Neven Maguire visited South West College Enniskillen and spoke to Way out West.
In many ways, Neven Maguire is still cooking in the same kitchen he started out in at twelve years old. He's head chef and proprietor at MacNean House and Restaurant in Blacklion, county Cavan, which was formerly ran by his parents as MacNean Bistro, and where he began cooking alongside his mother. Between these two bookends of his career, there has been extensive travelling, cutting-edge culinary exploration, varying jobs, distinguished awards, national television shows and, indeed, books - thirteen 1ed in total. He has become one of Ireland's most respected and recognisable chefs, and by staying loyal to his roots, and taking over as owner of MacNean house in 2001, has been able to create one of Ireland's most popular dining destinations. When it comes to acknowledging how all this began, it's not just Blacklion that he finds himself returning to.
On Tuesday 28th February, Neven visited South West College Enniskillen, formerly the Fermanagh College, where he was once a winner of the prestigious student of the year award. Neven explains, ‘I’ve great memories of Fermanagh College. I got great support and encouragement from the tutors. I was very focused, from the age of twelve I knew I wanted to be a chef, and because I only lived twenty minutes from here, the setup was perfect for me. I came here, did my training, and went home at night and worked in the kitchen with my mother.’
‘I think it’s a great career and there’s lots of jobs out there. It’s a profession that changes so much, and we have such great produce now all over Ireland, as well as some amazing chefs, so there’s lots of opportunities out there.
From a culinary family, there's no doubt Neven’s passion for cooking came early, but he believes it was his years at Enniskillen College that allowed him to learn his trade as a chef, first as a student, then as a tutor. He says, ‘It’s a great college, great facilities and I have fantastic memories as a student and then, after I got my qualifications, when I went into teaching.'
Neven spent several years teaching at the college and says, 'I learned an awful lot about how to work with students, how to handle the way they’d arrive in good humour one day, then bad humour the next, something which has helped me throughout my career. I’ve huge respect for the college. There were some great people here in my time, and when I return it’s great to see the people I remember and those I’ve got to know as a visitor over the years.’
Just as Neven is quick to acknowledge how the Enniskillen college helped him at the start of his career, he also believes courses like those available at South West College are the best option for anyone setting out on the same path today. Speaking about cooking and hospitality in general, he says, ‘It’s a great career, and a profession that changes so much. We have such great produce now all over Ireland, as well as some amazing chefs, so there’s lots of opportunities out there once you get your qualifications - I think that’s really important. Training as a chef is crucial. The fact that students can come full time or part time means that they can make their own decisions on certain things, but I always say to young chefs: get your qualifications first, then, when you’ve finished, you can travel the world and do whatever feels right, then hopefully come back and work.’
Nevan Maguire has received awards such as the Irish Restaurant Awards ‘Best Celebrity Chef’, 2009 and 2010, and ‘Best Ulster Restaurant’, four years in a row at the start of the decade. He's also appeared on radio and television across RTE and on several UK networks. But he’s quick to say that none of this comes easy.
Cooking is glamourized on television. It’s hard work, its long hours, and you have to be dedicated, you have to cook with your heart and love what you do.
‘I think it’s a great time to be in the food industry, but sometimes cooking is glamourised on television. It’s hard work, its long hours, and you have to be dedicated, you have to cook with your heart and love what you do. And cooking is only one part of it. When it comes to running a restaurant there’s also the service. It's great that here in the college the students get to cook but also get to meet the customers, and get the front of house experience which is crucial. That’s one thing I have always admired about the college.’
It's perhaps this admiration which has kept Neven involved in culinary education. Having worked at the college, he now has his own Neven Maguire cooking school, which boasts state-of-the-art facilities and carries fun and informal classes for all skill levels carried out by Neven himself.
So with this venture of his own, how does Neven feel when he visits South West College? ‘I feel very old,’ he jokes. ‘Seeing all these young students, it feels like a long time since I was here. But it’s great, it’s the future of our industry, and we’ve got to nurture and encourage it so we can get more people into our industry, because there’s a huge shortage of people in the hospitality industry.
That’s the beauty about this industry, you never stop learning, it’s always changing and it’s always evolving.
'In my own business we have seventy staff. That includes a lot of students who are in college but have no interest in joining this industry, but also some that do. Some of them come in, get a bit of experience and say ‘yeah, I love this’ and so we try and put them into college, and I think that’s essential. I love having a close relationship with South West College, where some of my staff will come in and get their qualifications. It’s a win-win for everyone.’
That culinary education is at the centre of the food industry is perhaps made most clear by Neven’s continuing attitude towards it when it comes to his own career. ‘Personally, I think it's important to travel, to open your eyes. I travel constantly with my job, so I’m learning all the time. That’s the beauty about this industry, you never stop learning, it’s always changing and it’s always evolving.
‘When I look back on my career, when I started off here, I didn’t think I’d have thirteen cook books, or have recorded over 120 of my own television shows. That’s not what it’s about, it’s about the love of my job, the love of food. It’s about learning and evolving, and always wanting to be the best that you can be. I think that’s so important, and when I look back on my career, I haven’t got to where I am without the support of this college. It’s close to my heart, and I think life's a journey where you have to follow your heart. I wanted to go to college, and being here worked out brilliant. I got so much support, and I’ll never forget that. You don’t get to where you are without the support, the encouragement, and at the end of the day, the tutors here only want the best for the students. That’s the key.’