Master chefs: The big names at this year’s Litfest

Darina Allen and Rory O'Connell, Litfest founders.

This weekend all eyes are on the Ballymaloe Litfest of Food & Wine. Joe McNamee meets the chefs – and discovers their favourite meals

There is no doubting the ambition displayed when Darina Allen and her brother, Rory O’Connell, launched the first Litfest in 2013 but as The Kerrygold Ballymaloe Litfest of Food & Wine 2016 takes place this weekend, it is impossible to have foreseen it becoming, not just the most important such event in Ireland, but already an essential part of the global culinary calendar. 

But the very best — in any field — recognise that to stand still is to stagnate, that failure to evolve eventually leads to extinction. 

While the initial stellar lineup of stars wowed the public, it soon became apparent that the greatest attraction of all, beyond even the programmed events, was the extraordinary and truly inspiring synergy of energies and ideas that happened when committed and passionate citizens of the culinary world came together. 

Nor was it coming from the top down with the general public paying to touch the hem of their heroes’ garments; connections were being established from all angles, internationally renowned names encountering random punters in passionate discourse, neither sure whom exactly was educating whom.

This phenomenon has encouraged the festival to make its most radical leap to-date, the introduction of a programme of talks, films and demos presented in 15 minute segments over two days, entitled Our Food: What’s the Story? 

It affords exposure to a varied collection of speakers and ideas ranging from the entertaining to the educational to explorations of the radical thinking that is needed to address the very real issues surrounding the production and consumption of food in the 21st century.

Though Prue Leith should be well known to an older generation of readers, the other names below may be less so but all are representative of a new way of thinking that is less about cute little cupcakes and a lot more about consciousness of our own responsibilities when it comes to our daily bread. 

As Kamal Mouzawak says, food is not always about leisure; sometimes, most especially during times of war, it is solely about sustenance, about sustaining life.

DANIELLE NIERENBERG

Danielle J Nierenberg is an American activist, author and journalist and an expert on sustainable agriculture. 

In 2013, Nierenberg co-founded Food Tank: The Food Think Tank, a global research and advocacy organisation tackling hunger, obesity, and poverty.

Danielle Nierenberg: Co-founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank
Danielle Nierenberg: Co-founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank

I grew up around farmers in a very small town of 300 people, Defiance, in Missouri. 

My parents were city people who wanted to raise kids in the country, in the fresh air, I had a pony, we ate from the garden, Mum canned and preserved anything that would fit in a jar, raised rabbits, ducks. 

As a teenager, I wanted nothing to do with farmers, I thought they were stupid and wanted to get out. 

At 18, I ran away to college. 

Then I joined the Peace Corps, I was a volunteer in the Dominican Republic, working with farmers and beekeepers, I learned how important farming was, not just for food production but for environmental and public health and food security and job creation. 

I realised the whole spectrum of what farmers were doing and how important their role was. 

It was a slow realisation that I had been the stupid one, that led me to what I do now.

In the years before I started Food Tank, I was a pessimist, working at Worldwatch, where we only ever talked about the problems. 

It is a great organisation, but the more I was travelling and seeing what was happening on the ground the more I could see there were solutions to the problems we were talking about. 

I was seeing real solutions from some of the poorest places on the planet and I really wanted to talk about them in a different way, to talk about the solutions first and the problems second. 

We wanted to create this platform and that became Food Tank. 

We do research and the primary purpose is to highlight stories of hope and success in the food system, show there is a way to fight inequality and gender inequity in the food system, to propel labour rights, to show the solutions don’t get as much attention as they deserve and need. 

I really became an optimist, highlighting what is working, that there is a different way. 

There is no one answer, but there is a lot of hope out there, being able to highlight those stories, being more optimistic, but not in a Pollyanna way.

My dad, who passed away several years ago, was Jewish and my mom always made sure we knew about both sides of our culture and we made bagels from scratch. 

They were delicious, we had them with cream cheese and I’d have them as a last meal with my mom, she’s my favourite person.

