Rory O’Connell is an acclaimed cookery teacher based at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, which he set up with his well-known sister, Darina Allen.
Originally trained at Ballymaloe House with Myrtle Allen, the grand-dame of Irish country house cooking, over the years Rory has worked with Nico Ladenis at Chez Nico, London, Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons in Oxford and Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, Berkeley, California.
I recently caught up with him to talk about his first book, ‘Master it: How to Cook Today’ and the journey which led to its publication. I had seen him in action earlier in the summer at the Ballymaloe Litfest and enjoyed his infectious enthusiasm for all things culinary so it was a great treat to chat to him on the phone.
The title of Rory’s book is about how to cook today yet the methods draw from age-old techniques, he explained why this is important, “If you look at cooking as a craft you need to have the skills, rooted in classical cooking. For example, knowing how to roast a chicken –this skill has been around for centuries. However it doesn’t matter how ambitious you are, you need to know the basics first.”
Quality and seasonality are central to this book, and indeed to Rory’s overall approach. He feels that more could be done to encourage people to cook and shop this way, as he told me: “There is a lot being done by Bord Bia, food magazines and chefs across the country but I do think there’s an interesting opportunity for more proactive involvement by the Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture.” He maintains that it’s crucial to “let consumers know what’s in season.” And feels that “TV and printed media could also play a role in this.”
Similarly he would like to see more emphasis in Ireland with regards to teaching the skills of cooking to our children. “We need to go back into schools – national and secondary. Teach children to recognize what’s in season, give them the basics skills; how to cook spuds, how to roast a chicken, grill a fish and so on.”
When it comes to teaching these skills, I was curious to know if there were certain aspects that were more difficult to teach (as certainly there are elements that I simply cannot master!) but Rory assured me that once the basics are in place, students flourish. “Nothing is difficult if the information is presented in the correct way, using the correct ingredients. Of course certain skills are more difficult like puff pastry for example but if you start at the beginning and get the basics right then everything else will follow on from this.”
Rory has worked with some of the greats, Raymond Blanc and Alice Waters for example. He has huge admiration for both of these culinary giants, and is notably excited when telling me the impact they had on him, “They’ve influenced me in a big way! Raymond is all about French traditional cooking but his food changes all the time. He’s interested in growing and in the provenance of ingredients. He really is the Olympic gold medalist having achieved 3 Michelin stars. With Alice it’s not about getting stars, it’s more about her love of the produce and what she can create with it.”
Rory is really keen that “more justice (is done) to the farmers and the ingredients” and claims to be hugely influenced by growers and farmers. He also admires “the Scandanvian approach and the work being done at Noma” (a-two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Denmark). He tells me of the ingenuity of their use of ingredients, for example “using wood sorrel to replicate the taste of lemon”.
A methodical and precise cook, I wondered if he applied this discipline to his writing style and asked him about the writing process for the book: “It’s a chapter-by-chapter book based around techniques with as much useful and uncomplicated information as possible. I tried to be disciplined and worked from my kitchen table, using both a laptop and notebook.”
Whenever I’m trying to come up with dinner party inspiration I always like to leaf through various cookbooks to inspire my choices. Now a cookbook author himself, I asked him what are the books that inspire him. Rory laughed, “So many! Mrytle Allen’s The Ballymaloe Cook Book, which is 30 years old and still hugely relevant. Books by Alice Waters, Claudia Roden, Nobu and Noma. I’m also enjoying learning more about Middle Eastern flavours.” Rory says he is continually learning “always interested in new ideas and new flavours.”
I couldn’t let Rory go without getting some words of culinary wisdom so I leave you with his advice for aspiring cooks…“Buy a good recipe book! Measure your ingredients and follow the instructions.” And his advice for would-be authors: “Write about something you are passionate about and do your research”
(c) Lorraine Griffin
Rory O’Connell’s book ‘Master it: How to Cook Today’ is available to buy online and in bookshops.