The kitchen, says television presenter Laura Woods, is “most definitely my friend, and has been for a decade.” She is certain of that time period, she adds, because the arrival of her first child in 2010 obliged her to reconsider her relationship with food. Many new parent has been here, of course: those spontaneous visits to restaurant, those mulled-over takeaways and handy readymeals were mostly replaced, she says, with a more considered approach to food.
“That’s not to say I don’t enjoy an indulgent treat, especially over the last year when food has been both a distraction and a comfort to so many of us, but I genuinely like to cook and enjoy the challenge of trying new dishes. Some get the thumbs up, while others prove less popular! I’m very lucky in the sense that we are surrounded by such talented chefs on a daily basis on Ireland AM, so I take lots of inspiration from what and how they cook.”
Food positivity is at the core of Laura’s culinary life. She admits, however, that it has changed over the years. “My mother is a fantastic cook, but when I moved out in my early twenties, food became almost an inconvenience. I adopted an ‘eat and run’ policy and ate purely because I was hungry, but didn’t give a huge amount of thought as to what I was eating and whether it was good for me.” Her relationship with food now, she says, couldn’t be more different. “I married a guy who is an excellent chef – his magnificent mother insisted that he and his brothers learnt how to cook before they left home – and we are trying to instil an interest and love of food in our two boys from an early age.” For Laura, home is where the heart and hearth is. “From growing herbs in the garden to getting the boys involved in the kitchen – and then the rule of eating together as a family when we can, with no devices or tablets allowed – food has a very positive place in our home. I hope when my sons grow up they will have fond memories of the chatter around the kitchen table while sharing a home-cooked meal with their old mum and dad!”
It is clear the communal, familial aspects of food – its comforts, sharing, conversations, intimacies – inform Laura’s connections to it. All of her noteworthy food memories relate to significant personal moments in her life – the special treat in the Shelbourne Hotel’s Saddle Room the night of her engagement; the steaks sizzling on the BBQ on the first day in her new home; sitting in a Lisbon heritage restaurant with girlfriends two years ago, chatting for hours and hours over dessert and wine. Her ultimate stand-out food moment, however, is something she will never forget: “the buttery toast and cup of tea they give you in hospital right after you’ve given birth!”
When it comes to eating out (not that there has been much of that in the past year), Laura admits to being more of a tapas and wine person (“my mother-in-law is Spanish, so I’ve spent the last thirteen years in some incredible tapas bars across Spain”) than silver service. While she doesn’t for a second deny that the experience of a few hours in the likes of Chapter One or L’Ecrivain is a treat (“you just know you’re going to be spoilt rotten!”), she reckons to make your way through a jammers restaurant, sitting at your table, sampling food treats from numerous plates and trying to be heard over the buzz appeals the most. “Especially now,” she enthuses, “when we haven’t been able to enjoy those nights for a year. I really feel for the hospitality sector, which has been hit so hard by the pandemic. I look forward to when they can open their doors again – we’ll all be lining up to enjoy a night out and to support them, too.”
For the next while, however, the food focus is directed more towards her own kitchen. Laura admits she’s hardly ever a home-alone person, but if she were her favourite dishes would be “something quick and easy” and include the likes of “gnocchi with spinach and chorizo, or maybe tortilla and salad. As a family, we have our go-to dishes, like fajitas or a stir-fry, that I know will be eaten without complaint. I also like to make crab risotto, Tuscan sausage tagliatelle, lamb tagine, beef stroganoff or perhaps a more traditional fish pie or cottage pie. I enjoy creating dishes that are aromatic and packed with flavour. My kids say they love my cooking, but when you catch them feeding it to the dogs on occasion you have to wonder!”
And what about two of the major food-related success stories of lockdown – takeout and meal kits? Laura immediately namechecks two of her Dublin-based favourites: Chef Kwanghi Chan and Asador. The former, as regular viewers of Virgin Media Television will know, makes regular appearances on The Six O’Clock Show, and has recently brought out his range of home kits. “We ordered the dumpling box, which was phenomenal. I messaged him to say they were absolutely delicious and he kindly wrote back with a recipe for the leftovers. I was too embarrassed, however, to tell him there was nothing left over – we had scoffed the lot. We’ve also ordered Asador-at-home several times in the last few months. What I love about their meal box kits is they think of everything, from the sides to the sauces. It really is a very close second to their full restaurant experience. Hats off to all the restaurants around the country that had to adapt, and quickly, in order to keep their businesses going.”
If the words ‘restaurants around the country’ bring on thoughtful pangs of nostalgia and longing (as well as phantom hunger pains, perhaps), then talking about them is possibly as close to safe cruelty as you can get. We didn’t get to where we are today, however, without asking tricky questions. So – what Irish restaurants stand out in her experience as being the best?
“Close to home, I think of Peploe’s, on Stephen’s Green, for its consistently good food, excellent atmosphere and the friendly staff. I’m picking The Ivy, on Dawson Street, for the cocktails, the eclectic decor, and it just being a fun spot for people-watching. Staying even more local, Bhansa Ghar in Cabinteely comes to mind for an authentic Nepalese experience and delicious grub, while That’s Amore and Lobstar, both in Monkstown, never fail to impress.”
Outside local/home choices, Laura opts for lunch at the Strand Hotel in Dunmore East (“between the crab claws and the beachside location, I believe it might just have the best beer garden in the country”). She also mentions The Old Bank, Dungarvan, where in the summer of 2020 “we had one of the tastiest meals in a long time. It was fine dining but in a relaxed way, which was just as well because we had our kids with us and they don’t know how to be quiet!”
Laura has just mentioned the word ‘quiet’, which is the noise level around her when she wakes up to prepare for work on Ireland AM. We are obliged to ask – for someone who loves their food so much, and is able to quantify its nutritional value as much as its comfort-zone attributes, is her breakfast smash-and-grab or something more organised? Prepare to be shocked, readers.
“I’m ashamed to admit that as much as I love food and the whole ritual of enjoying a good meal, this only starts at 5pm. I can’t stomach food first thing in the morning, so at 5am I leave home with a banana stuffed in my work bag, along with some of the kids’ rice cakes or a packet of nuts – anything that will stop my stomach from rumbling until the show is over.”
Shocked, I tell you!
For more information why not follow Laura: Instagram: @laurawoodstv and Twitter: @lwoodsey
WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA
Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland