‘Judge me on my food’ says Danni Barry - Ireland's only Michelin star female chef

Danni Barry does not want to be known as the only ‘female’ chef in Ireland who has a Michelin star. Her gender is irrelevant, she tells Joe McNamee

Danni Barry is part of the Taste of West Cork programme, cooking at Glebe House on September 11 & 12. Picture: Darren Kidd/ Press Eye

SINCE Danni Barry garnered her first Michelin star, in 2015, there has been a huge demand on her time, but she didn’t hesitate when Tess Perry, of Glebe House, in Baltimore, West Cork, asked her to cook a pop-up dinner for Taste of West Cork last year. Cooking in a country house that boasted its own smallholding, which supplies the kitchen, is Danni’s idea of culinary heaven, a farm-to-fork lifestyle she has known since her childhood as a GAA-mad youngster, in Co Down.

Danni is the second child of four and grew up on the family farm, in Mayobridge.

“It was a mixed farm, beef and dairy,” says Danni. “Whenever there was harvesting to be done, gathering potatoes, baling hay, girls and boys were all outside, so there was no difference at all. We all grumbled a lot about having to go and work on the school holidays. Mum was a good cook; meat and two veg. We had a big farm, so she was always preparing lots of food for the working men and I’d have helped.”

When she was 14, Danni got a summer job washing pots in a local restaurant. The chef soon gave her basic cooking tasks, along with a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Nonetheless, it came as a surprise when she announced she wished to go to catering college.

“I was quiet, I enjoyed school, worked hard. It was quite a surprise, even to me, when I didn’t continue on the academic route. I was doing my A-levels and I went to an all-girls school, where everyone went on to teaching, nursing, law. When I left to go to catering college, in 2003 — even then, being a chef was a lesser job — it was a bit ‘odd’.”

Through the ’90s and early 2000s, Michael Deane was one of a lonely few flying the culinary flag for Northern Ireland, his eponymous restaurant holding a Michelin star for 14 years. After second year in college, Danni cold-called, asking for a job.

“I moved to Belfast. I just wanted to learn from the best. If I’d left school to train to be a chef, I wanted to prove to my parents that I could be the best I could,” Danni says.

But before that, she had to first prove herself to her peers. “After two years of college, you feel like you know things and then you’re being told to even wash salad differently. Some days, you felt, ‘that was good, I understood that,’ and then, other days, you felt like it was your first day. It was tough. You got a hard time at the beginning, back when there was a sense that you had to be ‘broken’ to see what you could take. It was a macho environment, but there was no difference if you were male or female; it was just hard, very competitive, very high-energy. Everyone had a role: you were a cog and it was a machine. If you couldn’t handle it, male or female, you were gone. If you could, you got the respect.

“The other side was the camaraderie. Once you earned your stripes, they would show you things, take you under their wing. I had moved from the country to Belfast and there was a sense of them looking out for you. It didn’t feel like you were going to a job. Everything was so new. You were learning something every day; so much to see and do.”

After four years, Danni headed off to see the world. First was Australia, working in a Sydney brasserie for a year. She toured, through South-East Asia, South Africa, New Zealand. She was the chef on a private yacht in the Med.

Danni Barry learned her trade in Michael Deane’s restaurant in Belfast, and now cooks at his Eipic restaurant.

“I knew Deane’s inside out and wanted to learn elsewhere, to see a bit of the world. There were no females in the kitchen in Sydney. It was very male-dominated, but it was really good fun. To be fair, they were all very supportive and I was quite surprised at the very high standards. At first, doing the tougher jobs, maybe deep-cleaning, one of the guys might say to me, ‘do something easier and I’ll finish this’, but I’d keep doing what I was doing and they’d get it, they’d say ‘sorry,’ and wouldn’t say it again. I quite enjoy the banter with the boys. I was used to it, at that stage. After all, I had worked on the farm and that was a very male environment. I probably had that bit of a tomboy nature.

“Working on the yacht was fantastic, for a while. I could get the train to Barcelona, sometimes, and stay the night and eat, but I was working entirely on my own and it was lonely. I missed the buzz of the kitchen.”

