Most people have their midlife crisis a little later in life than Arun Kapil, the Anglo-Indian ball of energy who came to Ballymaloe Cookery School in his mid-30s for a three-month stint. And what most people crave mid-crisis is excitement, or success, or fame and fortune.
Nobody could say that Arun's colourful pre-Ballymaloe life had lacked any of those things. This is a fella whose first pay cheque came from the BBC (aged 11, whilst touring with the National Musical Youth Theatre) but who had shown his entrepreneurial colours as an eight-year-old, selling to school mates the rock buns his mum had taught him to bake.
By 18, Arun was serving the likes of Michael Jackson and Terence Trent Darby in Ronnie Woods' and Robert Earl's Cajun Creole restaurant in London's Sloane Street. At the grand old age of 19, he went from organising underground raves to establishing his own record label to take DJs out of the fields and warehouse and into the studio. He launched what was the first ever DJ compilation album in Ibiza's Ministry of Sound, then the hottest club in the world.
For 15 years, he worked hard and partied harder, hobnobbing with everyone from Tony Wilson to Marco Pierre White.
Looking back now, he says that while he was "fortunate enough to be very successful," that fortune began to turn against who he had been brought up to be. "You fall in with the right people, you fall in with the wrong people. I found myself involved in things I didn't necessarily want to be involved in. It was pure bread-head days."
Finding himself surrounded by what he describes delicately as "very tough business people… tough in many ways", Arun realised that something had to give. "I knew that if I was ever going to cop myself on, I was going to have to really shake up my life." So he got out, signing a contract to say that he wouldn't work in the music industry for at least two years. "My life had become so complicated," he says. "I wanted reality."
Within six months, he found himself at Ballymaloe Cookery School, "picking herbs at 6am, milking cows, scrubbing floors" and honing the cooking skills learnt as a child from his Yorkshire mum and Hindustani dad.
When a local lass called Olive said to him one evening in Ballycotton, "You know what you need in your life Arun? You need simplicity", she hit the nail on the head.
Leaving behind the excitement, success, fame and fortune of his London life, Arun's early midlife crisis - or his "road to redemption", as he likes to call it - had brought him to Ireland in search of a fresh perspective on life, one that had space for simplicity and for authenticity.
'Fresh, simple, authentic' have since become the bywords for Green Saffron, the business he runs today with his now-wife Olive. "I decided back then, anything I do this time has to be done correctly, with honour and with integrity." As his former life suggests, Arun doesn't do things by halves. He also has had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He found himself working for Myrtle Allen in the kitchens of Ballymaloe House - indeed, she was his first ever full-time employer. "Mrs A took me under her wing," even lending him her precious Elizabeth David book.
When the summer season finished, he worked for her through the winter, helping to compile her then annually published booklet, Local Producers of Good Food in Cork. Pretty quickly, Arun found himself at the heart of Cork's - and in turn, Ireland's - flourishing artisan food scene.
When invited to take a stall at the newly established Mahon Point Farmers' Market, his inner entrepreneur re-awakened. "I had been missing the spices I had grown up with" so he made a few calls and located a willing cousin in India to source the very best he could find. "I can't trade on commodity level so I compete on flavour instead, by buying the highest grade possible."
Armed with some carefully tweaked Kapil family recipes, a spice grinder, a teaspoon for measuring and "a green and red shiny pen" for Olive to work her magic with the labels, he began to sell sachets of spice blends.
"And as it's Ireland, people started to talk to their mother and their brothers and their aunties and their cousins, and say, 'there's this funny guy in a pink skirt down at the Mahon Point market talking like Del Boy across the stall, you should go and see him because his little sachets seem to have something'."
Fast forward 10 years and those 'little sachets' are now sold widely across Ireland and the UK and, as of this year, in France's Monoprix as well as the Nordics - and the Green Saffron range now includes sauces, chutneys and aged basmati.
Last year saw Arun publish the gorgeously eclectic Fresh Spice, described by curry queen Madhur Jaffrey as a cookbook that "sparkles with delightful international recipes and a knowledgeable, enthusiastic use of seasonings". Next year will see him starring in his very own RTÉ cookery show, which is all about "spices for the everyday cook".
Today a teetotaller, Arun has become a man on a mission: to convince Ireland and the world to take spices out of ethnic cooking and into the realm of seasoning "to add clarity so that taste sparkles on your plate".
And next weekend, at the third annual Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine, he will be sharing his expertise for all things spice and his entrepreneurial experiences in the very place where his personal road to redemption began. If only all midlife crises could yield such deliciously rewarding results.
