It’s been an exciting few months at Cin Cin! After a hugely successful first year we have expanded by opening a second, larger restaurant in Western Road, Hove. With our Head Chef Jamie Halsall overseeing both sites, we are delighted to announce that Cin Cin Vine Street now has a new and fantastically talented chef heading up the menu in the North Laine – introducing Donal Hughes.
So Donal, as a new member of the Cin Cin team, tell us a bit about your life as a chef so far. How did you get into cooking?
I have been cooking for just over 10 years now. Food wasn’t really a big part of my life growing up as I didn’t exactly come from a family of great cooks. The ritual of sitting down together was not as strong in our household as most. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I was a very picky eater until my early teens. It was only having to eat what was on offer in school that forced me to try new things. So, maybe it’s that I’ve only enjoyed the delights of food and cooking in the last 15 years that makes it still so exciting for me! I’ve always enjoyed expressing myself and being creative. As a kid, it was drawing and guitar, whereas in my teens and now, my outlet is food and cooking.
I had a slow start to my career. I never really committed to being a chef until I moved to Brighton 2 years ago. It was more a fanciful dream of having my own restaurant, but I wasn’t aware of the best steps to take, and the work you need to put in. I just knew I really loved the buzz of the kitchen! I had worked in a couple of hotels, cafes and restaurants through my teens and early twenties, but It was more of a ‘summer job’ then. It was only after I lived in San Francisco for a year that I realised I was way behind other chefs with similar ambitions who were the same age. When moving to Brighton, I said I was going to work in the best restaurant there, and that’s exactly what I did. I pestered the guys at 64° for a job and after 3 attempts, I finally got in. I’m so lucky I got a chance to work there because I learned so much over only a year and a half and could actually see the improvement in myself. In the future, I believe I’ll tell people that it was there that a truly started my training as a chef.
And what attracted you to Cin Cin as the next step in your chef journey?
I ate at Cin Cin after a couple of months of working on recommendation for some of the chefs at work. It was a truly delightful experience. Genuine service, charming personality and purely delicious food. I never even rated pasta in my top 10 favourite foods, yet Cin Cin was still probably my favourite place to eat in town. Jamie just understands what people, especially chefs, want to eat. Amazing food showcasing beautiful ingredients with no faff. His food is still insanely precise through coming from such a fine pedigree such as Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester. What he was able to do out of such a small kitchen inspired me. He’s so young as well! Seeing what he could do really pushed me to work harder and learn as much as I could.
David, Fab and Lisa are also so genuine and kind. The would always remember my name and what we had talked about on our previous encounters. Which, in my opinion, is pure class. David was also more than willing to help me out when I was doing my first pop-up – he lent me equipment, drove me around the city, and all in his free time. When I was making the move from 64°, Cin Cin were planning on opening up their second site. It was one of those rare occasions when the stars align in your favour. One of my favourite restaurants, some of the best people in Brighton, a chance to be part of the opening of a new restaurant, and a chance to learn new skills. Perfect!
What advice would you give a young aspiring chef?
If there is any bit of advice I can give, it’s to go work in the places that you love to eat. Don’t chase accolades or techniques. Learn to cook the food you want to eat. It will be far easier to motivate yourself and everything you learn is so exciting and gratifying. When you feel like it’s no longer exciting or that you’re not learning as much as before, go out and eat! Once you find that inspirational meal, do whatever it takes to get your foot in the door. It will be worth it!
It was only after about a month with the company that the opportunity came to cover a couple shifts at Vine Street. I fell in love with it, and instantly started pestering David and Jamie to let me go there full-time (they probably let me come to Vine Street just so I would leave them alone). There’s a certain magic about it. It’s so tiny, the equipment is odd bits and pieces that all have their own character, and everything is on you because there’s nowhere to hide! It’s also such a pleasure getting to see people having a great time and sharing in that moment rather than slogging away as part of a brigade in a closed kitchen. I love working in open kitchens, it makes it so much more worth all the effort we put in.
What are you hoping to bring to the Cin Cin dining experience at Vine Street?
I just want to try to maintain the standard that Jamie has set over his year here. Of course, I will bring my own “flavour”, but that’s purely because we have very different backgrounds. I’m so lucky that I’ve been given an opportunity to work at Vine Street, and my main goal is to keep delivering that inimitable Cin Cin experience. I want to keep the focus on seasonality and showcase some great Italian products and dishes, while also adapting them to the beautiful East Sussex surroundings. In my opinion, you cannot do authentic regional cuisine outside of that region, it just doesn’t make sense. To me Cin Cin’s authenticity comes from using local produce in season, elevating humble ingredients, and using the medium of handmade pasta and Italian traditions to showcase the best of what we have on offer here in Brighton.
