Clodagh McKenna on her Downton Abbey boyfriend: ‘One of the last real gentlemen’
The chef and author is busier than ever with a new TV show on Channel 4 coming in January
Clodagh McKenna in her London home. Photographs: Dora Kazmierak
“He is the kindest man I’ve ever met. He is so lovely. He’s such a good person.” It is probably fair to say that Clodagh McKenna, the London-based Irish chef, TV presenter and cookbook author, is happier than she has ever been. She is talking about her boyfriend, Harry Herbert, who she met a year ago, when they were seated next to each other at a lunch.
“We have just moved into a house together, about six weeks ago. It’s a small house in the country. It’s actually on the property where he grew up. We spend the weekends up there and then down here during the week.”
“Down here” is McKenna’s north London base, a stylish artist’s studio with a verdant courtyard garden, on a leafy residential street. It is an urban oasis hidden behind a dusky grey door, with an intriguing address, the first line of which – One & a Quarter – reads like something from a Harry Potter novel.
The studio has a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, as well as the spacious double-height studio, into which a wall of vintage glass spills dappled light. It is the perfect location for the photographic shoots, video filming and brand collaboration events that her work involves. In addition, she has just been signed up for a new food show which will air on Channel 4 in January. Beat the Chef will see members of the public compete against McKenna in cooking challenges.
“Up there” is Herbert’s ancestral home, Highclere Castle in Hampshire, location for the TV series Downton Abbey, and where Downton the movie, due out next year, is currently being filmed. “He’s just . . . one of the last real gentlemen, that’s what everybody says about him,” McKenna says of her beau.
“I wasn’t looking for anything, I really wanted to spend two years single, to spend two years being okay with living on my own. I think it’s just so important, and I never had that,” she says, having lived with her previous partners, in Turin and in Dublin.
So was she lonely at all? “At the beginning it was a little frightening, living on my own, but I just thrived on it. I loved it and I really got to know myself. My big fears of living on my own, being on my own, all those things, were just gone.”
She thinks for her, living alone was “a really good way to find the right person, because you look for the right things. I wasn’t just looking for company, I was making sure this person had the things that I really want in life.” And they are? “Just kindness. I think it’s so under-rated.”
McKenna has been based in London for almost three years, initially living in a coach house 20 minutes from her current base, which she moved into six months ago. “A lot of my friends are over here and I love the varied food scene in London. So I’d always been thinking about it, and then I just decided to move. I’m not afraid of moving, or change. I’ve moved around quite a bit.”
She is not exaggerating. With studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, and NYU in New York behind her, McKenna decamped to Ballymaloe to do the three-month cookery course, and began a life in food that subsequently took her to Turin in Italy, where she and her partner at the time were active in the Slow Food movement. Back in Dublin, she embarked on a four-year personal and professional relationship with Peter Gaynor, with whom she opened several food businesses. When that ended, it was the right time for her move to London.
This summer, she wound up the last of her business commitments in Ireland, Clodagh’s Kitchen, a restaurant in Arnotts department store, having also ended her menu collaboration with Aer Lingus. “I decided to leave Arnotts ’cause it was taking up a huge amount of time and energy, travelling back and forth and trying to be consistent. I couldn’t give it my all and I just felt it was unfair to the customers and to Arnotts.”
So is London home, now? “I think England is,” she says, referring to those weekly escapes to the countryside. “I was really lucky in that I knew quite a few people before I moved here and I have this amazing group of – predominantly female, but that’s not on purpose – friends, who are really strong, creative women.”
