Tea with Darina Allen
At 65 she should be slowing down, but chef Darina Allen is fizzing with energy
I’m 65 now and it’ s totally cool with me. I’m not thinking about giving anything up. I am having way too much fun, so once I have the energy, I will keep going.”
I’m sitting with celebrated chef, Darina Allen, in her kitchen in Shanagarry, and students from the Ballymaloe Cookery School are fluttering around outside. It’s a busy, friendly place, and I’m in awe at how Darina seems to instinctively know exactly what’s going on with everyone and each situation we encounter.
She’s at an age where most people are retiring, but the serene and elegant Darina has no intention of slowing down. As we walk through the kitchens where the students are whizzing up some fabulous creations, I’m greatly impressed by the fact that she remains so trim.
“I have never dieted as I don’t believe in it, but I’ve eaten fresh food my whole life, which helps,” she says, in her cut-glass accent that, even after 45 years, hasn’t acquired any of the Cork inflection. “I don’t put an awful lot of time into looking glamorous, but I do like to wear bright colours. My hair is grey, but I have never dyed it and it doesn’t bother me.”
While extremely friendly and welcoming, there is a stateliness about Darina that suggests that she wouldn’t suffer fools too easily.
Then again, she has to be at the top of her game, with 72 staff to direct, and any amount of people coming and going.
There’s the students on three-month courses, many of whom are living on the premises, those on shorter courses, and people dropping in for the school’s daily afternoon demonstrations. So is she a tough boss?
“I have high standards, but people like working for organisations with high standards because they can share in the reflected glory,” says Darina.
“They get to take pride in what they do. You get to understand the personality of your employer, so they know how to steer a path around me. The staff are the Ballymaloe family — they work with us, not for us, and I hope they feel that way too.”
As the eldest of the late Lily and Dick O’Connell’s nine children, Darina grew up in Cullohill, Co. Laois. Her entrepreneurial father was the “auctioneer and undertaker, who owned the shop, post office and everything in between.” Sadly, he passed away from lung cancer aged 45, when Darina was 14 and her mum, then 36, was eight months pregnant.
“My mother was an extraordinary woman who was a huge influence on me, “she says. “She was suddenly catapulted into taking over the business, and while we thought she knew exactly what to do, it wasn’t until I was 36 myself that I realised how hard it would have been for my mother to be widowed with children at that age.
She was in shock for over a year, as I never heard a cross word between my parents, and my dad never left the house without kissing and hugging her.
She had a long and happy life, and opened The Sportman’s Inn in Cullohill and everyone used to look forward to going there for her cooking, particularly her scones and pies.
Darina says she was a very wild child who wasn’t particularly studious. She was very homesick in boarding school, and cried all the time, initially, but wasn’t rebellious enough to refuse to stay.
This was character-forming in itself, she says, because it shows you that you just don’t pull out of things.
“My only desire when I left school was to find a nice chap, who could keep me in the life I was accustomed to, and then we would have children and a shop and go on picnics,” she laughs.
After graduating from Cathal Brugha Street with a degree in hotel and catering management, Darina found that most restaurants at that time wouldn’t have women in the kitchen. Her lecturer, the late Mor Murnaghan, told her about a farmer’s wife in Cork, Myrtle Allen, who had opened a restaurant in her house, and was using all of her own produce.
“I wrote to this woman, and she replied saying that she would love to have me,” she says. “Little did she know that I would marry the eldest son and become a member of the family. I fell in love with Ballymaloe the moment I arrived in 1968, and Myrtle was a wonderful, natural teacher.
“I still call her Mrs Allen, even though she insisted that I call her Myrtle after Tim and I got married, but I just couldn’t.”
Darina’s husband Tim was the first person she met there, when “this funny-looking, long-haired guy in shorts” saw her arriving and thanked her for coming to help. Did they fall for one another instantly?
“Tim had one girlfriend after the other that summer, so he wasn’t after me,” she says. “I always thought he was nice, but he was a year-and-a-half younger, and was also smaller than me — thankfully he grew after we got married!
Winter came and there weren’t many people around, and I used to make the family suppers, which I guess was the way to everyone’s heart.”
After getting engaged in Copenhagen, Tim and Darina were married a mere five weeks later, when she was 21 and he was 20. They had two wedding ceremonies — one in a little Catholic church in Cullohill, and a service of worship at the Quaker meeting house in Cork. Darina has now become a Quaker, and made the decision because she admired their ethos.
“They’re a very tolerant, peace-loving people, who have cut out all the frill of hierarchy,” she says. “I admire the quiet way that they go about living their lives, and they are very committed to community and the poor. Quaker meetings always put me at ease and felt right, so after a few years, I had to get off the fence.
“I asked if I could become a member of their society and they accepted me.”
After they got married, Tim inherited the house in Shanagarry, and he and Darina had four children - Isaac, Toby, Lydia and Emily. Tim was in horticulture, Darina made jam and they ran a B&B during the summer, before starting the cookery school in 1983. It has become hugely successful (see www.cookingisfun.ie for further information.)
“In the Quaker religion, women were always equal and educated, so in the Allen family, if I wanted to do something as a woman, I was encouraged and all my ideas were accepted,” says Darina. “It was very empowering, as they believed in me so I believed in myself.”
Darina has become a celebrated chef over the years, with a number of TV programmes and books to her credit. She is looking forward to doing two cooking demonstrations at Taste of Dublin this month, plus a question and answer session.
While she has become much-loved and admired for her talent and work ethos, the family has had some well-documented difficulties, including Tim’s 2003 prosecution for possession of child pornography. So how does Darina overcome these difficulties?
“Nobody gets through life without challenges,” she says. “We all have our moments, but I think I am resilient and one has to just get on with it. You have to keep on working and have a positive outlook on life.
“We have such a big family, and while we have different businesses and are financially independent, we all support each other so there is always help from the family.”
While some marriages that begin early don’t last the distance, Darina and Tim have been together 44 years. She says that while they are opposites, it works because he is a very calming influence when she is always “buzzing around”. They complement each other as she is an ideas person while Tim is good with figures.
“I think if you are lucky enough to find the one you want to be with at a young age, then marry them,” she says. “Tim and I have grown up together in a sense, because we were so young when we met. It hasn’t been too difficult to keep our family life and the business separate, and we believe there is no such thing as success without hard work.”
Taste of Dublin 2014 returns to the Iveagh Gardens from 12th-15th June 2014. Tickets, from €15, are available from www.tasteofdublin.ie