Laragh Stuart

21st May 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

21st May 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

Laragh Stuart lives with her sons Milo and Lucien on the grounds of a country house in Wicklow, an hour south of Dublin, in a pebbledash gate lodge surrounded by trees1. We arrive in piercing sunshine but, according to the haywire logic of the Irish spring, apocalyptic rain showers aren’t far away. Laragh is making a perfect meal for uncertain weather: rich, comforting beef rouladen, a German dish she inherited from her late father, the sculptor Ian Stuart2. She remembers him preparing the little rolls of beef with a bottle of red wine open on the kitchen table – a formative memory in her lifelong love affair with food.

For the past 16 years, Laragh has been producing gourmet soups and sauces for shops and cafés around Ireland – she trades under her own name3. At home, she’s a highly creative cook, always dreaming up mouthwatering new dishes – she loves riffing on recipes in unexpected ways – but her technique, she says, occasionally lets her down. You could get something amazing for dinner at Laragh’s or it could all go up in flames. “I burn things so often,” she laughs, “people call me Flambé.”

She sets the rouladen bubbling away on the stove, then – after admiring the art on the walls and the cornucopia of ingredients in Laragh’s kitchen – we head out for an afternoon drive. Our first stop is a local hotel, an appealingly olde-worlde place called Hunters where time appears to have frozen circa 1952: Laragh comes here for a drink on occasion. Then she takes us into Wicklow Town to visit a fish shop on the quays where huge, corroding warehouses loom in the afternoon sunlight. The sky darkens on the drive back, and by the time we return to the cottage the rain is lashing down. The beef rouladen has not, we are relieved to note, gone up in flames. It’s one of the most intensely satisfying dishes we’ve had in a long time4. She serves it up with buttery mashed potatoes and we sit down to eat as spring showers wash across the glen.

Continued below...

The dish you’re making today was one of your dad’s favourites. Was he a good cook?

He was really into his food. He loved cigars, food, wine, and because he was an artist I suppose he was very good at cooking, very confident. No adhering to recipes, although in his later years he got really into cookbooks for inspiration. “Oh that looks delicious,” he’d say.

Is there a crossover between artistic talent and cooking talent?

Yeah I think there is. You know how some people are good at mixing colours? It’s the same with flavours: knowing what goes with what. For me cooking is all about confidence: having the confidence to throw things in, not adhering to measurements…

Were you always a good cook?

I think it just came naturally to me. I used to sit around the kitchen table with my dad from an early age, watching him and helping him.

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So he was your main influence?

Yeah. He was quite traditional in a lot of his cooking and sometimes he would eat weird things, like cold baked beans or tins of corned beef, which he’d open up and put on the table – I couldn’t even look at them. But he was great with spices; he was always throwing spices into everything. I do that too. We travelled a lot when I was very young – we drove all the way to India in a red VW van – so I was exposed to spices early on.

Do you ever, while experimenting, end up with something weird?

Yeah, it happens a lot. I love experimenting and coming up with ideas, but to be honest I’m not really a chef.

So you’re a creative cook but…

…I don’t have a lot of technique. I’d love to have a chef working alongside me so I could come up with an idea and say, “Do that”. When I’ve worked with chefs in the past, they’d say, “That’s a brilliant idea but you need to do it like this”.

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Have you ever worked as a chef?

A few times, yeah, but I hated it. When I was 22 or 23, I worked with a crazy woman at a restaurant in Dublin. It had a bar that stayed open till three in the morning and all the politicians used to go there with their mistresses. I started off peeling potatoes and the next thing I was beside her, helping her with the mains. She was a serious alcoholic – she used to sit underneath the cooker with a pint of Guinness and a cigarette saying to me, “Check on the steak will you?” So that’s where I learned my cooking. I used to play the piano there as well and make loads of tips, and she’d be dancing around the restaurant – she was an ex-ballerina. It was quite a funny place.

How long did you last?

A year and a half. One day we had a huge row and she tried to throw a knife at me. I ran out of the restaurant, slammed my hand on the piano and said, “I quit!” She said, “You’re fired!” Anyway we ended up becoming friends again. And then I set up my soup business.

On The Menu

Dinner with Laragh Stuart
Co Wicklow, January 2015

To eat:

Beef Rouladen »
Mashed potatoes

To drink:

Red wine (Domaine La Sarabande Faugeres)

Had you always wanted to work in food?