RECIPE

Vegetarian stew

Use either fresh or canned ingredients

1/2 cup roasted red peppers

2 tablespoons chilli paste

2 cups vegetable broth

1 package extra-firm tofu or 2 cups of beans (whatever makes you happy)

4 fresh tomatoes or 1 can tomatoes, drained

1 onion

Lots of garlic

Fresh or frozen spinach (or other greens such as chard)

4 cooked potatoes

Olive Oil

Salt, pepper, red chilli flakes

Master chefs: The big names at this year’s Litfest

Blend roasted peppers, potatoes, chilli paste, and sauteed garlic, onion, and chilli flakes and purée until smooth. 

Add 2 cups water and broth and boil. bring to a boil.

Add tofu and tomatoes and simmer Add spinach, and simmer, serve.

PRUE LEITH

Prue Leith was born in South Africa but has spent most of her working life in London, beginning in 1960. 

She is a renowned cookery writer-turned-novelist and has published six novels to date. 

She opened her former Michelin starred restaurant in 1969 and founded the Leith School of Food & Wine, in 1995. 

She is also a broadcaster.

Prue Leith is a renowned cookery writer-turned-novelist and has published six novels to-date.
Prue Leith is a renowned cookery writer-turned-novelist and has published six novels to-date.

I am very much looking forward to Litfest. I used to know Myrtle very well. 

I must first have come to Ballymaloe 30 years ago and have been back a few times. 

The first time, we went riding on the beach with my children. Where I live, in the Cotswolds, everyone who rides is frightfully proper, properly dressed, the hat, the leading rein and so on and we went to the local riding school in Ballymaloe. 

When we told them we had horses that seemed to satisfy them and they gave us a 14-year-old girl to lead us out. 

When we got to the beach, she said, ‘do you fancy a trot’, and the next thing we were doing a flat-out gallop. 

My son shot past us and I just saw the look of pure pleasure on my children’s faces. 

And the young girl said to me: ‘I see you’ve got the hang of the Irish canter!’

Last year, I came to stay with some great friends of ours at Ballycotton and went to the festival. 

I saw Darina and Myrtle and everyone, but I was only there in a private capacity. 

This time, I am making up for it by doing two stints. Everyone is talking about me as a cook, but I’ve been a novelist for 20 years, apart from doing food programmes [including the Great British Menu] which is ‘good for my profile’, according to my publishers.

I don’t miss the restaurant business at all. It is such hard work. 

It is relentless, every single day. 

You may be riding high, the press think you’re brilliant and then all it takes is [legendary food critic] Fay Maschler to come in and give you a bad review and it all turns horrible. 

If I opened up the restaurant today with the food we served in 1969, we wouldn’t last a week, but the reviews then were absolutely wonderful. 

We were a bit different, because we made things on the spot, but that was really because we couldn’t afford a big freezer so we got fresh food every day.

I am so proud of the Leith cookery school. I sold it in ’95, just as it had its 40th birthday and had won best cookery school in the UK in the same year. 

There are a lot of very good cookery schools around now, not least Darina’s.

My last meal would be Bangers and mash and great onion gravy and I’d eat it with The Two Ronnie’s, who would keep me distracted from my doom.

RECIPE

Tarte Normande Rich Shortcrust Pastry

250g/8oz plain flour

110g/4oz butter

1 egg yolk

¾ level teaspoon salt

2 – 3 tablespoons cold water

Master chefs: The big names at this year’s Litfest

Frangipane

200g/7oz butter

200g/7oz caster sugar

2 eggs, beaten

2 egg yolks

4 teaspoons Calvados or Kirsch

200g/7oz blanched almonds, ground

3-4 ripe dessert apples

Pastry

Preheat oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Preheat a baking sheet.

Sift flour with salt into a large bowl. Rub in butter until mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

Mix egg yolk with 2 tablespoons cold water and sprinkle remainder over the flour. It may be necessary to add more liquid but the pastry should not be too damp.

Mix to firm dough, first with a knife and finally with one hand. It may be necessary to add more water, but the pastry should not be too damp (though crumbly pastry is more difficult to handle, it produces a shorter, lighter result). 

Chill, wrapped, in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before baking.

Rollout the pastry and use to line a 30cm/12 inch tart tin. Refrigerate again until firm. Bake blind and allow pastry case to cool.

Frangipane

1. Cream butter in a bowl gradually beat in the sugar and continue beating until mixture is light and soft.

2. Gradually add eggs and egg yolks, beating well after each addition.

Add Calvados or Kirsch, and then stir in ground almonds and flour. Spread the frangipane into the pastry case.

