Prep School: Meet the people behind the scenes of Ballymaloe Cookery School

Prep School: Meet the people behind the scenes of Ballymaloe Cookery School
Eileen O'Donovan. Picture: Larry Cummins

What’s it like to be part of the team at Ballymaloe Cookery School? Meet the people that inspire and delight the culinary stars of the future.

“We recently celebrated 30 Years of the Ballymaloe Cookery School. The last three decades since we first opened our doors in 1983, seems to have whizzed by in a blur. My brother Rory O’Connell and I started the cookery school together and welcomed the first Certificate Course students in September of that year.

"Since then students from over 40 countries have joined us and many of those returned from far and wide to celebrate the Ballymaloe Cookery School Gathering with us.

We started with one employee in 1983 and now 30 years later the enterprise in the midst of our organic farm and gardens now employs more than fifty people.

"It was a joy to welcome so many past students from all over the world some of whom hadn’t been back to the school for over 25 years. They were gobsmacked by the changes, not just in the school which moved into the old Apple Barn in 1989 from the initial farm building in the courtyard, but also the farm and gardens — now organic, they loved the heritage pigs, chickens and our little herd of six Jersey cows.

"The dairy too was new, as was the Shell House and Petal Folly in the maze. We did things very gradually but for those who haven’t had the opportunity to revisit there’s much to see and explore. It was a wonderful day with much hugging and reminiscing and catching up on the fascinating stories of how each student has used their cooking skills since they graduated.”

Published in the Irish Examiner, Saturday, 28th September 2013

Rory O’Connell

I think that the team that we have here at the cookery school is extraordinary. It has happened organically, there is a dynamic in place when you walk into the building, but people create that dynamic.

There is definitely a focus on our students, and giving them the best possible experience and imparting as much knowledge as possible. That’s very rewarding and I think that creates the dynamic that you find here and it perpetuates.

When people arrive here, it’s a highly unusual situation. The school is in the middle of this marvellous farm and gardens and then locally within East Cork, the county of Cork and now the island of Ireland, there is incredible produce.

We don’t compromise on the level of produce that comes into the school, because apart from the fact that we are teaching and it’s our job to show the best that can be achieved with the best products, there is also an emotional involvement.

Rory Allen. Pic: Larry Cummins.
Rory Allen. Pic: Larry Cummins.

We know the effort that goes into creating these products, whether they are grown or made. So, we buy into our responsibility as cooks and teachers to the people that have grown them or sown them or fished them or made them, and I think it’s in our minds all the time.

Our primary job is to teach people how to cook and then we teach people about food. Of course, you can’t teach people about food without talking about sustainability, because if you don’t mention it, then you are only having half the conversation.

I’m unusual I think, because I’m one of the only family members whose second name isn’t Allen. The Quaker ethos of the Allen family, I think definitely persists on certain levels here. Our side of the family, I like to think, was just a normal family growing up in the midlands.

We had an unbelievably happy childhood and also had amazing food, and it was definitely a major focus of each day. I think it’s been a unique combination of the sentiments and the emotions and the real interests of two families that has merged in a way that has made something really quite interesting here.

Rachel Allen

I came here first 30 years ago and I remember the first day of the cookery course because Darina came running in to the demonstration room wearing a long skirt that billowed behind her. I remember being blown away by her energy and enthusiasm and passion, and I still am, every single day.

I love working at the school. It is constantly inspiring. It changes every day in this beautiful way — there are plants growing, there is more happening in the dairy and with the fermentation and the bread shed. Every single day I learn something new.

I think it is very interesting how Darina has such confidence in her beliefs, but before she teaches or shares something, she will research and read until she knows it inside out. She is obviously very smart and will read and research and soak up new ideas. She will keep reading and seeking until she understands what she is trying to discover.

She doesn’t bow to the trends; of course there are nods to what is going on, but she doesn’t jump on bandwagons.

Prep School: Meet the people behind the scenes of Ballymaloe Cookery School

Whatever we say now, Darina was saying it 30 years ago. On the first day of the course I thought we would be flambéing and sautéing — being cheffy — but we weren’t. We were listening to Darina speaking about soil, where it all comes from, the importance of the absence of chemicals in the growing process. What she was saying then is exactly what people are coming around to today.

