Glen Wheeler didn't grow up dreaming of owning his own restaurant. In fact he didn't have ambitions of being a chef at all. But after discovering his culinary passion at South West College (or Fermanagh College, as it was then) he has gone on to have a career that most chefs would be envious of. Having worked at MacNean House and Restaurant for over a decade, Glen recently opened his own restaurant, 28 Darling Street, in Enniskillen. It's taken him a lot of hard work to get to this point, but with his first appearance on BBC's Great British Menu just around the corner, he is still relishing the challenge.
“28 Darling Street has been open for around fifteen months now. It’s easily been the biggest challenge of my life, but it’s an exciting one. Every day is a school day when you’re opening your own business, and it’s a big jump, but I had to do it.
“When you’ve worked hard for years you eventually want to start doing things yourself. I still love MacNean restaurant, and the hardest thing for me was leaving there. I’d seen the restaurant grow, from a small bistro to the best restaurant in Ireland, as far as I’m concerned, and I’d grown with it. But two or three years ago my wife and I started talking and we decided it was time we did something on our own.
“Owning a restaurant opens up new challenges as a chef. Every bill is your bill, every expense is coming out of your pocket, and every carrot or potato peeling that goes in the bin starts to feel like waste. You’re watching out for every little detail, and everything becomes your concern.
"It’s hard work. Two weeks ago we finished at ten past five in the morning and came in again before nine. That’s not something I want to be doing in ten years time, but for now it feels right. Not in a million years will this restaurant ever close because I didn’t work hard enough.”
28 darling street is the latest stage in a career that started with a culinary education at Fermanagh College, but Glen admits that a life in cooking was never something he envisioned for himself growing up.
"As far as inspiration goes, there’s no one that will ever beat what Neven Maguire's done for me"
“I don’t have any stories of falling in love with cooking as a child, or being in the kitchen with my mother or anything. But I did quite poorly in my GCSE’s, mainly because I was working late nights at a hotel, and my careers officer eventually said 'why don't you try something in catering and hospitality, seeing as you enjoy the hotel work?' So I signed up for a course in what was at the time the Fermanagh College, and I fell in love with it."
“Neven Maguire was a lecturer and his enthusiasm was so infectious. His personality was like no one else I’d ever met. We clicked straightaway and in my second year at the college he asked me to come and work in his restaurant. Fourteen years later I’m still here looking back on it as a key decision in my career. As far as inspiration goes, there’s no one that will ever beat what Neven’s done for me.”
Glen's appreciation for Neven Maguire is no understatement. In fact the role he's played in his life spreads beyond the kitchen, as MacNean restaurant is also where Glen met his wife, Zara.
“I started at MacNean fourteen years ago and Zara was the first person I met in the kitchen. She was special in that she was the only one that was ever allowed to be involved in putting food on the plate with Neven. We all cooked and the two of them dressed the plates. The two of us got on well in that very high pressure environment, and we still do today, so we owe him a lot in that regard.”
However, if Glen owes much of the early stages of his career to the influence of those around him, there's no doubt that his progression came thanks to his own enthusiasm and initiative. His willingness to travel played a large part in this.
“I was never someone who wanted to go travelling and stay away from home. I was very happy where I was. But the restaurant closed for a month every January, so i'd go work somewhere else. I’d literally e-mail the top ten restaurants in the world and hope i'd get into one of them for two of three weeks. I would torture them until I got some sort of offer, even though it was usually unpaid work at crazy hours. It could be peeling potatoes for eight of nine hours, but I didn’t mind doing it because I knew I could learn things there that would stay with me for the rest of my career.”
“It was one of the biggest decisions I made in my career, because I was only nineteen at the time, and in many ways I was terrified. I went to London and worked in one of Gordon Ramsay’s kitchens, which had three Michelin stars. I was rubbing shoulders with some of the best chefs in the world and I was worried that i'd be seen as a weak link in the kitchen. But I always kept up with them, whatever it was. Any kitchen I was in, I always pushed myself to my limits.”
"I had to pinch myself, I was cooking alongside two Michelin starred chefs on a show I’ve been watching since college."
Glen's ambitions show no signs of stopping, and now, even with his own restaurant, he continues to push himself by stepping into some of the most intimidating kitchens imaginable. He recently competed in Great British Menu, with the episodes due to air on BBC soon.
"It was an honour to be asked to be on Great British Menu this year. It’s probably the most recognised competition in the industry and the invitation couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I’m not fame driven, but I want a busy restaurant, and Great British Menu helps to put our name out there.
"It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m not a competition chef, so throwing myself into that along with running here was just crazy. It was the hardest couple of months of my life but also very rewarding. I had to pinch myself at times because I was cooking alongside two Michelin star chefs on a TV show I’ve been watching since I was in college."
If Great British Menu has come as a pleasant surprise at this stage of his career, it's only one in a career that continues to be unpredictable day by day.
"When I drive into work each morning I have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s not your average job, because it takes over your life. But I love it. I have two young girls who are always my priority, and when I bring my eldest into the restaurant for an afternoon, and I’m prepping for a service while she sits up on the bench beside me, it's the most rewarding thing imaginable."