Journeys in Taste Interview with Rory O’Connell of Ballymaloe House

We can’t quite believe this, but we have just asked Rory O’Connell a question that he fails to answer in full. This is unusual because Rory is the kind of person that can start a sentence with a word and end up ten minutes later with a true short story – a story that is always engaging, has a point and, quite often, a punchline. The question is this: which dinner party guests would he have on a wish-list? The first two names arrive quickly.

The writer Oscar Wilde for his wit and the craic, the bitchiness, the wonderful language and the intelligence. The environmental activist and food sovereignty advocate Vandana Shiva, a wonderful Indian lady who has taken on the Indian government on various things to do with agriculture and the rights of farmers in her country. And… Let me see… Hhhmmm… Maybe… Erm… Young lad… A singer… No, I can’t think of it… Can I get back to you on that?” (A few days later, Rory emails the names – singer Harry Styles and Copenhagen-based chef René Redzepi, the co-owner of the two-Michelin star restaurant, Noma.)

As professional strategy would have it, we have other questions for the man who has, in the past ten years, become one of the best-known chefs in Ireland. Rory’s broader profile started in 2013, when his first cookbook, Master It – How to Cook Today, nabbed the prestigious André Simon Food Book Award. Subsequently, his 2020 cookbook, The Joy of Food: A Celebration of Good Things to Eat, further advanced his culinary concepts. Add to this the continuing series of RTE One’s How to Cook Well with Rory O’Connell, and you have a chef that manages his career in the same way he manages his media interviews: deftly and with some style.

Where he is now, of course, is where he wasn’t 30 years ago. The second youngest of nine children (one of his siblings is Darina Allen, just in case you didn’t know) comforted by the great food concocted in his mother’s kitchen in Cullohill, County Laois, Rory’s post-college career stopped and started for a while. “I’d already had a go at law and interior design, and they hadn’t worked out,” he says. He adds he then fell into the culinary world by accident.

I’d been working at Ballymaloe House on reception for a summer with a view to discovering what it was I was supposed to do with my life. At the end of the summer, the job at reception was finishing up because business at the hotel was winding down, but I wanted to spend what I thought would be a month in the kitchen. I specifically wanted to learn how to make Béarnaise sauce, Hollandaise sauce, puff pastry, and a few other things my mother didn’t cook at home. At that point, however, none of this was what you might term a professional decision.

Within a couple of weeks in the literal heat of the kitchen, Rory sensed he had finally discovered his career missing link. “I felt so comfortable there, and I also felt I was able to do the work. I had grown up in a house where there was a lot of cooking. My mother, like most mothers at this time, cooked every day, and what she presented was very good. She was actively interested in food and cooking. I’m forever thankful that it all happened by accident.

What did he learn within those two weeks that triggered such a positive response? He discovered, he relates, that when you cook you get, relatively, immediate results and that “you know that what you have cooked is either good or bad.” What was really interesting to Rory, however, was that (unlike his brief time at university, where “I hadn’t a clue what was going on”) there was nothing vague about cooking. “There was a definite result, good, bad or indifferent. What I also realised was if what you cooked wasn’t great, or good, then you had a chance to do it again to get it right. I thought about how few jobs anyone could have where you could try something repeatedly to get it right. Plus, I loved the atmosphere of the kitchen, the camaraderie, and the way food can be so creatively presented. The artistry of food, in fact, is one of the boxes that was inwardly ticked for me.

Of course, over the years, Rory didn’t only acquire culinary knowledge and wisdom from his mother. He has worked with other prestigious chefs, including Raymond Blanc (at Oxford-based Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons), Alice Waters (at California-based Chez Panisse), Nico Ladenis (at London’s Chez Nico) and, lest we forget, Myrtle Allan at Ballymaloe. What were the most influential lessons he absorbed from these people? 

When I started cooking at Ballymaloe. Mrs Allen was still in the kitchen. For the first couple of weeks, she more or less took me under her wing. She asked me would I help her to test recipes, which was an astonishing experience. In a very democratic way, she would ask me to taste things and would accept my opinions if I felt this or that needed a bit more salt or whatever. Bear in mind that I was just starting off, so she had a great impact on me and my subsequent career. Mrs Allen had such belief, such pride in what was produced from the soil and what you could get from the seas of Ireland. That was imbued in everything we did, and it drives me to this day.

Outside Ireland, Rory’s highlights included working at Chez Panisse (he holds Alice Waters in high regard) and Chez Nico. What he learned primarily from Nico Ladenis (the first self-taught chef to earn three Michelin stars) were effective organisational skills. “Absolutely everything had its place. Nico also had intelligent menu planning that understood what was possible given the small space we had. That had a great effect on me. He was an extraordinary character – he had a huge reputation for being quite difficult, yet I found him to be merely straightforward and pragmatic. In other words, it was definitely his way or the highway, but I thought that was perfectly reasonable because there was an honesty to it.”

With a new series of How to Cook Well with Rory O’Connell ready and waiting in the wings (scheduled for broadcast on RTE One this summer), there is as much a sense of familiarity for Rory as experimenting with form. Getting the balance right, while always edging towards something new and exciting, is pivotal to his work as a renowned chef. He says he is committed to foods that are delicious, that work for a reason, and which have been around for a long time.

On the other hand, I personally feel that I need to be aware of any new trends there are, and of what amazing work younger chefs – Irish and international, men and women – are coming up with. I totally like to be at the cutting edge, and for someone who loves to cook there’s nothing more exciting for me than a new recipe. Also, even though I’m an elder member of the cooking community, I still want to be relevant, I still want to feel contemporary, personally and professionally. I want to keep the brain whirring away as much as I possibly can, and I want to learn from the younger generation of chefs.” 

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Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland

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