3. Peel apples, halve and scoop out cores. Cut apples crosswise into very thin slices and arrange them on the frangipane like spokes of a wheel, keeping slices of each half apple together. Press them down gently until they touch the pastry base.

4. Bake flan on hot baking sheet near top of the oven for 10 – 15 minutes until the pastry dough is beginning to brown. 

Turn down oven temperature to 180C/350F/gas mark 4 and bake for a further 30 -35 minutes or until apples are tender and frangipane is set.

5. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Brush tart with apricot glaze and serve at room temperature.

LOUISE BANNON

Louise Bannon is a pastry chef [baking & desserts] from Greystones, in Co Dublin, and worked in top Michelin star restaurants in Ireland, Britain and France before moving to Rene Redzepi’s internationally renowned Noma restaurant, in Copenhagen. 

She has just returned from working with Noma Australia and Redzepi says Bannon is ‘one of the very best pastry chefs in the world’.

Louise Bannon: Worked in top Michelin star restaurants in Ireland, Britain and France before moving to Rene Redzepi’s internationally renowned Noma restaurant, Copenhagen
Louise Bannon: Worked in top Michelin star restaurants in Ireland, Britain and France before moving to Rene Redzepi’s internationally renowned Noma restaurant, Copenhagen

Growing up, my mum was into cooking, she always got local produce, local fish from the fish shop, fresh crab, we’d prepare it together and make our own ice creams with strawberries we’d pick in Wexford. 

That’s where I got interested in cooking. When it came to college, I didn’t get enough points for photography so I did culinary arts. 

A lot of it was theory-based, there was a bit of cooking involved, you’d learn the basics in savoury [cooking] and pastry.

We had to go on work experience and I went to Ballymaloe House, Rory O’Connell was the head chef then. I really liked it. 

They pick all their own veg and herbs and I liked going out in the garden. That’s when I started to get really interested in food and I stayed there for a year. 

I knew then that I’d want to stay at the cooking. I worked a little bit with Myrtle as well. That was great, she was an inspiration. 

I just like seeing things grow and how things evolve, how the flavour matures. I just like tasting natural ingredients and they taste so much better when you pick them straight from the ground. 

Working in kitchens in London, you’d order these herbs and they came out of a box and that’s not very exciting.

I was working with Dylan McGrath in Mint when it went into liquidation. 

I decided it was not a good time to be in Ireland and I started applying to restaurants in the world’s Top 50 list and Rene [Redzepi] was the first to get back and offered me a trial for a few days. 

It was different to what I was used to but it was a really nice time to go. It was a big team and a nice kitchen and I really liked the simplicity of the food. 

I liked chefs bringing plates to the diners in the restaurants and I really liked working for Rene. I knew I was going to learn more and further my career. 

The dishes were always evolving and moving with the seasons. So you were always looking to see what was next. 

When I first went, there was a lot of foraging then fermentation became the big thing, there was a fermentation kitchen and they were always working on new ideas, new dishes.

The ingredients were new to me, things like sea buckthorn, lingonberries, beach herbs, Douglas pine. 

I wasn’t used to that and at first I was a little bit nervous. We couldn’t use ingredients that were not from Scandinavia, no lemons or oranges, no chocolate. 

You have to think outside the box, we’d use a lot of apple cider vinegar. I had to really think for the first time. 

Every Saturday, we had to come up with a new dish and present it to the team after service. Rene is different from other chefs where they say, ‘this is the menu, this is what you are doing’. 

In Noma, everyone is constantly trying out new things, that’s where the whole team gets inspired by each other.

I had started to get really into desserts and wanted to explore my own creativity. 

In Noma, the dessert course, is just like another course, there’s not so much sugar involved, you’re finishing on something light. I like traditional desserts but I don’t like it too heavy. 

In Noma, I got into baking and now I want to focus on baking really good bread. I feel like now I prefer to bake than be in a restaurant service. 

Eventually I’d like to have my own place and do woodfired oven bread. 

I love plating desserts and ice creams, I like making laminated pastry but it depends how big the scale of the operation would be. 

I would focus on breads to begin with and then go from there.

My last meal would be fresh crab meat with brown soda bread, chicken grilled on a barbecue, roast potatoes in pork fat, cabbage and a glass of white wine. 

