Kitchen confidential: Peek inside Clodagh McKenna's restored three-storey 19th-century coach house
A magazine article like this is usually the closest we get to a celebrity's home.
On the printed page, we can peruse the decor, the style and the personal memorabilia of the celeb in question, but it would be lovely to feel the textures underfoot and touch the surfaces. Sadly, it rarely happens. Celebrity chef Clodagh McKenna is the exception.
She loves her new home in London so much that she has been hosting a series of suppers there, in her dining room. On chosen nights, she cooks a four-course meal for 14, using seasonal vegetables, foraged foods and showcasing her favourite Irish artisan produce. The fabulous foodie is delighted with the response so far. "I get to cook really intimately for people; they wander down to the kitchen to chat to me while I'm preparing the food and then they sit and enjoy the meal," she explains.
It's an apt move; Cork-born Clodagh has been in the food game for nearly 20 years and is considered one of the top Irish chefs both here and abroad and her love of dinner parties goes way back. "I had my first dinner party when I was 14, this would have been in the 1980s," Clodagh recalls with a giggle, "I had all my best girlfriends over and I remember the dessert because I didn't know what to do, so I went into Leonidas in Cork, got chocolates and did a chocolate thing - so yeah, I was entertaining at a young age."
Clodagh's passion for food itself goes back even further. As she has acknowledged before, she had several great mentors when she was young; one was her mother, who was an excellent cook. "Growing up, on Saturday mornings, my sisters and my mam did the Saturday bake. It was the late 1970s, early 1980s, in Cork. She'd make Victoria sponge, tea brack, rock buns and soda breads for the week. I couldn't understand why everybody didn't do it, I used to think 'Where do they get their bread and their cakes?'
I understand now it was for a lot of reasons, including financial. I still remember waking up on a Saturday as a kid, and the smell of cinnamon from the rock buns, and thinking we were so fancy! We were only living in a semi-d, but my mother made it great," the gorgeous blonde reminisces, adding, "We were all into food; my dad was a great cook. He cooked dinner for us so much when we were in our teens. Then, from the age of 12, I spent my summers in France and the mother was a stay-at-home mum and she used to let me cook. I learned so much from her, as well as from my parents."
After school, Clodagh studied business in New York before returning and doing the Ballymaloe cookery course. She then worked full-time in Ballymaloe for three years. She left to start farmers' markets, selling her own home-made pates. She then met an Italian foodie and she went to live in Turin, where she became immersed in the whole Slow Food movement.
On her return to Ireland, she started to write cookery books, then television came calling. With her skill set, gorgeous looks and engaging personality, she was a natural. So far, she has written five books and presented four TV series in Ireland. She became involved in several restaurants, but she has pared back and now confines her catering interests to just one restaurant - Clodagh's Kitchen in Arnotts - and events like her monthly workshops in Arnotts, her suppers, and various pop-ups. It's enough, given that she also makes appearances at events like the forthcoming Taste at Iveagh Gardens in Dublin, where she will be hosting cooking demos. "'I love coming to Taste of Dublin because it's a great way to sample everything that Dublin has to offer, and check out all the new restaurants. It's also a great opportunity to work alongside chefs I admire," she says.
She also spends one week a month in North America, where she's in big demand; she does a monthly supper in Brooklyn and cooks on the Today show, and on the prestigious Rachael Ray show. Her week there includes a trip to Canada to cook on The Marilyn Denis show. "My work and my life completely revolves around food and I have to keep developing new recipes. I have to come up with a daily special for the restaurant, that's 30 new dishes a month. I have to come up with five for the Today show and five for Rachael Ray. But it all works in a circle, all my recipes get archived and will form the basis of the book I'm working on," the vivacious Cork woman explains.
She was nicknamed 'Cookies' by her nieces, and it's apposite for a person who has to cook and bake and experiment so much with food. To create great food you have to taste a lot of it, and, given all that, the mystery is she is so lithe and slim. "I work very hard at it. I work out five days a week. I do Pilates and rhythm spinning. I like it, no, that's not true; some days, I hate it," she admits with a laugh, "I also eat really clean, I don't order McDonalds and pizza. I don't like them; I like natural food. It doesn't have to be packed with chia seeds, but it has to be real food. And if things taste good, you eat less, so I make a point of cooking great food."
She works in a high-pressure environment but she doesn't expect anyone to feel sorry for her. And she manages her stress levels well. "I'm good at switching off, and I always have been. I take two days off every week and I never work on those days. And I'm a big sleeper. I've never had a problem sleeping. I feel a bit of an arse admitting I get nine hours a night, but I do. It's great," she enthuses.
The cooking world is getting more competitive; to succeed, a person has to have a USP. "I guess what I am is authentic. In every industry, there's real and there's not so real. When I get up on a Monday, the first thing I do is bake my own bread. I'm a trained chef; I live and breathe everything I say. I'm so immersed in the food industry, it's my every thought and I just love it," she says.
Her recent move to London was prompted by the need to keep current and connected to the ever-changing world of food. "I'm a little bit of a people-watcher, in that I like living in different places. I've lived in New York, Italy, west Cork, Dublin and now London. I love the food scene in London, all the new trends start here; it's so inspiring. I'd a lot of friends here, I'd go back and forth for work, so I decided that if I found the right place I'd move," she notes.
She went to estate agents and couldn't find anything. She then decided to walk the streets of North London, came upon Highbury Fields, and just loved the area. To Clodagh it was great without being too trendy. "I thought, 'If I'm going to live in London, this is where I want to be'," she says. "So I went to an estate agent and asked if he had anything in the area. He had one house. Then he said, 'I'm going to give you a warning - if you see it, you'll want to take it'. And he was right," she notes.
Dating from the late 19th or early 20th Century, it is a genuine coach house. Tall and narrow and spread over three storeys, it has a kitchen and walk-in pantry, two bedrooms, and two bathrooms, but it was basic. That quality appealed to Clodagh. "I wanted somewhere I could call my studio, somewhere I could be creative and cook and set up as a workspace," she explains.
"It needed a lot of work, but I could see a great shell. It has its original fireplace, lovely wooden windows and all the windows upstairs open onto balconies with great views of the fields. And it has a garden," she raves. She was also attracted to some of the quirkier aspects of the house - the indoor/outdoor shower and the bath hidden behind shutters.
It was all a bit run-down, but that only galvanised Clodagh even more. "I'm a good homemaker, and I enjoy putting my stamp on a place," she says. This involved setting up a proper kitchen, painting all the walls of the house herself and getting all the furniture for the house. "Every month I concentrated on different things, until finally it was ready," she says.
And she has turned it into something special. It looks effortless - a scrubbed table set with wild flowers; a chaise longue perched in such a way as to make the views accessible; menus hung up with wooden pegs; jars filled with rosemary; log baskets filled with illegal turf - "I go to see my parents and my dog Chaplin every two weeks in Kerry, where they live now, and I smuggle the turf back in my case," - but it all adds up to a picture of great charm. Just like Clodagh herself.
Clodagh McKenna will be appearing at Taste of Dublin, which returns to the Iveagh Gardens from Thursday, June 15 to Sunday, June 18. Tickets from €15, available now at tasteofdublin.ie.
See also clodaghmckenna.com
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Dora Kazmierak
Sunday Indo Life Magazine