Tullamore chef Colin Kelly is not sure whether he has become a better chef since he became a father, or whether he is a better father because he is a chef, but either way he believes there is a strong connection between the two.
As well as being the co-owner of two very popular neighbourhood restaurants in central London, Colin is also a doting father of two young children, and says he is constantly striving for “a better work-life balance” so that he can spend more time with his young family and his girlfriend, Danielle Katz.
The affable son of popular local couple, Jimmy and Bernie Kelly from Ashwood, Tinnycross, Colin is this week celebrating being named as one of the Top 50 Irish people on the extremely competitive London food scene in the prestigious annual Murphia List. The List is compiled by a second-generation Irish brother and sister team who run one of the most reputable guides to dining out in London, a website called 'Hot Dinners.'
Despite the fact that it can be difficult to achieve a good work/life balance in the notoriously tough and demanding culinary world, Colin Kelly says that once he started cooking at just 16 he never wanted to be anything other than a chef!
Such was his passion for cooking that he actually worked for free in a local hotel in Tullamore until he had learned enough to justify earning a wage, and he says the grounding and the training he got in his first job has stood him in good stead ever since.
“One of the things I love to see in a young chef is a positive attitude,” he says “when I started I was such a little eager beaver, always keen, always asking, always willing, on my toes, excited about the job and about everything I was learning.”
After attending chef school and working in various jobs, including a stint in Dublin's l'Ecrivain in 2003, the year it won a Michelin star, Colin Kelly moved to London “for a year” and has been there ever since.
He is now the co-owner of two restaurants in central London, both called 'Picture' which were opened on Great Portland Street, Fitzrovia (beside Broadcasting House, the BBC headquarters) in June 2013 and in the neighbourhood of Marylebone three years later. One of Colin's co-owners is a Scottish chef called Alan Christie, while the other is Tom Slegg, who looks after front of house duties and also takes care of much of the administrative side of the business.
After running the whole gamut of cheffing in his early years in London, including working ten double shifts in a row, 16-hour days, grabbing a few precious hours of sleep on “a friend of a friend's couch” and generally being tired all the time, Colin Kelly now tries to work only four or four and a half days each week. “That leaves me time to go swimming with my daughter, Alannah, or spend time baking at home with her, which she absolutely loves, or for myself and Danielle to take Alannah and her baby brother, Finn, to the Park” says Colin, “so after all the years of hard graft, I feel I do have a better work/life balance, and I probably enjoy cooking now more than I ever did, because there is that great sense of pride about cooking in your own restaurant.”
Six months after Colin Kelly was appointed as Head Chef in a restaurant in London's Mayfair called 'Wild Honey' it was awarded a Michelin Star, and the young Tullamore man, who was just 27 at the time, thought it was the highlight of his career. “That was until I opened my first restaurant” he says, adding that one of his biggest regrets from his time in 'Wild Honey' was his lack of experience in managing staff.
“I think one of the best things about the shortage of chefs, which is a huge problem, is that it has forced the industry to take a cold hard look at itself, and at the whole work/life balance situation, and I now know that a happy staff is absolutely crucial to a successful restaurant, and when I look back on my first job as a head chef, I know I could have been a better, and a nicer boss,” he admits.
After the birth of his first child, Colin Kelly says he did not want to be in a situation where his daughter would “barely know her grandparents and her Irish relations” so he made a vow to try to return to his native Tullamore every month to catch up with family and friends. “Danielle's parents live just 45 minutes away, so I want to make sure than Alannah and Finn are always aware of their Irish, and their Tullamore roots, that is very important,” he says.
One of the biggest thrills for Colin Kelly is when “locals from home” take the time to visit either of his two London restaurants, and he is more than happy to offer them a free drink, a cocktail, or an Irish coffee as a thank you gesture.
While he is normally to be found in the kitchen of the Marylebone restaurant from Tuesday to Saturday (they close on Sunday and Monday) he can usually flit between both 'Picture' restaurants as he says they are “just ten minutes away from each other.”
One thing that having children has taught Colin Kelly is the value of patience, and he says it is a great asset to have as a chef. “You could find yourself answering the same question from a child 100 times a day” he laughs “and that has certainly taught me to a be a more patient chef and a more patient employer, and for that I am very grateful.”