Irish Restaurant Awards 2011: Personal food heros
As we launch our search for the nation's local food heroes for the RAI/LIFE magazine Irish Restaurant Awards 2011, some well-known foodies spill the beans to Joanna Kiernan on their personal food heroes. Photography by Mark Nixon
Maura Derrane, tv presenter: My mother, Bridie: On Four Live, I get to taste Michelin-star food often, and I probably have the best chefs in the country cooking for me, as well as international chefs, but I have to say that I adore the food that I was brought up with.
It was all very wholesome food, cooked by my mother, Bridgie. The wholesome food that she cooked -- and cooks, when I go home -- I still love that, I suppose I associate it with comforting times; you know, when you're safe and warm as a kid.
The funny part was that there was no element of teaching with my mother; everything was done casually and that's what I like about it. Cooking is kind of part of life; there are no recipe books around. It was just functional -- food is around to be eaten and to feed the family.
There were four kids in our family -- four girls and my dad -- and it was kind of this effortless cooking that Irish mothers do so well. I love her lamb stew -- that's probably my favourite that I always like to go back to.
She never really has recipes. I'd ask her, 'How do you make your brown bread?' and she'd say, 'Oh, I don't know, just a few bits and a few handfuls.' It's almost like she doesn't know what she puts in it herself. It's kind of instinct cooking.
In our house, I cook all the time. John is not a real cook, so I cook 99.9 per cent of all the food we eat, and I just do it kind of casually as well -- just some fish and veg and we may eat some Italian sometimes. I don't really have recipes or anything like that.
I think as I get old the funny part is that, years ago, going out was going to the pub, whereas now I really think a night out is incomplete if I don't have a meal.
My mother would never think of herself as kind of a good cook or pride herself on it, but I like that attitude to food. I like that there are people around and you can be cooking and talking all at the same time.
I always remember my aunt Ann. She had a bar and a shop outside Westport and she'd be kind of running the bar, cooking for us and doing everything. I remember her having the chat over the frying pan in the mornings, cooking the breakfast, and again while cooking the dinner, and it was made before they had even realised! Those would be the memories of my youth. There was a great sense of security in that.
Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain, Teacher and TV presenter: Delia Smith
I’d love to say that my mum or my granny would be my food hero, but I’m going to go with Delia Smith because one of her books is the one cookery book that I would recognise — my mum always had it in the house.
I love thumbing through the pages. I’ve tried the porter cake, the sherry trifle and even the bread and butter pudding. It’s the one cookery book that I think is a necessity in every house.
I’ve actually never even watched her show on television, but it is iconic. My bible is one of her books from the Seventies — she’s got a Seventies haircut and she’s wearing a Seventies blouse, and it’s brown and it’s boring and it weighs a ton, but it’s the one thing that I always remember being on the kitchen shelf. Mum’s cooking is great, but she obviously got a lot of it from the cookbook! I’m a definite food fan. I wouldn’t shy away from it. I would eat anything. It’s rare that I’ll find something that I don’t like.
I’m from a big family in Mayo and traditionally you had dinner in the middle of the afternoon; you basically sit and have dinner and then seconds and thirds, and then you’d have tea afterwards. I’m not the worst cook, but I wouldn’t profess to be any sort of magician in the kitchen at all.
I make a nice lasagne and I make very good desserts and a good bread and butter pudding and flapjacks and things like that, but I rarely put a lot of time into it. I’d love to get better at it. I’d love to do a course to get better at cooking. I love restaurants that aren’t too fussy — where you can go in and actually relax. Friendly service is also very important as well, and obviously the food has to be good, but not too much food either. Good-quality, savoury food is what I like. And I love a cosy atmosphere.
Catch Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain when she presents the second series of the Irish-language choir competition, ‘An Cor’, during March on RTE One
Jay Bourke, Restaurateur: Michael Durkin and my mother
Michael Durkin has been head chef of Eden for the last 12 years and he’s just the quietest, most u n a s s u m i n g man. Year after year, season after season, he produces more and more fantastic food and never says a lot about it.
He’s so modest, it’s astonishing. He’s only 44 years old and he trained in the Shelbourne and he worked with Kevin Thornton, but he never shouts that loudly enough. He’s the antithesis of a celebrity chef. Yet his knowledge of food is just unbelievable; he’s just such an expert. He never answers a question quickly relating to food; he thinks deeply about everything.
I get on very well with him because I know how little I know. My part in this relationship is silence. I eat; that’s what I do. He’s the only employee that I didn’t ask to take a pay cut in the recession, because he’s never asked for a pay rise, ever. That says an awful lot.
At home my wife cooks. I’m not allowed to cook. I’m a consumer. I think life is fabulous when you eat well. I like good food, but I like plain food. That’s just me and that’s the way my mum cooked. My mum is a brilliant home-keeper, she made jams and we never had a biscuit in our house; we had apples and grew tomatoes and cucumbers and rhubarb and beetroot. We made home-made lemonade and all sorts of things. My mum actually made everything: apple jellies, I used to love them; lots of roasts — very simple food.
