The chef, cookery writer, founder of Breaking Eggs, and co-founder of the Lens & Larder workshops talks food, family and her career ahead of her Litfest appearance this weekend at Ballymaloe in Co Cork…
How did you first get into your career as a chef, and tell us about the evolution from chef to culinary educator?
My family had a hotel in Connemara and I sort of grew up in the kitchen – it was my favourite place to be. I was only allowed in the kitchen if I was being useful – I was put to work at a very early age, making the desserts and washing the pots! I went to study arts in UCC after I left school, but spent most of my time making tarts for cafés in town, so when I left university, I took up the position as pastry chef in Jacob’s Ladder – a brilliant restaurant at the time, in Dublin. I never really thought of it as a career until I went to Ballymaloe and subsequently took over as head chef in Delphi Lodge, a beautiful fishing lodge on the Mayo/Galway border. As a chef, sourcing local food and using wild seasonal produce was always the key component to my cooking. When the kids were born, I continued working at Delphi for some time, but by the time Milo, my the third child, came along I wanted to spend more time with them at home. That is when I started Breaking Eggs, my online cookery programme to encourage parents to cook and explore all aspects of food with their children.
I met Imen McDonnell, food writer and author, through Breaking Eggs. She had just produced a film on Irish food called Small Green Fields. We were both looking for a way to stay inspired creatively while living in rural Ireland. And so together we created the partnership that is Lens & Larder food photography workshops. These are workshops that tell the story of food, the people, producers and the landscape in which they work. Not simply learning photography, but telling visual stories. Since that time we have collaborated many times since with incredible photographers such as the internationally renowned Gentl & Hyers and Ditte Isager, stylists like Susan Spungen, and writers including David Prior, Condé Nast editor at large and Vogue Living writer, who’ll be speaking at this year’s Litfest. We have attendees from all over the world coming to Ireland to learn about food, photography, and the culture of this amazing island. It is a great way to travel and meet people who share a common interest.
I also write and photograph two pages weekly for The Sunday Times and regularly contribute to other titles both in Ireland and internationally. One thing has led to another quite organically.
What’s your earliest fond memory in the kitchen?
Making ice cream in the kitchen of my family’s hotel with Margret Cronin, one of our chefs, who always took the time to teach.
How does your current work life fit around your personal life and what’s your secret to keeping it all balanced?
I am very fortunate to be able to do a lot of my work from home – I write, cook and photograph my weekly Sunday Times column in my house. Imen and I organise the workshops from our kitchen offices, and then travel when needed for meetings and workshops, which means we both get to spend maximum time with our families.
Can you share your thoughts on Irish women in the food and restaurant industry?
Women in the food industry in Ireland have been trying every which way to balance work and family life for a long time. We do not have so many female chefs unfortunately, but if you look at the industry as a whole, women have a huge presence. Many of them are makers, growers, producers, restaurant owners, authors… I think they have cleverly found a way to make it work for themselves and in the process, have developed some incredible businesses through hard work and determination.
What would you like Irish children – and girls in particular – to know about food, cooking, and working in the culinary arts?
I think it is important that all boys and girls learn about the provenance of food and its place in society. This, with an early introduction to cooking in the family for all children, will give them a foundation that will allow those who choose to pursue a career in culinary arts to approach it with an informed confidence. Those that choose a different career path can at least enjoy a life with a greater appreciation and a more discerning view of the food we produce and eat every day.
For those who do wish to make it their career, my advice is that you follow passion before convenience, only work for people whose ethos you respect, and prepare to work very, very hard.
I think it is important for girls to understand that having a family does not mean the end of your career. We sometimes just need to think a bit more creatively. We need to look out for one another and support one another along the way.
What’s your favourite thing to cook in summer?
Fish! Lots of mackerel, crab, lobster, mussels… and of course, some sweet Connemara lamb.
Your must-have ingredients and kitchen kit?
Lots of fresh herbs, butter, pepper dillisk and sea salt. My treasured kitchen kit is my chopping knife made by Fingal Ferguson in Cork, and an AccuSharp knife sharpener – the easiest way to keep your blades keen.
Favourite summer drink?
A Bertha’s Revenge gin and tonic – always!
Where will you be travelling to this summer?
I will be heading to the island of Paros in the Cyclades in Greece for our family holiday. I used to work there many years ago, and for the last six years we have rented a little house on a beach in Logaras. It’s heaven on earth, relaxed and beautiful.
What will you be doing at Litfest?
Imen and I are hosting a Lens & Larder event, talking about our collaborations with various different photographers, stylists, writers with some insights and tips on food photography we have picked up along the way.
What are you hoping to catch at Litfest when off duty?
Oh, there is quite a list! Margot Henderson’s lunch – all the lunches and dinners, actually! David Prior, of course; the Irish girls – Trish Deseine, Michelle Darmody and Kristin Jensen have very interesting talks on; foraging with Alys Fowler; Chef’s Table producer Brian McGinn; the Duck Soup demo… and so many more.
Tell me about your favourite thing about the festival, and Ballymaloe?
The atmosphere and shared vision.
You trained at Ballymaloe – can you share your thoughts about returning there for Litfest?
I always love going back to Ballymaloe. My time there confirmed my passion for food and instilled the sense of food culture I have today. Participating in Litfest brings it all full circle.
What else are you up to in May and June?
After Litfest comes Connemara Bog Week, May 28 – June 5, when chef Jonathan Keane is cooking a “Connemara feast” showcasing the rich and diverse produce that is available within a 30 mile radius of Letterfrack. And I’ll be continuing with my writing for The Sunday Times and working on our next Lens & Larder workshop in October. Most importantly, I’ll be taking a bit more time with the children over the summer months.
My Recipe for a Simple Spruce Syrup
This is a simple spruce syrup, and the timing is perfect, as the lush green spruce needles of newly opened tips are now opening in our woods and have a beautifully bright flavour. Have it on breakfast pancakes, or use it in cakes and cocktails.
Gather up some fresh spruce or pine tips, barely cover them in boiling water. Allow to steep for 24 hours for best results. Strain off the water and weigh out an equal amount of sugar. For example, 500ml of liquid + 500g sugar.
Bring the water and sugar to the boil and allow to simmer for 5 minutes. Then pour into a sterilised bottle with a tight-fitting lid.
Tighten the lid and store for up to one month. Once opened, it will need to be kept in the fridge. If you would like to preserve it for longer, I suggest you add a teaspoon of citric acid, which you can buy at the pharmacy, to every 500mls. It changes the flavour, so it is not quite as pure a spruce flavour, but it adds a sharp citrusy flavour, which is a nice balance to the sweetness.
Cliodhna Prendergast will be at Litfest at Ballymaloe, May 19-21, litfest.ie