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Masters of their craft

In a bid to support its zero-waste and sustainability strategy, a Limerick-based event-catering company took the significant step to purchase a 20-acre farm, which is currently under conversion to organics. Bernie Commins caught up with Master Chef’s CEO, Pat O’Sullivan, about this decision and his plans to develop a centre of excellence for food production and education at the farm

Buying a farm might seem like an odd move for an event-catering company. Food is, obviously, an integral part of such a business, but producing that food is an added task that most companies will not take on. Not so, however, for Master Chefs', and its CEO, Pat O’Sullivan, who embarked on a venture with a difference in 2021, purchasing a 20-acre farm at Ballyneety, Co. Limerick.
An ambition to purchase land had been burning away in the background for a number of years, says Pat, and it was sparked by a number of things.
“We have long held the ambition to be as self-sustainable as possible and have looked at purchasing land a number of times over the years but never quite found the right land quality in the right geographical location.
“Quality of produce has always been a bug bear of mine but I think Covid made this even worse, as well as the unavailability of certain produce, the supply chain is unreliable. This particular patch of land became available some 18 months ago and it is only a 10-minute drive from our existing food-production facility in Ballysimon, so the stars aligned.”
Following 18 months of research and planning – farm layout and a growing cycle that matches the company’s food demands – Pat says they aim to have their first crops in the late spring 2023.

Organic route

Currently, the organic-conversion process is underway at the farm, Pat says. Although there has been no application of chemicals to the land since it was purchased, they are embarking on a two-year certification process. Pat explains that, although they do not need to be certified as organic, and it is not their intention to sell any of their produce on the open market – they will grow on demand – it was the only option he considered.
“We are going organic because we don’t agree with the use of pesticides, we want to grow our crops naturally, the appearance, taste and flavour are vastly better than chemically enhanced produce.” Before commercial fertiliser came on the market, farms were all organic anyway: “We just didn’t have a title for it back then,” says Pat.
“I’m seeing a huge upturn in interest in organic farming, biodiversity, our environment, and, generally, looking at new ways to utilise land. On land that isn’t suited for dairy or farming on a commercial scale, particularly in parts of the country like south Kerry where I’m from, farmers need to look at alternative ways and also how to get maximum value from the land they have,” he says.

Farm plans

Alongside crop growing and food production, the company has had to develop infrastructure and other facilities – some of which may not be so common on other traditional farms.
“We are just putting up a shed, which will be used to house machinery as well as part-processing the crops coming off the land. We envisage cleaning off and packaging the produce onsite before delivering to our factory in Ballysimon,” explains Pat.
They will also operate a composting system on the farm. “The compostable wet waste and compostable packaging from all our sites nationwide will be brought back to Ballyneety, composted and returned to the soil. This is part of our stated aim to become a zero-waste business.”
While there are no plans to introduce livestock to the farming enterprise right now, Pat says that he has a vision to house some animals for education purposes in the future. This forms part of an overall plan for the farm to become an educational centre of excellence.
“Apart from being a functional supply support for our business, our aim is for it to become an educational centre of excellence where we can bring our customers, colleagues, school children and, generally, anyone who would benefit from seeing where our food comes from.
“We need to reset the barometer and show our children what real food looks and tastes like. Carrots don’t always grow straight, kids need to know that. We are programmed towards the perfect-shaped vegetable that, in a blind tasting, you would struggle to tell the difference between a carrot and a turnip, they taste rather insipid.
“The big supermarket chains have dictated what sells to the eye, farmers are compliant because they need a market, they have to discard anything that doesn’t fit the image, it’s nonsense. We want to show anyone that’s interested that there is a different way, a better way. Ultimately, in due course, we will take it a stage further and show kids how to cook and sustain themselves, teach them the complete cycle from farm to table to farm.”

Catering for the masses

These are ambitious plans but, looking a little closer at the company behind them, they seem fully achievable. Innovation and development have been high on the agenda for more than 20 years at Master Chefs – and food is its passion. Farming, to produce quality and healthy food to sustain that passion, is a logical step.
The company caters for all aspects of Thomond Park and Munster rugby home games, this includes looking after the team’s dietary needs; it operates across the third-level education sector with multiple university campus contracts along with significant presence in the healthcare and sports and leisure sectors; it has catered for many of Ireland’s largest sporting, education and corporate events, including the JP McManus Pro-Am golf tournament and National Ploughing Championships, and multiple concerts in Thomond Park. And, it has a purpose-built, 10,000sq ft artisan food factory that produces a broad ‘free from’ range encompassing sugar-free, dairy-free and gluten-free products.

Kind to the environment

Sustainability and zero waste ambitions are very important to Master Chefs and it has introduced a number of initiatives in these areas. Pat explains: “Our ground waste coffee is collected from all our sites by avid gardeners and added to the soil. It adds nitrogen to the compost, aids drainage, retains water, and aerates the compost.
“We ferment produce to prevent waste, this is hugely beneficial and easy to do with vegetables, but we also make our own Kombucha, Miso, Kimchi, sourdough breads, etc.
“In our outlets at the University of Galway we have banned the use of single use coffee cups. I believe they are the first university to undertake such a radical step, they are very focused on the environment and we have had no negative feedback.”

“We work on a daily basis with the Munster rugby dietitian in creating recipes for high-performance athletes. This has benefited our culinary team by broadening their knowledge in the ‘free-from’ category. You can eat like an athlete in our outlets, which is hugely popular with the younger generation.
“Our youth are better educated on what they put into their bodies and relate food with health much better than we ever did. We want to do our piece to continue that education and make it easy for our customers to eat healthily,” says Pat.
He describes Master Chefs as the ‘mother ship that facilitates all the projects in which it is involved’. 
“We are very conscious that our success should not be taken for granted, we are blessed that our work is rewarded by loyal customers. We very much believe in giving back to society and we continue to do that in multiple ways.
“Examples are hiring individuals who have served time in prison, this is a huge step for individuals to reintegrate into society, give them a focus and break the cycle. We work with homeless families where we can, especially those with children to provide nourishing meals. We delivered thousands to meals to elderly members of our community who were isolating and in fear when Covid hit.” Masters of their craft, for sure.

Catering for the A-list classes

Master Chefs has catered for the masses as well as the A-list classes. Among the stars to sample the best Irish produce that the company serves up are: King Charles and Queen Consort Camilla; Elton John; Rod Stewart; Pink; Bob Dylan, Cliff Richard, Michael Flatley, and the late Lisa Marie Presley.