A hunger for knowledge

The students at Ballymaloe Cookery School are piled into the demo theatre on a dark, cold November afternoon to see Rory O’Connell and his sister, Darina Allen, give a traditional Thanksgiving dinner masterclass.

O’Connell is about to demonstrate a sweet potato and squash casserole, the recipe furnished by a young American student, Jared.

But O’Connell has issues with this cloying, over-sweetened dish, most particularly, with a layer of marshmallows to be placed on top prior to baking.

“Quite disgusting,” he declares with an innocent grin, gleefully wincing his way through the recipe, hamming up his distaste. The delighted students roar at his every murmured aside, Jared laughing loudest of all, thrilled to be the temporary focus of O’Connell’s gentle teasing. But when he has a serious point to make, they snap to attention, rapidly scribbling lest they miss a word.

Eight months on, a sunny June day and I am whizzing along the East Cork coast, off to another of Rory’s classes, this one a little more exclusive: the classroom is his own domestic kitchen and I am the sole pupil as he cooks dishes from his new book, Master It: How to Cook Today (Fourth Estate), a distillation of his life’s culinary learning to date.

Several years ago, successful cookbook author Dan Lepard recalled an agent telling him: “Forget recipes… no-one’s interested. They can Google for that. What readers want from a cookbook is lifestyle, an enviable, homely lifestyle that they might in their dreams aspire to one day.”

Which makes Master It something of an oddity. A discreet portrait before the title page is the only photograph of O’Connell in the entire book including the cover; all other images, though beautifully shot, relate directly to the text with none of the additional clutter so beloved of modern food stylists.

It is only when you arrive at O’Connell’s home that you realise this decision was quite a statement of intent in itself, for the man who once took a career break to train and work as an interior designer has transformed a traditional Irish farmhouse into the stuff of dreams: muted grey flagstone floor throughout, wonderfully eclectic fixtures and fittings, carefully chosen and deployed with zen-like restraint. Then there is the recent addition, an enormous kitchen, an entire glass wall overseeing a walled garden. Though anyone would be proud to showcase such a home, O’Connell was never going to use it in selling his book. Master It is the work of a serious cook; more than that, it is the work of a born teacher.

The second youngest of nine children (Darina is the oldest) growing up in Cullohill, Co Laois, O’Connell was a precocious child who at 16 had already flunked out of first-year law. His mother suggested he take a summer job working on reception in Ballymaloe House.

“At the end of the summer,” he says, “I asked Mrs [Myrtle] Allen if I could go into the kitchen to learn how to cook some of the dishes I’d been enjoying eating. I wanted to learn how to make béarnaise sauce and hollandaise sauce because my mother didn’t make them so it was purely greed, they were so good. At the end of the first week, I was helping Mrs Allen make a guinea fowl dish when — bang! — I knew it, I could do this. I also knew she saw this was in me, it was quite exciting.”

He commenced training in earnest and, in 1981, when Myrtle Allen went to Paris to take over running Ferme Irlandaise, a restaurant set up to showcase Irish produce, she took him along.

“We served very good food but very, very simple, very pure,” says O’Connell. “Her notion of flying in the freshest produce and having it on the menu the following day was very ahead of its time but the French were having none of it, the customers were an absolute nightmare. For example, they only have dessert apples and to make a proper Irish apple tart or apple cake, you needed Bramleys and they could not comprehend or countenance that you’d bring an apple into France. So, the restaurant barely broke even but it was great fun, we had a great time. I had my 21st birthday there.”

After a year he returned, this time to Arbutus Lodge in nearby Cork city, a Michelin-starred establishment then acknowledged as the best restaurant in Ireland.

“That was a huge shock because Ballymaloe had evolved from a woman cooking in her own kitchen, an Irish farmhouse style of food. I mean it was very busy with a big staff but Arbutus was regimented, a brigade system, a hierarchy, a very different experience, but fantastic training, Declan Ryan and the chefs, Michel Flamme and Michael Clifford, were the real thing and it was unbelievably good experience.”

But a year later, he left to co-found Ballymaloe Cookery School with Darina in 1983. “I would have probably gone on to France — Declan was quite keen for me to go on to Troisgros [a renowned three-star restaurant where Ryan had once worked] — but, I remember distinctly, Darina and I went walking one Sunday over in East Ferry when she asked me to do the school with her.

“We started with a 12-week course and about 12 students. I used to do everything: shopping, teaching, weighing up, wash-up, digging gardens, and it was before photocopiers so I had to print out recipe sheets on an old Gestetner, covered in ink, from head to toe. I was never conscious of standing up for the first time and teaching but it evolved, we just did it. In a funny way, the structure hasn’t really changed very much in 30 years, the basic principles are still the same. We were teaching what we knew and what we were very definitely passionate about, so it is quite easy to talk about what you do and what you believe in.”

“He’s so organised,” says Eleanor, a recent student on the course, “always very well-prepared, things rarely if ever went wrong but if they did, he’d know immediately how to rectify it. Everybody loved him, he’s real mischievous, a twinkle in his eyes when something kind of saucy was going to come out of him and he’d laugh at himself just as easily. Even when he had to be critical, he’d do it in a funny way but the message still came across. As a teacher, he has a gift.”

With the school closed each summer, O’Connell would head abroad to work in some of the world’s best restaurants: The River Cafe, Nico Ladenis and Raymond Blanc in Britain and Chez Panisse in California. But after five years, this summer fix was no longer enough.

“I wanted to be back in a restaurant full-time because I just enjoy it so much, and I wanted to be creative, coming up with new ideas, so I went back to Ballymaloe House.”

Under O’Connell, the famed kitchen was renewed once more, entering a second golden age. Award-winning, nationally-renowned Waterford chef Michael Quinn, a student on the cookery course back in the ’80s, progressed straight on to Ballymaloe House: “Rory was a great presence in the kitchen,” recalls Quinn, “and looked after young chefs. He passed on knowledge effortlessly, at the end of a service you felt wiser than when you started and even as a young commis you felt part of a team. We all really respected him.”

After nearly a decade in charge, O’Connell eventually left to pursue other long postponed interests including some extensive travelling and these days divides his time between teaching and consultancy work. Following a trek through his extensive gardens where he grows much of his own produce, we return to the kitchen. His penchant for meticulous preparation is in evidence, ingredients weighed up and ready to go, an aromatic chicken stock simmering since early morning. He talks freely while cooking, never losing his train of thought, his movements precise and economical, offering regular tips and nuggets of information as he goes along, always prefacing it with “you probably know this already but ....” You can see why his students are ever-ready with pen and paper. Despite repeated distractions from photographer Denis and I, O’Connell effortlessly delivers a splendid three-course meal, deceptively simple yet underpinned by a deeply sophisticated appreciation of the mostly local Irish produce and executed with consummate ability.

So, is he chef or teacher? “Both, I suppose,” he says.

“You get more passionate as you get older. I now understand that the physical aspect of cooking attracts me, the movement — it’s more active than sitting at a desk — and that is tied in with the emotional aspect, where the food comes from. I might not have been able to articulate that when I was 25, it was in me but it’s all part of the teaching, why I teach well and can explain reasonably well how to do a technique because I buy into all the aspects, not just one. I don’t want to just show you how to scramble eggs; I want to show you what an egg is and why good scrambled eggs come from good eggs.”


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