Johnny Leake, Head Chef at the Merchant Hotel
When you are young, you don’t realise how an interest can distinguish your career pathway and unleash all your potential to become the best there is in industry. This very scenario was true of Johnny Leake, current Head Chef in The Merchant Hotel.
Johnny, tell us about your background and when you decided that you would like to begin a career in catering?
I became interested in cooking after staying with a host family in Belgium, particularly after this one evening, having spent it watching the grandmother cook rabbit. I will never forget how mesmerising the process and taste of that particular dish was to me. This was the beginning of my passion for cooking.
When I was 16, I chose to study Catering whilst still at school in C.B.S and this is when I began to visit Springvale weekly.
Tell us more about your time at Springvale
I really enjoyed my time at Springvale. There was always this great feeling of independence when we got out of school and went over to the kitchens in Springvale. It was the first experience that I had of the cheffing industry with the atmosphere of a professional kitchen and the pressure involved. Springvale also increased my knowledge about the potential career paths within the industry. I was given several real life opportunities from the very beginning of my learning experience. I would have cooked regularly for all the learners and staff in Springvale and assisted with the catering at several events.
Following my time at Springvale, I completed my NVQ Level 2 and 3 and was soon a fully qualified chef. My focus was to match my experience with my qualifications.
So what did you do next?
I worked in several restaurants in Belfast before travelling to Australia and southeast Asia. Upon my return, I relocated to London to further enhance my culinary skills. I wanted to work for the best and I was determined to make my name known. So instead of waiting for an opportunity to find me, I went to find that opportunity. I knocked on the door of Marco Pierre White’s Michelin star Mirabelle restaurant and asked for a job. Before I knew it, I was the Sous Chef there for over two years.
I then joined the world renowned 2 star Michelin restaurant, The Square, under Phil Howard as a Sous Chef for two years. Later I moved to The Orrery restaurant where I spent another 2 years, working as a Sous Chef.
After my two years working in the Orrery, I decided to move back to Belfast to start a family and bring my world class skills to Northern Ireland. I successfully secured the position as Sous Chef in The Merchant Hotel and within two months I became the Head Chef. I have been here for nearly 7 years.
From what you knew when you first came to Springvale to what you have learned throughout your career, what advice and guidance can you give to anybody who is keen to make it as a top chef?
From the minute I stepped into Springvale, my tutor Sean, helped me to realise how passionate I was about cooking. He was an excellent teacher and his knowledge and commitment to cooking certainly rubbed off on everyone in the class. What I was taught at Springvale gave me a solid foundation for building my career.
Being a chef is a very rewarding job. It takes hard work, commitment and you really do need to have a passion for cooking. Determination was a key driver behind my success and is an extremely important characteristic for any young person considering building a career in the industry.
At The Merchant we have a very talented team of chefs preparing award winning cuisine. Everything is made from the finest fresh, seasonal produce and the standards are incredibly high. The Merchant, and its parent company, The Beannchor Group, are always looking for chef candidates at every level who have plenty of passion and ambition. There are many opportunities for people with the drive and determination to succeed. At whatever level staff join The Merchant, we invest our time, experience and business knowledge to help them develop successfully in their career.
December 8th, 2016