Tuesday 18 June 2019

'I could be in Donegal or the Cotswolds or Rome' - Irish woman (36) who cooks for rich families on their holidays is living the dream

Caitriona Bolger (36) is a freelance private cook. She grew up on a tillage farm in Co Laois. She used to be an air steward for Emirates. When she is not away cooking for people on their holidays, she lives in Laois


I sleep with the curtains open, and I wake up with the sun. If it's the summer, I'm awake before the alarm at 6am. I love it, because it's the only time of the day that is still. There is no one around. You can sit outside and have a cup of coffee. I look at the sun rising, that lovely blush pink.

I'm a freelance private cook. I go to someone's holiday home and cook for them. I could be in Derrynane, Donegal or the Cotswolds. I might be in the south of France or Italy. For one job, I was just outside Rome. It was nice to have this quiet time before the Italians came out - the rowdiness of them! They are crazy, but you get into it. You get as rowdy as them.

This summer, I was in Corfu. In the mornings, I'd look out at the Ionian Sea. It was so still, it looked like glass. What a great way to begin my day.

These jobs all started when I heard about a family who were coming from London to Ireland on their holidays. They were looking for a cook. Cooking was always my hobby, and I thought it'd be idyllic to go away and hide from the world for three months to do my hobby.

I cook healthy, family-style food. But really, I do what the family ask me to do. They say: 'What sort of food do you cook?' and I ask them, 'Well, what sort of food do you like? And is there anything that you don't like?' Then we take it from there.

I've been cooking all my life, and I also did a cookery course in the Dublin Cookery School. Now I get work through word of mouth. The families often invite their friends and relations to their holiday homes, and they enjoy my food, too. Then I end up working for them.

In the mornings, I get all the breakfasts ready. I start squeezing the oranges for orange juice and chop up the fruit for fruit platters, and I'll have the granola made up already. I'll always offer to cook rashers and eggs. It's nice to offer, and that way, you get off to the right start with the family. They are on their holidays, so you want to add as much value as you can. I am my product.

Sometimes they ask me to bake Irish soda bread. It can be tricky when you are away in these warmer countries, because they don't have buttermilk or wholemeal flour. But you make do. I brought brown flaxseed with me, and I used that instead. It worked out very well, and the family lapped up the bread.

In some families, the women have no interest in cooking, while others will tell me that they have an Aga at home. But most men love bread. They always say, 'Show me how you make that bread.'

Sometimes the kids want to help out in the kitchen and get a little cookery lesson. They are very welcome. I give them a wooden spoon and tell them to start stirring. A mother might tell me that her son won't eat rice or vegetables, but the kids will eat stuff for me. It's the novelty of someone different showing them food. The good thing is that the kids are eating in their holiday home, their own environment, and it's much more relaxed than a restaurant.

By 8.45am, I'm looking at my watch. I have to be gone by 9am. The markets are open, and you have to be there early to get the best produce. There is usually a car available, even some banger, and I get into that.

I go to the fish stall first. You have to watch the market stallholders like a hawk. They know that the yacht crews have buckets of money, so when they see them coming, in their usual yacht-crew gear, they up the prices. I stand around and take it all in. I'm just in my shorts and T-shirt, so they think I'm a tourist. Then I get a lower price.

Generally, you buy the whole fish and fillet it at home. It's a skill I learnt, and I'm glad to keep it up. Then I head off to the other stalls to buy cherries or oranges or olive oil. There is no such thing as buying things in plastic containers. Everything is in paper bags, and I bring my own bags, too.

I'm back in the kitchen by 11am, marinating the meat and filleting the fish. Sometime during the morning, I'll have fresh, warm bread and some warm tomato with olive oil and a bit of salt on top. That's my favourite part of the day.

The family might ask for lunch at 2pm. When that's over, I usually head off for a swim. Then, in the late afternoon, I start preparing for that night's dinner. I grew up on a tillage farm in Laois, so I'm not afraid of hard work. A lot of my clients are wealthy people - city types from London, with busy lives - but my sense of budgeting is very different from theirs. I don't waste anything, and I'm very careful. I can make lovely pasta dinners out of Parmesan rinds. People realise that I'm very economical. When they ask me if I need any more money for the budget, I tell them, 'It's grand'. Some come from a business background, so they notice these things. They wouldn't be long in sussing out if someone was taking advantage of them.

After dinner is over, I might head down to the nearest village for a drink. I have great notions of going to bed at 10pm, but it always ends up being midnight. I text friends and family at home.

My job is seasonal and there can be lulls. I'd love to have some steady work. When I'm not away cooking for a family, I work on my website. I like to be busy.

I always wanted to work for myself. I'm full of energy, and people have told me that I'm too much of a perfectionist. I just think, 'Why not?'

We are only here for a short time, so make the most of it.


In conversation with Ciara Dwyer

To book Caitriona as a private cook, contact her through her website

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