Rory O’Connell

16th November 2017

Interview: Sophie Missing
Photographs: Dan Dennison

16th November 2017

Interview: Sophie Missing
Photographs: Dan Dennison

Part of an ongoing collaboration with Fáilte Ireland

Tucked off a narrow winding road in East Cork, Ireland, Rory O’Connell’s house takes us a while to find. When we do find it, I can’t help but notice that it is the exact colour of buttery double cream. It seems a fitting home for the chef and co-founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School, where students on the famous 12-week course have learned to cook using the very best homemade dairy – and produce from the adjoining organic farm – since it opened in 1983.

It’s hard to imagine the cottage as the wreck Rory describes it as when he bought it 15 years ago. The kitchen is an extraordinary space, blurring the boundaries between outside and in, with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open onto a lush garden, where the last of the summer sweet peas are still blooming.

Inside, that William Morris line about having nothing that you don’t know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful, springs to mind – whether it’s the luxuriously practical two dishwashers (“naughty”) or the kitchen island piled high with good things. Here are just-picked heirloom tomatoes in a weighty spatterware platter from Puglia, fresh herbs, and hazelnuts in their ruffled green casings.

The style and meticulousness of this kitchen is echoed in Rory’s food. A consummate cook – head chef at Ballymaloe House1 for 10 years; twice awarded Ireland’s Chef of the Year – he is his element in the kitchen, moving around with a nimble focus as he answers questions, prepares three courses from scratch and, somehow, cleans everything up.

He’s also obviously a natural teacher, in equal parts passionate and wry; watching him prepare lunch, it’s impossible not to learn things. Such as the best way to grate Parmesan. Or how to tell when a baked custard is ready (there’s a difference between a wobble and a ripple, FYI). It’s a skill that translates to the page too: his first cookbook, Master It, won the André Simon Book Award in 2013, and he has just published a second, focusing on seasonal, balanced menus – like the one he creates for our lunch.

Over the course of the afternoon, the rain rolls in and out, with brief but intense showers punctuated by bright sunshine, as we sit down to feast on golden chanterelle custards, a rich creamy tonnato, and a nubbly almond apple cake so good that it seems rude not to go back for seconds.

Continued below...

I notice you’re being incredibly tidy as you work.

If you’ve cooked in a good restaurant kitchen, you have to be tidy. It’s just the way it is. It’s much more efficient. I mean, most people probably don’t use three bowls to peel apples [laughs]. I think that’s the problem: in a restaurant you get used to somebody, well, not somebody running around behind you but…

Everything gets taken care of.

Yup. But in any event, I think I would do it this way.

What are your other kitchen tips?

Certainly I always suggest to people that they weigh out all of their ingredients before they start, pretty much like I’ve done2, because it just makes it so much easier and more enjoyable. The whole process is nicer if you do that. And you’re less likely to forget something if you’ve measured everything out.

How often do you cook for yourself?

Every day. When I’m at home I cook for myself, absolutely. I’m also in the rather fortunate position that there’s nearly always a pretty delicious lunch at the school – certainly when it’s operating, which is for most of the year – so I can pop over there. But we seem to be extremely hungry people because we all sit down and have supper in the evenings. Supper might be a boiled egg but equally it might be roast chicken or something more complicated. But we do eat a lot, really.

The food that’s available to us – a lot of which we grow and produce ourselves – is off the scale, ridiculously good

I guess it could go either way, being around food all day…

I don’t pick so I’m not a grazer. I don’t think any of us really are grazers, we’re just obsessed! We’re so fortunate where we live. To a certain extent you make your own fortune but the food that’s available to us – a lot of which we grow and produce ourselves – is off the scale, ridiculously good. We recognise that and it’s an incredibly important part of what we do here. It just brings a completely different dimension to teaching people how to cook if you can take them down to the dairy and show them the milk coming out of the cow. You’re getting to the nitty gritty.

How much time do you spend at the cookery school? [It’s a few miles from Rory’s house, towards Shanagarry]

I teach there quite a lot. Darina [Allen, Rory’s sister and co-founder of the cookery school] and Rachel [Allen, who’s married to Rory’s nephew] and I are the three main lecturers – we divide it between us depending on what everybody’s commitments are.