Her London gang includes “Fiona Leahy, who is Irish, incredibly glamorous and is the event planner and creative director du jour, and Sally Greene, who owns the Old Vic and Ronnie Scott’s, and Nikki Tibbles, who owns Wild at Heart flowers, and [caterer, cafe owner and cook book author] Melissa Hemsley. ”
Several of the women are on the guest list for a supper McKenna is hosting at home that night, in collaboration with Islands Chocolate, a seed-to-bar chocolate company in the Caribbean. In addition to brand collaborations such as this, she is writing a regular cookery column for the Evening Standard, and travels to the US and Canada every five weeks to continue her long-running association with the Rachael Ray and Marilyn Denis TV shows. At the end of the month, her own-blend gin launches for Glendalough Distillery.
Her stylish, antiques-strewn home, which she shares with her dogs, Alfie and Nolly, is the perfect location for this type of event, which she says she is doing more and more of, as long as the brands fit with her ethos. “I won’t deviate from the style that I have, and the recipes have to be recipes that I would cook myself and serve for my supper.”
She is also running a series of workshops, sharing her expertise on cooking, table setting and entertaining. Breakfast on arrival at the studio is followed by a cookery demonstration, lunch with wine, tablescape and flower display tips, an end-of-day cocktail class and a goodie bag containing one of McKenna’s books, an apron and some edible gifts, are included in the £270 (€306) fee. Upcoming dates are November 14th and 15th, and December 12th and 13th (bookings at eventbrite.co.uk).
Having people in her home, and cooking for them, was McKenna’s way of extending her London friendship group. “I am a sociable person and I love having people round,” she says. “When I first moved to London I wanted to build up closer friends and I wanted to develop more recipes, so I had people over for supper all the time.”
The diners included paying guests, “which was an experience”, she says with a laugh. But the project paid off, both in terms of helping to cover her rent and expand her friendship group. There was another outcome too, a batch of new recipes readymade for the sort of effortless, stylish entertaining for which she is known. These have become her next cook book, Clodagh’s Suppers, which will be published in January.
The photographs for the book were mostly shot at her home, with McKenna doing the art direction and styling, and her friend Dora Kazmierak behind the camera. It is just the two of them again today, shooting the images for The Irish Times, to a soundtrack of Buena Vista Social Club.
“The scones are in the oven,” she texts me as I travel, and later they are waiting on her giant wooden dining table, alongside a pot of home-made blackberry jam, pomegranates, figs and big bunches of dusky black grapes – “from Harry’s”. Cups of tea are poured through a silver strainer into mismatched china cups, and then it is time to get to work.
Even the dogs are involved. “No free lunches here,” she says as she rouses the hounds from their slumber and positions them in shot. In between scene-setting, props-arranging, costume changes – and posing – McKenna dictates emails and handles queries from her PA Karen Curran, who is working at a desk on a mezzanine above us.
Four action-packed hours later, the shoot is in the bag. As I leave, McKenna, although tired, by her own admission, is preparing to host her event. “I feel that I have an actual obligation that when people come into my house, I am so happy to see them. And if I’m not, I shouldn’t be inviting them. It’s not fair to them. It is important to remember the real reason why you’re bringing someone in through the door – you’re welcoming them into your home.”
CLODAGH MCKENNA’S TOP TABLE TIPS
– It’s important when you’re looking at a table to think about comfort as the most important thing, so put lovely cushions on your chairs, and if you have throws, put them over people’s chairs.
– When people are sitting down for supper, you want to make them as comfortable as possible and colour really affects how you feel. Go for soft burgundy, not bright reds; don’t go for bright shiny silver, go for brass instead.
– Texture is so important. If you have a wooden table, don’t cover it with a big white table cloth, make it softer by using lovely linen. Invest in beautiful Irish linens. I get mine from The Cloth shop in Notting Hill – they have it in rolls and they make it into napkins and runners for me.
– I dread a light just above my head – just turn it off and do candlelight. The best candlelight sits just under your chin and makes you glow.
– Sharing things is great. There’s nothing nicer than sitting down to the table and bowls of food put in the middle for everybody to pass and share.
– Use your nice things, don’t save them for good. I’ve been collecting things for a long time and it is lovely looking at them and having them there and using them.