Leading the change with a new generation

If there was an award for the most approachable Irishman, Seamus would be a major contender. The culinary director clearly loves his job, which is all about creating the best working environment at the different locations of The Alchemist. And it doesn’t just come down to sourcing all the right equipment for the kitchen. It’s about having the right people and the right philosophy to support every project, from staff retention and apprenticeships to waste management.

Seamus can’t hide his enthusiasm as he talks about everything that goes on at The Alchemist and why his 350 staff members love working for the company. A quick side note: 25% of all head chefs at The Alchemist are women! Apart from giving them an exciting job with magical recipes, smoke and fireworks, The Alchemist also actively tries to cater to the needs of a new generation of foodservice workers. Meaning they advocate for a good work-life balance, are open to ideas, and encourage people to grow into a new role. “I’m never going to say that 100% of the staff are happy campers, but honestly most of them are”, Seamus says.

The key is to listen…

Throughout the restaurant chain, there’s a big focus on making people thrive. Banter in the kitchen is essential, as is solving problems quickly and taking stress away from staff. “I also think it’s important to really listen to them,” Seamus adds. That’s why he got all kitchen staff new chef’s jackets when they told him the ones they had were too warm. They then tested multiple new jackets and ultimately picked one made from recycled plastic bottles, with everyone getting a new jacket. “A lot of our staff, including our chefs, are genuinely worried about sustainability, so we decided to take action. The same goes for our chopping boards, which was another thing that our staff rightly pointed out. Instead of sending our boards to landfill, we now resurface them.”

…and to educate

That’s why he also takes the staff on trips to suppliers, for instance, to see where their ingredients or glassware are sourced. “Knowledge is king, and education is the best way to facilitate change”, Seamus says. It’s a way of keeping staff around, and many of The Alchemist’s staff started as a kitchen porter and worked their way up. It’s something to really work on if you’re complaining about not getting staff, Seamus explains. “We’re educating through our apprenticeship programme called The Alchemist Chef, which provides a qualification that they can be proud of, that gives them the foundations to go on to be a junior sous chef, a sous chef, and so on. And do it for the person, too. Because if you won’t, they won’t be with you once they’re qualified.”

Seamus O’Donnell

As the culinary director of The Alchemist, Seamus O’Donnell is a key figure in the development of chefs at the UK’s leading creative cocktail bar and restaurant. By living up to his values of trust, honesty, and reliability he gets both the business and its staff to flourish.

Tantalising the senses

The Alchemist’s pay-off is ‘Theatre served’, which perfectly sums up what happens at the 20 locations of this UK-based bar & restaurant chain. Established in 2010, The Alchemist is known for its mystical concoctions and unconventional dishes, created to tantalise the senses.

“Knowledge is king, and education is the best way to facilitate change.”

Greenkeepers, leftover tomatoes and feeding the ORCA

It’s not only how The Alchemist treats its staff that shows its efforts to innovate the business. For instance, each location has dedicated greenkeepers, who actively devote themselves to lowering energy usage. For its ketchup, The Alchemist works with supplier Rubies in the Rubble, which uses ‘out of-grade’, surplus tomatoes to create its product. And to manage their own organic waste as effectively as possible, The Alchemist’s kitchens are equipped with an ORCA, a piece of equipment that can convert organic waste into environmentally safe water. “It’s a great bit of fun!” Seamus laughs. “Each chef has their own black little tub, which they can then take to feed the ORCA.”

Change through the whole chain

And the list goes on, with biodegradable bags, energy-saving canopies, a recipe with edible ‘glass’… The Alchemist is always working on the next project. And though the chain can make a big impact by having 20 locations adapting to those changes, it’s something that can be done in any business. “The most important thing is that you’re passionate about it”, Seamus insists. That’s also why The Alchemist works with suppliers that have a similar philosophy. “I think we’re all trying to achieve the same goal”, Seamus says, “and I feel you do need suppliers and the supply chain to be that link to take responsibility and drive everyone forwards.”

Driven by transparency

Though it’s in the company’s DNA to always look for more ethical ways of running the business, it’s not something they do alone: they also adopt best practices and share theirs. And they actively measure their performance, to see and show what works. “We’ve started to speak up more, Seamus admits with a smile, because we’re doing a lot. He reiterates the values he wants to see and implement. “Never dangle a carrot,” Seamus stresses, “because that will only get you short-term success. We like to be pragmatic and transparent because I think that’s what works for us, and for our staff.” Trust, honesty, and reliability, that’s what gets you success in the long run.