Would you have breakfast if you’re home?

I would. Breakfast will be minimal. When our short courses are on we provide a big continental breakfast with as much stuff from the farm as possible. So depending on the time of year it might be a bowl of porridge or sometimes just coffee – and a fag.

 

While preparing the batter for the Tuscan apple cake, Rory nips across the room to check the recipe on his laptop.

It’s funny how, once you write a recipe, it seems to leave your head. How important is following recipes?

We really do believe in the value of following recipes. If you follow a recipe and it works, you’ve taught yourself something: why a certain amount of ingredients react in a certain way. If you just chuck lots of things into a saucepan and one day it’s fantastic and the next it’s ghastly, there’s no reference to why or how. But if you follow a recipe gradually you’re building up a knowledge base and an understanding. So much to do with cooking is science – you could approach it entirely that way, if you wanted to, completely unemotionally, and you’d get fantastic results.

And what about relying on instinct?

Some cooks are instinctive definitely – I would say I’m a really quite instinctive cook – but some aren’t so they have no clue why something would or wouldn’t work or anything like that. Most of my cooking has been done in restaurants: I was head chef at Ballymaloe for 10 years, and certainly I learned when I was starting that Mrs Allen always had recipes for everything. And if she came into the kitchen and there was a problem with a dish, she would say, did you follow the recipe? And if you looked back and thought, oh Christ, I misread that line, you have absolute concrete evidence as to why you made a mess. I find it irritating when people almost see it as being amateur if you follow recipes.

At the cookery school, we’ve banned the use of the word “superfood” because Darina thinks that’s just bollocks. Quinoa is not going to improve your life; actually, I’d argue to the contrary

Yeah – being gung ho for the sake of it.

There’s a good reason all our mothers and grandmothers had recipe books. But then food was so much more precious, so much more expensive, relatively speaking, than it is now. It was a moral issue for them, because it was regarded as a sin to waste food. What a sin was then is different to what a sin is now. I think there’s much less respect for food than there used to be, despite all the kowtowing and celebration of chefs – which is great, and which I approve of – but a lot of it isn’t real.

You learned to cook at Ballymaloe with Myrtle Allen, a home cook whose philosophy – using the best local, seasonal produce and letting that be the focus – was pretty unique for the time. Does it feel like the landscape has changed a lot since then?

The cooking at Ballymaloe was, I’m going to say, an extension of the sort of food I grew up with at home. My mother was a wonderful cook and we ate with the seasons, as most people did then. We’ve seen food fads come and go. At the cookery school, we’ve banned the use of the word “superfood” because Darina thinks that’s just bollocks. Some things are obviously better for you than others, but quinoa is not going to improve your life; actually, I’d argue to the contrary. We’ve always listened to what’s going on and we travel extensively and read voraciously – and we read the real science. Not the nutritional information in a glossy at the weekend. We’re very careful with that sort of thing. We used to get threatening letters back in the day because we never stopped using butter or cream, never decreased the amount we used at any stage; we have always promoted a balanced diet, like my mother would have done. As much local, seasonal and, nowadays, ideally as much organic as possible. So that hasn’t changed. We would’ve been seen as kind of hippy types to be perfectly honest.

On The Menu

Lunch with Rory O’Connell

Ballycotton, Co Cork, September 2017

To eat:

Smoked mackerel tonnato with heritage tomatoes, basil and eggs »
Chanterelle mushroom custards and Ballymaloe sourdough toast with tarragon butter »
Tuscan apple cake with blackberry and geranium leaf compote »

To drink:

Tea
Water
Red wine
Coffee

Has the perception around cooking professionally changed in Ireland?

Well, it’s probably more respectable. The last thing that would have been expected of a nice middle class boy like me was that I would be a cook. Don’t misunderstand me, because my mother wasn’t in any way snobby or snooty or that nonsense, but just generally speaking you’d have been a doctor or a lawyer or a vet or something of that nature. But it has changed. I think we [at Ballymaloe] have helped with that change. And also nowadays there are so many more opportunities if you’d like to cook. You don’t just have to go into a restaurant kitchen: there are a million things you can do, which is utterly wonderful.

