Derek Reilly – My Life in Hospitality

06 August 2010 by
Derek Reilly – My Life in Hospitality

Derek Reilly is the group executive head chef, Hibernian Aviva, Sodexo.

Derek Reilly had no great aspiration as a child to become a chef and admits that he "fell into it". "I started doing a catering course after I left school because I wanted to learn a trade, and I found out early on that I was quite good," he says.

When, in 1988, he took a job as a commis chef at Coffers restaurant in Dublin, Reilly quickly learnt that the pace of a working kitchen is quite different from the education environment he was used to. "It wasn't quite what I expected," he says. "It was a lot more fast and furious. But within just a couple of weeks I was infected by the buzz of service. It was immense."

Following guidance from his mentor and head chef at the time, Reilly spent the next few years working his way up the career ladder at a number of Ireland's finest restaurants, including Déjà Vu on Dublin's Grafton Street. However, in 2000 he decided he'd like to turn his hand to working in hotels and took a job with the Marriott Johnstown House hotel, where he could learn about volume catering.

"It was a steep learning curve," he explains. "I'd gone from 60- to 80-seat restaurants to banqueting for 800-900 people while maintaining the same standards."

After a year Reilly joined the Canning Group, a family-run group of hotels, restaurants and banqueting facilities, where he quickly accelerated to the role of head chef. But with so many properties, it was a very busy time. "It was fun, but crazy. I was literally doing 100 hours a week, seven days a week, because the business never shut," he says.

In 2007 Reilly joined food service giant Sodexo as group executive head chef at the company's Hibernian Aviva contract. "I needed to refocus on one business and on the food, and contract catering presented new and interesting challenges. With the same customers every day, you have to impress them daily."

He is keen to ensure that neither his customers nor his team become bored, and he says motivation is crucial.

HIGHS… In June Reilly was honoured at the Craft Guild of Chefs awards ceremony at London's Lancaster hotel on the same night that legendary chef Pierre Koffmann was presented with the Special Award. "Winning the Contract Catering Chef award and sharing the stage with my idol was amazing," he says. "It's definitely something I wouldn't have achieved without the platform of Sodexo."

It was through his employer that Reilly experienced a second Koffmann-related high when a few months previously he was given the opportunity to do a stage with the iconic chef at Sodexo's unit at HSBC. "I learnt not to waste anything and to be very attentive," he says of the inspiring opportunity.

Reilly says that it is his career in contract catering that has enabled him to gain recognition in a craft he loves, including six industry awards. "I love to pass on the passion I have for this industry, so I have a big hand in developing our junior chefs. That's a real high. Some might call it an unhealthy obsession," he says.

LOWS…While Reilly says that every day holds its own challenges, he is particularly disappointed that his late father wasn't around to witness the recognition he has received in recent years. He says that when he goes to collect an award, that's what goes through his mind.

"He gave me my work ethic, my never-give-up attitude and passion. He was a factory worker and he instilled in me the idea of doing my best and working hard," he adds.

Family Married, two daughters
Age 39
Favourite holiday Portugal
Drives Opal Zafira
Motto In order to succeed you cannot be afraid to fail

Make sure your staff understand the value of outstanding customer service, because customers are a precious commodity.

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