Irish Women of the World: Darina Allen and four other food powerhouses

Meet the women who have succeeded in putting Irish food on menus around the world


Darina Allen
Runs the world-renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School in east Cork and leads the Slow Food Movement in Ireland

In 1983, Allen opened a cook ery school in a converted farm building beside her home. This was, she says, a “an attempt to earn a living on the land we love, rather than commuting into Cork every day”. Students come from all over the world – more than 50 countries at last count – to experience the farm-to-table philosophy that is an integral part of Ballymaloe.

Ballymaloe-trained chefs include Thomasina Miers of Wahaca, Stevie Parle of Dock Kitchen, James Ramadan of Pidgin, Dan Morgenthau of Portland, Jez Felwick of The Bowler, all in London; Rachel Goenka of The Sassy Spoon in Mumbai and Li Allen of The Flying Fox in Shanghai.

Allen also started the farmers’ market movement in Ireland in the mid-1990s and is an activist on food issues, nationally and internationally. At home, she campaigns for practical cooking and gardening to be re-embedded in the school curriculum.

She has written 15 cookbooks, and is co-founder with her brother Rory O’ Connell of the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine, which has gained international recognition in just four years. Participants in this year’s festival, which was listed among the top festivals of 2016 by CN Traveler, include Argentinian chef and restaurateur Francis Mallmann and Eric Werner and Mya Henry of Hartwood restaurant in Tulum on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico.

What advice would she have for woman starting out in this business?

“I have no business training as such, but this much I know . . . Charge enough to do a good job and be generous. Someone has to be the best and it might as well be you. Promise less and give more. Concentrate on real quality and the bottom line will look after itself. Chuck it in, if you don’t feel excited by each new day.

Diane Stopford 
Sales manager for Valrhona chocolate in New York

Stopford, a Dubliner, attended Dublin Institute of Technology , from where she graduated with a BA in culinary arts.

On her arrival in San Diego in 2003, Stopford worked for a number of restaurants and hotels in both management and executive chef positions. In 2010, she was hired by New York-based international gourmet food retailer Dean and DeLuca. Her roles with this company included executive chef at its flagship market in SoHo, and sourcing products and opening new stores both in the US and internationally.

In 2015, she worked with Bord Bia on the launch of Irish beef into the US market.

Last June, she joined French chocolate company Valrhona, as its New York sales manager. At Valrhona’s newly opened L’Ecole du Grand Chocolat in Brooklyn, she works with top pastry chefs and chocolatiers in the US and across the globe.

What advice would she have for those starting into the food business?

“The food industry is very dynamic, with so many different opportunities. Seek out chefs, food producers or brands that really interest you, knock on their door (sometimes repeatedly) and work for as many as you can to gain experience. The food industry is global – so travel as much as you can and savour every mouthful.”

Philomena O’Donovan
HR director for the Zetter Group in London

O’Donovan, who is originally from Clare, studied at the Shannon College of Hotel Management. She

has more than 15 years experience in the London hospitality market. Her previous roles include head of human resources for the Dorchester and 45 Park Lane, and she also held HR management roles at both the Ritz, London and Grosvenor House.

She took on the role of HR director for the Zetter Group 12 months ago. The Zetter Group is an independent collection of hotels and restaurants with “bags of personality and pioneering eco-credentials”. Its properties include the Zetter Hotel, the Zetter Townhouses and Grain Store in King’s Cross. The Zetter Group was awarded a top 15 spot in the Best Places to Work in Hospitality rankings. During her time with Dorchester Collection, O’Donovan won HR Team of the Year on two occasions.

What is the best piece of advice she received along the way?:

“Don’t be afraid to take risks”.

However it hasn’t always been easy to act upon, she admits.

“As you can imagine, this is a tricky one and not always a natural instinct in the field of HR. Let’s not forget that originality, innovation and entrepreneurship are the qualities that make us stand out from the crowd.”

Louise Bannon 
Pastry chef who has worked in some of the world’s top kitchens, including Noma

Bannon was part of the team that set up the Noma Japan residency at the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo last year, and is currently in Sydney as part of the team for Noma Australia.

She began her culinary career at Ballymaloe House in Cork, then worked at Tom Aikens in London and did stages at restaurants including The Fat Duck and St John Bread & Wine, before joining Noma in Copenhagen in 2009.

“I have spent the past five months staging in San Francisco, learning at top bakeries: Tartine, B.Patisserie, San Fransciso Baking Institute and at Della Fattoria, where they bake their breads in wood-fired ovens in a middle of a farm in Petaluma, California.

“Then I went to Dan Barber’s Stone Blue Hill Farm in New York, where he mills all his own grains.”

Bannon has not experienced discrimination in any of the kitchens she has worked in, but notes: “Working in kitchens on top of their game can be physically and emotionally demanding.”

Any advice for someone starting their career as a chef?

“Start by getting some culinary arts education. Travel as much as you can, find out how people eat, live and cook.”

Roz O’Shaughnessy 
Corporate communications manager with Bord Bia
Bord Bia is headquartered in Dublin but has 11 overseas offices in four continents. O’Shaughnessy joined the company more than nine years ago and has responsibility for promoting the Irish food and drinks industry at home and in more than 175 countries.
“I travel overseas to some of these markets in an effort to highlight the success and reputation of the agri-food industry. I helped launch Irish beef in the US. I’ve prepared Irish food hampers for the Obamas to celebrate St Patrick’s Day and most recently I travelled with RTÉ to Abu Dhabi and Dubai.”
In the past 12 months, O’Shaughnessy has travelled to the US, Dubai, London, Milan, China, Abu Dhabi, Germany and Amsterdam for Bord Bia. “A key element of Bord Bia’s overseas work involves promoting Irish food and drink at international trade shows. This year, we will participate in 21 global food events.
“Last month I met the executive head chef from the Burj Al Arab in Dubai. He spoke at length about the world-class quality of Irish beef, oysters and yoghurt, all of which he uses on his menus.”
The most significant Bord Bia event here is the Bloom festival. “It too has a global aspect – in 2007 six Irish journalists registered for press accreditation, last year we had 460, including media from France, New Zealand and China.”
What is a good pathway into this sector?
“Ireland’s food and drink sector is thriving and it is a great industry to be involved with. Many agri-food companies and related organisations, including Bord Bia, run world-class graduate and talent development programmes. They offer a bursary, invaluable experience in overseas markets and often include a masters qualification. If I was starting again, I would start here.”