My parents would let the house fall down, but we’d always eat like lords. The paint would be peeling and we’d be eating really well. They still eat really well and they still cook these amazing meals every Sunday. My mother cooks a huge roast for whoever’s in town. It was the only rule in my house growing up: you were expected to turn up for dinner. You could do what the hell you wanted as long as you turned up for dinner.
There were loads of people in the house; endless meals — it was like a factory. We had a giant larder filled because there were four kids, an au pair and quite often grandparents who lived with us, so it was really a very busy place.
See www.edenrestaurant.ie and www.bellinterhouse.com
Ella McSweeney, broadcaster: David Tiernan
My food hero is David Tiernan. He is a dairy farmer from Dunleer, in Co Louth. I first spoke to David about two to three years ago when I was looking into the dairy industry.
We had this really amazing conversation; he was obviously in the middle of milking, but he took my call, and we spoke for ages and he told me all about what he does. Earlier this year, I was doing a series with Pat Kenny’s show on RTE Radio One on traditions in food and farming, and I really wanted to look at people who drink raw milk. I just phoned David up and he took a deep breath and spoke with all of this incredible passion about the tradition of drinking raw milk, and that he was brought up drinking raw milk and brought his sons up on it.
I went up to visit his farm in Dunleer and that was the first time I had met him. He showed me his herd — a particular herd of cattle called Montbeliarde — which are known for producing very rich, very gorgeous milk.
Even though he wasn't a big cheese-eater and had never made cheese in his life, he felt that they needed to diversify in 2004. So he converted his barn into a cheesemaking factory and decided to make a Gruyere; it is called Glebe Brethan cheese. It's a very specialised type of cheese. It's very hard to make, and he makes it with raw milk — and that, in itself, took a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with the Department of Agriculture — but he did it because he believes in it. I just think his story is one of someone who is both a risk-taker and an innovator, and someone who is incredibly passionate about farming and food.
Then he decided to start selling raw milk. It used to be banned and isn't anymore, but very few farmers do it. He believes in it strongly. There's many a farmer that wouldn't go near it in terms of selling it. You can buy raw milk across Italy and France. The food-safety authorities of Ireland are not happy about the sale of raw milk. They think it's dangerous and therefore they want it to be banned. People like David would feel very strongly that where you have a good, clean herd, as he does, it's perfectly safe and also very beneficial.
People who believe in raw milk feel very strongly about the benefits of it: the added nutrients, proteins, and all the things that are killed in pasteurisation. Also, it's said that lactose-intolerant people can't have dairy products — the reason being because they can't digest the lactose — but raw, unpasteurised milk has an enzyme in it that digests this lactose for you.
These are all things that David feels passionately about and so, because of that, I just admire him hugely. I admire anyone who's a dairy farmer, because dairy farmers work relentless hours. David gets up at five in the morning every day of the week to milk his herd. He then works on the farm, and in the evening he has to milk the herd again. They don't have weekends like we do.
I just admire his energy so much, and I think he's the type of person that Irish people should be very proud of. The minute I heard “food hero”, I thought of him. It's very important that we understand where our food comes from and that there are people involved in that — there's a lot of effort and a lot of passion.
Catherine Fulvio, cook and TV presenter: John Hempenstall and Tom O'Hanlon
John Hempenstall, from Wicklow Farmhouse Cheese, based in Arklow, Co Wicklow, is one of my food heroes. I suppose I identify a lot with John because John is a second-generation farmer, and I grew up on a farm, and our farm was a dairy farm as well.
John is so proud of his own Friesian herd and his own milk that he decided to start dabbling in cheesemaking. He then realised it could be a serious business, and trained up for it. He started off with Wicklow Blue cheese and Wicklow Baun cheese, and they are both absolutely amazing cheeses. He’s the hardest worker I know. You could be on the phone to him at eight o’clock in the morning and say, ‘Oh John, I’m sorry for ringing you so early!’ and he’ll say, ‘No, you’re all right, I’m back from making a delivery.’ The other thing he has done is he’s created a family business. So he employs local people, but it’s also given a really good reason for his family to stay on the farm.
The Wicklow Blue cheese is a beautiful, soft, pasteurised blue cheese, which is great for everybody, and it’s a gold-award-winning cheese. The Wicklow Baun cheese itself, only late last year, won a Gold Award at the World Cheese Awards, so he’s no quiet little cheesemaker. He’s out there, he’s trying hard; he goes to every fair. He’s always on the go.
I get a delivery from John every Friday. He has a lovely Camembert-style cheese called St Kevin and we put that out on our breakfast buffet, and then the more specialist cheese we use in our evening meals. We’ve built them into the menus, and we also use them in the cookery school. Tom O’Hanlon of O’Hanlon Herbs is another food hero of mine. He neighbours our farm and again is one of those really forward-thinking people that you just admire so much.
He started growing herbs in Dublin when he was 18 and then he realised he needed a bigger plot, so he moved out of Dublin and down to us in Wicklow. He is now the biggest supplier of fresh herbs in the retail sector. He set up with just a few little tunnels, now he has a one-acre greenhouse with an amazing set-up and the best of technology. I would get all my basil from Tom.