I really wanted to be a tribal art dealer. I was living in London and my boyfriend at the time was a big tribal art dealer, he was teaching me all about it. But then I came back to Ireland and had Milo and ended up getting into food.
The first thing I did after the restaurant was set up a crêpe stall in Meeting House Square in Temple Bar. Then we started doing soups. At first we were really naïve. Forgot about tinned tomatoes: we were blanching the tomatoes and peeling and deseeding them by hand – our hands would get so sore. I remember working till four in the morning making soup, then getting up at a couple of hours later to deliver it on the bus because I didn’t have a car. I don’t think I’d be able to do that again.

Sitting around the table, for me, is what makes life living. The conviviality, the chatter, the ubiquitous glass of wine. I love that

How much time do you spend on it now?

I go in about three days a week. I took a back seat when Lucien was born, to be a mum this time, because I missed out a lot with Milo. Setting up a business is hard – it takes a lot of energy.

Do you have any food rituals – certain things you have at certain times at day?

At 7.30am I have to have my earl grey with milk and honey in bed. It’s the first thing I do and I will not speak to anyone till I’ve had that. I’ll sit there for half an hour.

Reading?

Recently I’ve been playing Scrabble on my phone. It’s really bad! I’m trying to give it up. It’s a terrible addiction, the phone thing. I’ve got to get back into books.
Then I go to pilates in Roundwood, then drive into town if I’m working. I’ll always stop somewhere, Avoca usually, and get a takeaway coffee. When I get home I’m usually very hungry and I get excited about what to cook. I’ll say to the boys, “Let’s have something really delicious”. At the moment we’re on noodles – I’m using lots of miso paste. And lots of fresh turmeric: I’ve been grating that into everything – curries, miso broths, noodles, even juices – and my hands are always yellow from it. It’s really good for you.

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Are the boys adventurous eaters?

Lucien is getting into food – his favourite thing is quail’s eggs. And he loves cooking. He does great carbonara, a really good crab pasta, and he loves making date puddings. Milo does really weird things.

Weird in a good way?

Not really. I’ve seen him mix hummus in with pasta and pesto.

I used to be a terrible cook when I was younger. I burned everything…

I burn things so often, people call me Flambé [laughs]. I had a prospective boyfriend over here for dinner last summer. I was doing duck and we were sitting in the other room. He asked if something was burning. I said, “No, no, of course not”. I’d completely forgotten about the duck. The whole oven was on fire. I managed to salvage some of the meat and put it in the pan for a minute but then I burned that too [laughs]. We ended up getting a takeaway.

“It’s a bit like Fawlty Towers but I still love the place. They have a beautiful garden with roses and you can sit out there in the summer and have prosecco”
Laragh on her favourite local food places – see Address Book

Is there anything you don’t eat?

Kidneys I wouldn’t eat. Offal, ugh. I did some styling on a cookbook recently and was helping the author to cook tongue. I think that’s one of the most disgusting things, tongue. I had to take off the outer layer of skin and chop it up. It wasn’t nice.

What else are you cooking at the moment?

One of my favourite things to do is marinate Irish seaweed with mirin, lime juice, a bit of chilli – I make a salsa out of it and have it with salmon or some kale stir-fried with ginger and camargue red rice.

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Do you spend hours cooking?

Yeah. But last night I had a ready-made meal, because I didn’t have the boys here, didn’t feel like cooking and had something in the freezer from ages ago. It’s quite nice sometimes not to cook. But the night before I spent an hour and a half cooking a noodle mushroom miso thing with tofu.

Do you find the process enjoyable?

It’s the best bit of the day, mealtimes, especially when you have someone to share it with. Sitting around the table, for me, is what makes life living. It’s the conviviality, the chatter. And then the ubiquitous glass of wine. I love that.

What’s best meal out you’ve had in the past few years?

About a year and a half ago, we went to Lima in London. I thought that was really nice. I loved the colours of the dishes and the flavours were really good. The pisco sours went down well too. And we went back to the River Café last year. That’s my favourite restaurant of all time.

What would your last meal be?

Lobster and champagne. With aioli, baby potatoes and a green salad.

The new Laragh Stuart Foods website is coming soon. In the meantime, check out her catering website here
And have a look at Laragh’s beautiful blog The Silvery Bees

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  1. As well as elms, beeches and oaks, there is a massive apple tree that yields a great bounty of cooking apples in the autumn
  2. Laragh’s grandfather was the writer Francis Stuart, her great-grandmother was the revolutionary Maud Gonne
  3. Laragh Stuart Foods supply to high-end shops like Fallon & Byrne and Avoca – their sauces include tzatziki, guacamole, baba ganoush and several varieties of hummus and pesto. She also runs a catering company; see contact details at the bottom of the interview
  4. We’ve made it at home several times since: it really is fantastic. Have a go at the recipe

Posted 21st May 2015

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

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