To mark Scottish Apprenticeship Week (7 – 11 March 2022) we caught up with John Burns, Executive Chef at Maldron Hotel Glasgow City, to find out more about his work with apprentices in the hospitality industry.
Tell us about your career and how you got into hospitality
"Like a lot of people in this industry, my route into the kitchen was through an apprenticeship. I began working in the Drovers Inn at Loch Lomond – it’s a beautiful, remote area of the country. The Inn gets its name from the Highland drovers who used to drive their cattle down to the markets.
"I eventually moved to the Malmaison Hotel to finish up my apprenticeship and moved around the UK with the company from Edinburgh and Aberdeen to Belfast and finally back to Glasgow to open the Maldron Hotel Glasgow City."
What is your current role?
“I’m the Executive Chef. It’s a varied role that usually starts with prepping ingredients for the day and includes checking orders and speaking to the suppliers. This is the smallest team I’ve ever worked in, which has been great for getting really hands on. It also means more time with junior team members and being able to train them up. On top of that, I work on menu development.”
Did you always want to pursue a career in food and drink?
“Funnily enough, when I was younger, I actually wanted to be a policeman. I’d spoken to a careers advisor and even started college before realising it just wasn’t for me. I’ve been a chef now for 21 years and haven’t looked back.”
How valuable are apprenticeships?
“Apprenticeships are a great asset to the industry. They provide a gateway, help you get the skills and training you need and the paperwork to back it up. It's a brilliant option for someone who doesn't enjoy classroom learning, and they’re not just for traditional jobs either. There are a number of career avenues someone can take with an apprenticeship.”
What have been the highlights so far?
“To name a few; completing my own apprenticeship, my HIT Scotland scholarship, winning employee of the year and chef of the year at two different hotel brands, and most recently, going back and studying for my level 8 management qualification with SDConsultancy. On the more glamourous side, it would be cooking for celebrities and sports teams!”
Do you have any funny stories that you can share with us?
“At a previous job, my Sous Chef once promised the late great comedian Sean Locke a steak dinner after he finished his show and had reserved him the open seating beside the kitchen. My Sous Chef, not realising Sean wouldn't be back until after the restaurant had closed, thought Sean wasn't coming and had cleaned down and packed up ready for home time.
"As I was leaving, I saw Sean come into the restaurant and quickly rushed to get my Sous Chef back as it was him that made the promise! He came back to the kitchen, cooked us all steaks and Sean was there happily eating and telling some jokes.”
Are there any myths or preconceptions about cooking or being a chef, you’d like to challenge?
“There are no myths that don't have some truths to them; the hours are long, and some chefs do have bad tempers, but the industry is recognising this and trying to change. Some places of work, like Maldron Hotel Glasgow City, have a great work life balance.
"There are a lot of chefs behind these movements now, trying to readdress the stereotypes. Later this month, I’m taking a mental health first aid course to help build on my skills as a manager and become more mindful.”
Have you cooked for any famous people or VIPs and how was the experience?
“I’ve been lucky and unlucky depending on how you view it to cook for a range of famous people. Donald Trump, Billy Connolly, David Cameron, 50 cent, Snoop Dogg, Brian Adams, Robert Plant, Justin Timberlake, Pink, Alex Ferguson and Ronan Keating. Football teams I’ve cooked for have included Manchester United, Chelsea, VfB Stuttgart, Barcelona, Liverpool, the England rugby team and probably many more that I’ve forgotten, but they've all left happy.
“Robert Plant was very kind and asked to speak to me so he could thank me for going out of my way to make him a delicious haggis dish. Trump had his steak well done with a bottle of ketchup!”
How has the industry changed since the pandemic?
“It's been tough, some of my greatest chef friends were left without jobs, then changed careers and some great restaurants have been lost.
“There have been positive changes too. The industry realised a gap in the market and now takeaways are booming, and home meal kits are on the rise. I was fortunate to be able to help with the launch of "Home by Nico".
“We're a resilient bunch so I'm sure we will bounce back and see the other side.”
What would you say to other young people starting out in their careers in hospitality?
“Learn and don’t stop learning. If you see something, ask how to do it, and then practice it. You’ll never know it all and, no matter what your experience in the kitchen, there’s always something to learn. I’ve had 21 years in the kitchen and I’m now getting to learn newer techniques from the younger chefs who come in to the Maldron Hotel Glasgow City kitchen.”
Out of all the kitchens and catering environments you have worked in does Glasgow stand out and, if so, why is it special?
“I've been fortunate enough to work all over the UK and right now I think Glasgow is finally being given the recognition it deserves from the industry. We have two Michelin stars in the city now and we’re not overshadowed by Edinburgh anymore. Glasgow has always had great chefs. Hopefully now we can encourage them to stay in the city.”
How does the Scottish hospitality industry compare with others, in terms of your own experience or what you have heard from other chefs/managers/staff?
“It’s our Scottish nature that stands out and our willingness to help someone in need. We root for the underdogs, so we always look for those diamonds in the rough and nurture them to shine. We’re an enticing place to be and work in and we have great produce on our doorstep.”