'West Cork is unique and different in terms of food'- Trish Deseine on her homecoming
She's the 'french nigella' who changed the way that Paris cooked. Now, recently returned to Ireland, Trish Deseine has celebrity chefs and the anti-sugar brigade in her crosshairs. Here, Katy McGuinness meets the successful cook and author
Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30
At a time when the country is in the grip of a national obsession with chefs, when all the talk is of restaurants and stars and lists and culinary competitions, Irish food writer, prolific cookbook author and cook, Trish Deseine, considers the cooking that is done at home to be of far greater importance, the culinary glue that binds families together.
Deseine may not be a household name in Ireland, but she's sold over a million cookbooks during the past 15 years, and been named by French Vogue as one of the 40 most influential women in France, revolutionising the way the French cook at home.
She's talking about a period in her life a few years ago that reinforced her belief in the nurturing power of home-cooked food. It was during the break-up of her marriage ("a long, difficult divorce that began with a separation in 2005 and was not finalised until 2009") when she was living in Paris but experiencing a homesickness for Ireland.
"My sons were still in school, doing their baccalaureates in quick succession, one after the other, so I was needed at home. Getting them through their exams, putting in the presence, driving them places and picking them up - it was vital that I was there, and that was my priority. I moved out of the centre of Paris and was doing lots of cooking, comfort cooking, that ritual repetition of dishes that is so important, the routine of certain dishes on certain days, which is the real value of cooking… that was what got us through."
With her boys having since left home - Corentin training to be a chef in Paris, Tim studying politics and economics in Bristol, and Tangui reading chemical engineering in Manchester - and her daughter, Victoire, living with her father in Paris while she completes her schooling, Trish has returned to Ireland after more than 25 years in the French capital, and is living near Ballydehob in West Cork.
"I got hooked on the idea of coming back to Ireland when I was filming here a few years ago; the food and the atmosphere here really set me off. From that time on I was definitely coming back. I could not afford to live in Dublin on a writer's income; I have a little house in the Languedoc where I spend time but I'm on the verge of taxing my car here in Ireland which means I'm staying. West Cork is unique and different in terms of food - Galway is similarly strong - and I love it here."
But one thing that Deseine does not love about being back is the Irish obsession with chefs.
"It's the same globally - their self-appointed importance is not unique to Ireland," she says. "Funnily, in France that has been softened by centuries of cooks and chefs who have been there for the delight and pleasure of their clientèle. There is a greater connection to the tradition of restaurants in French culture than there is in Ireland; and the chefs in France don't seem to have the same over-present egos as they do in the rest of the world, although that may be changing.
"For years they stayed away from the World's 50 Best list [for which Trish used to be a judge and for which she now has scant regard] as they had more integrity, but even in France they are coming around. Even French chefs are starting to look at branding on a global scale, they can't resist… chefs on tour, restaurants on tour… it's good for branding and economics, the idea that you can pin down what a restaurant does and take it on the road."
Trish (51) grew up in Antrim, Northern Ireland, the daughter of a beef farmer and a teacher, and went to school in Belfast during what she describes as the "tough years" of the 1970s. She left the North straight after school to study French at Edinburgh University. There she met her future husband, Thierry, and after university moved to Paris to be with him. Her first job was in fashion, and later she worked for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, which can't have been an easy station.
"There was," she says, "a lot of co-operation with Bord Fáilte at the time…"
By the time that job came to an end, Trish had three children and was living in the countryside outside Paris in a beautiful house. She started a mail-order business from home selling high-end chocolate and cooking equipment that she used to demonstrate at lifestyle shows and exhibitions.
"It was the start of the whole Nigella/Jamie thing and I was spotted by someone from [the publishing company] Marabout who was scouting for authors. I had effectively moved my gorgeous kitchen out onto the stand and I was a perfect fit for that whole 'ladies who lunch' type of thing, like a French version of Martha Stewart. Everything interesting at the time was happening in the UK and Australia, Donna Hay was truly exciting in terms of both her food and the way that it was photographed, and there was no one like that in France, so I was commissioned to do a book."
That first book was Petits Plats Entre Amis in 2001. It showcased an effortlessly stylish, relaxed style of home entertaining that had never been seen before in France, where cookbooks had until then been written by male chefs in whites who had trained for years rather than by home cooks.
Hailed as the French Nigella, she positioned herself as both cook and feminist role model, teaching her readers how to entertain without locking themselves away in the kitchen and missing out on all the fun. She gave permission not to have to learn to cook a cassoulet the way they do in Toulouse - either go to Toulouse or to a restaurant to eat that, she said, and do the other stuff at home. And it is through teaching the French 'the other stuff' that she has made her name.
"The first book was a big success," says Trish. "Things went a little crazy." Next came Je Veux du Chocolate in 2004, on which Trish again collaborated with interiors photographer, Marie-Pierre Morel. "We shot that completely in our own style - dark, close up, showing little bits of dishes sometimes rather than always the whole thing."
