Holly Carpenter knows all about pressure. She was, after all, a 19-year-old when, as a design student in NCAD, she experienced a marked change in her life: she entered the Miss Ireland contest and won it. Cue about five years of pap shots, photoshoots, red carpets and green rooms. Not only that but Holly was thrown into a world far removed from her student days when her primary career dream was to create a jewellery line. But as we said – Holly knows all about pressure and how to beat it into submission. Why else would she appear on Celebrity Masterchef?
“That was a really fun experience and I’m glad I took part,” she says about her 2017 reality cook show. She admits she knew going into it that she didn’t have much experience. “In fairness, I was only 23 at the time! It was extremely nerve-racking cooking on the clock in an overheated studio with cameras pointed at you. The two professional judges would shout you have one hour left, you have 30 minutes left, and so on, and the sweat was dripping off me with nerves and adrenaline.” Watching cooking shows on small or large screens now isn’t the most relaxing thing in the world for her, “because I know how tough it is!”
And how is the kitchen for her in these days of ubiquitous home baking, home cooking and home staycationing? Is the kitchen her friend, or does she still approach with caution? Holly gives a very honest answer: “to be honest, cooking doesn’t come naturally to me. I didn’t have a working oven for the first six months of living in my house, and getting it fixed wasn’t a huge priority to me as I usually use the hobs for everything. Having said that, I was one of the many people who enjoyed taking more time preparing meals for myself during lockdown. I think making yourself a delicious meal is a relaxing form of self-love. I never hopped on the banana bread bandwagon during lockdown, even after I got my oven fixed. I actually wanted to mute the words ‘banana bread’ from social media at one point! It was getting too much looking at all the photos of loaves of bread, but I guess we all had to do whatever had to be done to get us through the day during that time. A part of me was probably just secretly envious of their baking skills.”
A natural cook or not, food has played a crucial part in Holly’s life. She say she was lucky enough to grow up in a house where family evening meals were virtually set in stone. “My mum, Jane, is an amazing cook and I have a lot of happy memories of time spent together at the dinner as a family sharing our stories from the day table. I used to love when mum would cook spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread or a big Sunday roast followed by her famous homemade Malteser cheesecake. I’m also a very social person, so I love meeting friends for brunches and dinners. I look at food as something that brings people together, makes you feel good and gives you energy, so I would say I have a good relationship with it.”
Has that relationship changed over the years? As someone who was a model from the age of 19 to 24, and who has worked with photographers, designers, stylists and others connected with the fashion and beauty industry, Holly is very much aware of how that particular link can be conflicted.
“Over that period of time,” she recalls, “I struggled with an unhealthy relationship with food, for sure. I almost had a fear of sugar and carbs and I used to stress myself out calorie counting everyday. Thankfully, I worked on that issue and it’s not something that affects me as much today. I really love training in the gym. Lifting heavy weights and going to boxing classes helps relieve my stress and anxiety, so now I see food as fuel and something that gives me enough energy to go to the gym and go about my daily life. I find it therapeutic when you come home from doing a big food shop, and I enjoy doing a bit of meal prep and planning my food for the week.”
Did Holly say meal prep? In truth, that can take something of a backseat in these heady days of outdoor eating, the relaxation of lockdown rules, and the (cautious) promise of indoor dining. It’s safe to say that like the rest of Ireland she has been waiting for the starter’s gun to fire.
“It was the giddy feeling of physically getting ready to go and meet friends in a restaurant – it’s a buzz that I had missed so much! I love Googling the menu when I’m in the taxi on the way into town and looking at pictures of specials, cocktails and desserts on a restaurant’s Instagram account. I think it’s so important for bars and restaurants to have up-to-date information and photos on their social media accounts, and I’m so glad the €9 meal and 90-minute time limit rules are gone. It’s no fun feeling rushed when you’re out catching up with friends or enjoying a romantic date night. I also loved seeing familiar faces in my favourite spots and it was great seeing co-workers being reunited and delighted to be back in work.”
When Holly isn’t out and about (did we ever think we’d be back at that carry-on?) she is often home alone. What are her favourite home cooking meals and what is her solo go-to dish? Midweek, she reveals, she loves to cook “pan-fried fillet of salmon with some lemon butter garlic accompanied by greens and some sweet potato. It’s simple but so tasty. I was a pescatarian for a year and I still eat a lot of fish. I love the taste and it’s so good for your skin and hair, too. I live on my own, so I’m usually cooking for one. At weekends, I really enjoy making homemade pizza with my boyfriend, Jamie. I always get a bit carried away eating the ingredients as we cook, though. I don’t usually enjoy anyone helping me cook but when it comes to pizza I think it’s a really fun thing to make as a couple, or with friends, while enjoying a nice bottle of wine.”
Pizza? Wine? Friends? It’s all too much, isn’t it? Not for Holly Carpenter, though – when she isn’t enjoying her meal prep and food she is busy working away. She is currently working on online collaborations with skincare and beauty brands, and plans to share “life and beauty demonstrations” with her sizeable female following on social media (almost 98k on Instagram and almost 32k followers on Twitter). And lest we forget, there is also her LoveLift Jewellery website (www.lovelift.ie).
“In time I would like to go back to my design roots,” she concludes, “and work on some goals I set myself when I was in NCAD. Hopefully, that will involve dipping my toe into the world of interior and lingerie design, and as the world reopens I would also really enjoy getting back into travel writing.”
WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA
Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland