Damian Blaney (46), accepted the biggest challenge of his career so far when he recently took on the executive head chef’s role at the Galgorm Collection’s stylish new property in Templepatrick, The Rabbit.
Formerly known as The Templeton, the well-established venue joined the Collection at the start of last year and is in the midst of a £7m refurbishment programme. The first indication of its new owners’ intentions was made clear in June when the new Rabbit Bar and Restaurant opened its doors to the public for the first time.
Damian cut his teeth in the trade right from school, taking on a part-time post at the Crawfordsburn Inn while he worked out what he wanted to do as a career.
‘On my first day, the head chef asked me if I was interested in training to be a chef because they had an opening,’ recalls Damian. ‘I thought I would give it a shot and I haven’t looked back.’
Damian stayed at the Inn for a couple of years then moved to the Culloden near Belfast as a junior chef de partie. His time at the Crawfordsburn had served as an ‘eye-opener’, he says, so when he arrived at the Culloden he knew what to expect:
‘The place was on a much bigger scale with banqueting for between 300 and 500 people at a time as well as the restaurant so I gained a lot more insight into what it was like to work in a hotel.’
During his time at the Culloden, Damian completed his City & Guilds 7061 and 7062 before being offered a position at Michael Deane’s restaurant Deane’s on the Square at Helen’s Bay in 1993. Damian stayed with Michael for about four years and says that the experience was formative:
‘I learned a lot about working with flavours and colours, about plating food and how to work with really fresh ingredients,’ he recalls. ‘And because it was such a small restaurant, they were able to train you on wine as well as food, so it was a great opportunity for me.’
After that, Damian went overseas, initially – and briefly – to Zurich and then to the West Indies, where he worked in the world-renowned Plantation Inn in Montpellier as a junior sous chef. Here, the worked with chefs from all over the world and learned a great deal about international cuisine as a result.
Back at home, his next post was with the Compass Group at Stormont and Cultra Manor and during more than nine years with the commercial catering firm, he cooked for a host of celebrities, including the Mayor of New York and, on several occasions, Princess Anne. And he got the chance to work with some notable names from the catering world, including Albert Roux and Richard Corrigan.
His last position before arriving at The Rabbit was with the Crumlin Road Gaol’s visitor attraction, where he stayed for about three years.
Working at the Galgorm Collection’s latest, boutique hotel is ‘very exciting’, says Damian:
‘I’m at the stage now where I have so many years behind me and I can start to put some of the things I’ve learned into practice. We have a great team at the moment, probably about 12 full-time chefs, but our banqueting operation hasn’t opened yet, this will happen later in the year and our team will grow. I am big into getting staff trained and getting them working with some of the great ingredients that I worked with when I first started.’
Damian, like most of his colleagues in the trade, is passionate about fresh, local ingredients and everything at The Rabbit, from the bread to the desserts, is made from scratch in-house.
As for the long-term future, Damian says he’d be happy to stay in his current role at The Rabbit:
‘Obviously though, I like to see everything settled down more with no sign of Covid,’ he adds. ‘There’s a lot to be said for waking up in the morning and looking forward to getting to work, I think there are very few people who can genuinely say that they love the job they are in.’