Monday 23 October 2017

Interview: Darina's Ballymaloe recipe for success

Thirty-three years after she started her cookery school, the culinary pioneer is still going strong, writes Gabrielle Monaghan

Darina Allen at the Ballymaloe Cookery School which includes her daughter Rachel, Clodagh McKenna and Catherine Fulvio in its list of alumni. Photo: Tony Gavin
Darina Allen at the Ballymaloe Cookery School which includes her daughter Rachel, Clodagh McKenna and Catherine Fulvio in its list of alumni. Photo: Tony Gavin

Gabrielle Monaghan

Darina Allen may be the high priestess of Irish cooking, a serial entrepreneur and evangelist-in-chief of homegrown food, but she has never shaken a sense of inadequacy about her business nous.

Ballymaloe Cookery School, which she founded in east Cork with her brother Rory O'Connell in the early 1980s, was borne out of desperation to earn a living and feed her four children rather than strategy.

The 100-acre horticulture farm she and her husband Tim had inherited - along with a Regency house - from her parents-in-law Ivan and Myrtle Allen was flailing, beset by falling produce prices, sky-rocketing inflation, a recession, and a global oil crisis that had sent greenhouse heating costs soaring.

"I was completely clueless and I had no business training," Allen recalls, sitting beside the school's fruit orchard as the scent of wild garlic fills the air. "I had no ambition to be in business, or even to have a career. All I wanted was to find a nice chap. For most of us at that time, that really was our main mission."

Nevertheless, the straight-talking hotel management and catering graduate had a winning idea to reverse the farm's fortunes - by setting up Ireland's first residential cookery school there. She was determined to secure a bank loan of IR£18,000 (€22,855) to realise her dream. So, in 1983, Allen borrowed a suit for a meeting with a manager at the Cork Savings Bank, who listened politely then refused a loan. "The bank manager clearly thought I was out of my mind," she says. "But my father-in-law thought it was a good idea so - as Bertie would say - he gave us a dig-out."

Thirty-three years later, Ballymaloe Cookery School is one of the world's most respected culinary academies, with some 55 employees. It is located in the tiny village of Shanagarry, 4km away from the mother ship at Ballymaloe House. The school is based in a former apple-sorting shed, one designed in 1944 by Myrtle's father Henry Hill, the architect responsible for many of Cork city's landmarks, including the Metropole Hotel.

The jewel in the school's crown is a 12-week certificate course for aspiring chefs and well-heeled foodies. It's held three times a year, costing students €11,395 apiece. Alumni include Allen's daughter-in-law Rachel Allen, Clodagh McKenna and Catherine Fulvio.

In the mid-1980s, Allen made her first television appearance on a Keith Floyd programme, during which the TV chef and raconteur had arranged to be filmed reading the racing pages at the back of the class while Allen tried to teach him how to make an Irish stew. The filming, eased after a couple of nervous takes by a glass or two of red wine, led to her getting her own cookery show on RTE. The Simply Delicious programme and eponymous cookbooks turned Allen into a household name.

Despite a succession of food businesses under her belt and accolades such as the Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year, Allen is uneasy with discussing finances, a task she has outsourced, and jokes that she is "numerically challenged".

"I'm properly hopeless at figures," she says, clutching a thick, navy 2017 diary filled with notes and wearing a borrowed wax jacket to stave off the spring chill on the orchard patio. "I realised early on what I could and could not do, and to surround yourself with the talents you need."

The cookery school, like Darina herself, is ablaze with boundless energy. Wearing her trademark red-framed glasses, she rushes through the sunlit hallways decorated with quotes Yeats poems, taking in the front-of-house garden shop selling the Allen dynasty cookbooks, kitchen utensils, salamis and vegetables. She then peeks inside three demonstration rooms where short courses are running concurrently.

In the lunch room, a group of primary school children are noisily eating pizza with a soda-bread base that they cooked themselves in the school's vast kitchens. Darina set up the East Cork Slow Food Educational Fund to show pupils from local primary schools how to grow food, rear hens, and cook with vegetables they've grown from scratch. Out front is a silver vintage 1947 Spartan trailer converted into a food truck that will welcome visitors when the weather improves.

Even the orchard and the extensive gardens are a money-spinner: the school charges families €15 for visits that take in the organic farm, glasshouses, a formal herb garden and a century-old flower garden. But the food activist does draw the line at earning money from the carefully crafted Ballymaloe image for product endorsement.

"That was a commercial sacrifice I willingly made," she says. "I was approached a lot to do it in the early days, but now people know not to ask. I decided I wouldn't have any real credibility if I was aligned to any product."

Like Rachel, who created a range of sandwiches for O'Brien's Sandwich cafes and recently opened Rachel's restaurant in Cork city, Darina is the public face of Ballymaloe. As a result, people assume she is "some kind of superwoman" who runs all the 17 enterprises interconnected under the Ballymaloe umbrella. This edible empire run by four generations of the Allen family ranges from the Ballymaloe Country House Hotel to Ballymaloe Country Relish to photography and even furniture-making.

"Despite what everybody thinks, all I do is the cookery school and the organic farm and gardens," she says. "I focus on providing quality rather than focusing solely on profit. If you do that, the bottom line will look after itself."

The school's accounts bear that out. Profits increased by €104,486 in the 12 months to the end of August 31, bringing retained earnings to €2.68m from €2.58m a year earlier. The two directors, Darina and her chef brother Rory, a fellow tutor at the school, paid themselves a total €154,641 in combined salary and pension contributions. Even at the peak of recession, the company stayed in the black, recording profits of €233,396 for the 2012 financial year, by preserving prices for its certificate course and freezing pay.