The Spice of Life with Arun Kapil takes place on Sunday May 17, 11.30am as part of the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Litfest 2015. Arun will also join the 'So you want to start a food business?' Banter with Jim Carroll on Sun May 17, 1.0pm. To book, see litfest.ie
My dad often used to make us fried potato cakes. They're a staple of any street-food vendor in northern India and a must-have whenever you're walking around the streets of Old Delhi in winter. This is my version - simple, effective and totally delicious. If you have a splash guard, then I'd recommend using it here, because the tomato sauce really spits. A bit messy, I grant you, but essential for the finished dish, so don't be tempted to turn down the heat - but do be careful not to burn it.
Makes 8 patties
You will need
500g (1lb 2 oz) floury potatoes, such as Maris Piper, peeled
3-4 tbsp sunflower oil
150g (5½oz) onion, diced
30g (1oz) fresh ginger, finely grated
2 green chillies, deseeded and finely chopped (use less if you don't want it too hot)
3 tsp Garam Masala blend
1 tsp powdered turmeric
2 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp sea salt
1 handful mint leaves, torn or chopped
1 small handful coriander leaves, chopped
For the sizzled tomatoes
3 tbsp olive oil, plus a little extra
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
400g (14oz) tin whole plum tomatoes, drained
1 pinch finely ground black pepper
Put the potatoes in a saucepan and cover generously with water. Bring to the boil and boil for 20 minutes or until tender. Drain and lightly mash. Set aside.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a heavy-based frying pan or sauté pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and fry gently for 3 minutes, then add the ginger and continue cooking until the onion is soft.
Add the chillies, the Garam Masala, turmeric, mustard seeds and salt. Stir and cook for 2 minutes more, then turn off the heat, set aside and allow to cool to tepid.
Add the herbs and mashed potato and mix thoroughly. Divide the potato mix into eight mounds, then form them into evenly sized balls. Add a little more oil to the frying pan over a medium heat. When hot, add three or four balls. Gently press them down into flat but chunky patties and cook for about 10 minutes until light brown on each side. Repeat until you've cooked all the potato fritters. Serve immediately with Sizzled Tomatoes which you make by putting a large saucepan over a medium-low heat. Add the olive oil and garlic slices and cook for a few minutes to soften without browning. Add the tomatoes, pepper and salt to taste, then turn up the heat and cook fiercely, stirring to make sure it doesn't burn.
The tomatoes will release all of their juices. When all the thin liquid has evaporated, add a splash more olive oil, adjust the seasoning and serve hot.
Here I take paella back to its roots, add a spice or two and cook a dish that recalls the land workers of the Albufera, the true home of paella. More than 1000 years ago, the Moors first cultivated rice in this Mediterranean Spanish region, and the famous Spanish dish arose from there. There's no 'official' recipe, but rice is the star ingredient, so if you can find them, use one of the three main Valencian varieties: Bahía, Senia or Bomba. The starch content ('white pearl') is what it's all about: the rice shouldn't be fluffy, but must have a bit of bite while soaking up the glorious cooking juices. Túnel is a Mallorcan herb liqueur with hints of anise and juniper - use pastis if you can't find it. Butter beans are part of a traditional paella: you need to soak them overnight before putting this dish together.
You will need
150g (5½oz) dried butter beans, lima beans or garrafón beans
12-15 saffron threads
6 chicken thighs, bone-in, trimmed of excess skin, chopped in half across the bone
1 wild rabbit, portioned into small cuts; ask your butcher (optional, but worth it)
3 tsp coarse sea salt
250g (9oz) large flat green beans (ideally flat runner beans; if not, use mangetout)
Several splashes olive oil
4 garlic cloves, lightly crushed
2 large onions, chopped
2 green peppers, quartered, deseeded and diced
2 small thyme sprigs, leaves only
1 fresh red finger chilli, deseeded and roughly diced
400g (14oz) tin chopped tomatoes, or in summer, use the ripest plum tomatoes and coarsely grate them
1 rosemary sprig, about 7.5cm (3in), leaves only
200g (7oz) paella rice
150g (5½oz) live mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
150g (5½oz) live clams or cockles, scrubbed
12 raw large tiger prawns, shell on, deveined
Zest of ½ lemon
3 lemons, halved, to garnish
For the spice blend
2 tsp black peppercorns
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 star anise
2 tsp sweet Spanish pimentón paprika
1 tsp powdered turmeric
2 tsp dried chilli flakes
For the reduction
4 tbsp white wine vinegar
100ml (3½fl oz) Túnel de Mallorca (or a French pastis)
Soak the dried butter beans overnight in 500ml (18fl oz) cold water. The next day, drain and set aside. Soak the saffron threads in 4 tablespoons warm water.
