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Accomplished chef and Irish food champion John Relihan has worked his way up through the restaurant ranks, turning a childhood love of food into a lucrative career through sheer hard work, determination, and a bit of help from his pal Jamie Oliver. We caught up with him recently as he prepared his ultimate Irish beef stew…

What’s your earliest memory of food?

That would be of my mother cooking proper bacon and cabbage with flavoursome juices, and the world’s best fluffy potatoes and butter. This is one of the first things I remember cooking on the fire place and enjoying at home.

Did you always want to be a chef?

Yes, always. When I was young I used to cook for my mother when I came home from school and loved it. After school I applied for Jamie Oliver’s apprenticeship scheme at Fifteen in London, and this is where the passion grew very deep. I still love it.

You’ve got strong connections with Jamie Oliver, being an alumni of both Fifteen and Barbecoa. Is there anything you’ve learnt about the business from Jamie himself?

I have learnt so much from Jamie. Number one is the importance of respecting your staff and looking after them, I believe this is the most important part of any business. Just by working next to Jamie and seeing his passion for every part of what he does is very inspiring. The energy of Jamie and his team just feeds into other people and creates a pretty incredible atmosphere.


You opened your own restaurant, Holy Smoke, in Cork last year. What’s been the biggest challenge in having your own place?

No real big challenges, apart from the everyday operation and keeping the restaurant busy with guests. When cooking on the fire you have to really impress upon your staff the importance of cooking meat to perfection and knowing your timings. This knowledge takes time to develop, but it’s one of the best parts of the job; teaching and sharing your knowledge with the staff and guests.

Was there any one particular experience that got you interested in barbecue food?

Before Barbecoa opened up, I was working in a test kitchen with a chef called Adam Perry Lang. He is one of the most talented people who work with meat and I loved the experience. Being up at 6 am and going to bed at 2 am every morning, I just didn’t want to sleep. I loved the job so much, and watching him cook was incredible. To be able to learn from him was a fantastic experience, plus he is just an amazing person to be working next to.

You’re interested in teaching children about nutrition. Can you tell us about the upcoming projects you’re involved in?

Yes, this is a great thing to be able to do. One of the things I learnt from Jamie’s team is that to give back is an amazing feeling. So this year in Cork and around Ireland, we are spreading the word of Jamie’s Food Revolution project. It’s a global event, raising awareness of childhood obesity and teaching kids about nutrition and aiming to provide better food education.

You’re Ireland’s food champion. What does this entail?

We focus on food and tourism, showing people both in Ireland and abroad the best of our country. From festivals, restaurants and tourist spots to the spirit and hospitality of the people. There’s a group of champions in Ireland who have all different talents and we bring together ideas to enhance trade in Ireland and promote it to bigger markets.


Why do you enjoy cooking with Irish beef?

A variety of things: the rich flavour that comes from the cows being fed on grass, perfect marbling, good fat. You can really taste the difference. Whether it’s dry aged or wet aged, it really does have just incredible flavours.

You’ll be cooking up the ultimate Irish stew at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day event in Trafalgar Square. What’s your one top tip to creating the best possible Irish stew?

Patience! Lots of love, and taking your time. Whatever you do, don’t rush the cooking.


Any stand out memories or stories from past St. Patrick’s Days?

Last year’s Trafalgar Square event and everyone that came. The vibe of so many different cultures and  the Irish community enjoying the celebrations; dancing, singing, eating, enjoying drinks and being happy. The event was well set up,  to the point where it brings a tear to my eye while I write this! An incredible event, for all the family and everybody who attends.

Thank you so much for speaking to us John! Visit John in Trafalgar Square on Sunday 19th March and taste his ultimate Irish beef stew for yourself! Find out more about the event here.  And watch John creating the recipe himself here.