By Bruce E. Boyers
When one thinks of haute cuisine cooking schools, the locations that might come to mind are Paris, Rome, London, and perhaps New York. One of the last places you would think of is Ireland—yet it is there that the world-class Ballymaloe Cookery School has been thriving for the last thirty years. They have graduated some 3,500 students from all parts of the world, who have gone on to many and successful careers as chefs, food bloggers and writers, television and radio food program hosts, and more. The school is celebrated in a new book, 30 Years at Ballymaloe, with a foreword by none other than Alice Waters.
Ballymaloe Cookery School was co-founded and is run by Darina Allen, a name that may not be familiar to many outside Ireland. But there she is known as the best chef in the country and is the recipient of numerous awards. She is also a best-selling author and hosted a TV cooking show entitled Simply Delicious, which ran on Irish television for nine seasons.
Connection to the Land
But Ballymaloe Cookery School is more than an academy for intense indoctrination into the art of cooking. The school is located right in the middle of a working farm, which has been organic since 1988, and from the outset culinary students learn what real food production is all about.
“It’s really an introduction to a different way of life,” Darina Allen told Calmful Living. “Our 12-week course—which is for people who want to earn their living from their cooking—gives them all the skills they need. But they also take away a whole different attitude about food, farmers and food producers. They understand how long it takes to grow things. They have been absolutely indoctrinated in the importance of the quality of the soil and sustainability.”
That part of the education begins on day one. “On the first day we introduce them to our farm manager and our gardeners,” Darina continued. “The first thing we show them is how to sow a seed. Then we give them a little plant that they put into the ground, with a small lollipop stick that has their name on it. They have to watch that growing for the next twelve weeks.”
Culinary students who are all set to learn the mysterious techniques of braising or sauces might be a bit surprised at their first lesson. “The first recipe they get is how to make compost,” Darina said, laughing. “If I had my way—and this sounds like terribly bossy headmistress stuff—I wouldn’t let any chef or cook into a kitchen until after they’d spent at least a year in the farm or gardens. That would give them a real understanding of how food is produced.”
But twelve weeks is all they have, and of course it is a cooking school. Students fully expect to be taught high-end cuisine, and they are. Anyone who has the idea that all one could learn to cook in Ireland are things like corned beef and cabbage is in for a pleasant awakening. “The corned-beef-and-cabbage image in no way reflects what’s going on in Ireland at the moment,” Darina pointed out. “There’s a whole renaissance in the food scene over here, with artisan producers, cheesemakers and specialist producers. We have a wonderful climate for farming and have a long growing season as well. We have grass like nowhere else in the world, which supports many of our best foods, such as our meat and our dairy products; that includes our Irish butter, which you know in America as Kerrygold Butter. We also have miles and miles of coastline, so we’ve got wonderful fish and shellfish.”
The cuisine taught at the school is based in local and seasonally available ingredients—a tradition that extends from a family-owned inn. “The basis of what we do is the sort of food that was always served at an inn called Ballymaloe House,” Darina explained. “My husband and his family started a little restaurant there in 1964. The menu was written every day and reflected the seasons: what was in the gardens, what fish came in fresh from Ballycotton [a nearby seaside fishing village and resort], what was available from the local butcher, and wild foods too.”
But the school’s curriculum reaches far beyond fair Eire’s shores. The course covers French classic, regional and modern innovative styles. It also touches on Mexican, Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Japanese, Mediterranean, Nordic, Greek and more—which is fortunate, since Ballymaloe Cookery School’s attendees hail from all corners of the globe. There are nine different nationalities represented in the current course, and the previous one had fourteen.
Intensive 12 Weeks
The schedule for a student during the 12-week course is intensive and very hands-on. Four days a week there are practical sessions in the morning and demonstrations in the afternoon, led by Darina herself and two other expert teachers. During the practical sessions, students work together to produce a three- or four-course meal for lunch each day, discovering in the process the essential disciplines of time management and task prioritization in the kitchen. Students set and serve the tables, which educates them in serving and presentation.
The fifth day is devoted to specialist demonstrations, cheese tasting, or illustrated wine lectures and tastings. On the afternoons of these days, there are lectures on food-related subjects featuring guest speakers, all experts in their fields, providing talks to students on such diverse subjects as outside catering, managing a business, and specialist butchery. Additionally, practical issues like menu planning and food costing are covered.
The gardens are never far away from studies: trainees regularly pick and use fresh herbs and vegetables from the enormous variety available. During the course, students also go on excursions to food producers, such as cheesemakers, a fish smoker and other specialists.
For those completing the 12-week certificate course, this education pays off well. According to the school’s website, Ballymaloe graduates are much in demand, and often there are more jobs on offer than there are graduates to fill them. An illustrious roll call of former pupils includes many chefs in top restaurant kitchens, caterers for dinner parties or boardroom lunches, and food journalists, as well as cooks on summer yachts and at winter ski resorts.
Fortune Born of Necessity
Interestingly, Ballymaloe Cookery School began life out of economic necessity. Darina and her husband inherited the farm they now run from Darina’s father-in-law, and they grew apples, tomatoes, lettuces and mushrooms. The business employed over a hundred people.
“In the late sixties labor costs started to rise,” Darina recalled. “Then there was the oil crisis and 25 percent inflation here in Ireland. Simultaneously our greenhouses and our mushroom farm also needed an injection of cash, which we just didn’t have. On top of that, apples began coming in from South America—we heard about huge acreages down there of Gala apples—so we could see the writing on the wall.
“We had looked at what talents we had and what resources we had between us to earn a living; we wanted to stay on our farm and here in the country to bring up our children.” First they started a farm shop and a café, and Darina took on some other jobs to make ends meet. But the fact that they were located on the farm and had such rich provisions of local food and fish available furnished inspiration: Darina thought perhaps she could offer cooking classes. In 1983 those classes became a residential cooking school, after a friend of Darina’s pointed out the number of aspiring chefs who attended the famed Cordon Bleu schools in London and Paris.
Darina has never looked back. “We started with eleven students,” she said. “Then thirteen, then fifteen. But in ten years we were bursting at the seams. Now we take sixty students for our 12-week course several times per year. Our little village becomes very cosmopolitan while they’re here.”
Thirty years on, the Ballymaloe Cookery School has firmly established that the world’s finest cuisine can be taught anywhere—even in Ireland.
For more information on Ballymaloe Cookery School, please visit www.cookingisfun.ie.