How an Irishman's cookery school was welcomed in rural France
Working Abroad Q&A: Niall O'Reilly on his move from Cavan to London and then settling in Brittany, and why it was worth leaving his job to set up a company
Noel O’Reilly (left) with his partner Poul, a Michelin-trained chef in Kerrouet, Brittany, France, where they run a French cookery school
This week, Niall O’Reilly, who is originally from Co Cavan, and now lives in Kerrouet, Brittany, France, where he is CEO (or Chief Entertainment Officer) of the French cookery school he runs with his partner Poul, who is a Michelin-trained chef.
When did you leave Ireland, and why?
I left Drumcrave, Co Cavan with my family when my parents relocated to England for work purposes.
Did you study in Ireland or anywhere else?
Yes, I studied product design at DIT and occupational safety at Cork University. I studied executive coaching at Kingstown College in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin. I also took a degree in economics at Liverpool University and a Master in Information Science at City University London.
How did you end up in Brittany?
I bought an old ruin almost 20 years ago when I was on holiday in Brittany. It was what was called a longeré, which is basically a 16th century stone house with its own woods and a well overgrown garden. I never thought I would actually move there to live and work permanently, but six years on I am very happy working and living in what the locals call the "Celtic part of France".
I emigrated from Co Cavan and had studied in both Liverpool and London, finally landing a dream job at the National Theatre (London) where I was paid to watch (licence) the shows as well as keep the staff and public as secure as possible.
The job was sheer joy most of the time, however, in 2007 my Danish partner Poul and I decided it was time to leave London as we wanted to do something different in a more rustic environment.
My partner is an excellent Michelin-trained French chef and sommelier. We thought why not go to Brittany, which is famous for seafood and open a cooking school there. After all we already had the ruin there, so it seemed to make perfect sense. I had been holidaying in Brittany for the previous 20 years so we had lots of friends there and the rolling drumlin countryside of the Mené reminded me of the terrain of Cavan. The coast around the Gulf of Morbihan reminds Poul of Denmark, so in a sense it is the best of both worlds outside of our own countries. It is also a lot drier in Brittany than in Cavan.
How did you set up a cookery school in Brittany?
It took five years to get the cooking school fully completed. The locals were intrigued as to what we were up to, but from the very beginning we were fully welcomed and accepted into what is a traditional rural farming community.
Where do your students come from?
Most of our students come from Canada, the US, Australia as well as Ireland, Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. It is a real joy to have so many lovely people coming to cook with us and to be able to dine with so many new friends. We call the school the French Dining School as the fun is not just the 30 hours a week spent actually cooking, but also enjoying the whole dining experience.
Tell us about your career there. What do you do?
I do all the website marketing, financial controls, scheduling of classes, meet and greets, organise the accommodation and entertain the students. I keep the bar stocked, the dishwasher full and the conversations lively.
How has a cookery school run by an Irishman and a Dane gone down in the home of gastronomy, France?
The local mayor has been very impressed by what we have achieved. He has brought all the local mayors of Brittany to our school to dine and to see how it is possible to run such a business in a rustic rural community.
The Bretons are truly a Celtic people and they have a very warm spirit of hospitality
The locals are passionate about food, and we share surplus cakes and food. Fortunately we have neighbours who are excellent gardeners and who are very generous with their salads and vegetables.
What is it like living in Brittany?
Living in Brittany is great fun. We have lived in cities, and now enjoy the peace and tranquillity of country life. No commute to the office. No traffic noise. No boss. It was scary at first to leave paid employment and to set up as a private company, but working for oneself is just so rewarding and I only wish I had done it earlier.
Of course we both miss home and it would be strange if we did not. Brittany is not so far away, and we can return to Ireland or Denmark fairly easily. There are great road, air, rail and sail connections, and we do try to get back to see relatives and friends as often as we can. But I do feel at home here. The Bretons are truly a Celtic people and they have a very warm spirit of hospitality. Nowhere else in the world have I observed the lovely greeting strangers give each other on entering the local café bars around us where all men shake hands together and all women get a kiss or three! We love living in a quiet village where we know everyone and we look out for each other. We also love the hum of a busy kitchen, and the laughter and conversation around the table when a new class arrives for another week of French dining.
We find our Irish students tend to be very European
Will you both stay in Brittany?
We may relocate to southern Brittany to retire in about 10 years time. We want to live near the sea on the Gulf of Marbling, which reminds me of Ireland. The wine, oysters and food are cheaper than in Ireland or Denmark, and the weather is invariably warmer and drier too. On the other hand, we might well move to Schull in west Cork or Kinsale in Co Kerry where I've had many a laugh and the old Gaelic character in me comes alive.
Do the Irish fit in well there?
Yes the Irish fit in very well in Brittany. At first everyone thinks you are English and there is definitely a little bit of anti-English sentiment. We hear it when we are out and about. So on entering a busy restaurant you might hear someone shout out “le rosbif est arrivé” I normally respond with “cassoulet irlandais s’il vous plaît”, which is immediately met by shocked, embarrassed applause as in Brittany they without doubt, really do love the Irish very much.
How do Irish students find their way to you and are they different from other Europeans?
Most students find us through the internet or word of mouth. A lot of Irish students come to us after hearing from a friend who has done the course. We find our Irish students tend to be very European. Their delight in speaking French or visiting vineyards (of Irish origin) and historic places of interest in France is very evident. The Irish are aware of their long connection with France and their unique connections with An Breatain Beag.
Are there any other Irish people in your circles?
There are Irish people living, studying or working here. Most are studying in Rennes at the local university.
What is it like living there in terms of transport, social life and so on? Is it expensive?
You need a car to get around the countryside, and there are excellent road and rail connections. Trains to Rennes are every hour and take an hour. Trains to Paris are fast and take just over two hours. We miss the Irish pub scene as they don’t really do hyggelig bars here (to coin a Danish phrase), but we can go to one or two places where there is good craic among the locals and music sessions, some of which are Irish. Food and alcohol is not expensive, and there is a good selection of craft beers to choose from.
Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?
I sometimes miss Dublin for its unique buzz. A night at the Castle Bar or the Library Bar or on thé Cill Arnie boat on thé Liffey is hard to beat especially when catching up with old friends. The Abbey Theatre or the National Theatre (London) is hard to beat, but I am still hoping such theatres will allow access to their productions via direct online subscription and live streaming so that people, wherever they live, can access great drama from their own homes. NT Live is great if you live near a relevant cinema, but not everyone in France lives in Paris or Nice.
Do you think Ireland has changed?
Ireland has changed big time. It has become more European and more international. When I return to Cavan or Dublin I am very impressed with the high standard of restaurant food and the quality of cheeses and food products on display.
Are there any Irish foods you miss?
It’s hard to get a good quality Cavan boxty unless I head to Cavan. I miss the wild salmon and trout we grew up with, and the smoked pike pâte on home made bread.
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