Journeys in Taste Interview with Chef Catherine Fulvio

Career life choices can be tricky things. Some people steer themselves far away from their family influences, while others are, you might say, born into what they eventually make a living from. Take Catherine Fulvio, for example. While one of Ireland’s best-known and most visible chefs worked at a PR agency and then as a Marketing Manager at the beginning of her working life, she eventually jettisoned those areas for food, glorious food.

I was most definitely born into the business! Growing up on a farm in County Wicklow really makes you appreciate the goodness of fresh produce. As a child, one of my jobs was to skim the cream from the milk and then to turn the butter. My mum was very ambitious and entrepreneurial with an enviable work ethic. She was always thinking of the next big thing, and so she was one of the first in the country to convert our farmhouse into a bed and breakfast. The difference was that this was no ordinary B&B, as she offered full board to guests. That was a lot of cooking from scratch and that’s where I learned how to cook. So yes, during that time I had the privilege of growing up in the hospitality business, harvesting the food from the farm garden for guests’ breakfasts and dinners, and learning to cook at the hands of my mother and grandmother. It was a wonderful childhood.

Along with her mother as primary inspiration and motivator (Catherine says the two of them were always head-deep in plotting and planning the next big move in the business) the idea of expanding the family empire by acquiring and running a hotel was mooted. Sadly, illness hindered her mother, plans changed, and Catherine ended up taking over Ballyknocken House. It was during her time as Marketing Manager of a nearby country house hotel, which ran cookery courses, that she had an idea. Goodbye Ballyknocken House, hello Ballyknocken House & Cookery School.

I absolutely love cooking and I love experimenting with flavours. I relish the creativity that cooking brings to my life and I really enjoy sharing my passion with anybody who will listen to me. I love teaching every little nuance of cooking, all the tips and tricks and all the gadgets to have. It’s such a fun job, and when a job is fun nothing ever seems daunting.”

What were those early years like for you, I ask, and in retrospect what spurred you on to continue? When she took over Ballyknocken more than 20 years ago, Catherine says, the first major job was to renovate the farmhouse to a 4-star standard of accommodation. “That was difficult as there were so many memories there. Walls being moved and rooms changing from their original purpose were somewhat emotional for me. I was saying goodbye to the old, but I knew it was the way forward. I then converted the old milking parlour into a cookery school. During that time, I had youth on my side – I was driven, energetic, an absolute optimist. Of course, I like to think that I still have those qualities, but, yes, I adored the work and I guess I wanted to make my mum and my dad proud of what was achieved.

What does she think she absorbed from her parents with regards to life in general and the business of cooking in particular? Catherine admits this is a difficult question to answer as her father passed away in September 2020. Inevitably, her parents hugely influenced her. “They were both kind, generous, hard-working people who were ambitious for their children, and I will always be grateful for that. I’d like to think some of their traits have rubbed off on me. From my dad, I’d say I’ve learnt not only patience as I get older, but also an appreciation of the joy of the land and a celebration of all that nature gives us. From my mum, I get her love of cooking and good fresh food, her creativity, energy, her hard-working ethos. Both taught me how to laugh and that laughter is the antidote to almost everything!

By this point in her career, Catherine is a very recognisable face on television not only as a guest on lifestyle programmes but also as the main presenter/chef. She must be very well used to it by now, I venture, but what was her first experience like? Catherine musters up the courage to admit she was petrified. “My first television experience was on IrelandAM. Rack of lamb was my selected dish and my hand shook like a leaf as I tried to lower the lamb into the pan. I really enjoyed the experience, however, and was welcomed back there again and again. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of making television shows with RTE, BBC and with America’s Recipe.tv as well as appearing on many television networks around the world. I never take it for granted – for me, it’s an honour to be invited to cook on TV and I’m always very grateful for the opportunities.

They say that if you don’t have the right tools then you can’t do the job properly, so how does Catherine, whose culinary aesthetic was developed by fundamental hands-on skills of her mother, view the way in which smart technology is becoming such a resourceful part of a chef’s presence in the kitchen? She admits she loves a great kitchen gadget, but with provisos: they have to be fool proof, functional, easy to use and have a useful purpose. Her ‘smart’ philosophy is direct and sensible. “If any of this technology comes with more than four pages of instructions for basic use then I don’t reckon it’s all that smart – or maybe the problem lies with me!

And so we arrive at what is on the mind of most people these days. With ostensibly brighter and better days (and nights) ahead, what is next in terms of advancing the brand Catherine Fulvio? The business has, of course, been on hold for well over a year, but that doesn’t mean to say that Catherine’s business ideas have been similarly static. 

We have been busy creating a new side to our business,” she reveals. “On the website, we opened an online cookery school that offers not only live cookalongs and live classes but also a great selection of short classes from meal preparation to barbecue, a kids’ cookery class and a three-month Transition Year student class. All of these are downloadable, so people can do them at their leisure. I’ve lots more ideas for the online cookery school, so watch this space, but it’s important to say that I also love meeting people and I can’t wait to be able to reopen our business again.

As for 2020? It was, says Catherine, an unusual and sometimes sorrowful year. “During the first lockdown, I was quite stressed, but as time went on I began to embrace the quietness, the peace, the walks in the countryside, the extra time with family and generally, more time to stop and chat. As the world reopens and we all move forward, I’ll definitely carry some of that with me.

For further details on Ballyknocken’s online cookery school visit www.catherinefulvio.com

For further details on accommodation offers at Ballyknocken House & Cookery School visit www.ballyknocken.com

WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA

Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland

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