This is part one of a two-part post, read part two. The writer interviewed Irish chef, cookbook author and cooking school founder, Darina Allen via phone.
The first thing you notice when talking to Darina Allen is her energy and passion. Her passion, not surprisingly, as she is one of Ireland’s foremost chefs, is food; grown sensibly, sustainably and organically. She came to this love of food naturally. it was what she was raised on. When she was growing up, one of nine children, in the village of Cullahill, County Laois, the family ate what they raised. They had a kitchen garden, raised a cow for milk and kept their own chickens. They supplemented this bounty with locally grown and produced foods. That’s how most country folks ate in those pre-supermarket days and how some people in Ireland still do. If Darina has her way, all of Ireland will be eating fresh and local one of these days.
Growing up in the 50s
Like many women who grew up in the 50’s, Darina experienced raised eye-brows when she wanted a career that went out of the box. In 1968, she was ready to graduate from the Hotel Management School at Dublin Institute of Technology. She wanted to forgo the expected management track for cooking in a restaurant kitchen. The administration all but snickered. At the time, chefs were all men. Women who wanted to cook were relegated to tea rooms. The other option was to start their own restaurants. Darina’s now mother-in-law, Myrtle Allen, did just that. She started a country house restaurant on the family’s farm in Shanagarry, County Cork. (It later expanded to become Ballymaloe House, the renowned Irish country house hotel.) She served diners what she served her family, most of it produced on the family farm. To this day, the menu remains simple. People looked down their noses at what Myrtle Allen was doing. “It was considered downright amateurish,” says Darina. “She cooked like a ‘house-wife’.” It turned out, that’s exactly what people wanted. It’s still going strong over forty years later.
Arriving at Balymaloe
When Darina told an instructor at school she wanted to learn about cooking things like soufflés and terrines and how to work with herbs, she was told she was “too fussy.” But, the instructor had heard about a woman running her own country house restaurant (the aforementioned Myrtle Allen) who needed a chef. A few days later, the instructor handed Darina a piece of paper with the senior Mrs. Allen’s address; Darina contacted her. The restaurant owner really wanted a man in her kitchen, but none were applying. She settled for Darina and the rest is Irish culinary history.
Darina became a fixture in the Ballymaloe kitchen learning from her future mother-in-law. The food the older woman cooked “tasted wonderful,” she says; simple dishes that relied on the quality of the ingredients. And then she married the Allens’ son, Tim. “I became a member of the family by expediency, I married the boss’s son,” she quips.
Starting a cooking school
In 1983, Darina and Tim Allen started the Ballymaloe Cookery School on a 100 acre farm a few miles from the hotel. She notes on the school’s website that, “In our first year we ran fifteen courses. Today, we offer over a hundred options. In over two decades the school has become much more sophisticated but I am happy to say that at heart it remains the same.”
Students from all over the globe come for the Certificate program. “Gap year to mid-life crisis,” Darina says, “everyone starts at the same place.” She says this approach works well. The instructor to student ratio is one to six; the school employs 50 people from instructors to farmers to the people who do the laundry. She says it’s “a great team.” Most of what is used in the school’s four teaching kitchens is raised on the farm; produce from the garden, eggs from the chickens, dairy from the resident cows. Cork has a long growing season and even in the winter there is fresh produce to be picked.
If you’re a foodie or want to learn more about cooking fresh foods and are planning to be in Ireland, book a class at the school. You can enroll in a “short course” running anywhere from a half-day to five or enroll in the full twelve-week Certificate Course. If you don’t have time for a class or cooking is not your thing; stop by and visit the farm on your way through East Cork. It looks and sounds like it’s an incredible place; it’s earned a place on our list.