Sunday 17 November 2019

Something cooking in the kitchen

Claire Beasley is the right-hand woman of chef Neven Maguire - and it's a job she loves, writes Liadan Hynes

"My motto is to never say 'no'," says Claire Beasley. Photo: Mark Condren
Chef Neven Maguire

Liadan Hynes

It was almost love at first sight when Claire Beasley began working in Neven Maguire's kitchen. Not with Neven (though she does speak in glowing terms about her employer), but with her new colleague - pastry chef, and now her husband, Stephen McFarland.

Neven's right-hand woman, Claire first got to know the food entrepreneur when the pair worked together on demonstrations in her native Cork. Claire grew up in West Cork; her mother Mary was a nurse, father Barney a secondary school teacher; she has two younger sisters, Jennifer and Gillian.

When Neven came to Cork for live demonstrations, Claire, who has a degree in multimedia from Cork IT, would work on camera and sound.

When Neven opened his cooking school at MacNean House in Co Cavan, he rang Claire and asked her to come and work for him.

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Chef Neven Maguire
Chef Neven Maguire

"I vividly remember it," Claire says. "He was just after doing a demonstration in Cork and he said he wanted somebody to come up and work in the cookery school, and help out."

Even though she had no professional training in cooking, Claire, whose motto is 'to never say no', accepted immediately. What she knew then she had learned from watching her mother and her grandmother cook and bake while she was growing up, and from studying home economics in school.

"I was less adventurous then, but I would always get up and make something when I was hungry rather than ask my mother what was there to eat," she recalls, adding: "I'm up for trying anything. Neven and I had clicked when we were doing the shows."

Claire, 29, has worked with Neven for almost eight years. She describes herself as self-taught, having observed, and jumped in to help, in all areas of the kitchen. Pastry is her first love, happily, as this is her husband's area of expertise.

To begin with, she was working mostly in the cookery school: prepping ingredients, cleaning up, getting things ready for the students. "I was a little nervous, because you don't know what to expect."

Neven, who is well known for his warmth, put her at her ease with his constant encouragement.

"Neven is genuine, he's down to earth, friendly. We got on great; I could nearly say he was a friend from before I started working."

Inevitably, Neven asked her would she go into the kitchen in the restaurant.

"Never say no," Claire says. And it's lucky she didn't, because it was here that she met Stephen.

The first thing she made was a brownie, under the supervision of her future husband. "He made the recipe," she explains with a smile. "Little did I know it was the first recipe of a lifetime."

After the couple began dating, Stephen was offered a job opening Gordon Ramsay's new Dubai restaurant. They felt it was an opportunity he couldn't turn down.

"That was, I wouldn't say a hurdle, but it was a bump in the way of our relationship," Claire reflects. "I said 'do whatever you want'. Stephen loves Dubai; we both love going out there on holidays. We finished our honeymoon there, we got engaged there. I said to him 'this is not an opportunity you can miss. Go and try it; you can always come home'."

Stephen went, but soon realised the move was not the right one.

"He went out, but thought 'if we're meant to be together, then I need to come home'," Claire explains.

He did, surprising their family by returning at Christmas time. He is now back in the kitchen at MacNean House working with his wife, and Carmel McGirr, the long-term head chef.

Working with your husband is not a problem, Claire says. The couple, who are living with Stephen's parents while they save for a house of their own, keep work and home separate. Mondays and Tuesdays are their weekend, and they love to travel, even for one night on their weekly break.

Claire's description of Neven's kitchen belies the usual high-tension atmosphere one associates with a top restaurant.

"It's a very family atmosphere," she says. "Neven drives you; it's encouragement the whole way. He's very trusting, and there's an interest there; he believes in all of his staff.

"There's this perception that it is very stressful working in a kitchen; our kitchen is very calm. There's no shouting, no roaring, everyone is one team and we just get on with it."

Claire herself is not in the kitchen full-time; she works with Neven on shoots for all his TV shows and books, as well as live demos, explaining that she is what's called the home economist. Every day is different.

When they travel, it is Claire's responsibility to ensure that anything they might possibly require is packed, and safely transported. It sounds potentially quite stressful, but nothing seems to phase Claire at all.

"You just get on with it," she says with a smile, confirming that nothing really stresses her out and that she has always been like this.

"Not saying no would be a big thing for me. If you're not confident, ask," she says.

"That's how I got where I am, because for want of a better word I was never in the professional catering side of it.

I've come up through the ranks, jumping in and out of everything, to give them all a hand. One team, one dream."

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