To make the spice blend, finely grind the peppercorns, cumin and coriander seeds and star anise using a mortar and pestle, then add the paprika, turmeric and chilli flakes. Set aside.
Lay out the chicken and rabbit pieces, if using, and sprinkle with the salt, then massage it briefly into the meat. Put the green beans in a saucepan of boiling water and boil for 1 minute to blanch them, then refresh in a bowl of ice-cold water, drain, slice and set aside.
Put a 46cm (18in) diameter deep frying pan (better still, a paella pan) over a medium heat, add 2 large splashes of oil, then add the chicken thighs, scraping all the salt into the pan, and fry for 3-4 minutes until lightly browned, turning them over as they cook. Add the garlic, onions, green peppers and thyme and toss or stir it all around. Add the rabbit pieces and another splash of olive oil and continue to fry for another 5 minutes.
When the meat is a nutty-brown colour, add the chilli, stir, then add the tomatoes, green beans and soaked butter beans. Turn down the heat a little and cook for another 8-10 minutes.
Next, add the spice blend and stir, then pour in 1 litre (1¬ pints) warm water, add the rosemary and finally add the saffron and its soaking water. Turn up the heat to high, bring to a strong, rolling bubble, then gently pour in the rice. Jiggle and shake the pan to distribute things evenly and cook for 1 minute. Lower the heat to medium, stir gently to combine the ingredients, then leave to bubble gently for 25-35 minutes. Meanwhile, to make the reduction, put the white wine vinegar and the Túnel or pastis in a small non-stick saucepan and stir over a medium-high heat until reduced to the consistency of runny honey. Set aside.
Discard any mussels or clams that do not close when the shell is tapped. When the rice is nearly cooked, add the prawns, mussels and clams. Cover and cook gently for 3-5 minutes until the seafood is just cooked and the rice is soft but still with a little bite. Discard any mussels or clams that remain closed. Turn off the heat and sprinkle with the lemon zest. Take the paella to the table, put it on a trivet and cover with a clean tea towel to rest for 3-4 minutes. Remove the tea towel, drizzle the Túnel reduction over the rice, and serve on warmed plates with lemon halves and finger bowls at the ready.
There are so many types of black pudding, from the almost solid, meaty ones with a very piggy flavour, through the cereal-flecked ones to the delicate, almost mousse-like versions. All are perfect for this recipe.
You will need
For the dressing
1 tsp caraway seeds
½ tsp fennel seeds
½ tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp English mustard powder
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
100ml (3½fl oz) light olive oil
1 tsp sea salt
3 tbsp boiling water
For the croûtons
1 tsp caraway seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
4 thin slices sourdough bread
A splash fruity olive oil
1 garlic clove, halved
1-2 pinches sea salt
For the salad
1-2 splashes light olive oil
300-400g (10½-14oz) black pudding, sliced on the diagonal
1 head each white chicory, red chicory and radicchio, leaves separated
200g (7oz) watercress
A splash black truffle oil
8 quail eggs
1 pinch sea salt
8 pickled walnuts, sliced into rounds, ends discarded
Finely grind the spices for the dressing using a mortar and pestle. Put all the dressing ingredients into a clean screwtop jar, pouring in the boiling water last, then shake well and set aside. Finely grind the spices for the croûtons and set aside. Drizzle the sourdough slices with a good glug of olive oil, pop them under a hot grill and toast until the edges char. Allow them to cool slightly, then rub with the cut side of the garlic clove and sprinkle with the spices and sea salt. Cut each slice in half lengthways to make dramatic, long triangular 'soldiers'. Set aside on a wire rack.
For the salad, heat a small splash of oil in a non-stick frying pan over a medium heat, then add the black pudding. Fry on one side for a few minutes until crisp, then turn over with a spatula and fry the other side. Remove from the pan and set aside to keep warm. Wipe the pan clean with kitchen paper. Put the chicory, radicchio and watercress into a large bowl. Shake the dressing jar, add 2 tablespoons to the bowl and, using your hands, gently mix the leaves, adding a little more dressing if you like. Set aside. Pour another slug of olive oil and a generous splash of black truffle oil into the wiped frying pan. Break the eggs into it and put over a medium-low heat. Gently fry for 2 minutes until the whites are just set, sprinkle with sea salt, then spoon some of the oil over the eggs. Take off the heat. Working fairly quickly, warm the croûtons under the grill, then carefully scatter the dressed leaves over a large serving plate. Remove the croûtons from the heat and pop an egg onto each. Put these, and the pudding slices, among the leaves, scatter the pickled walnuts on top and, finally, drizzle with a little more of the dressing. Serve immediately.