It sold half a million copies worldwide. "There was," she says, modestly, "a lot of attention."
More books followed, and she was adopted by Elle magazine as their resident recipe columnist. Then came three television series for RTÉ - Trish's Paris Kitchen, Trish's Med Kitchen and Trish's Country Kitchen - which made her a familiar face in Ireland. "Even though they were done a while ago, people are still coming up to me constantly on the street. They are always so nice, no matter how ragged I am looking."
The first series showed Trish shopping in her favourite markets and shops and at home in Paris, surrounded by friends. "The mood was terribly upbeat at a time that was not very upbeat for me, as my marriage was breaking up. But they were the good old days because our budgets were OK and we had time and freedom to make the shows. My director was Peter Mulryan, who now makes Blackwater Gin, and we had a lot of fun."
The second and third series involved shooting exteriors in France, but many of the recipes were shot in West Cork. "That's when I came to love it here," explains Trish, who moved to Ballydehob last year at around the same time that her book Home, an homage to the food of Ireland, was published. "Home was a way of getting myself back here," she says.
Though a welcome voice on the Irish food scene once more, she isn't planning to attend this year's Food On The Edge Symposium - organised by JP McMahon of the Michelin-starred Aniar restaurant in Galway - because she "can't think of anything more boring than a room full of chefs talking about themselves".
"I heard it all before 10 years ago when Omnivore [a French food festival] started, but at least the chefs there would cook so there was something to watch and learn from! I just don't want to sit in a tent and listen to a chef from Singapore or anywhere else telling me what to do about food waste because I know what to do about it. I just don't see anything coming out of it.
"People say that they find it inspiring, but the word inspiration is overused… what happens afterwards? They go back and work in their restaurant for 18 hours a day again. I'm not sure who is the audience for this - I'm sure it's very interesting if you're a chef, but I'm not a chef. I get MAD [the food symposium organised by Rene Redzepi of Noma] but at least the year that Redzepi felt there was nothing to be said there was no MAD… I really think that he and Massimo Bottura are the only chefs in the world with the global reach and recognition to have an impact. When chefs without the same status jump on the bandwagon, I fear that it will burn itself out."
Deseine has been outspoken too in her criticism of the gender imbalance and discrimination against women that exists in restaurant kitchens in Ireland and elsewhere. She didn't attend Athru, the gathering of women in the restaurant industry, held in Galway last month, but says that she is delighted that the event happened "and that the issues such as the pay gap, toxic masculinity and abuse that are endemic in restaurant kitchens are on the agenda now".
This sense of rebellion has extended into her most recent cookbook. At a time when the sugar police are lurking around every corner, Trish Deseine's 100 Desserts to Die For - the author's 27th book - is an unapologetic nose-thumb in the direction of the clean-eating brigade. There are, after all, only so many variations on the theme of dates and coconut that a committed dessert eater can hack before even they have to admit defeat and return to the dark side.
Not, of course - perish the thought - that Deseine is advocating the reckless consumption of sugary, buttery, creamy, chocolatey (stop, stop!) confections on a daily basis, but her book is a conscious attempt "to balance out the trend, so widespread these days, of going without dessert".
And certainly, if you are going to indulge in dessert once or twice a week, then you might as well make it a good one, that you produce yourself rather than succumbing in defeatist fashion to something from the supermarket that's laden with trans-fats, additives, preservatives and lord knows what else.
"The original title was 'Killing Me Softly'," says Trish, "and it's intended as an irreverent, cheeky reaction to the whole clean-eating, healthy blogging thing. This book is a safe place for people who want to eat sugar to go."
The hundred recipes are a mixture of classics interspersed with what the author describes as her own "complete creations", the inspiration for which is garnered from restaurant dishes that Trish has encountered on her travels around France and Ireland. What they are not is complex, cheffy recipes with lengthy, hyper-detailed instructions, although she does confess to an admiration for the patisserie of Pierre Herme and Helene Darroze. Rather, they are concise, in the French style that assumes a level of knowledge in the reader.
"I was looking at someone on Instagram the other day," she says, "who was in the middle of a macaron project, making a different batch of macarons every day until they were perfect… they were so beautiful, they looked like hand-made lace that your grandmother might have had. I wouldn't have the patience for that intricate kind of work. I don't like recipes where the instructions involve 50 steps that go on for two pages; I find that stressful and there seem to me to be more opportunities for things to go wrong.
"People have seen so much on television now, they know what it means when it says cream the butter and sugar together. And I like there to be lots of room for free-styling in my recipes, so that people can put their own twist on them, and have fun making them."
100 Desserts to Die For by Trish Deseine (Murdoch Books, 18.99). Photography by Guillaume Czerw.