The Cuisine Genie Taking Over London – In Conversation with Laoise Casey
Being a chef today is more than just about creating an experience at the table. The power of Instagram and blogging means that a well shot dish and a caption can tantalize taste buds across the globe, sharing that experience with an appreciative community. Sure, we may roll our eyes at the sheer volume of dinner snaps on every social media platform but isn’t this just a reflection of the wonderful enthusiasm about the food we eat and what we’re all part of? It’s democratic too; anyone can create a well made dish and find out if it appeals. No permission slip needed, just curiosity.
Laoise Casey is a chef who understands the power of communication. She writes, she cooks (in the very cool Paradise Garage) and she teaches. In short, she is the modern chef; immersed in the community of food culture as well as the art and science of cooking. This is my favourite kind of chef because she’s open to sharing her journey, her creations and her life.
She started her popular blog, Cuisine Genie simply because she “couldn’t not start it, I had to talk about food!” The blog eventually brought her to a regular Evening Standard Column where she creates gourmet lunch box feasts inspired by the restaurants she visits (just look at this week’s fig, gorgonzola and pistachio bruschetta!). For Laoise, it’s important to have great food out but still be able to recreate those exciting experiences at home. Simplicity for her is key.
I first discovered Laoise when I read an article she wrote for the Irish Times describing her journey from HR manager in Dublin to the most prestigious kitchens of London. I was intrigued. As a HR manager, she remembers waking up at ‘crazy hours’ every weekend to spend as much time as possible cooking, even though she remained adamant that she didn’t want to ‘rock the boat’ and change career. The blog became an outlet for her growing passion and kept that feeling of ‘something else out there’ at bay.
It took a serious illness in her family to make her take stock and realise that she needed to be ruthless and follow that all-important niggling feeling. With a classic case of ‘when it rains, it pours’, her partner’s job relocated them to London – something she resisted at first. In the metropolis of London, it seems less daunting to ‘reinvent’ yourself; nobody bats an eyelid as everyone is busy doing the same thing. For Laoise, she’s not sure it would have been as easy to take that leap in Dublin in front of eyes who knew her as the HR girl admitting, “I didn’t tell anyone I was going to start cooking. I just said I would get another HR job. It was just easier”.
Like anyone changing path, the fear of failure and risk can be overwhelming. Keeping your dreams to yourself seems safer as she notes “everyone defines you by your job”. London offered her that much needed anonymity to pursue cooking in a safe environment. With a thirst for greater knowledge, she enrolled in the prestigious Leith’s Cookery School where she is now one of their most prized alumni. She undertook a diploma which she describes now as “the best 6 months of my life”, allowing her to “wake up every day and learn about food”.
Interestingly though, she never planned to end up where she is now. She originally wanted to throw herself fully into food writing. The kitchen was beckoning though and she fell in love with the buzz from doing stages (mini apprenticeships in the culinary world) in restaurants, eventually becoming ‘totally addicted’.
A chance meeting changed the course of her career for the better in 2014. Her employer introduced her to a friend of his who was in the midst of a chef shortage in his kitchen. The chef in need was Robin Gill and the kitchen was The Dairy. “I’ve been really lucky to get to work with Robin”, who Laoise describes as a great mentor. The move to a restaurant which is now one of the most popular in London was “probably the best decision I could have made”. She fell in love with the innovative style she saw there which she can only describe as ‘amazing’ and ended up staying two years.
Sitting talking to Laoise, her openness and down-to-earth frankness are disarming. There is an assured confidence that comes across as effortless. A read of her column and blog posts make it clear that this is an expert in her field. Despite working under one of the most successful chefs in London, having a column in a major newspaper and preparing to teach her own class at Leith’s (Laoise’s Lunchbox Revolution, don’t you know!), she insists that she is still learning, “I still don’t know what I’m doing a lot of the time!”. Somehow I find this hard to believe.
London is arguably one of the world’s most innovative food scenes so inevitably the topic turns to eating out. “Things get overdone” she shrugs, noting that it’s completely mind-blowing on one hand and then just overwhelming on the other. In a land of cutting edge, I’m interested to hear what she reckons will be the next ‘thing’. True to her lunch box roots, she laughs “you know everything’s OK when you have a really good sandwich!”. Who hasn’t found solace in a cheese toastie?
What makes her happiest is “doing one thing really well”. Max’s Sandwich Shop in North London is one of her favourites that are doing just that. She describes their focaccia sandwiches, bursting at the seams with the likes of chicken liver parfait, in such delectable detail I can feel my stomach rumbling.
So what next for this Cuisine Genie? Bearing in mind she has already interviewed and cooked for both Alain Ducasse and Michel Roux Jr which she gushes was “just the best experience ever”. Of Ducasse she says “he was just this normal person excited about food”. Interviewing such chefs is a testament to her hard work and something she wants to carry on doing. At the moment she will continue to balance working part-time at Gill’s Paradise Garage with her burgeoning writing career, teaching at Leith’s, writing lunch recipes for design company Black + Blum as well as keeping up the thing that started it all: her blog.
One of the things that strikes me most when I think back on our meeting is that, despite her great success so far, Laoise remains extremely modest and almost uncertain at times. Throughout our interview she stresses how she has been lucky and pleasantly surprised at how helpful people have been throughout her food journey. My impression though, was of an extremely hard-working and ambitious person who knows more than a thing or two about food, even if she insists she’s still learning. Aren’t we all, after all, always learning? “I may never be able to make you a massive gourmet feast, but I’ll make you a nice sandwich!” And there is nothing wrong with that.
Sarah is among many Irish people living in London, where she delights in exploring its exciting food scene. She is passionate about food markets, spending her weekends trawling around Borough market grazing, chatting and stocking up on all things edible.
She dedicates a blog to her adventures in the markets, from her local farmers market to those she happens upon on her travels. Writing for TheTaste allows her to share tales from the food front line with fellow eager eaters.