The Fabric of My Life is our exclusive partnership with Brown Thomas which celebrates a series of incredible women from the island of Ireland.
In our final instalment of this series, we’re shining a light on Northern Irish chef and competitor on Great British Menu, Gemma Austin. Originally, Gemma had dreams of becoming a nurse, until a spine injury prevented her from finishing her training. After a short stop in software programming, she finally found her true passion – creating in the kitchen. Here we learn a bit about Gemma’s amazing career journey and her Christmas traditions.
Tell us a bit about your career journey so far.
The culinary journey I have been on over the last decade has been incredible. I was late to the game with cooking, as I studied to be a nurse first, but after a back injury it wasn’t to be. I have worked in some of Northern Ireland’s nicest hotels, including the 2 AA Rosette Crawfordsburn Inn and the Fitzwilliam Hotel. I felt that most of these establishments were serving very similar food, and decided I wanted to do something a little different.
I have always been a big kid at heart and decided to start my own pop-up called A Peculiar Tea in different venues around Belfast, Holywood, and Newtownards. These pop-ups would be themed six-course tasting menus where the guest got a totally holistic hospitality experience through the food and surroundings.
I went back to study a degree in Culinary Arts Management at Ulster University in Belfast and graduated in 2019 with a First Class Honours – one of the proudest moments of my life. Shortly after, the producers of Great British Menu got in touch with me to submit a menu to be considered for the show. I thought it was a joke! I couldn’t believe I was being asked to represent Northern Ireland on a show of this calibre.
I was eventually picked and appeared on the BBC show in 2020. I was shocked to be called upon again in 2021 to compete once more. I knew that this time, I wanted the publicity that came from the show to highlight my own restaurant. Therefore, on 3rd December 2021, A Peculiar Tea opened as a 42-seater restaurant in Belfast City Centre. I have stuck to my original plan, offering a six-course, themed tasting menu. We are fully booked two months in advance. It’s a dream come true.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever been given?
Believe that you can, and you will.
The Irish female founder you most admire is…
My idol, Clare Smyth, is from Northern Ireland and she is the only woman in the UK to hold 3 Michelin Stars. Clare grew up on a farm in County Antrim and she is now the best female chef in Great Britain and Ireland. She owns two restaurants: Core in London and Oncore in Sydney.
What are your top 3 kitchen essentials?
A good sharp knife – I use Victorinox and Japanese knives. A thermomix – we use ours all day, every day. It’s amazing for purees and so many other things. And a Kitchenaid – every pastry chef’s best friend.
What are your family’s Christmas traditions?
Our family is super traditional and although my sisters and I are all 21+, we still act like we are 8! Christmas Eve is always matching pyjamas and slippers. We aren't allowed out of bed until 8am on Christmas morning now that we are adults, because growing up it was always 4am to see what Santa had brought. We all stand at the top of the stairs and go down together as a family, even as adults.
While we open presents, it's always a glass of prosecco or a Baileys with breakfast, usually followed by croissants and bacon. For Christmas dinner, we have all the traditional stuff – but for me the highlight is always the gravy. Getting a good roast on the bones is the secret to an amazing sauce.
After dinner, we all congregate in the living room to relax and digest the feast. By evening, drinks are flowing and we play board games and get out the essentials: After Eights, Ferrero Rocher and a good cheese board. It is single-handedly the best day of the year in my opinion. Family, food, drink and rest... What more could a chef ask for?
What’s the best Christmas gift you’ve ever received – and given?
A trip to Disneyland with my family. I love Disney and adore Paris, so it was an amazing gift. Closely followed by the first kitchen notebook I was ever bought by my mum. Every page is full and it's absolutely destroyed from being in the kitchen all these years, but it holds huge sentimental value for me.
It's hard to know what the best gift is that I've ever given. My partner always talked about wanting to learn the piano, so I got her piano lessons one year. The look on her face was one of the best moments of my life.
Who’s cooking with you at home for Christmas, and what’s the signature dish to mark the holiday?
Usually my mum does all the cooking at Christmas, but over the last few years I've taken the reins and tried my best to do it – however I still don't think it's possible to beat your mum’s cooking!
Christmas dinner for me is the best meal of the year. I love sprouts with flavours of bacon and parmesan with a squeeze of lemon to finish. My nanny's stuffing is also pretty spectacular and a thick gravy on everything. We love Yorkshire puddings in our house, so these are always a must.
What’s your top tip for entertaining at Christmas?
Get out a few board games and have a few drinks. I don't think anyone should stress about entertaining people at Christmas. It's a time to be chilled, enjoy the people around you and get some well-deserved rest.
Recipe for a favourite Christmas dessert?
Indulgent Chocolate Nemesis!
- 15 eggs
- 7oz sugar
- 1 ½ blocks butter
- 2lb 4oz Dark Chocolate
- 250ml water
- 14oz sugar
1. Whisk together eggs and sugar until doubled in size.
2. Whilst this is whisking, place butter and dark chocolate onto the heat in a non-stick pot. Stir constantly to ensure the chocolate doesn’t catch and burn.
3. Once butter and chocolate have melted, add water and sugar.
4. Add this to the sugar/egg mix and whisk together until well combined.
5. Please note that you will not knock the air out of it so make sure you whisk it until it is all the same colour. If it is not combined well the fat will rise to the surface when cooking.
6. Line a tray with greaseproof and pour in the mix. Cook in a Bain Marie and cover with two sheets of tin foil.
7. Cook for 35-40mins at 170oc. When this time is up, check that the Nemesis has a wobble, almost like a Crème Brulee. If it is at this consistency remove and blast chill.
8. Make a chocolate ganache for the top. (Pour chocolate into bowl, heat cream to almost boiling stage and pour cream over chocolate – enough to just cover the amount in the bowl. Allow it to sit for 30secs to begin melting the chocolate and then whisk to get a nice shiny ganache).
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