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Chef Neil Doherty Interview

Like so many hopefuls before, Chef Neil Doherty immigrated to America by way of the west coast of Ireland to bust his entire world wide open. And from small farming village to global food provider - he’s found his place and made his mark in the culinary world.

Now based in Houston, TX, Chef Neil is the Corporate Executive Chef and Senior Director Culinary Development at Sysco - a foodservice company that’s servicing chefs and culinarians in 90 countries around the globe.

How would we describe our time with Chef Neil? High energy, unapologetically honest and delightfully full of an eternally endearing Irish brogue; we caught up with him to talk inspiration, the industry today and a few of his favorite things. Read the full interview and get to know him below:

When did you first find a love of cooking?

“It was when I was a kid; I was seven or eight years old and baking was a class I had. I remember I made an Egg Custard Pie, and I absolutely aced it and I LOVED it.

I grew up on the west coast of Ireland - so we’re talking traditional stews, potatoes, homemade bread, soda bread, pies - I think I only saw an actual cake when company visited. I lived in a farming community and had a job since I was 11 years old. So, if I wanted those Dr. Martens I had to earn it myself - it was all about earning your keep.

It was also all about learning about money; I needed to understand that nothing is given to me. My first job ever was at a small corner market; I was bagging potatoes and stocking shelves.

I started slicing bacon and then went from the market to the gardening farm. At 5 am I was thinning out lettuce beans, fertilizing, but I loved it. You got to be there with the food - and I saw species of veggies I’d never seen. Plus, it paid well.”

People around you, music, books, travel - where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?

“I call a lot of my friends who live around the world. I want to know what’s going on with them - what are they seeing, what are they loving. I also follow people on Instagram, and it seems like I’m constantly going out to eat in Houston.

I’m constantly seeing new products. Sysco is a global company, and I have chefs all over the world. Food and style can travel in such an amazing way: I had the best Texas-style barbeque of my life in Sydney, Australia of all places. We’re talking smoked wagyu burnt ends done 100% Texas-style. But it was an ocean away - that’s inspiration.”

Talk to me about some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career.

“I came to America to broaden my horizons quicker - there are so many more options and types of cuisine here. And I didn’t know about a lot of them. I had to learn really fast - I had the culinary skills, but had to adapt them to each cuisine.

I did have a leg up in Ireland, though, from the abundance of agriculture and that we always butchered everything. But all of a sudden in American kitchens I’m working with boxed beef. All around I had to be a fast study.

Then there’s the Irish accent (laughs). Once in America I started working with Latin cooks and kitchen staff and the communication struggle went both ways - just understanding each other. But I love working with more diverse people here.”

What’s an ingredient you consider under-valued?

“Ginger. I love ginger. It’s a true love affair I sneak it into everything. It’s just a go-to thing for me. My wife’s grandma is Puerto Rican and she taught me how to peel ginger skin with the back of a spoon - and we still make a ginger drink before bed. I’m a massive fan of food as medicine. All those roots that our great-grandparents used as remedies are coming back; people are going for the plants.”

Favorite dish to cook for yourself?

“I hate cooking for myself (laughs). I have a stomach of steel so you’ll find me just eating old chicken or cold hamburgers. I’m tasting constantly in the kitchen and by the time a dish is actually served I’m done with it.

BUT if I’m going out to eat - that’s another thing. I love ethnic cuisines like Middle Eastern, Indian, Latin - these all have really high levels of taste and spice. In Houston, we’re lucky. We have incredible Vietnamese, Thai, Nigerian - some of these places might look like a hole-in-the-wall, but we have so many amazing immigrant families making a go of it.

Is ‘glocal’ a word? For global / local (laughs). It should be.”

How do you approach plating a dish? Do you consider plating an art?

“It can be, but it’s all about what you’re plating for. Fast food? In a basket? Does it need to look plentiful? Does it need to stay hot and travel?

I’m so over squiggles. And it’s not just about the actual food: if I just did an oil painting and picked the wrong frame the painting would look terrible. You need the right elements to match the mood. Is your dish telling a story? Plating is always about the eye - ‘you eat with your eyes’ - but it should also do its job and not be about your ego on that plate.”

What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why?

“Eggplant. I really like Asian eggplant whether it’s done sweet, roasted or fried. I absolutely love the texture and taste of baba ganoush. Also, ratatouille was one of the first classical dishes I learned to make and the eggplant just makes it. Plus, my daughter eats gluten-free so I’ll use shaved eggplant instead of pasta.”

What do you think a chef’s role is in their local community?

“We should be giving back. I’ve always done things with local schools; veggie gardens are a great way to connect with and teach kids. And, even better, they get to take the produce they grew home. Any time we can show food doesn't have to come prepackaged is a win, and the kids have fun and take ownership of watching these veggies and fruits grow.

Also, at the end of the day - and even when you pre-plan your menu - a kitchen can waste food. Having a local upcycling plan in place or better systems of purchasing goods will go a long way.”

Talk to me about working for Sysco.

“Over time, Sysco has grown into a much more robust and integrated with many specialty companies – Greco and Sons, our Italian specialty distributor, Buckhead Meats and Seafood, FreshPoint, European Imports, Supplies On the Fly, and Asian Foods.

Back in the day, before there was refrigeration and delivery, you were trained to buy local. But now it’s a whole new world - I can make an order and have it delivered in twenty four hours AND get the local products you want..

Before, the product guy would show up and you might not get the selection or consistency you want. Now there are more resources to achieve that. I have local chefs and specialists in every market and they know their stuff.”

What advice would you give a chef still in culinary school?

“You need to be honest with yourself and not try to be an instant hero. You need to learn and know the techniques. We have a lot of people who rise to prominence on the back of a style or culinary trend.

When that style dissipates, where’s the longevity? You have none. Being a chef needs to be a vocation, a constant learning and development of oneself. It’s not like it seems on social media or Food Network - few people make it to that level.

It feels to me that the restaurant industry turned into the nightclub industry overnight. Get a degree first in economics - chefs need to understand and excel at the business side of things not just the cooking side.

In the UK/ Ireland, my culinary schooling was also based around business and management. School is so expensive, and you need to understand you’ll be carrying that cost for a long time.”