10 Minutes With: Alan O'Kane, The Black Swan Hotel, Helmsley

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 2nd August 2016

He trained in London at the Savoy and at The Capital but Alan O’Kane, originally from Sunderland, is happiest in the north. He’s the new head chef at The Black Swan Hotel in Helmsley and he is hoping to make his mark in Yorkshire. The Staff Canteen spoke to Alan about working in tough nineties kitchens, why he has so much respect for Terry Laybourne and his plans for the Black Swan.

Torched Salmon
Torched Salmon

Alan O’Kane has previously worked at Gilpin Lodge and Wynyard Hall but his role before the Black Swan was as executive chef at the Surrey hotel and resort, Foxhills.

“I was sold a dream that they were going to turn it into the Gleneagles of the south,” explained Alan. “They wanted three rosettes and a star in the restaurant and they were pumping a lot of investment into that. I did enjoy it and I got to work with a lot of great guys down there but it was a massive operation, it was very intense and it was too big I think to achieve what was set out for it.”

Originally from Sunderland, Alan’s family had stayed up north and with the hours he was working the role at Foxhills didn’t work out.

He said: “I was missing my family too much, I decided to look closer to home and that’s when I heard about the Black Swan. I thought it would be a good fit for me, it reminded me of the Angel at Corbridge which I had when I was about 25.

“The memories flooded back to me for the style of food, the gamekeepers coming to the back door with game – it’s just fantastic and there is a real community feel to the place.”

He’s also very happy to be in the same vicinity of some Yorkshires best restaurants, he said: “You’ve got the Black Swan at Oldstead, The Star Inn at Harome – it’s a foodie destination, so for me, to come somewhere like this which has three rosettes already and they want to push on as far as they can, there’s no better place really.”

He added: “Yorkshire people like their food and they know good food so it was an easy sell really.”

As a young chef Alan getting into the industry in the nineties, he decided to try his luck in London, taking his first step at the Savoy. He became part of a ‘classic French brigade’ under Anton Edelmann, he said: “It was great. It was a big step for me as a commis but it was a really good experience. I basically learnt how to work and adapt in a kitchen, there were 100 chefs so as a commis you were peeling carrots and other very basic stuff.”

Alan headed home after a year but missed London so took a job with Phil Britten at The Capital Hotel which had a star at the time. Alan says he was working alongside some good names in the kitchen including Billy Drabble, this is where he believes he started to hone his skills.

“That was my first step into Michelin and the produce coming through the door was unbelievable. But it was tough, it was physically tough which I don’t think has a place in the industry now but back then it did.”

Leaving London, Alan took a position with Terry Laybourne at Bistro 21. It was the first restaurant he had worked ‘which had a garden kitchen’. He said: “Back then it was very unheard of. Bistro 21 was where I learnt how to cook; stocks, sauces, attention to detail – all classic ways.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Terry, he’s done so much for the north east and he’s a great guy for training young guys up. You get a real family feel when you work for Terry and you feel a part of the establishment which is always great. They are the best places to work, when you feel a part of it and you’re not just a number.”

Strawberry & Compressed Watermelon
Strawberry & Compressed Watermelon

He added: “I fell lucky with my job with Terry because it still had the quality of London. In the nineties there weren’t many great restaurants in the north east, they were basically within hotels. Going to work for Terry I was using fresh produce, learning modern techniques in a beautiful restaurant.”

Alan has continued to use what he learnt at Bistro 21 and says his cooking style is still heavily influenced by his time there. His dishes all start with the classics and when he joined the Black Swan he changed the menu by adding dishes which he has tried and tested throughout his career.

“I chose dishes which would allow the skill set to go up,” explained Alan. “My style is a mix of European and Asian but all the ingredients I use are on our doorstep. So we have a duck dish which uses Yorkshire duck but the leg is confit down with some Asian flavours, sweet potato puree and fondant and a bit of seaweed on there as well.”

As an established hotel and restaurant, inevitably Alan had to keep the regulars happy when implementing the new menu but he says he’s had a ‘fantastic response’.

“When I came here the menus were huge, for me its quality not quantity – I wanted the guys to focus on the quality of the produce they are using. We have the tasting menu and the al a carte so there is still plenty of choice but not so much that it hampers the kitchen.”

Alan has only been at the Black Swan for five months so his priority is getting the brigade settled in and upping the skill level.

Bitter Chocolate Namelaka
Bitter Chocolate Namelaka

He said: “They are all young guys and they’re really buckling down, and enthusiastic about where we want to push it. I’m looking to start putting more challenging dishes on the menu in the future but foremost it’s what the customer wants. At the end of the day you have to cook for your customer – us chefs can get carried away sometimes!

He added: “I want to obviously keep the three rosettes and if there is a chance of more than fabulous. What I want is when people come here they get an experience.”

By Cara Pilkington

@canteencara

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 2nd August 2016

10 Minutes With: Alan O'Kane, The Black Swan Hotel, Helmsley