And for dessert, apple tatin with vanilla ice-cream. 

I would eat with my mum because she really appreciates food, she loved eating in Noma, she’s quite adventurous.

RECIPE

Brown soda bread

500g plain flour

500g wholemeal flour

1 litre buttermilk

1 tbsp Baking soda

1 tbsp Black Treacle

50g pumpkin seeds

Master chefs: The big names at this year’s Litfest

1. Preheat the oven at 180oC

2. Mix the flours together.

3. Sift the baking powder and add to the flours.

4. Add the buttermilk and black treacle and mix everything together by hand or a wooden spoon.

5. Sprinkle pumpkin seeds on top.

6. Brush 2 loaf tins well with oil. Place soda bread mix 3/4 full in the tin.

7. Bake at 180C for 45mins. Remove from the tins and bake for another 15 mins.

8. Allow to cool

KAMAL MOUZAWAK

Kamal Mouzawak was born in Lebanon, near Beirut, and much of his early life was lived in a warzone. 

He is the founder of Souk el-Tayeb, a weekly farmers’ market and Tawlet, a chain of restaurants in which local women offer home-cooked food. 

This movement supports local farmers, educates urban communities and unites all around the dinner table in a country ravaged by wars for many decades.

Kamal Mouzawak: Adores Irish people. ‘They are Lebanese of Europe, crazy, bon vivant, like to drink.’
Kamal Mouzawak: Adores Irish people. ‘They are Lebanese of Europe, crazy, bon vivant, like to drink.’

I was born in 1969, and grew up in Geita, a small village near Beirut. 

We weren’t in the centre of Beirut but we were living in a country in wartime, separated by borders because people were different and I never understood why that was the case. 

People would be trying to stockpile food. I remember how important the basics became, people would queue for hours for bread. 

Food in wartime is about sustenance, not about entertainment or leisure. I come from a family of farmers and producers of food, the men work in the garden and the women in the kitchen. 

It was all about the seasons and eating from one’s own land, it sounds as if I am talking like a romantic or someone from another era but that is how it was. 

My uncle was a baker and he baked all the bread we ate and I was really jealous of the other kids eating all the modern industrial bread but now I understand the difference and really appreciate it for what it was. 

I grew up on home cuisine, very much my mum’s food, my aunt’s, my grandma’s. Cooking is a woman’s affair where I come from and it is each woman’s expression of love and care for you. 

Food was a meal where all of the family would gather around, food was all of this for me. 

I remember when woman gathered to prepare the Easter cookies, ma’amoul, made with walnuts or dates or pistachio. 

The women of the family or neighbourhood would gather to do this and it was a community thing, which I love. 

I always love the ‘gathering’ power of food, bringing the community together, whether to plant, to harvest, to cook or to eat. 

I came to Ireland through a Slow Fish event in Italy where I met [fish smoker] Sally Barnes and Madeleine McKeever [of Brown Envelope Seeds]. 

I adore Irish people, they are the Lebanese of Europe, crazy, bon vivant, like to drink, like to eat. 

They had an event in Ireland and it was their idea to invite me, it was the start of my Irish relationship. 

I have never been to Ballymaloe but I have cooked plenty of times for Darina.

For my last meal, I would invite my mother for her unconditional love and Mahatma Ghandhi for his words of wisdom. 

I would eat a lemon-y tabbouleh and a glass of arak, which is a traditional aniseed alcoholic drink in Lebanon.

RECIPE

Tabouleh (serves 4)

2 bunches of parsley, flat leaf only! (about 150g each)

Small bunch of mint (about 75g)

2 spring onions (medium)

1 large ripe tomato

50mg fine burghul (bulghar wheat)

Juice of 2 lemons

50ml olive oil

salt and pepper

Romaine lettuce or white cabbage leaves to eat with

A great extra for tabouleh is finely diced green hot pepper

Master chefs: The big names at this year’s Litfest

Strip off mint leaves. Wash and dry mint, parsley, tomato, spring onion. 

Wash burghul and leave to soak in boiling water and tablespoon of olive oil for 15 minutes. Drain. 

Dice tomato and add to burghul. Finely chop parsley, mint, add to mix. 

Finely chop spring onions, rub with salt and pepper and add to mix. 