Danni’s immediate boss in Deane’s was head chef, Derek Creagh, and she sought him out on her return home, working briefly with her former mentor in the Salty Dog, in Bangor.

“Derek is fantastic, one of the best I’ve ever worked with. He’d always encouraged me in Deane’s, saying, ‘don’t be staying in Belfast. You need to read, you need to eat and you need to travel — and he was right. He said, ‘you need to go somewhere where they’re growing their own produce,’ and told me to apply to L’Enclume.”

Simon Rogan is one of Britain’s most-renowned chefs, with a hospitality empire founded on two Michelin-starred L’Enclume, in the postcard-perfect English medieval village of Cartmel, in Cumbria. The bulk of produce for Rogan’s restaurants came from his 12-acre nearby farm, including fruit, herbs, vegetables, beef, chicken and pork. Pretty soon, Rogan installed her as head chef at Rogan & Co, L’Enclume’s sister restaurant, a casual dining take on its stellar sibling.

“Simon is a demanding person to work for and it was competitive and tough, but there was no difference, male or female. There were lots of female chefs and the farm manager was a girl. Cartmell is beautiful, very picturesque, and I enjoyed my work. Getting to know the locals, you felt like part of the village, but it is pretty isolated and small and gets a wee bit suffocating,” Danni says.

In 2011, Deane’s had lost their star, following an extended forced closure. Michael Deane publicly shrugged and got on — very successfully — with business, but, privately, he began star-chasing once more.

“Michael wanted me to come and look at a new restaurant he was opening. He wanted someone who knew the Deane’s way of working and I was ready to come home. Ox had just opened, you could see there was a growing food scene in Belfast, and people were talking about it.”

Eipic (the Irish for ‘epic’) opened in January 2014 and, just one year later, received its first Michelin star. In 2017, Danni was crowned best chef in Ireland at both the Restaurant Association of Ireland awards and the Food & Wine magazine awards.

“That was the first time any attention came on me about being female. Before that, you were no different to the boys, but then it was much more a media thing, ‘the only female in Ireland with a star’. It’s a double-edged sword. You get recognition and young girls coming up to you, saying ‘you’re an inspiration,’ which is very humbling and you want to encourage them, but you don’t want to be known as the only female. I am best chef of the year, not best ‘female’ chef of the year. Judge me just on my food.”

Danni spoke last year at the Athrú, a conference in Galway aimed at empowering female chefs in professional kitchens.

“If you go to Michelin kitchens, especially two- and three-star kitchens, there are lots of women at that level, because those kitchens require a certain standard of organisation and discipline and you need to work methodically. I think those are female traits and women really thrive in that particular environment. But, at the same time, I’ve been fortunate in the experiences I’ve had, though I’ve heard the horror stories [of bullying and abuse] from other female chefs, but I think that kind of thing needs to be changed for everyone — male and female.”

Danni still returns home regularly. “I do a bit of hiking. I like the outdoors, I would have played for the [GAA] club, at home, but these days, on Sunday [after standing all week], your legs wouldn’t work and, anyway, you wouldn’t be able to go to training during the week. My family are very proud of me; they’ve always been very supportive. They might complain about the hours I work and say you look tired and pale, but they get it. They always encouraged us to do whatever made us happy and Daddy worked all day, every day, so we had the work ethic — working hard didn’t seem strange to me.

“I’m really happy with what we’ve done here at Eipic, but probably, in the future, I’d like to do something outside the city, something more casual. I’d love to be able to do something with the farm at home, something along the lines of Cartmell or Glebe — I loved it last year and am doing two nights this year — or Ballymaloe, where you’re growing and cooking your own produce and having your family around you as you do it. But that’s the future, whenever the legs give up and I’m too old for the stove.”

Danni Barry will be cooking at Glebe House, Baltimore, West Cork on Monday and Tuesday, September 11 and 12, as part of Taste of West Cork food festival (September 8-17). (www.atasteofwestcork.com & www.glebegardens.com)


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