"We were less affected than other businesses by the recession," Allen says. "People were actually using redundancy money or borrowing money to come to the school for the 12-week course. They would work like hell and knew they would either be starting a food business of their own or working in one when they left here."

Allen may have been a familiar face on our TV screens for almost three decades but it was her mother-in-law, Myrtle, who started the Ballymaloe empire. In 1964, Myrtle was a 40-year-old mother-of-six toying with the idea of opening a restaurant to occupy herself as her brood began to go away to boarding school.

Her late husband Ivan Allen, a Quaker who had attended the progressive Newtown School in Co Waterford, encouraged Myrtle to set it up in the dining room of Ballymaloe House. The self-taught cook wrote menus everyday based on what was available on Ivan's farm, as well as produce from the locality and the catch from fishermen in nearby Ballycotton.

In order to secure a wine licence, Myrtle had to open guest rooms. As the restaurant's reputation grew, so too did Myrtle's rise to fame, and the grand dame of modern Irish cuisine, now 93, led Ireland's culinary renaissance on the premise that all good food starts with good local ingredients.

That it was Myrtle, Darina and Rachel, three women who had married into the Allen family, who spawned a plethora of enterprises - rather than the Allen men - was due to the family's Quaker roots and to Darina's equality-minded father, himself a serial entrepreneur who inspired her can-do attitude to life, she says.

"When I came to Ballymaloe, it was never spoken about, but there was an ethos that came from the Quaker religion, where men and women have always been equal and the women have always been educated. If I wanted to do something - and my God have I had some hair-brained notions - they would say 'go ahead' or, 'are you sure?' I was never 'don't be stupid - you can't do that', and a lot of women would have been told that at the time."

Her father, "a very civilised man who really respected women", was the same. It was from her father and grandfather, merchants in Darina's home village of Cullohill in Co Laois, that she inherited her entrepreneurial streak. Her love of cooking was inspired by watching her mother cook for her nine children with a vegetable garden, hens, and dairy from the house cow.

She says: "My father supplied all the needs of the local community. There was a shop, a post office, a pub, and my father was also an auctioneer and an undertaker. He also sold hardware and at one stage dabbled in a bit of drapery. As a child, I would have been running in and out of the shop. I could do everything from pull a pint to weighing up tea leaves to helping weigh sheep's wool. I learned a ton of skills."

After graduating in 1968, Allen couldn't find a job in the male-dominated kitchens of Ireland's top restaurants. But a chat with one of her lecturers, the late Mor Murnaghan, told her she had heard about a woman on a farm in East Cork who had opened a restaurant in her own house. Murnaghan gave her Myrtle's name and Allen's entrepreneurial, and personal, fate was sealed.

Despite the privilege of inheriting the bucolic land in Shanagarry and a home, Allen's business and personal life has not been without its challenges. In the 1970s, Tim Allen had to make more than half of the 100 men working on the farm redundant and the couple "almost lost the roof over our heads".

Then there was Tim's 2003 conviction for possession of child pornography. The publicity dented the empire's wholesome brand for a time.

After another recession reared its ugly head, Allen and Rory launched the inaugural Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine, in 2013. LitFest, as it's known, hosts the world's leading chefs, food writers and producers.

This year, Ballymaloe has switched the focus of Litfest, as it's better known, to food literacy, because Allen felt the "literary" title could deter attendees who felt the event would be "too posh", she says. The two-day event will be held next month and will include foraging walks, cookery demonstrations from world-renowned chefs, and wine tastings.

Despite turning 69 in July, Allen has no plans to retire but is mindful of the need for a succession plan. In the meantime, she has reduced some of her workload, which until recently involved giving five daytime cookery demonstrations and two evening demos a week.

"I have a very high energy level," says Allen. "I think everyone around here would be terrified if I retired - what the hell would they do with me?"

Business Lessons

What's the best lesson you've learned in the business?

Don't be a busy fool. When the children were small, we had this really chic farm shop we were running seven days a week and we were doing B&B in the house and dressing the beds. I couldn't wait to hear from the accountant about how well we'd done because we'd worked so hard all summer. He said: "Not only did you not make money, but you lost IR£3,000." It was a huge amount to us at that time, so I burst into tears. I made a decision that it would never happen again.

What were your worst moments in business?

We've had our challenges but we have had to get on with it. You just have to work hard and carry on.

What is the best piece of business advice you've ever given?

I often say to my students that nowadays there is mania with everything being cheaper, cheaper and cheaper, and dumbing down the prices. I always say to people "never charge less; always charge more and be better". There's no point getting involved in a race to the bottom. Don't ever apologise - say "I really can't do it for any less".

Curriculum vitae

Name

Darina Allen

Position

Co-owner and co-founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School.

Lives

Kinoith House, Shanagarry, Co Cork

Education

Five years boarding at Dominican College, Wicklow town, College of Catering, now DIT

Previous Experience

Assistant to Myrtle Allen. I also started the first farm shop in Ireland, in a converted packing shed and did some B&B before concentrating on the cookery school

Family

Married with four adult children and 11 grandchildren

Pastimes

Going to our tiny house in West Cork. I also travel a lot and do research along the way, and I love walking. I also have a love of poetry that was probably instilled in me by the Dominican nuns. (The Ballymaloe Cookery School sponsors The Moth magazine's annual prize to the tune of €10,000)

Reading

Other than cookbooks, my favourite book is Souvenirs d'enfance (Childhood Memories) by Marcel Pagnol

Favourite Holidays

We love India and go there every year as the food is so varied - the people are deeply mystical

Sunday Indo Business

Also in Business