‘I began tasting wine, rather than just drinking it,’ says an Irishwoman in Zurich

Emma O’Connell has worked in a food truck, run food tours and held wine tastings on a boat in lake Zurich

During Food Month, Irish Times Abroad meets people working in the food business overseas. Emma O’Connell is originally from Greystones, Co Wicklow, but now lives in Zurich. She talks about her work as a chef and wine specialist.

When did you leave Ireland and why?
I left Ireland in 2007. I had always been keen to live abroad and was offered a job working as a language assistant in a Swiss secondary school. If I'm completely honest, the idea of living in the centre of Europe, earning Swiss wages and working a comfortable schedule were highly appealing.

I would love to go back to working in the kitchen when my daughter is older. The fast-paced environment really suits me

Did you study in Ireland? Where?
I did a degree in European Studies in Trinity. My main focus was on German and history (with a little bit of Italian thrown in). I also returned to Ireland for 12 weeks in 2016 to do the 12-week Ballymaloe Certificate Course.

Have you done any training anywhere else?
After going to Ballymaloe, I began exploring the wine regions of Europe. From Zurich, we can pop to Alsace and Piemont in just a few hours, and I loved discovering new producers and grape varieties and began tasting wine, rather than just drinking it. I went on to complete levels 3 and 4 in WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) here in Switzerland.


Your work sounds eclectic. What have you done?
I spent eight years teaching English and history here before going to Ballymaloe. Since then I've worked in an Aussie food truck, managed a food tour company, had my own catering company, conducted wine tastings on a boat in lake Zurich and worked in professional kitchens across the city.

Tell us about the work you are doing at the moment. Is there an average day?
At the moment, I'm working part-time in a café here in Zurich and organising wine events. My husband, Andrew, is mostly working from home, so when I'm not working, we sit down for a leisurely breakfast with our two year-old daughter. On a workday, I'm in the café by 7am, baking, making coffees and preparing food for lunch. Afternoons are usually spent dealing with wine admin, shopping for wine, preparing events and maybe grabbing a coffee before collecting my daughter from creche.

You are a trained chef, would you go back into a kitchen?
I would love to go back to working in the kitchen when my daughter is older. The fast-paced environment really suits me, I'm happiest when I'm busy and the time flies. There are some aspects of kitchens that stress me out, such as food waste, but I think that is gradually changing, especially in Zurich. Most restaurants I've worked in have very small, seasonal menus and they use up everything. The food waste app Too Good to Go, is also commonly used here. Bakeries and restaurants use it to sell on food very cheaply that would otherwise go in the bin.

What does wine mean to you?
I get ridiculously excited by wine. Of course the smell and taste are one element, but it is also the nostalgia and the stories that go with it. We went on holidays to Italy in August and on the way home popped into Barbaresco in northern Italy. This was a town we had visited with friends years before and as we sat, looking out over the rolling hills, supping on a chilled Arneis, I got all emotional, remembering our previous visit, thinking about what had changed and relishing the smells, sights and sounds. I feel the same when I go to a small, independent wine shop and hear the stories behind some of the bottles. A cava I tried recently from, Villa Conchi, tasted much better when I heard that the winery was named after the winemaker's mother (Conchi) who loved cava. Unfortunately, she died before the first bottle was produced, but she lives on in the name and the lacy label adorning the bottle.

What is your favourite food, dish and wine?
I adore proper Irish lamb. Preferably roasted with all the trimmings and accompanied by a spicy red from Priorat in Spain.

Where else can we find you?
I am sometimes on Instagram (grapeexpectations_ch), sharing recipes and wine recommendations. I have recently started doing virtual wine tastings too, so if anyone fancies a different type of online gathering they can DM me there.

Have things changed in Zurich due to coronavirus?
The case numbers in Switzerland are up, but the government is taking a less strict approach than Ireland. There was a three-month lockdown and although most small business owners and individuals working in food were supported, some have still had to close. Cafés, bars and restaurants are open now, but there are strict rules about mask wearing, social distancing and contact tracing. Luckily a lot of Swiss social life is conducted outside; swimming, hiking, skiing and cycling, so we can still meet friends and a lot of our life has carried on as normal.

Is there anything you miss about Ireland at the moment?
We miss our families desperately. We're gradually accepting that we won't make it back for Christmas, but this will be our first time ever not celebrating in Ireland. We are missing Irish butter too, so hopefully Santa will bring us some Kerrygold.