Cáit Noone – Head of Tourism & Arts, and VP of International Engagement at GMIT
Cáit is the Head of College of Tourism & Arts, and VP of International Engagement at GMIT. A very prominent campaigner for food education for all, Cáit is also one of those behind the winning bid for Galway as a European Region of Gastronomy in 2018.
Tell us about how you go to where you are today
I was born in Dublin. My parents are both from the Midlands; my mum from the Leinster side of Athlone and my father from the Connacht side of Athlone. I always have to differentiate that; I come from a very proud Connaught father. We moved back to Athlone when I started my schooling - simply because my parents wanted to move back from the country. And I think I was developing a really nice ‘howaya’ accent and it wasn't going down so well when we were going to visit our family at the weekends in the country. So I grew up in this really little village outside Athlone called Baylin, and it was really lovely. At the time, it didn't even have a sign up saying where it was, so you could drive through it without even knowing.
I'm also incredibly lucky because I’m the oldest of ten and I have the most amazing parents. They would be my inspiration in my everyday life, but also my mother's two sisters, and my mum's mother was probably the woman I was inspired by most in my life - she's now dead. Even in my own family now, there's seven girls and three boys - It's wonderful. They are all my best friends. I’ve worked overseas for 16 years, so relationships would be very important in my life, whether they'd be work relationships or personal relationships and my friends would be friends that I've had from the age of six, seven, eight. People come into my life and generally stay in my life, for all the right reasons, thank goodness.
When I was in secondary school, in the Mercy Convent in Summerhill, I got a part-time job in the Royal Hotel, run by Mrs Hoey. That's where my love affair started with the hospitality industry. I ended up going to college for a year in Killybegs; I wanted to do a course to get a basic understanding around the tourism and hospitality industry and I didn't know a whole lot about it. After college, I worked in a Dublin 5 star hotel for a while, then I got to move to London - because I always wanted to travel, I always wanted to experience the world. I was lucky - I got promoted very quickly, but I knew that it wasn't going to be me forever, so I went back to college in Northampton, and I got a job in a local college where they were setting up some training centres. I was there only a very short period of time and the head of department asked me if I had ever thought about teaching. Then they basically supported me to go back to college and train. So I did all my training then, I did a brilliant teacher training programme in the University of Warwick and that really cemented what I knew I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to teach in further education or higher education, and that was really where it started. From there, I moved to the hotel school in Norwich.
I was there for five years, and had an amazing time. After the five years, I was coming up to my 30th birthday. I was lecturing, I had a great job, life was pretty good and I was quite happy in the UK, but I got an invitation from a hotel school in Switzerland to come and talk to them - they were looking for someone to lecture. They offered me an incredibly generous deal and I decided I would take it. Within three months of joining, I had a management post. It was a brilliant school - La Roche. My career skyrocketed from there.
After a couple of years, I was offered the Dean's job in a new La Roche college in China. So I lived in Shanghai for over three years. We had a joint venture with the Chinese government, so that was really unique. It doesn't happen very often, and I don't think it's happened since. I got an insight into how the Chinese government works - things you can normally only read about. So from that perspective, it was fabulous. I decided to go back to Ireland after three years, and within a few weeks of coming back, through a very simple holiday, I met my husband. He's from Ballinasloe and I decided to stay in Ireland.
I hadn't worked in Ireland in 16 years; tourism had changed significantly, we were in the Celtic Tiger and I couldn't understand why Irish people were suddenly going on skiing holidays. I thought, has Ireland dropped off the edge of Europe and been replaced by this other place? For some months, I did some work with friends, with the Wineport Lodge and In 2008, I joined GMIT as Head of School. In 2012, we had an organisation restructuring. The Hotel School, as it was, and the School of Humanities came together and we created this new College of Tourism and Arts, so it's quite a large entity. We have programs across tourism, hospitality, heritage, contemporary art, film and documentary. It is a huge remit and I became the head of that college in 2012. So we're looking at probably splitting the schools now - just because it's such a huge entity. Then in January of this year, I took on another additional responsibility and I’m now the Vice President for International Engagement for the Institute across our five campuses.
What does your drive and ambition come from?
I definitely love what I do, so I think if you do a job you really enjoy, there is no doubt that will motivate you to keep moving forward. I have significant support from my husband and indeed my family, but my husband is very supportive and very understanding, which is important. But most importantly, it's the team I work with at GMIT. I have excellent colleagues who work throughout the other schools, they work at executive level, they're heads of department, they're technicians. But, particularly within the College of Tourism and Arts, I work with an amazing team. They would encourage you and they would spur you on. I’m really lucky because Ireland is a very small island and it's very obvious that there are opportunities to engage and be part in something. I'm not interested in sitting in the sidelines and saying, ‘What if somebody did this?’ and ‘What if somebody did that?’ I live by that mantra. Lead by example, get out there and do it, instead of talking about what might happen if we did do things. So far, it's worked for me.
How would you describe yourself?
I'll tell you something that a lot of people don't know about me - I would appear to many people to be an extrovert. I'm very outgoing, I’m engaging, I talk with people, I listen to people; I think that's really important. I wouldn't describe myself as shy; I'm not afraid to come forward, I'm not afraid to have conversation. But actually, I would be a very quiet person. I love being on my own. That's not being disrespectful to my family or my husband, but I love my own company. I crave it, actually. For me, a perfect Saturday night would be time out on my own to do what I want to do. So that could be reading, sitting outside my house in Barna looking out across Galway Bay and just taking a little bit of time to reflect. I find as I get older, I really value that more than anything else. My job is incredibly sociable and I would go to a lot of hotels and restaurants. People see me coming and I sometimes get a different experience in terms of service that perhaps everybody else wouldn't get - it drives me nuts. Sometimes I love to be anonymous and I love going to places where I can just sit in the corner, eat my lunch and everything is really calm and chilled out.