He’s always a bit experimental as well, and while he has all the big regular herbs that you’d expect, like curly parsley, coriander, thyme, rosemary, basil — all the ones that we all use on a regular basis — he has this experimental tunnel as well, where he grows all sorts, like pineapple sage, lemon verbena, lemon thyme; he’s growing lemongrass at the moment, which I’m so excited about.
It’s these people who are so passionate about what they do, that they’re all the time creating, experimenting, thinking ahead: ‘What would customers like? What would customers enjoy?’ — but never compromising on quality.
It’s absolutely an art form. They have come from years and years of experience to bring their products to that stage.
Wicklow Farmhouse Cheese Ltd, Curranstown, Arklow, Co Wicklow, tel: (0402) 91713, or see www.wicklowfarmhousecheeseltd.ie, or email email@example.com O’Hanlon Herbs, Ballyknocken, Glenealy, Co Wicklow, tel: (0404) 44999, or see www.ohanlonherbs.ie, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Catherine Fulvio, Ballyknocken House & Cookery School, Glenealy, Co Wicklow, tel: (0404) 44627, or see www.ballyknocken.com, or email email@example.com
Mairead Farrell, Radio star: My sister Olga
My sister, Olga, trained as a chef, like, 20 years ago or something. I was only a kid at the time, as she’s nine years older than me, but there’s no other child between us. I was a big surprise! She trained in Cathal Brugha Street and when she finished it she worked one summer as a chef — but she’s 5ft 1in, a tiny little doll thing, and she couldn’t lift the pots — they were too big! She doesn’t work in anything to do with food at all now. She works in Dublin Airport for the DAA.
It’s always been a thing that if you drop into Olga’s house at a moment’s notice, she has something nice. If someone did that to me, I’d die. I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve nothing in the fridge!’ I was hung-over a few weeks ago and I got a text message from her at 12 o’clock on a Sunday saying, ‘Fancy lunch in mine?’ I ran for my runners and my hoodie and went straight up the road to her.
She’s brilliant; she’s just so organised when it comes to food as well. You know, she knows on a Sunday what they’ll be eating for the week. She wouldn’t be doing out meal planners or anything, but they’re in her head. She’s not afraid of food and trying stuff. She’s just great with it. She cooked for her daughter’s christening two years ago and there were about 45 to 50 people, and she did all the food herself. The week before I was saying, ‘Get a caterer! Just get a caterer!’ but she said, ‘Oh no, no, it’s fine, I have it all sorted.’ And it was all amazing: gorgeous salads and a big korma that was so tasty, whereas I would have been having a mini-nervous breakdown.
I’m actually not too bad in the kitchen and the only reason I would say that now is because of my cooker. Three years ago I got a big Britannia range. The whole idea was that I wanted two ovens, because timing wasn’t my best thing. I thought, ‘with two ovens, cooking’s going to be easy’, and it turns out I was right, kind of; it is. Two ovens — that’s the secret to good cooking and it looks pretty. Two ovens, easy peasy! I’m a bit boring when I go to restaurants. I find it hard to deviate because I love nothing more than a really good fillet steak. I love roasts — roast lamb, roast chicken and everything that goes with it: roast carrots, roast parsnips, roast potatoes, roast everything!
‘The Ray D’Arcy Show’, 9am-12pm, weekdays on Today FM, see www.todayfm.com
Jennifer Maguire, business woman and TV presenter: My boyfired Lau
My food hero is my boyfriend, Lau. We have been together five years and, since I’ve known him he’s inspired me to cook, which was a very hard thing to do. My favourite dish he cooks is peri-peri chicken with sweet potato, coriander and feta cheese salad. He cooks a great roast and makes everything himself. On Christmas Day he cooked everything from scratch, even the cranberry sauce. He is extremely passionate about food. He talks about what we are going to have for dinner when we’re having breakfast.
He has an Italian family and they are really big into cooking, but he takes after his mum, who is an amazing cook, and they always swap recipes and talk food when they’re together. Lau likes nothing more than cooking for people, which is great because it has definitely helped me want to be a better cook, and now I eat healthier because of him.
As much as I like cooking, he is better, but I am the clean freak, so we balance each other out. My skills in the kitchen have improved since I met Lau, and I can now cook him a meal with confidence. This has taken years and, although he can cook more dishes than me, I bake better cakes than him.
Lau’s nan is from the south of Italy and every time I go to her house I have to starve myself for at least two days before I go. She cooks a monster amount. We start with the antipasti, then the pasta, then the meat. It’s never-ending. All the veg she grows herself, and she spends hours preparing. I remember Lau telling me when we first met, ‘If you want to impress my nan, eat her food.’ The way she thinks is: if I eat well, then I will cook well for Lau. I learned very quickly to have a light breakfast and lay off the bread when I go to her house. It seems to work for me, and I can just about eat what is put in front of me. She puts on an amazing spread and I always do my best not to insult her by not eating the meal she has put so much love and time into.
Lau took me to an amazing restaurant on our first date in Bristol, but he couldn’t pick a decent wine to save his life as he doesn’t drink. But I was willing to let the wine-picking slide, as the food we had was very impressive.
Photography by Mark Nixon
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