You could say I have grown up in The Imperial Hotel...

Ber Harrington, Pastry Chef at Corks most historic hotel The Imperial, talks about her passion for her industry and that despite the challenges of balancing family life with a demanding career she would not change it for the world. 
You could say I have grown up in The Imperial Hotel...

Ber Harrington, pastry chef at Imperial Hotel, Cork with her afternoon tea creation. Picture: Joleen Cronin

Name: Bernadette Harrington

Age: 40

Lives: Tower, Blarney

Job title: Pastry Chef at The Imperial Hotel

Salary: I get paid in Imperial family fun and sweet treats! I get to do what I love every day.

Education background: I left school at the age of 14. I attended a Youth-reach programme in Ballincollig for a year. At the age of 29 I went to college to complete a 3-year professional cookery course, I finished with a distinction.

Hobbies: I love to spend my free time touring the country on my motorcycle, visiting heritage sites and coastal routes. It is a great way to see our beautiful country and to try local cuisine. I also enjoy reading and watching cookery programmes.

Describe your job in five words: Rewarding, challenging, fast paced, innovative and pressurised.

Describe yourself in five words: Hard- working, resilient, methodical, artistic and sociable.

Personality needed for this kind of work? Inventive, dedicated, impervious, patient and investigative.

How long are you doing this job? 25 years.

How did you get this job? As I left school at a young age, I had my first introduction to a professional kitchen quite early in the Blarney Stone Restaurant located in the heart of Blarney village. 

I started part time in the wash up, this is where my love of food began. I helped preparing dishes wherever I could and loved every minute of it.

A year later a position became available at Christy’s Hotel as a commis chef. A neighbour that I babysat for told me and I jumped at the opportunity to progress in a kitchen environment. I worked there for four years under the Executive Chef John Byrne and the Pastry Chefs Maura and Helen. They had a great influence on my work ethic and instilled a passion for pastry in me. I was in awe of their skills and professionalism and over the next four years they helped me develop my skills.

A chef that I had previously worked with tipped me off about a position becoming available in The Imperial Hotel. I applied immediately and met with the Head Chefs at the time Alan Carroll and Paul Mac Namee, who hired me for the position of commis pastry chef. This opened the door to my new life in The Imperial Hotel. I worked under Fiona for several years and learnt a great deal and honed my skills further. When Fiona left, I was promoted to the position of Head Pastry Chef, which I occupied until the birth of my daughter Shauna. I then took a year out to be a stay-at-home mom.

During that time, I missed the social and creative aspects of working in the Grande Dame of Cork City so I was delighted to resume my position and have been part of the Imperial family ever since.

Upskilling while working was beneficial for me. I attended college one day a week for three years and have also completed cake decorating courses. Working full time while raising my daughter at times was challenging but I would not change it for the world.

You could say that I have grown up in The Imperial Hotel and seen so many faces in that time. It is Cork’s most historic hotel. I have worked with some amazing chefs and managers throughout the years, all of whom have influenced me greatly. Our present-day Executive Head Chef Jerome Joyce has been a great mentor over the last three years and has always allowed me to be creative and inventive with menus and desserts.

With our charismatic General Manager, Bastien Peyraud at the helm, renovations keeping the building looking its best and Covid-19 hopefully on the way out, the future is bright at The Imperial Hotel.

Do you need particular qualifications or experience? When I started out, I had no qualifications meaning I learned on the job and I owe a lot to all the chefs that have mentored me throughout the years. I do regret not attending college earlier as, when I did, it was an invaluable experience and a fountain of knowledge. I also attended a few cake decorating courses in Brennan’s Catering School, which are a great asset to my work today.

Describe a day at work: My day at work begins at 6.30am. I prepare the croissants, Danish pastries, scones and breads for breakfast first thing. Then I move on to prepare the afternoon tea pastries which include a mini loaf, three mini pastries and a mini scone. Once that has all been completed, I move onto the preparation of the lunch desserts which consist of three dessert items and a trio of vegan desserts. From then I work on the evening desserts, these are more elaborate. Like all my work, these are prepared to a high standard and they can vary greatly depending on guests’ requests. Throughout the day I also maintain cleanliness and records. I look after orders and ensure we have enough stock to prepare for the following day. We do our utmost to source produce as local as possible as supporting local is part of our business ethos.

On special occasions such as Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Christmas we design and create an edible display. These can vary from sculptured chocolate pieces or detailed icing sculptures. 

At Christmas we make gingerbread houses of local landmarks, which has become a favourite for all ages to come and see during the festive season. This certainly ramps up the pressure but the results are more than worth it.

How many hours do you work a week? My normal working week is 39 hours, but for big events or busier holiday seasons it could mean a six-day week.

What do you wear to work? My uniform consists of a double-breasted chef jacket, an apron, skull cap, hair net, chef trousers and safety shoes.

Is your industry male or female dominated? The industry is mostly male dominated, it can be a physically and mentally demanding job and many women can’t stick it for very long. It’s a tough environment but I have seen it change over the years and all for the better.

Is your job stressful? How? Rate it on a scale of 1-10: On a scale of 1-10, I would say on a normal day it would be a 6 on the stress scale. I need to make sure every dessert and pastry is made to a high standard. The weekends can be quite stressful as the numbers that you are preparing for jump quite significantly. There is a lot to prepare for in a short time frame.

Do you work with others or on your own? I work opposite Rebecca McCarthy, a fellow pastry chef. We have worked together for the past 12 years. Not only have we become great team members, we have also become great friends. We have a great system between us and work extremely well together.

Best bits: Having the freedom to be inventive and creative. The industry is always changing and keeping up to date with the latest trends can be exciting and challenging, there is always something new to learn and experiment with.

Worst bits: The unsocial hours, working on the weekend, night shifts, holidays, missing out on family events and occasions have been a slight downfall to this career path, but pale in comparison to the rewarding satisfaction of getting to see the results from all the hard work.

Advice to those who want your job? If I were to advise anyone starting out on this career, it would be to learn as much as you can and travel far and wide.

Any other comments? A recent project the pastry team worked on was to devise a special afternoon tea inspired by Princess Grace. The Imperial hotel celebrated the 60th anniversary of a visit by the royal family of Monaco on June 24 so we were tasked with inventing some bespoke pastries inspired by Grace Kelly’s favourite things including a GK Perfume Bottle, a mini-“Hermes” handbag, red velvet cake, a strawberry and champagne scone, and a selection of mini sandwiches. This was a fun project, and we are delighted with how it has turned out.

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