Dress mix with lemon juice, olive oil and salt to taste. It should be juicy without swimming in liquid. 

Serve with fresh Romaine lettuce leaves or tender, crisp white cabbage leaves and very finely diced hot green chilli if available.

FRANCIS MALLMANN

Francis Mallmann is an Argentine chef who turned his back on classical French cuisine to return to traditional methods of cooking with traditional rustic methods over fire. 

His restaurant Francis Mallmann 1884 is in the World’s Top 50 Restaurants and he features in Netflix series Chef’s Table. 

His latest book is Mallmann on Fire.

Francis Mallmann: The Argentine chef turned his back on classical French cuisine to return to traditional methods of cooking with rustic methods over fire.
Francis Mallmann: The Argentine chef turned his back on classical French cuisine to return to traditional methods of cooking with rustic methods over fire.

My family moved from near Cologne, in Germany, to Argentina in the late 1800s and became merchants in Buenos Aires. 

I was a very bad student. I didn’t like schools at all and still don’t like them. Why? Because schools are not respectful of children. 

They are organised in a way in which children are taken away from their homes so parents have more time and they don’t respect children’s dreams. 

I left home when I was 13. I was an irreverent young boy, I didn’t like rules. My family took it very badly, they did everything they could to retain me but I was a lost case. 

From there on I lived on my own so had to cook for myself and many of my friends liked the food I did and my cooking career slowly started that way. 

One of the first things was a trout pastry pie. I lived in the streets for a long time, I went to San Francisco for the music, it was the time of the hippies. 

At 18, after some years of living in San Francisco, I opened a restaurant in Patagonia with a friend of mine and after some years I realised I was infatuated with classical cooking and moved to Paris where I worked with eight of the three-star chefs of those days. And from there started my career as a chef.

Why did I go back to cooking with fire, on open fires? In South America, fire is a big thing. It is still a large part of our cooking, on the weekend, asados (BBQs). 

It was very important when I was a child. We lived in a house ruled by fire, for cooking, hot water, heat, chimneys. 

There was a big woodshed and the job of me and my brothers was to keep it orgnaised and we had a very large outside life.

When I was 10 years old, we were invited to this house and we had lunch under a tree and with the most beautiful flowers, linen, music and everyone was dressed up and happy. 

That was my introduction to restaurants because I realised a restaurant is a festive place, I saw the theatrics of food. 

I think I went into the business because of the setting, the joy, what attracted me most was the happiness of the restaurant.

There are many links between Ireland and Argentina. 

I love poetry and one of my favourite poets is Irish, Sean Haldane, his Desire in Belfast is a beautiful poem. I really like him besides all the classic Irish poets. 

I write a lot of poetry, essays, I write cookbooks. I have a weekly column in a newspaper. It’s about everything, about life. 

I have a collection of six thousand books of poetry from all over the world. 

I love words, I think they and languages are the most beautiful things we have, they take no space, improve as we grow and they go everywhere.

Jorge Luis Borges is my favourite writer. I would invite him to my last meal for a last chat and we would eat a bowl of white rice, one of the things I most like, basmati. We would drink a bottle of Chateau Ausone.

RECIPE

Perfect Steak

One 1lb boneless rib-eye steak per person, 1.25-1.5 inches thick

Coarse salt

Master chefs: The big names at this year’s Litfest

Make sure steaks are at room temperature; if you put cold meat on the grill, you risk toughness. 

Create a 2-3inch bed of coals under grill grate, which should be 3-4 inches from the coals. 

Wait for coals to cover over with layer of whitish ash. 

Test temperature by placing hand at level meat will cook, heat should be medium-high and you should only be able to keep hand there for about 2-3 seconds. 

Salt steaks. 

Grease the grill grate with fat or paper towel moistened with olive/cooking oil. Place meat on grill. 

Don’t touch or move them. 

After 5 minutes, gently lift one edge to check sear marks. If they look right, rotate meat 90 degrees. 

This will create crosshatch pattern and keep meat from burning where it is in contact with grill. 

After 4 more minutes, turn the steaks over and cook for an additional 7 minutes or until medium-rare. 

Check after 5 minutes to make sure meat doesn’t burn where it touches the grill and turn if necessary. 

Leave to rest on a plate for 3 minutes. Serve with Chimichurri.


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