My Favourite room: Lady Gaga and an Aga
A certain pop diva insisted that Nikki Walsh drop her chosen business name, but that glitch hasn't stopped this Aga ambassador blazing a successful trail in the cookery world. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
Starting a business is only part of the battle in getting yourself established as a successful entrepreneur; finding the right name is also crucial. Nikki Walsh was positively smug with delight at her choice of company name – it was so perfect – only for it all to come crashing down around her, thanks to a certain superstar.
Nikki started a cookery business last year and, because it's based around her trusty Aga cooker, she came up with what she thought was a brilliant name – Lady Aga. Sadly, no sooner had she registered the domain name on the web than a pop diva went ballistic.
According to a letter sent by her lawyers, Lady Gaga wasn't at all happy. "She demanded that I hand over my www.ladyaga.ie domain name and trademark. I was so terrified, I did exactly what she said. It would have been bonkers to take her on," Nikki explains, as she recalls the sequence of events.
The woman, who has earned millions to date, wasn't happy about a small-time mother-of-two jumping on what she saw as her bandwagon, so Nikki complied and changed the name – this time to Lady Eve – which is her eight-year-old daughter's name. As it happens, Evie, as she's called, loves to cook. And there's an added significance to the name Eve.
"It also plays on Eve and the apple, and the Lord Byron quote: 'Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner'," Nikki says with a laugh.
Names are a bit of a thing with Nikki's family, who have been cooking up elixirs of a different variety for generations – they were pharmacists. "We were Walsh with an 'e', but my grandfather was opening a pharmacy in Roscrea, in Tipperary, and was putting up signage, and he got a price for Walsh with no 'e'. He decided the extra letter wasn't worth the expense and he opted to give up the 'e' in our name," she explains.
Nikki's father was also a pharmacist, and her sister went into the business, too, but pharmacy didn't really interest Nikki. She became passionate about food from an early age and, even while at school in Holy Child in Killiney, she won cookery awards for her dishes. "I was always helping my mum. She's an amazing cook and she understands food, as does my aunt," Nikki says. "My grandmother was the same. They were all passionate about quality, and local produce. You went to the shop, you saw what was available and then you decided what to cook. It makes you more creative."
When Nikki finished school, she first did a bilingual secretarial course and then opted to do the famous Ballymaloe course which, she says, changed her life.
"I adored my time in Ballymaloe and, when I finished the course, I worked for about a year in the restaurant there, and in the cafe run by Ballymaloe in the Crawford Art Gallery," Nikki says. When she came back from east Cork, it looked as if the food business would become her career for life. She decided to open her own catering company, but it was too soon. "I was too young and completely scatty. I decided 'Ah, here, I'm not ready for this', so I took myself off to France for six months to study French," she explains.
And so life veered away from cooking, catering and food. When she came back to Dublin, her father had a temporary vacancy in the pharmacy while one of the staff was on maternity leave, and Nikki took the job. "I went in for three months and stayed 17 years. I got sucked in," she explains, adding that, when her father retired in 2005, she and her sister went into business with Unipharm, but it didn't work out, and she left in 2011.
"I didn't have the passion for it. My heart wasn't in it," she says.
However, she realised she'd have to find something to earn a living – in the intervening years she had married, had two children – as well as Evie, she has a 10-year-old son, James – and, subsequently, separated, which meant that she had responsibilities and needed to finance them. So cooking re-entered her game plan.
Her initial idea was to cater for dinner parties – which went well, though it was exhausting work. Then she decided to develop ready-prepared meals, and had even found a well-known food company to work with, when the Lady Gaga debacle hit her and the deal with the food company fell apart.
She'd spent nine months researching the recipes for the five dishes she was going to sell under her brand, she had worked on packaging, logos, distribution, and so on, and, suddenly, it seemed all for naught – Nikki didn't think she had the energy for anything else. "Then a friend of mine asked if I'd do a cookery demonstration – Entertaining in Recessionary Times – for the Communion-class mums. She said it to me three times. I didn't think I'd have the patience, but I did the demonstration for 25 to 30 mums and I realised I had a passion for teaching. I had people in the palm of my hand. It's so rewarding, it's phenomenal," Nikki says. The menu she demonstrated – mushroom and walnut salad, Thai red curry, almond meringues with raspberries and rich chocolate cake – was a wow, and she couldn't wait to start doing more demonstrations, which she does in her own kitchen.
"I push everything back; everyone has a glass of wine. It's very social, very interactive and they all leave at least having had a good time," Nikki explains.
The kitchen wasn't exactly built for demonstrations or accommodating big numbers, but it's large and airy, and it works well. It's a recent addition to her home – a terraced, red-bricked, three-bedroom period house dating from 1860.
"It actually belonged to my parents, who used to rent it out. They sold it to me in 2000 when I was single," Nikki explains. "I really only did a proper job on it three years ago." The 'proper job', which included the kitchen, was overseen by Studio Red Architects. "Nicola Ryan and Grainne Dunne; they were amazing," Nikki says. "I said to them, 'I want clean lines, but I want an eclectic feel.' They knocked out a kitchen wall and only went out two-and-a-half feet, yet it makes such a difference. And they did do a great job with the extension, but also in their maximisation of light."
As well as the expanded kitchen, she got a fourth bedroom, but kept the layout of the house very much as it was, with its high-ceilinged hallway and interconnecting reception rooms. These are all decorated in grey, and furnished with antique pieces – some from auctions and markets, some from Nikki's family home. In the kitchen, the old leather sofa is from her parents' house.
The units were built by a cabinet maker called Andy Spillane from Thurles. "I love this English company, who do old-style kitchens, but they're frightfully expensive. Andy was able to do something similar, and I love what he did," Nikki says.
The features include a Sheila Maid for drying clothes and, of course, in pride of place – her Aga. "My grandmother had one, my mother had one. It was, like, when I get my Aga, I'll get my house then," Nikki adds.
And Lady Gaga did Lady Aga at least one favour. The rumpus resulted in the Aga people making Nikki an ambassador for the brand and she does regular Aga demonstrations for them.
And, who knows – Lady G might drop in some time. She's been known to wear meat. She might want it cooked.
- For a full programme of courses and demonstrations run by Nikki Walsh, see www.ladyeve.ie