King of the Castle, Tyrone-born Aaron Duffy Leading by Example

Friday, June 14, 2024. 12:20pm
King of the Castle, Tyrone-born Aaron Duffy Leading by Example

King of the Castle Aaron Leading by Example with Kitchen Culture

Tyrone-born Aaron Duffy has been working in Castle Leslie Estate, County Monaghan for the last six years, where he holds the position of Executive Chef.

Like so many chefs, he began at a very early age, starting at the age of 14 in the Silverbirch Hotel in his hometown of Omagh.

“It was there that I learned all my basics,” says Aaron. “How to make a roux, how to make a Bechamel, how to do carrot batons… simple things that you take for granted as a chef but it was great to get that at a young age and to get that work ethic from working weekends in a hotel.”

His parents were a very important source of support, he says. They were clearly happy to see their son getting on and working hard and were always available to help out, bringing him here and there or picking him up at the end of a late-night service.

While Aaron’s father did have some cooking experience and even served as a chef in the Irish Army for a spell, it was his Dublin grandmother who was the primary creative kitchen presence in the family and the main source of inspiration in Aaron’s culinary career. Although he didn’t struggle academically in terms of his ability, he was more inspired by the kitchen life.

“When it came to food, it interested me,” says Aaron. “I was part of the first home economics class ever in the Christian Brothers School in Omagh.”

It’s a situation that, Aaron believes, is crazy – where basic life skills such as cooking are simply not part of the curriculum in a lot of schools in the Irish educational systems. Even amongst his own peers in school, there was a strong prejudice against what was seen as a ‘girlie’ discipline.

King of the Castle, Tyrone-born Aaron Duffy Leading by Example

After Secondary School, Aaron had decided to go down the trades/apprenticeships route at the age of 16, putting down kitchen work as a third choice after bricklaying and plumbing. It was the intervention of lecturer Noel Doran that put him firmly on the culinary path.

“He grabbed me and took me into the kitchen and told me that, looking at my experience and hobbies, the kitchen would be for me; that it would be a place for life, that it would take me all over the world; that it would look after me, become a family and reward me. He said that I’d never have to go working outdoors in the cold on a building site. That was it – I was hooked.”

After college, the first place he worked in was at Cayenne in Belfast, where his mentor was Paul Rankin – a well-known television personality at the time and the first chef in Northern Ireland to gain a Michelin star.

“He was a pioneer for TV cooking and a pioneer for Northern Ireland cuisine,” says Aaron. “He was almost a rock star of the catering world back then. He had this fascinating cool aura about him and Cayenne had a big Asian influence; it was so new and different. Yes, you were kind-of using a French type of theme and French techniques, but it was Asian ingredients. We had miso salmon, different flavoured oils for cooking… It was challenging but it was a whole new way of cooking that you weren’t taught in college.”

Cayenne closed in 2011 and after a short stint back home in Omagh, Aaron moved to Australia. The job offer of running a hotel was initially meant to be for six weeks but it turned into a 14-month gig that he thoroughly enjoyed.

All the time, Aaron’s (now) wife was in college training to be a midwife and it was love that finally brought him back to Ireland. With the ‘fine dining’ and the ‘travel’ boxes of his career now ticked, it was time to come home.

He worked at the 4-star Corick House and Spa, near Clogher, County Tyrone. Starting as Sous-Chef, he found himself in the role of Head Chef when his predecessor suddenly left in the middle of the night. He was just 20 years old.

“I spent about three years doing it,” says Aaron. “It was so full on… it was madness. It was so busy and so understaffed… it was a family business and they could never say No. So, you could have a funeral party of 100 people come in the door to cater for. We had about 230 weddings a year… they did everything.

“I learned so much, though, especially from the management point of view. Even when I was Sous-Chef there for about a year, I’d come in on my days off and talk to the Head Chef and ask him what he was doing, ask him about ordering about costings… everything.”