I put a lot of the ethos that we see at Ballymaloe down to Ivan Allen, who was Myrtle’s husband. He had that lovely quiet confidence in himself that it didn’t irk him that his wife and his daughter-in-law and another daughter-in-law and daughters were all busy and out there, doing things. Whether it was a man or a woman, it didn’t matter to him, and I put a lot of that down to the Quaker ethos.

Pamela Black

We don’t have titles here at Ballymaloe Cookery School, because we all should be capable of doing the same job. I am a senior teacher here and I am also responsible for the procurement of ingredients — so spending money! I came down here to do the 12 week course many years ago.

I ended up back in Ballycotton 18 years ago and I’ve been here ever since. We are all strong characters here, and I think that’s because Darina likes to surround herself with that kind of person.

I adore seeing students coming down and have the realisation that the can start, middle and end something and go away with a tangible skill to make something, be it a loaf of bread, an apple tart, a roast dinner. With the 12 weeks students, some of them have a natural ability that I can’t teach, and that is what I love seeing.

Pam Black. Pic: Larry Cummins
Pam Black. Pic: Larry Cummins

So they might have an affinity to be organised or to read a recipe and understand it — I can’t teach that. I can show them the steps, but for some people it’s innate. It’s rare to find someone with a good palate, and to watch a person discovering this in themselves is a true joy.

There is so much to learn here besides cooking, and I like to think that we teach our students a whole range of skills. For example, stamina is essential for someone who has a career in cooking. I like to say to our students, ‘we might not look it, but we are culinary athletes.’

Adrienne Forbes

I have been working here for 31 years. I am a local, from Cloyne and I heard about this place out in Shanagarry that was a hidden gem and they were looking for someone to help in the office. I came out here on a Monday evening for an interview with Darina.

I was shaking like a leaf, even though it was this really informal set up, and straight away she asked me when could I start. She was in the middle of her second book and against the wire, so I started working the following night in her house. Darina was calling out the words and I was typing frantically on an old word processor.

I came Wednesday night and Thursday night and I officially started on Monday morning.

The new school was getting ready to open, so I was a nervous wreck, painting saucepans along with everyone else. On the Friday Darina took me into this building site of concrete blocks and told me that the following Monday, this would be my office.

Adrienne Forbes. Picture: Larry Cummins
Adrienne Forbes. Picture: Larry Cummins

I remember thinking, this woman is mad — there is no way it’ll be done. Sure enough, I arrived in on the Monday to this beautiful office, painted white, with a new computer and a new desk. It is a great example of Darina’s drive and ability to make things happen.

We are a really happy family here. We all get on and that’s a big part of it. I still get such a buzz out of greeting the new students and watching them develop. There is never one day the same, and I love it.

Eileen O’Donovan

I came to Ballymaloe after travelling to Australia. I loved it over there but I missed home. I realised that I wanted the simple things in life — Daddy, Mammy, children, the GAA, no money can buy things like that. I was working milking cows when I heard that Darina was looking for a gardener and that was it.

Adrienne and I started at the same time — we are the terrible twins of Ballymaloe! It was all really kicking off, the new school was opening and it was bedlam. The gardeners were painting and moving furniture — that’s the thing about here, you might come as a gardener or a secretary, but when you are needed, it’s all hands on deck.

Darina always says ‘there’s no princes or princesses around here, no job too big or small.’

I met Will, the man of my dreams while working here. He is a builder and he was working on the new school. He loves rally driving and he was looking for a navigator for a race and he happened to be strolling in the garden and there I was.

We got to know each other through the driving and we’ve been together ever since. I wouldn’t survive if it wasn’t for him. Everyone needs someone, life is very, very lonely otherwise, and I am very lucky.

Sharon Hogan

I’m here 16 years now. I started on New Year’s Eve 2003; it was quiet and I will always remember someone ringing to say that they had made Darina’s Christmas cake, and the icing had not turned out. I did not know that this would be part of the job - that people would ring the school with queries, and they do, regularly.

We get lots of people who ring in the middle of making one of Darina’s recipes. Sometimes she will happen to be in the room when they call and often the person doesn’t realise until the end of the call that it was Darina that they were speaking to.

It’s a very fast-paced environment to work in, and I love it. Darina is like a parent to me. I think I go above and beyond what my job description is, because of that. Darina herself will say that she couldn’t do it without the staff that she has, and I think that we are all very proud of that.

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