Rachel's sweet stuff
Photography by Maja Smend
Rachel Allen is enjoying a lull in activity when she speaks to me from her home in east Cork. It's not that she's taking a break per se, but that the lull has been imposed by her eight-year-old daughter, Scarlett, who's feeling a bit ill. Nothing serious, but enough to want her mummy, so here is Rachel, not exactly idle, given she's conducting this interview, but everything's relative.
For Rachel Allen, this is a lull in activity.
While we speak, her husband Isaac heads off to pick vegetables to be served up that night in Rachel's, the restaurant they opened in March on Cork's Washington Street. Rachel feels a little guilty that domestic duties might keep her from turning up at the restaurant at all that day and night, but what can she do? She can only do so much. Even Rachel Allen can only do so much.
"I sometimes wonder when the foot might come off the pedal," she laughs, this woman with fingers, almost literally, in so many pies, "but then I take on something else and make that even less likely to happen."
We're talking in advance of the publication of Rachel's latest book, Home Baking, a collection of sweet and savoury treats. Rachel has an annual cycle, at this stage, of publishing a book almost every year at this time of year, usually having filmed an accompanying TV show before its publication. This year has been slightly different, though. She hasn't yet filmed anything for this book, and spent the summer filming a documentary about rice that took her to Japan for the BBC; and, for Channel 4, the cookery game show My Kitchen Rules, and a programme about Northern Irish food.
Oh, and she continues to be a key part of the teaching team in the Ballymaloe Cookery School, not forgetting her restaurant - the aforementioned Rachel's.
Rachel's, she admits, has been an extraordinary experience so far, utterly unlike anything she has ever done before. "It's a funny one," she says. "With a book, once you put it out, that's it. There might be a typo, but you can change that in the next print run and everything's fine. Or you make a meal or teach a class or film a programme - once you do it, it's done. You put it out there and that's that.
"With a restaurant," she explains, "you're only as good as your last meal, and it's relentless. It's like doing a matinee and an evening show every single day. I had no idea how tough it would be."
Putting her name above the restaurant door remains another thing that Rachel hasn't quite got used to. You might think, given she has years of putting her face and name on things, that it would come easily, but it doesn't. "I'm still not sure," she says, a cringe noticeable in her voice. "Sometimes I wish it wasn't quite my name over the door."
Aside from the food - and the cool, Nordic-inspired decor - the key feature of Rachel's is that Rachel herself is there. She was slightly surprised, she says, that this came as a shock to customers, but she thinks that it's something that works. "I love meeting people and saying hello, and I really want to see that they're happy because they're coming in and spending their precious money," she says, "so that's important."
Reviews have been mostly good, but some mixed reviews have stung, though that won't stop Rachel reading them. "And mostly we've read them and thought, 'Yeah, OK, we could fix that'," Rachel says, adding that she's just about managing to resist reading online forums in the middle of the night. "With a restaurant, I've discovered that everyone has an opinion, and while some of those are fair enough, there are people who are just mean for the sake of being mean. I try not to indulge those."
Maybe it shouldn't be surprising that Rachel has been taken aback by how personally exposing it is to be a restaurateur, but it is a surprise. After all, she has enjoyed a huge public profile for a long time, and not just here but abroad, too. Since the opening of Rachel's in March, however, she has felt more laid-bare than ever before, and that is only now starting to sit easily with her.
Also, it's only now as her three children - Joshua (16), Lucca (15), and Scarlett (eight) - go back to school that Rachel believes she is settling in to her new reality as teacher, cook, author, TV personality and restaurateur. It's a lot on her plate, but as she talks about the new book, her enthusiasm for food is as undimmed as ever.
"I never felt that I'd finished with baking with my book Cake," Rachel explains. "There were always a few more there that I wanted to get out. And this book isn't just about sweet things, it has savoury baking too."
While she says she's not particularly sweet-toothed, favouring salty food more as time passes, she loves preparing sweet things for others. It's a nurturing urge, she reckons, and it's also something she's always enjoyed doing with her children. She feels strongly, too, that sweet things have taken a bad rap in recent years with the whole clean-eating trend. Obviously, she says, when people have actual allergies and health issues, of course they should avoid their triggers, but Rachel believes that the trend of ad-hoc elimination is worrying.
"I think people are being slightly misguided," she says. "I have definite and clear views on how I don't think it's right that, particularly, impressionable teenagers are bombarded with advice on giving up whole food groups. And the whole thing about sugar is very tricky.
"Of course we should all eat less sugar, and that's a very real problem, but people talk about replacing regular sugar with coconut sugar or some other form, but it's still sugar. It's not necessarily healthier. It's sexy right now, but really it's quite shocking how people have been convinced that if they give up refined sugar or wheat or dairy that they will become healthier."
Rachel's love of butter and dairy is to be seen in all of her cookbooks and, she says, she practices what she preaches. Like all cooks, she has a tendency to pick at whatever is being prepared and, as summer recedes in our memories, Rachel, like a lot of us, is being a little better behaved in terms of her diet and exercise.
"I love getting back to the routine of autumn and making lists and feeling productive again," she says, "and I know I need to up the exercise this autumn." She used to do a good bit of running, but running on the country roads was taking its toll on her joints, so she limits herself to the odd run on the beach now and some weight training. "Anyway," she says with a laugh, "I believe that too much of any one thing isn't good for you."
Now that's something Rachel Allen most certainly preaches, ever stretching further, ever reaching for the next challenge. And enjoying it to boot. Even the lulls, with an ill little girl by your side, are to be cherished.
Rachel Allen's 'Home Baking', published by HarperCollins, will be in shops on October 5