is very much the ‘chefs’ chef’. Having worked his way up through the ranks — including a number of years serving at different Living Ventures sites before he joined The Alchemist in 2015 — he now oversees a brigade of around 350 chefs across 20 UK restaurants.

While you won’t necessarily hear him condemn the old-school edict that you need to get your hands properly dirty and work every hour imaginable to become a good chef, the affable Irishman has learnt that to achieve success in the kitchen, you are only as strong as those around you.

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“The chefs’ culture and how they react kind of dictates how you form your business. Back in the day, chefs would want to work 70 or 80 hours, but now they want to have a life, and a good work-life balance is key to that,” he says.

O’Donnell is highly regarded for the care and respect with which he treats his chefs and, as his responsibility within the business has grown, he has kept sight of the fact that chefs perform best when they are given an environment in which to thrive.

Simple changes to the kitchen workload, such as conducting monthly stock takes rather than weekly ones, might appear inconsequential to an outside observer, but they have been hugely effective in galvanising the team and focusing everyone on the same end goal.

He insists the industry is clogged with ‘office chefs’ when actually most just want to be behind the stove.

“I don’t need chefs to be counting the same stock every week,” he explains. “Firstly, if you are serving food to spec and everything is being portioned correctly, you will have no stock issues because there will be no waste. Secondly, if you are putting the time and the effort into teaching and educating chefs, your staff retention will be better because they are less likely to leave.”

O’Donnell employs a philosophy in the kitchen that is based around the words ‘trust, honesty and reliability’.

He explains: “Whether I am dealing with a chef, a new recruit, a new supplier or anyone, I go by the values of trust, honesty and reliability — I even use it outside in my personal life. If they don’t have those values we can’t match up because if you can’t trust someone to be honest, you can’t rely on them.

“And that works both ways. They need to be able to trust you, so they can rely on you, so they can be honest with you. It doesn’t matter which way you put them, they all interlink. The Alchemist logo consists of a triangle with a circle on the outside and that really represents this thinking.”

This principle also underlines why The Alchemist has never really faced the sort of chef recruitment challenges that have hampered some of its peers in the UK dining space.

Whether I am dealing with a chef, a new recruit, a new supplier or anyone, I go by the values of trust, honesty and reliability”

It works hard to ensure chefs are properly incentivised and operate in an environment where they are valued and given room to grow. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, O’Donnell had been arranging The Alchemist’s first ever internal culinary competition. He was planning to close one of its restaurants for the day and chefs from its branches would be encouraged to compete for prizes and share ideas.

That will need to be rescheduled for another date in the calendar now, but it demonstrates his desire to promote camaraderie and reward exceptional performance amongst the team.

“If you have got happy chefs, you have got happy kitchens, and if you’ve got happy kitchens, you’ve got good food. And if you’ve got good food, you have got customers, and if you have got customers you have got a business. It goes back to that circle,” he says.

Effective kitchen design

With 20 restaurants to its name and more likely to open in future —a site in Edinburgh is on the agenda for the end of the year — The Alchemists’ kitchens have gone through various iterations as the chain has grown.

“If you go back to my very first kitchen to where the kitchens are now, you will see changes in how they have been designed. You learn as you go along, as they say.

“New equipment obviously comes out every year, so I rely on magazines such as Foodservice Equipment Journal to see what’s going on in the world, as well as word of mouth. You should never not go to a trade show, because you never know what’s out there — it is these forms of communication that allow you to develop and better your business.”

He admits he has got “braver” with kitchen designers as he has overseen more projects and he is no longer afraid of getting his point of view across when a new kitchen is being planned.

“One thing that The Alchemist does very well is we work as a team, and that is the key to success. The bars need to be able to work to get the drinks out in a fashionable time so that the customers are happy, and so do the kitchens for their food. There is no point in trying to force a footprint on a business if it doesn’t work operationally.