Personally, I feel my role in that is much smaller that some may think. So much thought and work goes into a restaurant and I feel chefs get too much praise. Yes, primarily, we go out to restaurants to eat, but I feel service is far more important. It’s what makes you feel special. David, Fabrizio and Lisa give such a genuine service, you can tell they all love what they do and just want to do their best for the customers.
Do you have a favourite chef? Someone who has inspired you to push your food to the next level?
Honestly, the chefs who have inspired me the most are the ones I’ve had the pleasure to work with. There are a couple of chefs whose work I really admire; Sat Bains, Bo Beach, René Redzepi, Matt Orlando and JP McMahon, just to name a few. Although, a chef is far more than the sum of their dishes – they are people who are trying to express themselves through food. How could I not be most inspired by those who I’ve encountered over the years? The ones I have gotten to know as people, not just those whose food I dream of eating after a late-night scroll down Instagram.
Honestly the chefs who have inspired me most and to whom I owe the most gratitude are the Brighton ‘Greats’. I have such fond memories and owe so much to each and every chef I had the pleasure of working with at 64°. Michael Bremner gave me a chance after an awful trial shift (I thought I was going to get the classic, “We’ll call you”.) Every chef there from top to bottom just wanted to learn and teach. It was a truly special place where I feel like I grew a lot as a person, not just a cook.
Duncan Ray and Jamie Halsall both amazed me as to what one person can do by themselves in a kitchen. Honestly, it still wows me. Duncan cooks the most beautiful food in town out of one of the least equipped kitchens in town and had three rosettes! It’s insane! Jamie as well, he helped create what is one of Brighton chefs’ favourite places to eat. Again, out of such a tiny space and all by himself. More importantly, they are both genuine, lovely guys who both have given me so much of their time and encouragement. True gentlemen.
I also really like what the guys at Silo do. They are trying to start a dialogue around one of the biggest issues in the world, food waste. It’s a risk, and they constrain themselves so much, but it’s for a great cause. The world produces enough food to feed the entire planet four times over. So issues of starvation, malnutrition and agriculture are not technological, but rather failures of distribution and education. I have so much respect for what they do, and they have a new head chef, Dan Gibeon, who I feel has really elevated the food there since he has started.
We hear a lot about Brexit and the challenges for the hospitality trade. What do you think are the big challenges facing chefs in the coming 2-3 years?
Honestly, I think the issues for chefs are diminishing every day now, it’s the business owners who are feeling the struggle. There’s a shortage of chefs in the industry, you can see that even in Brighton. Skilled labour is leaving the marketplace and no young teens what to become chefs. Can you blame them?
Why would you want to work 60-70 hours a week, for a relatively small salary compared to amount of training required, with a such a high risk that if you were to someday open your own business it would have a 90% chance of failure? I feel there is a big paradigm shift on the horizon. Something has got to give. Businesses need to structure themselves with more organisational sustainability in mind. This means better wages for hours worked and better work life balance for all involved.
You can see this happening in the top echelon of restaurants, Sat Bains, Faviken and Maemo are a few restaurants that only require 40-50 hours of their staff, and try to pay the best wages and offer tangible progression to all junior staff. These are two and three Michelin star restaurants though. They can charge an extra 30% to their customers. The average restaurant can’t because they will just be undercut by their competitors. The only solution is to reassess the labour law exemptions in the hospitality industry. It will create huge disruption, most restaurants will suffer, but the early adopters, like the restaurants I mentioned, will already be set-up to deal with the change. It will mean higher prices, but we need to realise the value of food. It costs a lot to produce, especially a restaurant experience. We place so much value on our image, technology, goods and services, yet food is the one of the only things we actually need to live. It’s such an important part of life yet we want it cheaper, faster and bigger.
I hope someday to see western societies taking more responsibility in recognising the true value of food and our food systems, educating children on food and the natural world from a young age, and making a greater effort to create a more efficient food system. It may be too much to ask but, “A man’s reach should always exceed his grasp.”
To sample some of Donal’s delights, book your place at Cin Cin Vine Street today by calling 01273 698 813 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.