Anything worth doing is worth doing BADLY!
This week’s “Coffee with Colm” blog is about my first day in the career that has sustained me for close to four decades. It started badly; yours probably did too.
It centres around a snippet from my book, ‘Feeding Johnny’ which chronicles my journey from cutlery sorter to founding a multi-million euro business and more.
To put the snippet in context, allow me explain? I was seventeen and had just left school. I wanted to be a school teacher because of the short hours and long holidays but didn’t get enough points in the state exams to gain entry to teacher training college so I decided to get a job for a year and study at night, go to college the following year and become a teacher – short hours, long holidays! Happy days.
This is what happened.
UCC Under Clery’s Clock
“You can start on Saturday.” Those words changed my life.
I got off the lift on the third floor to be greeted by a six-foot Jolly Green Giant wooden statue. The restaurant looked nice. Fancy metal lanterns with copper shades hung over big solid wooden tables and chunky wooden chairs with leather seats and backs standing in neat rows made it look like what I assumed a Swiss alpine home might look like. The skyline of North Dublin City was clearly visible through the huge windows on two full sides of the room. I went to the service area and got a cup of tea and sat shyly towards the back of the room, facing the lift, and the back of the Jolly Green Giant. There was an incredibly dapper young man in a fancy suit, black jacket, grey waistcoat, grey pinstriped trousers, silver tie, dazzling white shirt, wearing a red carnation standing almost to attention as he greeted people that exited the lift.
I was waiting for my dad. He had told me to meet him in Clery’s Rooftop Restaurant because he was taking me to work with him for the day. The lift opened again. Dad exited and it was obvious that he and Dapper Man knew each other, so I waited. And then to my horror, Dad disappeared through a side door into the kitchens. He hadn’t seen me.
I was on my summer holliers, the ‘Leavin’ was done, the results were in. I hadn’t got the honour in Irish, I was going to have to repeat, so a plan was hatched at home – get a job for a year, repeat Irish by studying at night, become a teacher – short hours, long holidays, happy days. Simples. And I had just come from a very formal interview in BHS on O’Connell St for the illustrious position of kitchen porter; they were offering me a position for IR£60 per week. So it looked like part one of Get Colm a Teaching Job was in place and I was in Clery’s to meet Dad, tell him the good news and spend the day with him.
I mentioned Dad was the best salesman in Ireland, and he was selling for Green Isle Frozen Foods. It turns out they were doing a promotion on Jolly Green Giant Corn on the Cob, thus the mad looking green fella as people got off the lift. I finished my tea and walked up to Dapper Man and shyly said “My dad is Tommy O’Brien and he went in there.” pointing to the swing door with the glass panel. In a flash, Dapper Man whisked me through said swing door and into a tiny office where Dad was talking to another giant; a large man with notably large eyes, wearing a blazer, colourful tie and mismatched hanky in the breast pocket. An older man wearing an impeccable chef’s uniform was standing there with customary cloth in hand; his hair bryl-creemed perfectly. “This is my son, Colm. This is Mr.Halpin and his partner Barney Neilan” Dad was saying as we shook hands. Mr Halpin was a larger than life character. Barney Neilan made his exit.
“What are you doing with yourself young man?” boomed Mr Halpin, so I told him the story – No honour in Irish, get a job; repeat the ‘Leavin’ become a teacher, happy days. And I added, I’ve just come from BHS and I got a job, sixty pounds a week, kitchen porter. Dad looked suitably impressed, until Mr Halpin said, “My cashier is leaving this week; you can start on Saturday and work part-time when you go to college next year. €40 a week, but I’ll train you. It’ll be better for you than becoming a kitchen porter.” I had a dilemma.
Anything worth doing is worth doing BADLY
BADLY, that is, until you learn to do it well.
I was scared stiff. I had decided the cashiers job on less money had more potential (or simply appeared easier) than Kitchen Portering (props to all the KP’s out there!) and so I donned a jacket and tie, (no suit mind, I had a fading hippy rep to protect and God knows who might see me!) and I went to work. Dad had warned me that the guys, Mr Halpin, Barney Neilan, and Declan O’Connor aka Dapper Man, were some of the most professional in the industry and here I was about to join them. The pressure was immense.
On that first Saturday when I got off the lift the restaurant was empty and I was immediately greeted by a tall very thin young man with lank hair perfectly split down the middle. He was very polite as he informed me the restaurant wasn’t open yet.
“I’m starting work here today,” I blurted out, much to his surprise.
“OK,” he said. “Sort the cutlery while I make a phone call.”
Sort the cutlery! Sort the cutlery? He may well have said replace the carburettor in a Volkswagen. I had a vague idea what it meant, but no clue as to how to do it, but sort the cutlery I did. Knives, forks, large spoons, tea spoons were lined up in a grey container with four purpose built wells for the job. I sifted through the knives – they looked sorted to me. I moved then to the forks – a bit tangly, but then that’s their nature – sorted, next the large spoons – some had round heads, some were more spear shaped but again – they looked ok and the tea spoons were a doddle – all sorted. I was happy as I waited for my next job. Thin Guy came back.
“OK,” he said, “I phoned Mr Halpin so I now know what’s going on. I’m Ciaran O’Briain, the Restaurant Manager. Welcome aboard. I see you had no luck sorting the cutlery.”
I was gobsmacked. I must have spent ten minutes sorting it. “What do you mean I had no luck???” I wanted to say, but I remembered my Dad’s warning so instead I said “Sorry.” Ciaran O’Briain then took the time to explain that I needed to get a soft cotton cloth and showed me from where. He showed me how to remove all the knives, clean out the well and polish each knife before placing it handle facing the customer in the first well on the right. The forks were next and when we had finished, his instruction to place all the forks cupped into each other made for a much neater presentation. Turns out the roundy spoons were soup spoons, the spear shaped ones, dessert and they shared a well but were cupped separately and even the teaspoons were immeasurably neater when Ciaran had finished. The final piece de resistance was when we filled up the napkin dispensers that stood sentry at either end of the grey tray and polished their chrome faces. When we removed the glass cloth and stood looking at the cutlery table, I knew we had done a good job. My dad was right, I was in professional company.
That first lesson was the first of many, many lessons in doing the job right that I was fortunate to learn working with those four men from age 17. Looking back, I was blessed to find myself in their company. Each of them had a profound impact on who I became over the years.
So, there I was; enjoying working in Clery’s Rooftop Restaurant six days a week, studying Irish at night, I had money in my pocket, IR£40 a week was a lot of money for someone who regularly had cut an entire lawn back and front for 50p! The plan was working. Roll on next summer, repeat the Leavin’, go to college, become a teacher – short hours, long holidays in the bag! Happy days.
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Thanks for thinking with me.