Having good, known branded equipment in your kitchen is one of the easiest things to sell to a chef”

“We are very lucky that the managing director, the ops director and the financial director understand that — you could say they are the three triangles of trust, honesty and reliability, and we are the circle on the outside trying to make it all work.”

While each Alchemist kitchen is different in terms of its shape, O’Donnell likes to ensure there is as much consistency with the selection of equipment it uses as possible.

“When I write the menus, I write them so that every kitchen can cook the same menu in the same way. It does make it easier for us when we do new openings because everyone knows the schematics of the equipment and where it needs to go.

“When environmental health officers are walking around they see the same kitchens and it makes it easier to adapt to any changes to the menu because every kitchen is roughly the same. You will always have a kitchen that has a slightly different configuration, but in principle they all work the same way.”

A kitchen, of course, is only as good as its equipment, and The Alchemist works with many of the most established brands in the industry that create systems it can rely on. Price is naturally a factor in O’Donnell’s choice of partner — “it would great if I could go out and buy Lamborghinis and Porsches all the time but we need to stay competitive so I am always looking for good value!” — but primarily any equipment needs to be fit for purpose.

He cites Synergy Grill, brought in for its gas efficiency because it no longer wanted gas-guzzling chargrills in its business, as a prime example of this. Additionally, he points to relationships with brands such as Falcon, Samsung, Precision, Foster and Atosa as evidence of its desire to use reputable industry names.

“I do want to stay with good brands because having good, known branded equipment in your kitchen is one of the easiest things to sell to a chef. Chefs spend 75% of their day in the kitchen and they are proud of where they work and they are proud to work with known equipment rather than off-the-shelf branded names they might never have heard of.”

When the industry is back up and running, and normality has resumed, O’Donnell will once again turn his attention to developing The Alchemist’s menu and championing further culinary innovation. This, after all, is the chain that serves ‘charcoal’ fish and chips. He is also keen to explore new technology that will enhance the kitchen operations.

Going from seeing a brigade send out food for the first time to the site being open for a year is one of the biggest satisfactions I have”

One of the areas he is looking at closely this year is food waste, having begun trials of an Orca food waste system at one of its London sites. The technology mimics a natural digestion process, creating the perfect ‘thermophilic’ biological environment for microorganisms to digest food waste into a liquid state.

O’Donnell believes it is a more practical alternative to sending food waste to landfill, particularly with more of The Alchemists’ chefs growing concerned about the environmental consequences of conventional food waste disposal methods.

“I want to try and save some labour for my chefs as well,” he says. “Carrying bags of food waste up the stairs, if the kitchen is downstairs, is heavy on the back. If I can look at a system to make their lives easier by doing something positive for the environment as well then that works a treat for me.”

Chef progression

Although he is based in the North West, O’Donnell spends most of his week on the road, visiting restaurants and meeting with his team. It is a role that suits him perfectly given his appetite for mentorship.

“I love watching the lads and lasses progress,” he says. “Most of the guys and girls have come from being kitchen porters and one of the proudest things for me is watching them grow. One of my biggest assets is building brigades because I like progression from within. No matter where we are in the country I can build a brigade, and going from seeing that brigade send out food for the first time to the site being open for a year is one of the biggest satisfactions I have.

“Everyone is going on about where are we going to find the chefs of the future — we are going to find them by home-growing them and investing the time and effort into apprentices and giving people an opportunity.

“Some of them are young people who don’t really know what they want to do with their lives. Chefing is a love. You have got to love it to want to be a chef because it is a hot kitchen, a stressful environment, it is busy. But who wants to work in a quiet kitchen? If you work in a quiet kitchen, you are going to end up working by yourself, and if you are doing that it is a very lonely place.

“And that’s the beautiful thing —when you think about the amount of chefs I have, nearly 20 chefs in every kitchen, it tells you that the key to success is having busy kitchens. And they are only busy because the chefs are good at their jobs and because of the menu. It all goes back to that circle and The Alchemist philosophy.”

5 bits of kit critical to my kitchens – Seamus O’Donnell

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Andrew Seymour

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