When Kevin Donahue was growing up, he would come home from school, head to the kitchen and start cooking. It came naturally to him.
A family friend, a restaurateur in Switzerland, took note of his culinary abilities. She told the young Donahue that if he were to attend culinary school, she would set him up with a job in a Swiss kitchen. She stayed true to her word, and Donahue completed an eight-month internship in the European country as part of his graduation requirements at the Culinary Institute of America.
“It’s very strange, but, even when I was a kid up until now, even on the worst day I’m having I still get to do what I love, and that’s cook,” Donahue said.
Donahue was approached by Dyn chief executive officer Jeremy Hitchcock in November. Hitchcock was looking to provide his employees with healthier dining options. Donahue was intrigued by the concept of being a professional chef in a corporate environment.
Corporate chefs were not uncommon during the technology boom in the 1990s, but when the economy started to slump that sort of job became a thing of the past for most companies, along with company cafeterias, Donahue said.
“These type of opportunities don’t just come up,” Donahue said. “Not only am I doing exactly what I wanted to, but the quality of life, I enjoy that aspect.”
Before joining the Dyn team, Donahue worked at four-diamond restaurants on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina and at restaurants in the Boston area before serving as a banquet chef at Atkinson Country Club and, most recently, as executive chef of XO on Elm in Manchester.
Donahue designed not only the menu at XO but also the kitchen space. Having put his heart into the Elm Street eatery, he opted to stay on board full time through his first three months as corporate chef at Dyn. He has been putting in up to 90 hours of work a week at the two jobs but said it was worth it.
“My reward is what comes now,” he said, adding that only recently finished training the eatery’s new top kitchen chief.
Working at Dyn will give Donahue the ability to develop relationships with the company’s employees and learn about what foods they would like to see on the menu.
“It’s a huge thing for me to have the opportunity to do this,” he said. “Not to mention the fact I’m working Monday through Friday.”
Donahue recently had his first full weekend off in two years. He can’t wait to have time to plant a garden and go to the beach. It will also afford him the time to mentor local culinary students.
“Being a chef can be brutal. You work six days a week … first thing in the morning until 11 p.m.,” he said. “You don’t have that work-to-life type balance.” Donahue said he has been able to leave the office by 5 p.m. some nights but he plans to stay in the kitchen for however long is needed. “It’s definitely not a 9-to-5 job … I don’t think I could be a 9-to-5 guy,” he said.
For now, Donahue spends most of his time behind a desk at Dyn — a change of pace, as he has grown accustomed to doing many things at once in a fast-paced restaurant environment. He’s been meeting with the higher-ups to get the ball rolling on improving the company’s culinary culture. He was recently tasked with tracking down an authentic cappuccino maker in Boston — he found one.
Dyn will open a private café for its employees on Dow Street, across from 900 Degrees Pizzeria in the location of the now-closed Sweet Retreat Bakery, in mid-June. Donahue had always wanted to own a bistro-type restaurant or cafe.
“I’ve been a chef for so long that I knew I didn’t want to own a restaurant,” he laughed. Donahue is still developing the eatery’s full breakfast and lunch menus, with specials. “The way I look at it,” Donahue said, “everything will be special.”
Most of the ingredients used in the Dyn kitchen will be sourced from local farms, and most will be organic, Donahue said. He plans to give employees the opportunity to visit area farms and order fresh produce from them directly through him.
The café will have a New York City-themed décor but still have a “home-style feel,” Donahue said. “There will be a chef that knows your name, what you like, what you don’t like,” he said, adding that he plans to eventually establish a relationship with the nearby Gold’s Gym to be able to offer such exercise-marketed products as protein shakes and energy bars.
The new café will feature a private dining room for meetings, and Donahue will oversee the catering of all Dyn functions. He plans to teach cooking classes for employees and eventually pit teams against each other in a culinary challenge a la Chopped on the Food Network. He will teach the Dyn staff how to shop, store and prepare there food as well as guide them toward healthy options.
“I’m really here more to be a part of an environment, culture and community and at the same time enhance the community with what knowledge I have about food,” he said. “It’s more interpersonal. I’m not just cooking a hamburger and that’s it.”