Rory O’Connell: ‘I didn’t get to know my sister Darina until I came to Ballymaloe’

The chef and author on finding joy in food, fine dining and working with his famous sister

Rory O’Connell and his sister, Darina Allen.

Rory O’Connell and his sister, Darina Allen.

 

If you have a famous sibling, chances are you’re in the shadows. Unless your surname is Kardashian where they all seem to strobe in the limelight, or you come in twos, like Jedward. In the culinary world, it’s the same. It took years before Albert Adrià, the younger brother of gastro genius Ferran Adrià of elBulli, got the recognition he deserved, and here in Ireland, it is only recently that we have become acquainted with Rory O’Connell, the youngest brother of Darina Allen, although he co-founded the Ballymaloe Cookery School with her.

Now in his second series of RTÉ One’s How to Cook Well with Rory O’Connell, he is becoming more of a household name, and has just released his second cookbook, The Joy of Food. His first, Master It – How to Cook Today, won the prestigious André Simon Food Book Award in 2013. 

But back in the days when the wonderfully effusive Allen, Ireland’s very own answer to Delia Smith, burst onto our screens with Simply Delicious, O’Connell was working behind the scenes, doing the food prep, styling and general running around. The second youngest of nine children (Allen is the oldest), he had a childhood filled with his mother’s great cooking, aimless wandering in the woods near his home in Cullohill, County Laois, and plenty of country fresh air and common sense.

After leaving school, he studied law for a year, it wasn’t for him, and taking just a bit too long to make up his mind on what his future might hold, his mother suggested he visit his big sister in Ballymaloe. He spent the summer working on reception.

“I didn’t really get to know her honestly until I came down to work at Ballymaloe,” he says. “Because when we were growing up, we all went to boarding school, so by the time I was at the age of knowing anything, Darina was in boarding school. And she would come home in a flurry – there’s always a flurry associated with Darina’s entries and exits, to rooms or houses or cars or whatever –and there’d be a flurry of excitement and all the rest of it.”

Rory O’Connell co-founded Ballymaloe Cookery School. Photograph: Clare Keogh
Rory O’Connell co-founded Ballymaloe Cookery School. Photograph: Clare Keogh
I wanted to learn how to cook some of the dishes I hadn’t picked up from my mother. But that was purely based on my own sort of greed, my own delectation...

Feasting on the same nosh as the paying guests is one of the benefits of working at Ballymaloe House and O’Connell soon acquired a taste and a curiosity for the more technical dishes that are served there.

“At the end of a summer spent on reception at Ballymaloe House, I hadn’t a notion what I wanted to do. So I just asked Mrs Allen if I could go into the kitchen, because there were a few dishes I wanted to learn how to cook,” he says.

“I wanted to learn how to make Béarnaise sauce and Hollandaise sauce, I wanted to learn how to cook fish properly. I wanted to learn how to cook some of the dishes I hadn’t picked up from my mother. But that was purely based on my own sort of greed, my own delectation; and then within a short period of time, it was apparent to me that I was able to cook and I actually loved it. Really, really loved it.”

Now, 35 years since they opened the Ballymaloe Cookery School, both O’Connell and Allen are still involved on a day-to-day basis. O’Connell demonstrates two or three times a week, and has an overall position of “keeping an eye on things, a creative role”. Allen “still firmly holds the reins”.

Starting out was equally as exciting as it was hard work. “I think there were just three of us in the beginning. We all did a bit of everything,” he says. “So I used to demonstrate in the afternoons and there was teaching the following morning when the students were cooking. I was largely at that time responsible for the shopping, which is, you know, quite a thing really. And the most hideous job in the entire world was my responsibility, which was printing off the recipes on an old Gestetner printing machine, which spat ink at you from every possible angle. That was part of my role, as well as everything else.

“You’d end up doing flowers, and hoovering and washing up. That was it, we were at the beginning and we were happy to do it. And at that time, when school finished in the evening at 4 o’clock, I would go over to Ballymaloe House to cook main courses on Thursday and Friday evening. So we worked bloody hard.”

O’Connell is a classically trained chef. He was head chef at Ballymaloe House for 10 years, and also trained in some of the top kitchens here and overseas. Early on in his career, he spent time under Michael Ryan in Arbutus Lodge in Cork, then ranked the top restaurant in the country. Stints abroad included time spent in Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons (a big intense kitchen where the attitude was not as ambrosial as Ballymaloe House), Nico Ladenis’s Chez Nico (a tiny kitchen where Ladenis was so much nicer than his reputation, he learned so much) and Alice Water’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California (a dear friend, a guru).

All of these experiences are what O’Connell brings together in his latest cookery book, which he considers to be very personal. The illustrations, which are used instead of photographs, are his own, and there are 11 short essays that range from memories of collecting wild hazelnuts as a child to the joy of keeping hens.

Almost like a stream of consciousness, the recipes are not broken out into the usual sections of meat, fish, vegetables or whatever; instead, there is an organic flow to his book, and his evocative writing illustrates how all of his senses are at play as he cooks – sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.

He talks about the joy of a perfect pomegranate, the shiny jewelled interior under the matt coat of a raspberry, the entrancing shade of green you get inside a freshly picked cucumber when you snap it open. The exquisite curl of a pea tendril. And the recipes, each one thoroughly tested, sound both beautifully appetising and achievable.

“This random list of recipes, they’re just things that I’ve been making and enjoying. Things I love to eat and love to cook,” he explains. “What’s in season is always the driver for any particular recipe, but I don’t feel I fit into an absolutely definite sort of genre. I mean, I’m not ultra-modern cooking, rigidly classical French or classical Italian.

“I’m not trying to reinvent Middle Eastern cooking that other cooks and writers are doing brilliantly without me getting involved.”

It makes for a lovely read. He goes into intricate detail on how to cook the perfect baked pink skinned Bramley apple – ideally when they are fresh off the tree, they are full of juices and you will get the fluffiest and lightest baked apple – and follows with a recipe for asparagus with Coolea fonduta

The various savoury custards and mousses sound delightfully old school. He gives the recipe for chanterelle mushroom custards with tarragon toasts which he learned from his time with Raymond Blanc, asparagus mousse with chervil sauce, and leek mousse with mussels and sauce Bretonne. And there are plenty of fish and meat recipes, including a very tempting one-pot casserole of roast pheasant with Jerusalem artichokes and Indian spices.

“Some of the recipes could be considered old fashioned, but they’re absolutely delicious. They involve techniques that I think are really still useful for a cook,” he says.

I think Darina is an astonishing, extraordinary woman.
So our working relationship is really based on a great
mutual respect

“If you’d seen that leek mousse on a menu in a restaurant 20 years ago it would have felt comforting. I don’t feel I have to be at the cutting edge, and I know that I’m not at the cutting edge in one sense in terms of that unbelievably smart restaurant cooking that’s happening at the moment. I think it’s incredible, but the food that I write about, the food that I cook at home is not quite that aspirational I suppose.”

And what about sibling rivalry? What has it been like working with his big sister over the past 35 years? “There’s a great deal of mutual respect. We work very well together,” says O’Connell. “I would say, we’re not in each other’s pockets, but I think she’s an astonishing, extraordinary woman. So our working relationship is really based on a great mutual respect.”

The Joy of Food: A Celebration of Good Things to Eat by Rory O’Connell is published by Gill Books and available now in bookshops and online. Priced at €24.99

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