Aoife Noonan’s first food memory is watching her mother creaming butter with a wooden spoon. “There were no fancy machines, we didn’t have electric beaters, but she had this red cookbook for amateur home cooks, and it was sticky on the same page where there were recipes she would go back to: carrot cake and fruitcake. It was stained with cake mix.”
This “nice, happy, homely baking”, along with a gift of a toy kitchen for Christmas and a love for cookery programmes, subconsciously steered Noonan – one of Ireland’s finest pastry chefs – towards Michelin-star restaurants, and an extraordinary prodigious career in kitchens that she (for the time being, at least) has moved away from; to begin, like so many people working in food right now, something new.
That new project is a series of online cooking classes (cake basics, afternoon tea, brunch with friends, macarons, special occasion desserts, and a four-week patisserie for beginners course), along with a limited-edition pastry line. The classes can be booked at aoifenoonan.com
Noonan has moved far, far beyond her first attempt at solo baking – on the first day of secondary school, a home economic class, and coconut buns. As a bass guitar player, she thought about pursuing music as a career, but ultimately headed to DIT to study culinary arts, although she was not set on becoming a chef. When she qualified from DIT, chef jobs were thin on the ground, “which is mad to think of now when everywhere is crying out for chefs”. Following a stint in Bang, where the head chef recommended she try and get some experience in a Michelin-star restaurant, she headed to Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud for a job trial: “I was terrified. It was terrifying to see that standard of food and know that you would be potentially in that environment every single day.” She was offered the job. “Everything had to be perfect all the time. You can’t make mistakes. That’s not allowed. It has to be a certain standard because it’s two Michelin star. It’s their reputation and they’re putting their trust in you to do a job.”
The moment she realised she was good at what she was doing was after a chocolate competition in Guilbaud’s. “I didn’t realise the standard I was cooking at until I finished… How I worked, the processes I went through, I was so organised, I got there early, all the little things that made me maybe a little bit better… Once the dish was there and plated and the moment they told me I won the competition it was a moment of, ‘oh god, maybe I am good’.” Noonan worked the long hours, becoming head pastry chef. The dish, by the way, was an assiette of chocolate: “Four different types of chocolate; espresso, tonka bean, it had all these different elements, sablé biscuit, espresso jelly, chocolate custard, a sugar tube, foam.”
A lot of development `comes down to the basics, and learning the fundamentals of pastry. It's very scientific, everything is very exact'
A stint as the executive pastry chef for John Farrell’s group of restaurants across Luna, Dillinger’s, SMS, 777 and the Butcher Grill followed, which was a surprise move for those observing Noonan’s prowess in a two-star kitchen. She wanted a change away from a fine-dining atmosphere. In developing desserts, she remembers Luna’s dessert trolley fondly, but was soon back in a fine-dining kitchen at Glovers Alley, where she left, without a plan in late 2018, but that stint of discovery and growth has brought her to this point, where her knowledge and expertise can be something shared, with an amazing opportunity for others to learn from a truly great chef, from home.
For budding bakers and pastry chefs, Noonan says a lot of development “comes down to the basics, and learning the fundamentals of pastry. It’s very scientific, everything is very exact. I suppose I’d start with learning how to work with different types of pastry. Puff pastry, most people don’t bother to make it as it’s seen as a bit of a faff to make and you can buy good quality ones now. But I would start with that. Or choux pastry. Then the different types of shortcrust or sweet pastry. Ice cream. Tempering chocolate… I would say a soufflé would be a cool one to learn to make, or a tarte tatin.
Her essential tools? “I always use my stand mixer, pretty much for everything, it’s a Kenwood K-Mix. I would always have a rubber spatula and a little offset palette knife.” Her go-to chocolate bar? A Kinder Bueno. Her go-to chocolate in the kitchen? Valrhona.
Back to that soufflé. “I love the process of it. I would never make soufflés at home, but if I go out to eat, and it’s a nice restaurant, I would really, really like one. It is such a different kind of dessert, and it has to be spot-on. I’ve made a few of those. People either don’t whisk the egg whites enough, or beat out the egg whites too much so it doesn’t rise properly. Then it comes down to lots of different factors – what your base is, how you butter your mould, cooking time, the edges should be set but not eggy, the middle should be warm with a slight goo. It’s very particular. But when it comes out and it’s bang on, it’s like ‘yes’.”