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Andrew Fairlie Scholarship 2019

Meet the Judges - Conor O’Leary

With the launch of the inaugural Andrew Fairlie Scholarship, we’re getting to know the expert judging panel. This time, we speak to Joint Managing Director at Gleneagles, Conor O’Leary.

Conor O’Leary - Joint Managing Director, Gleneagles

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Conor O’Leary knows that hard work pays off in the hospitality industry – he has worked his way up to the role of Joint Managing Director at the Gleneagles Hotel, having started out making sandwiches in a local café at age 15.

He believes that a strong work ethic and dedication to the culinary craft are essential qualities of an Andrew Fairlie Scholar – here, he provides an insight into the modern hospitality industry and what he believes scholars will need to succeed in the kitchen and beyond.

Could you tell us a bit about your career background?

“Other than family, my main passion outside of work is travelling the world to uncover the finest food, leisure and hospitality experiences – so it’s no coincidence that I chose to build a career around this passion.

“I was introduced to the industry aged 15, when I got a Saturday job helping to make sandwiches in my local café. Although I didn’t have a great deal of responsibility other than chopping the tomatoes and making simple sandwiches in a timely fashion, I immediately felt the buzz and fell in love with the fast pace of customer service, and the drive to deliver consistently excellent results.

“My career then took me to some of London’s best bars and restaurants, and eventually across the world in senior food and business leadership roles in some of London and the Middle East’s finest five-star hotels.  I moved to Scotland in 2016 to take up the post of hotel manager, and shortly thereafter General Manager at Gleneagles, to steer the hotel through the biggest period of change and investment in its almost 100-year history.  

“In the two and a half years since I arrived, we have transformed the hotel, renovating over 200 bedrooms, launching three new bars, three restaurants, a café, an afternoon tea lounge and a new events wing. I have recently been promoted to the role of joint Managing Director, with responsibility for operations, people and culture, the commercial performance, and the brand development of our iconic property.”

What is your favourite thing about working in hospitality?

“People work to create opportunities to enjoy themselves, experience pleasure, have a treat, have fun, or encounter places they don’t normally get to experience in everyday life.  This industry has emerged from that universal human need for escapism, indulgence and pleasure, which is something that has always fascinated me. While it’s a market that continues to expand, diversify and evolve, it will never disappear.

“Whether you’re running a street stall, café, bar, restaurant or hotel – and regardless of price point or target market – the ambition should always be the same: it’s about creating somewhere that’s as good as it can possibly be in the area in which you’re operating. That’s what I most enjoy, because you cannot rest on your laurels.

“The ever-changing trends, fashions and expectations in hospitality make this one of the most dynamic industries to work in. There’s this constant impetus to move forward, enhance, and stay at the top of your class, while continually balancing the consumer journey, the brand experience and the commercial viability of the product.

“If you’ve got a café and all you serve is simple cheese sandwiches, you should be making sure they’re the best cheese sandwiches in the city – the must-go place for a cheese sandwich.   

“In our case at Gleneagles, it’s about the breathtaking natural beauty of Perthshire and encouraging our guests to have fun and adventures in the great outdoors, or in our range of country sports, and then combining that with the highest levels of luxury and exceptional culinary experiences.”

What are the biggest challenges facing aspiring chefs and new entrants in hospitality today?

“There are many more players in the industry – more cafés, bars, restaurants, hotels and start-ups – than ever before.  However, not all of them are good, ethical or responsible employers. A challenge for all aspiring chefs and new recruits, then, is often just finding a good employer that will look after you properly, nurture your talent, support your career development and mentor you properly to ensure you achieve your potential.

“The best chefs, like the late Andrew Fairlie himself, recognise that running a successful business is not simply about serving incredible food or achieving tremendous personal or financial success – it’s equally about developing your team and providing opportunities to the next generation.”

What impact do you think the Andrew Fairlie Scholarship will have on Scotland’s hospitality sector?

“It will have a huge impact – providing outstanding opportunities for those who are dedicated to excellence and to forging long-term careers in this industry.

“Andrew Fairlie was once just a young aspiring chef from Perth who – through hard work, dedication, talent and, importantly, the right opportunities – grew to become a world-class chef, eventually going on to establish Scotland’s only two-Michelin-starred restaurant, and The Sunday Times’ ‘Best Restaurant in Britain’.

“This Scholarship will open up more opportunities for talented individuals, strengthening Scotland’s position on the global hospitality stage.”

What 3 words would you use to describe a potential Andrew Fairlie scholar?

“Dedicated, tenacious and positive.”

Do you have any advice for applicants to the Andrew Fairlie Scholarship?

“Each applicant should consider the entrance process itself as an important journey in their career – an experience to enjoy, and from which they’ll be able to take away knowledge that will help them develop as chefs.   

“During the process, they’ll be testing themselves, developing new skills and learning new things about themselves, such as how they cope under pressure.   

“If they’re successful, fantastic – this scholarship will start them on an exciting journey that will change their lives forever – but if they’re not selected as winners, their engagement with this process can still be career-transforming and the start of an exciting new chapter.”

The Andrew Fairlie Scholarship is an incredible opportunity for aspiring chefs – you can find more details and apply for the scholarship here.