Do you enjoy cooking at home?

I enjoy cooking anywhere. It’s the thing that makes me tick in every single way. I just love it: the physicality, the emotional bit. Where the food comes from is utterly tied up in all of that. I feel incredibly lucky – I can’t think of anything else I’d want to do.

How did you come to it?

I was training to be a lawyer. And then I dreamed I was going to be chairman of [the auction house] Christies at one point. I fell into cooking by accident really. I’d spent a summer working on reception at Ballymaloe House and my mother suggested I use the time to decide what I was going to do. At the end of the summer, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do but I certainly didn’t want to go back to college.

If you grate Parmesan on a Microplane and then if you grate it on an old-fashioned box grater, the difference in flavour is phenomenal. It’s so much better off the box grater
Rory on his favourite kitchen objects

You mentioned your mother was a wonderful cook?

She was a very good cook and she liked to cook, so that’s a good combination. Like a lot of people then, her mother and father produced a lot of their own food: there would have been geese and pigs and things from the farm. My grandfather and my grandmother sat down every night on their own after the children had gone to bed and ate in the dining room. And my mother and father did the same. So the table thing was important. It wasn’t grand food – it was really, really good food. But what we also forget is that women at that time were semi-professional; they had so much more knowledge and so much more skill than people have nowadays. That’s just the way society has evolved. We were fortunate enough to live in a house [in Co Laois] with a mother who was a good cook and who also loved to cook, and that was a tremendous advantage.

What kind of thing would she cook?

Roast chicken; the perfect Christmas cake, I mean really perfect; the best plum pudding all bar none, and I’m not emotional about those things, I recognise it as the best – certainly the best I’ve ever tasted.

Every year when we were kids, we went out and picked blackberries and hazelnuts and all of those things. We still do

And do you still make it?

Oh yeah, absolutely: Mummy’s Plum Pudding. She’d do things like chocolate window cake, like Battenburg, with the little different colours of sponge. And she would have made her own jam, her own sponge, her own almond paste. She took pride in things being just correct. We did actually look forward to the next meal and irritatingly we would ask just after lunch what was for supper. Can you imagine cooking for six or seven people pretty much three times a day? I mean we had help in the house, but it was non-stop, absolutely endless.

And no dishwashers!

We did have the first dishwasher in the village. We had the first washing machine in the village and the first car in the village; they were quite modern in that respect. We had a good vegetable garden and for a long time we had our own cow, a Kerry cow – the man who worked in the garden said it was him or the cow and the cow went.

So meal-times were central.

I think we didn’t realise then, but in many ways it was very sophisticated: it wasn’t grand but we all sat down. We didn’t have television, because my mother refused to get a television until we had all finished our secondary school education. We all went to a boarding school where the food was really filthy. The boys were lucky because our boarding school was only 20 miles from home – she’d come and visit us maybe twice a month and bring a picnic, and we always felt hard done by because boys with more well-off parents would be taken to the local hotel. Little did we know that we were doing much better.

What would be in the picnic?

Oh, it could be a still-warm roast chicken, her own bread, a great cake of some description – and something for us to take back to bolster what we were being fed.

It sounds like something in a novel… And did your siblings grow up feeling the same way about food?

Yes, we were all totally invested. It sounds a little bit twee, but at this time of year, every year, we went out and picked blackberries and hazelnuts and all of those things. We still do.

This is the first part of our ongoing collaboration with Fáilte Ireland.

For more about Rory O’Connell and Ballymaloe Cookery School, go here. To eat or stay at Ballymaloe House, go here.

Follow Rory: Instagram | Twitter

  1. A hugely well-regarded hotel and restaurant and one of Condé Nasts Top 100 world hotels in 2015
  2. For each of the dishes Rory is preparing, the ingredients are carefully measured out and grouped together

Posted 16th November 2017

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Interview: Sophie Missing
Photographs: Dan Dennison

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