I have the utmost respect for chefs. It’s a difficult and stressful job which requires hard physical and mental work in the kitchen, often at odd unsocial hours. They are a key to all food businesses but may not always get the full acknowledgement of their contribution.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure to work with a number of chefs in the food service industry. What we share is not only the appreciation for food and its flavour, but also the firm belief that foods also deliver the best of its nutritional qualities when they are prepared and cooked well.
I met Paul Coonan at a nutrition course at St Mary’s University – I was curious about his work at the headquarters at our local distillery and had a chat with him back in 2017. We recently reconnected, and caught up on what he’s up to with his new role, and about his blog, The Urban Canteen.
G: Georgine Leung, P: Paul Coonan
G: How have things changed for you since we last spoke?
P: Quite considerably! I moved from William Grants and joined the London support team (within the same contract catering company). I have now gone part-time, which allows me to concentrate on producing content on the social media platforms for The Urban Canteen. It also allows me time to produce nutrition & meal plans for clients that are training for events or are generally looking at improving their nutrition within their exercise or training regime.
The other half of the week, I am working all over London as a support chef for my company. This alone produces many challenges, as you are working in new kitchens, with new teams, new menus, every week. So you have no time to get familiar with the job, you need to hit the ground running. But I enjoy the variety and meeting new people.
G: Before the pandemic, how was your typical day like?
P: Due to working in different kitchens every week, I very rarely have a “typical” day. But the rough structure of my day would be:
Leave the house by 5:30 am, travel to central London, to one of our restaurant locations. Be in the kitchen by 6:45 am ready to meet the kitchen team and start working by 7 am. Usually from 7 am to 10 am would be preparing for breakfast and then breakfast service. During breakfast service, you would start lunch preparation as well as cooking breakfast. From 10 am you will have just under two hours to get lunch prepared, cooked and ready for service by 11:45 am. Lunch service usually is from 12 pm-2 pm, during this time you will deal with lunch service as well as trying to prepare food for the following day’s menu.
From 2 pm, the kitchen needs to be cleared and cleaned, the food orders for all suppliers (fruit & veg, meat, fish, dairy, bakery, dry goods, frozen goods, disposables, chemicals) all need to be ordered. You will look at finishing around 4 pm. There are days I could be cooking for an event or in hospitality so would be preparing and cooking menus and especially for work lunches or dinners in any location from stockbrokers, solicitors, advertising agencies, directors dining the list is endless, there very rarely is a typical day.
It is not about trying to produce a work of art, because, in reality, people don’t generally have time for that after a long day at work, or taking care of their families.Paul Coonan
G: When we last met, you just started the Urban Canteen and now you have a Kindle book. Congratulations :-) How do you come up with your recipe inspirations? How do you prepare for your recipe videos (and find the time to write for the blog)?
P: The time to get everything done for The Urban Canteen is very difficult as I don’t have enough hours in the day. I work with individual clients on nutrition plans, with brands on content, write recipe posts for the blog, film youtube videos, cook-photograph & edit images for social media as well as try to put out ebooks and free tip guides, so time is valuable.
To prepare for a recipe video is fairly straight forward, all recipes that I put out, I have tried & tested many times, so it is really just cooking it for another time in front of some cameras. I don’t script anything, just go with it, so trust me when I say there are many times when I get things wrong and have to do numerous takes! I make sure the recipe is something that anyone can do, I won’t include specialist equipment or ingredients that are difficult to source, I want the food to be suitable and accessible for everyone, that is a must for any recipe that I film.
My inspiration comes from so many places, old recipes that I love but want to tweak, so they are a more nutritious version, it could be that I make something to go with one thing but feel it may work with something else, there are so many great chefs, bloggers, social media platforms, books out there, that inspiration really is all around. Every time I switch my phone on something will pop up that gets the brain ticking over and makes me come up with some idea.
G: Who/What would you cite is your main inspiration for your work in food?
P: My inspiration has changed over the years, when I worked in restaurants and hotels, my inspirations were the big names in catering Michel Roux, Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Marco Pierre White, Anthony Bourdain (too many to mention). But since starting The Urban Canteen, my focus has changed and my inspiration comes health & well-being perspective. I have a determination to show people that nutritious food doesn’t need to be boring, complicated, expensive or time-consuming.
I think a big influence has also been Jamie Oliver as his approach is about being passionate, enjoy the fresh ingredients, be rustic and enjoy the process. It is not about trying to produce a work of art, because, in reality, people don’t generally have time for that after a long day at work, or taking care of their families. I want my recipes to be ones that people feel are suitable for any day of the week, at any time and will keep going back to them because they are simple and useful.
Show your passion-You need to have a real passion for foodPaul Coonan
G: How do you think your work in food has changed in the last couple of years?
P: I think generally there has been a huge shift to ingredients being sourced locally and sustainably, which I love. It keeps things seasonal, which in turn keeps things fresh and hopefully relatively inexpensive as you are not paying for imported produce. There has been a massive shift to more of a plant-based diet in the last couple of years also, which has resulted in more of a demand in plant-based recipes being requested. My work has really gone from, running a kitchen and cooking for a restaurant, to more content based cooking for social media and clients. I feel more creative and passionate about food more now than I have done for years.
G: What are the top three tips you would offer someone who wants to start blogging about food?
P: 1) Show your passion-You need to have a real passion for food, I really feel this transfers through your content. It is a lot of work and if you don’t enjoy it, you’ll soon want to stop.
2) Try to have a slightly different angle, whether this is the actual recipes, your images, how you put yourself over on social media – just try and stand out.
3) You need to be extremely patient (not my strongest characteristic) and extremely consistent. It can be hard coming up with recipes on a daily basis, but you need to be constantly coming up with something and posting about it. It is easy to be forgotten if you’re not posting or putting out content regularly. Things don’t happen overnight, be patient, if you have a passion for it and enjoy the process, then it will make this part easier.
Visit the Urban Canteen here: www.theurbancanteen.com