First Encounters: Rachel and Isaac Allen

Rachel and Isaac Allen in conversation with Frances O’Rourke


RACHEL ALLEN trained and then taught at the Ballymaloe Cookery School before making her first TV cookery programme for RTÉ 10 years ago. Since then she has written 11 cook books and recently launched a range of cakes under the Rachel Allen brand. She and her husband Isaac Allen live in Shanagarry, Co Cork, with their three children

I do remember very, very clearly when I first met Isaac. It was when I went down to Ballymaloe in October 1989, two months before doing the cookery course there. I got the train down from Dublin; Isaac’s cousin picked me up from the station, and brought me to Ballymaloe House. He was showing me around and introduced me to Isaac. I was immediately intrigued: I was 17 and so was he, but he seemed very worldly and he was – he’d packed his bags when he was 16, left school, gone travelling. I was attracted to him from the second I saw him: he’s very good-looking. Later that evening a bunch of us were all in the local pub; Isaac and I got chatting, there was definitely chemistry between us. The next thing, an American girl walked in, sat beside him and placed a proprietary hand on his leg. I immediately thought, okay, but I was disappointed.

I had a boyfriend at the time, but he’d just gone to sail across the Atlantic, and that’s exactly what Isaac was going to do. He wasn’t due back ’til the end of April and my cookery course ended in March. I was sitting in one of Darina’s demonstrations when she was called to the phone. She came back in and said “I’ve got really exciting news, my son’s coming back from his travels early.” I remember I just squealed from the back of the class.

When Isaac came back we got together very quickly, by then we were both single. Then I couldn’t believe it – he went off to Paris! I stayed in Ballymaloe to work. He thinks it was for him, but it wasn’t really. I was just out of school, having a great time, loving the cooking, loving the fun.

And then he came back home: I think I knew this was serious and was a little scared; he says I took a while to be really convinced. We were so young, just 18. We got married in 1998.

He seemed very unusual, that’s really what attracted me. Living in the countryside in an extended family group wasn’t something I’d thought was in my future. But I did, and still do, love the ethos at Ballymaloe and it’s lovely for our children to have all their cousins around them. The past 10 years have been hectic: sometimes I feel it’s too crazy, then it calms down again. There’s a huge advantage in Isaac and my working together: I definitely wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without him; he’s got more of a business mind.

Isaac never feels the need to conform, has a kind of inner confidence, that’s one of the things I found so attractive. He has a different way of thinking. He’s an original, completely.

ISAAC ALLEN grew up at Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry, Co Cork, the eldest of Darina and Tim Allen’s four children. He worked in the family business, and later ran several of his own businesses before becoming his wife Rachel’s business manager. The couple have three children Joshua, 13, Lucca, 11, and Scarlett, four-and-a-half

I bumped into Rachel when she came to do an interview for the Ballymaloe cookery course. Nothing much happened: when Rachel was doing the course, I was on a yacht around the Caribbean. I was set on being a fashion photographer, had organised to get a job in Paris. I stopped off at home on my way, which coincided with the last week of Rachel’s cookery course.

I thought she was extremely beautiful: we clicked, had a little bit of a fling on the few days I had at home. She got a job in Ballymaloe and about six months later we met again when I came home on holiday – and that’s when everything changed. I never went back to Paris, because of Rachel.

We were looking recently at shoeboxes of old photographs of us at 18 or 19: I don’t there’s one photograph of one of us on our own, we’re always together; it’s very obvious that we were having an awful lot of fun, were absolutely mad about each other, much more than we realised at the time.

I try to get the most out of every day, but probably get more out of every day with Rachel. It’s not just that she’s very beautiful and super-intelligent. There’s something much deeper: there’s the support you get just from being with somebody and I felt that very much about her from the very beginning and do to this day.

Rachel has ended up following almost identically in my mother’s footsteps but that was never the plan. When I met Rachel, here was a girl who was the last one to leave at night, but the first one to get up in the morning, who worked harder than everybody else and on her days off, got more in than everybody else. In hindsight, the only other person I know who achieves that is my mother.

I’ve no regrets that I didn’t become a photographer. After that didn’t work out, I tried to set up a fashion business, then had a business designing and manufacturing furniture. Then I ran the restaurant my parents were setting up, started my own restaurant in Cork, then two more. I managed to get out just before the whole thing crashed and I started working behind the scenes with Rachel.

She was teaching in the cookery school and a producer came to do the course: he asked her to do a TV pilot. It went well, RTÉ liked it and commissioned a TV show. That was around 2003/2004. There was no feeling that it would be a big part of our future.

Rachel had all the ingredients to be successful but her big advantage over competitors was that she’d taught in the cookery school for 10 years, so instinctively knew what needed to be explained properly.

What is the real Rachel like? She is much funkier than people imagine, one hell of a lot of fun and has an absolutely wicked sense of humour.

Afternoon Tea with Darina and Rachel Allen takes place tomorrow at 4pm at The Mill, Cork Street, Kinsale as part of Kinsale Arts week. Tickets €14,