With regard to the food scene in Galway, where is it at?
In the most exciting place ever! This is something that would light my world up every single day. Over the last six years, I have seen the food industry evolve in Galway. I saw, during the recession, how businesses were changing their business model. Businesses looked at how they were doing business - they were trying to make food options affordable for people, but they were also looking at their food and they were looking at where they were buying there chicken from. They were asking the question, ‘Why would I buy that chicken from Dublin or Monaghan when I can buy it from Galway?’, and the conversation started around where our food comes from. It didn’t happen overnight, but slowly, the realisation that we have these amazing food producers in our region. And farmers - who are the crux of it all. We have all these amazing opportunities, why are we not working more together? Why are we not looking at opportunities together? In 2011, the Volvo Ocean Race was here in Galway and I had been asked the previous year if I would oversee a food pavilion space. So myself, Ruth Hegarty, who previously worked with Eurotoques and now runs EggandChicken, Eimear O’Donnell from Bord Bia, along with the Irish Hotels Federation and John Ryan from the Ardilaun got together and created this space in South Park, a 20 x 40 marquee, and in it, we had a number of different components. There was kitchen theatre space, 100 seats where we had culinary demos every day, which started with a kids cooking workshop each morning. We had a food market, we had a craft beer bar, when craft beer was only starting to emerge in Ireland and we had a restaurant space. That really signalled to me a change in how we were doing things in Galway because the support for that was phenomenal. How the community engaged with us was amazing. It was incredible - a lot of those food producers are now really big names. Seamus Sheridan went down and ran his own food stall because he didn't want to take staff away from his shop for nine days. Foods of Athenry were there for nine days and they gave me produce to give to the judges and to people who'd come over to visit. It was an incredible team, but for me, it was really galvanising in how people come together. Since then, we've had so many events happening in Galway and it’s all around food. And of course the Galway Food Festival continues to grow and grow. We have over 30 festivals in Galway and Mayo that have a food connection.
The food scene in Galway is evolving all the time but it's evolving because people are coming together. What is really critically important is this notion of a food community, so it’s food producers and chefs, it's business owners, it’s educators, it’s health professionals, it’s local government; it's all of these people that are now coming together to work collectively. That was the ambition of the European Region of Gastronomy Bid - that we would get people to come together and work collectively. We had our first Eat Out Speak Out as part of the Galway 2020 speak outs - that was May 2015. Less than year later, we have a designation as a European Region of Gastronomy - that is phenomenal. It's not because of me or Galway County Council, it's because of the collective approach. We have the most amazing food community - that is why Galway is becoming this destination it is. It's not because we've Michelin star restaurants, and it is fantastic we have them; we have wonderful people like JP (McMahon) and Enda (McEvoy) and Jess (Murphy), and all the other chefs around Galway - it's amazing. But it's about what's behind all of that. Michelin stars won't bring you a gastronomic region, it won't bring you a designation for European Region of Gastronomy, but we have this ground-up approach, this grassroots initiative and that’s what’s making the difference.
How do you see the future of the food culture in Galway?
With the European Capital of Culture - there are so many obvious opportunities. The fact that we've got the designation (for the Region of Gastronomy) means that it will sit beside the European Capital of Culture if we're successful. We now have a platform from which we can do a huge amount of work. For example, in Ireland at the moment there's a significant discussion taking place around childhood obesity and food education, and it doesn't happen in the curriculum. This is going to give us a platform to find solutions. Something that we in GMIT are going to take on board is to to look at the whole food education and health piece - what are we going to do as a higher education institute in the region to make a difference? Then we’ll pilot a programme, and if that works, then maybe we can replicate it elsewhere. I’m a member of the Taste Council of Ireland, a group within Bord Bia. A couple of years ago, the Minister for Agriculture, Marine and Food, Simon Coveney spoke to the group, and something that he was really interested in was food education, how can we make a difference. We agreed we were going to develop a TY (transition year) programme, and get it on the curriculum, which I did for them. So I worked on the team, we got it approved and we went to the National Council for Assessment and Curriculum. They piloted it and it was incredible. It's not just sitting in the classroom listening about food, we put interactive projects into it, so the students either have to develop a new product and bring it to the marketplace, or the students either have to work with the producer, who is bringing a product to the marketplace. This year, 200 schools have piloted it - we started off piloting with 9. I know we can do something but we need to reach across Galway - the city and the county and we need to reach into the areas where there isn't food education. Some of our schools are doing great projects, but not all of the schools are able to do them. I don't know if going into schools is the right way to do this because some schools will engage but not all will. But let's get into communities. People often say to me, but what about all the food festivals? Kids can go to those. There's a lot of kids that don't go to food festivals, because there's a lot of kids in Galway where mum and dad don't go - they don't want to go, don’t have the time to go or maybe don't have the interest in going. They're the kids I need to get to.
What would you like to see happening for Galway going forward?
What I would love to see is for us to have a food education programme that is accessible to every child and teengager in Galway. I'd like to have something that every kid does before they leave national school. Maybe it's learning how to make pizza at home - it doesn't have to be all this serious stuff, it’s about giving kids skills and knowledge for life, it's about letting them make decision. I don't buy into the notion that chips are bad for you or Coca Cola is bad for you. Yes it has a lot of sugar in it, but sometimes some people will justify drinking it. I am much more interesting in making kids understand - if they have knowledge, then they can make informed choices. This won't happen in one or two years, but if we had a rolling programme, you could make a difference - you really could.