It was experience that stood well to him in his next role, where he was brought in to get a new hotel and kitchen get off the ground in Omagh. It had gone into receivership some time previously and had just been bought by a returning émigré who needed someone of Aaron’s skills to get the place up and running. One year later, he was on the move again; this time to tick the ‘NPD’ (New Product Development) box. He put his newly-acquired Degree in Culinary Arts to good use working at Eurospar’s NPD base in Moy, near Armagh.

“It was about creating ready-meals for thousands, down to micro-scales,” says Aaron. “There was huge emphasis on allergens, ingredients, food costs, purchasing, consistency, packaging, flavours, how it looks, how you sell it, how you make sure that if you sell it once you’ll sell it again… even looking at something like a small sandwich. How do you get the most out of a small sandwich? How do you get people to want to buy it again? It was hugely challenging but hugely interesting.”

From there, he moved to his present position at Castle Leslie Estate in County Monaghan.

King of the Castle, Tyrone-born Aaron Duffy Leading by Example
Castle Leslie Estate in County Monaghan

“If I had known about this place when I was 18, I would have come here… and I’d still be here. I’m completely at home here – I absolutely love it.”

“We’ve put an awful lot of investment into the culinary space, with new refrigeration and new equipment across all five of the kitchens.”

There are essentially five outlets to run – three restaurants including Snaffles Restaurant and Conor’s Bar & Lounge at the Lodge, the Castle dining room, the stand-alone permanent fixed marquee (the longest-existing one in Ireland) plus their own bakery and their breakfast team.

Local produce is very important for him and 75% of everything they serve is from Ireland. However, Aaron says that ‘kitchen culture’ is top of the list for him when it comes to managing a restaurant or hotel. It’s the reason why people stay working in a particular kitchen.

“Our restaurant team does a four-day week. Our bar team will do four days a week if they can. Nobody does above 45 hours – nobody does more than five days a week… if people aren’t treated correctly and worked to the bone, then you’ll have them for three or six months. Then they’ll leave and go somewhere else. If you can retain your staff, then you’ll retain consistency and quality.”

As a young father himself, Aaron appreciates the importance of life-work balance and he tries to ensure that it applies to his whole team.

“The kitchen culture here is amazing – everybody gets on, everybody works for one another and is ready to cover for one another.”

King of the Castle, Tyrone-born Aaron Duffy Leading by Example

“I’ve seen different cultures through my career. I’ve seen it when it’s madness – when it’s all roaring and shouting and short-staffed. I always looked at what’s coming out of such a kitchen and what’s coming out is not good. When you go into a kitchen when it’s controlled; when there’s staff there; where nobody’s shouting and where there’s respect and consistency, the food’s so much better.”

Aaron feels that the culture is changing and that it’s up to the likes of him and other executive chefs in the industry to instigate those changes. That way, he says, restaurants will produce better food, less chefs will be going through marital separations and more people will be interested in making a career in the catering industry.

About Castle Leslie Estate:

Nestled on 1,000 acres of undulating Irish countryside, dotted with ancient woodland and glittering lakes, Castle Leslie Estate is one of the last great Irish castle estates still in the hands of its founding family.

The award-winning estate is home to some of the most unique and enchanting accommodation on one of Ireland’s most breathtaking estates.  It has a total of 95 bedrooms spread across 3 accommodation types.

At the heart of the Estate is The Castle which offers a complete respite from the rest of the world and features twenty-one unique bedrooms.  The Lodge is their boutique, country house style property complete with 50 bedrooms and houses Conor’s Bar & Lounge, Snaffles Restaurant and spa called The Victorian Treatment Rooms.

The Old Stable Mews provide luxury home rental in the form of 12 wonderful 2-bedroomed accommodation. A host of activities are on offer including horse riding, spa treatments, falconry, clay target shooting, archery, walking trails, boating and fishing.

Castle Leslie Estate is only 60 minutes from Belfast and 80 minutes from Dublin. 

For further information visit

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