Why culinary queen Alison O'Reilly is flavour of the month
In the 'MasterChef' kitchen, her duck brought tears to the eyes of John Torode. Now Alison O'Reilly is championing Irish food
Two months ago, Alison O'Reilly was just another Irish young professional in London - her days measured out in weekday commutes, Friday night drinks and gastropub Sunday lunches.
But since she was chosen among 25,000 applicants to appear on MasterChef 2017, before cooking up a storm all the way to the final four, she has attained instant celebrity. On the day I meet her, she's already been recognised while popping out to the supermarket. And the day before, at a street food event, a steady stream of strangers greeted her.
I find her curled up on her sofa on a Sunday evening, taking in the drama of the last few weeks. On screen, she won praise for her composure. Even under pressure, with the judges peering over her shoulder and steam pouring from the oven, she kept her cool. Only once did we see her steely equanimity waver when, at the start of finals week, she produced a duck dish so good it brought tears to the eyes of judge John Torode. After days of tension, the relief was overwhelming and Alison was visibly emotional.
No-one seems more surprised by all the attention than Alison herself. She entered the competition, almost on a whim, after seeing an application form online. A keen amateur chef since childhood, for the last few years she'd been toying with different ideas about how she might up her game in the kitchen and channel her talent.
She went into it, she says, for the education more than anything else. "You do watch the show and some of the people at the start are pretty horrendous and you think, 'I could probably do that'. And then they get so much better as it goes on... "The fact that it was televised was just something that had to be dealt with. I didn't have any special interest in being on TV. I just wanted to learn more about food."
This focus proved to be an advantage on the show. "Some people went in feeling fine about their food, but all the cameras and stuff just freaked them out. That stuff didn't bother me at all. The hardest part of doing it all on camera was the time factor. It is harder because it takes away your time... For me it was like stepping back into the bar back when I was a waitress and just being in work. That's how I felt. When I'm concentrating I'm quiet. I think that came across as quietly confident, whereas actually I was just concentrating."
She got further in the BBC show than any Irish contestant before her has managed, coming fourth at the end of the competition. And when she was finally eliminated, with just a couple of days to go before the final cook off, her legion of fans took to Twitter to voice their dismay. But it's by no means the end of the adventure. Since the season wrapped, Alison has teamed up with two of the other MasterChef finalists to launch a kind of foodie collective called Three Girls Cook. Together, they are running a number of sold-out supper clubs later this month in Notting Hill.
Alison's father is a publican, and conviviality is in her blood. The middle child of three, she learned the art of being an expert host watching her dad at work in The Killiney Graduate, the pub he owned when she was small. The party-spirit spilled over into their home life in leafy Foxrock, too. Theirs was, and still is, an open house, where there is always someone coming, going or staying for dinner. In the midst of all of this, she was the wide-eyed child who could often be found sniffing around the kitchen. From an early age she had sophisticated tastes, guzzling oysters and prawns while other children looked on in horror. I know this, I must admit, not by her account but because quite often I was there myself. Full disclosure - Alison is my first cousin. She laughs when I mention the memory. "Going into The Graduate," she says, "I do remember always asking Dad's head chef for pate. I was obsessed with pate."
When her flair for cooking started to reveal itself, she was soon co-opted into taking a leading role in preparing Christmas dinners. And later, when she moved to London a few years ago, cooking for friends there became a way of getting people together. "I do love it," she says.
If her home life sparked her interest in food, travel has honed it. Alison's mother is Australian and she's been making the trek across the world to see the family there on a regular basis since she was tiny. Her uncle and aunt run a celebrated Argentinian restaurant in Adelaide and it was there that she was introduced to a whole new world of flavour. "Mealtimes were a big thing. They were bigger there than they were in Dublin, because there were so many of us." Her Italian/Argentinian uncle Norberto, who runs Norberto's Buenos Aires Brasserie, was always in the restaurant kitchen "and we got to see all of that. Even getting the plane over... I remember getting rice in one of the airports in Singapore or Abu Dhabi, literally biting into a cardamom pod and thinking, this is the most insane flavour."
In her early twenties, she moved to Sydney for a year and soaked up all the Asian-influenced cuisine there. "All the Asian restaurants were cheaper than the non-Asian restaurants, and they were BYO, so they were the obvious choice," she says.
O'Reilly studied marketing at university, but her obsession with food made her conspicuous, even then. She earned the nickname 'Basil' after a summer spent travelling with friends. "I bought a basil plant in a market, and was carrying it around everywhere sticking out of my backpack. Because I was like, 'we'll make dinner in our lovely hostel...' I got slagged about it for four years"
By the time she got to London, she was already an accomplished cook. Now, she spends much of her time dragging her boyfriend Barry, who is London-Irish and grew up in Willesden, out to explore the cutting edge of the city's culinary scene. "He's happy to come along. Although sometimes he gets a bit like, 'ach, can we not just go for a drink'."
Barry has been an invaluable resource during her MasterChef adventure, as her taster-in-chief. He gives her feedback and notes on all her recipe inventions. On the show, she wowed the judges with her inventive and original flavour combinations. "The main thing that I enjoy about food and cooking is the flavour part of it... buying different spices that I've never used before and seeing what they work well with. Or buying a vegetable I've never used before and seeing how it tastes best." She's an instinctive cook, led by a passion for flavour rather than striving for technical perfection. "The only thing I had, if anything, above others was the understanding of flavour combinations, being willing to take a few risks."
She seems thrilled by how the experience has pushed her, and how far she's come."Before MasterChef I'd literally never 'plated up' before," she says. The food she'd served "was big sharing plates and people just helped themselves. So that was something that I completely had to learn from scratch for the show - how to put lots of different things on a plate together and make it look good. And I think it genuinely came naturally, that was a surprise to me. I had no idea I could do that. And I love that side of it now - I could spend ages at home practising plating stuff up."
Now her time on the show is behind her, and her reputation as a serious culinary talent is secured, she's turning her attention back to Ireland. "Actually now, really what I want to do is cook Irish food," she says. "I wouldn't start doing traditional dishes, it's just more about using the local ingredients - very similar to the style of cooking that you see now in Nordic countries. If you go to Copenhagen, they don't use lemon, they don't use olive oil, they don't use garlic. They literally just use things that you can get locally." In Ireland that means paying homage to the wealth of excellent produce native to here; "pork and beef... butter and lard, dairy is huge. We've got some of the best beef in the world, obviously. Foraging. Ingredients like seaweed. I've started developing a few ideas for recipes using good solid Irish ingredients." She fires off a list of some foods that are inspiriwng her at the moment: "Stout gravy. Calf's liver and cabbages, mackerel. Cod, cauliflower and beef, lamb neck with seaweed and peasw. Squid and pears," she says.
The UK may have made her famous, but her heart remains firmly at home. Which is why she's dead set on returning over the summer to run a solo supper club in Dublin, where she'll focus on seeking out the best of Irish produce and developing inventive ways to make it really sing.
For news and information about Alison's Irish supper clubs see foodbyalison.com. Owr for details of 'Three Girls Cook' events visit threegirlscook.co.uk.
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Robin and Sarah Gill
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