“Just one minute, I’m outside the cookery school” says the inimitably upbeat Rachel Allen when she answers my call. With one of those instantly likeable and contagious laughs, Rachel is the kind of person whose smile you can hear in their voice.
There isn’t a household in the country unfamiliar with the daughter and granddaughter in-law of mothers of Irish food Darina and Myrtle, and what she lacks in thick red glasses she makes up for with a mischievous grin and an obvious enamorment with all things food related.
Long before we were anointing ourselves with the title of foodie, Rachel committed to a life pursuing deliciousness, enrolling in Ballymaloe Cookery School at 18, falling for a young Isaac Allen and never leaving the world famous haven in East Cork. It is a tale well known by all in the Irish food industry, but Rachel has managed to forge her own identity on screen – less coquettish than Nigella but every inch as charming and infectiously passionate.
Having returned to our screens recently on the hotly anticipated new series of The Restaurant, the food writer, chef and restaurateur we are so used to watching cooking from her Ballycotton kitchen or travelling the country in search of the finest raw materials, appears at ease with herself and well able to share the critics table with the indomitable Marco Pierre White.
It may have come as a surprise to some to see Rachel’s funny and mischievous side come to life, but she feels the show allowed her personality to shine through. “I love a format where I feel I can be myself. I find that very hard when it’s just me looking into the camera, chop and chat, as they say. I love it when I’m filming and interacting with people – there’s just more of me in it,” she explains.
“My dad actually gave out to me for swearing on TV, he said your language has gotten worse on television! I’m sorry Dad, you’re never too old to be given out to I suppose!”
“Sitting around a table, eating delicious food and having great conversations with Marco and our guest critics, that’s lovely and it is very easy to relax and be yourself. And a glass of wine helps too!” she maintains.
On the notoriously temperamental White Heat, Rachel is quick to clarify “he is absolutely not difficult to work with, he is charming and a great character.” “I suppose his reputation has definitely come before him and I was wondering how he was going to be because I had never met him before, but he’s lovely and very interesting,” she tells me.
“I would have loved to have had longer than the amount of time when we were filming to chat to him about restaurants. He is highly intelligent and remembers every single meal he has eaten in every single restaurant, cooked by every single chef, so he is such a fascinating character.”
Before taking to the critics table however, Rachel had her fears and apprehension. “I had big shoes to fill with Tom (Doorley) leaving and the absence of the late Paolo Tullio, so I hope people are ok with me replacing them. It’s something I have really enjoyed” she says humbly. “Any night I’ve been in my restaurant, people are always telling me they’re loving The Restaurant and it is just really nice to hear,” she notes.
No doubt a string to her ever-expanding bow, Rachel’s appearance on the much-loved series is however just a small part of her ever-changing, ever-exciting day job. I have to wonder how the mother of three manages, with a cookbook released every other year, hands-on teaching at Ballymaloe, running her new restaurant Rachel’s and her weekly magazine column, but she is quick to explain that she has tailored her life around her family as best she can.
There are busier times and calmer times, yes sometimes it is a bit of a juggling act and yes, sometimes I drop the balls that are in the air and they all fall, but I just try and pick them all up again.
“Luckily, a lot of my work tends to be from home, all my writing recipes, cookbooks and articles is all from home, I’m at the cookery school at the moment, less than a mile away from my home, so a lot of it is based here and the filming bits happen in between.” It is all a part, she says of being “lucky enough to find something that you love doing.”
Rachel speaks with the wisdom of someone who has managed to design their life around their all-consuming passion. Imparting that passion to others, and helping them to take that path, she reveals, is the most rewarding part of her career, as she spends two to three days a week with the 12 week certificate students looking to follow in her footsteps and graduate from the revered school as a Ballymaloe trained chef.
With the recent addition of the title of Restaurateur to her CV, Rachel reveals that she always swore she would never open her own restaurant. “It is hilarious,” she laughs, “but funnily enough when I saw the location of 28 Washington Street and walked into the building something happened in my head and I just thought oh my god, this is such an amazing space.”
Having designed everything from the menu to the decor, Rachel now has her dream restaurant and can often be found at front of house, ensuring all is running smoothly – “it is funny actually, people are always so surprised to see me there” she says, but yet she manages to be in ten different places at once and keep things ticking over in every facet of her life.
“It’s all about balance – if I don’t have enough time at home with my family then it all heads in the wrong direction.” Lucky for her then, her youngest, Scarlett, loves spending the day in the kitchen with her Mum, and “would bake all day if she could.” Her oldest, Josh, is currently working on the farm at Ballymaloe and considering taking that career route, while her son Luca is already pursuing his dream job as a Ford Formula Four racing driver, she tells me proudly.
Despite the fact that food and cooking take up every waking moment of her day apart from a morning run by the sea, Rachel still takes joy in cooking at home, and after all these years, she says, “I never get sick of thinking or talking about food and it never feels like a chore.”
Much like Ballymaloe, the menu and ethos of Rachel’s is built around provenance and the use of exceptional local, homegrown and artisan ingredients, however asking Rachel to pick her favourite producer seemed akin to asking her to pick a favourite child and there was no way to narrow it down.
“Oh my, it could be anyone from Gubbeen, their cheese and chorizo to Ardsallagh goats cheese, I definitely can’t choose just one. We are really lucky in Cork to be so close to the English Market,” where much of the produce on the menu is sourced. I note that Rachel’s mind immediately jumps to cheese and she admits:
I am convinced I could survive on wine, bread and cheese, with maybe the odd tomato thrown in!
When looking beyond her holy trinity of deliciousness, Rachel has a firm favourite in her adopted home city of Cork. “I just love Miyazaki, the odd little delicious bite to eat either in there or takeaway. His new restaurant (Ichigo Ichie) is going to be amazing, I’m very excited about it’s opening as it is going to be around the corner from ours I’m imagining I’ll get to nip out and get my fix whenever I want!” So taken is she by the Japanese master chef, she admits for her death row meal she would consider drafting Takashi in to whip up a feast with plenty of Saké.
In the capital, it is casual café style spots that take her fancy – “I love discovering new places, if I’m in Dublin I love Brother Hubbard for a delicious Middle Eastern style breakfast or The Fumbally, but my goodness, I have such a long list of places to try!” she tells me.
Gregarious and full of chat and laughter, Rachel’s voice only ever drops to a more sombre tone when it comes to the topic of vitriolic critics and keyboard warriors. As she straddles the line between chef and celebrity, no doubt her level of exposure both home and abroad has exposed her to a harsher climate of negativity.
“It’s a tricky one and it is extraordinary how people can treat myself or other people and write horrible words about others when they don’t know them. I was brought up with to believe it’s nice to be nice so it wouldn’t be what I would do myself. I can’t even put myself in the shoes of someone who writes horrible things, its something I feel really uncomfortable about – whether I’m reading about myself or somebody else.”
I suppose you do get a thicker skin over the years but you are never immune to it.
“Having said that, I have also had people write to me with really useful constructive criticism which I think is perfectly healthy and coming from a balanced perspective then I am totally all for that. If you are in the public eye, unfortunately it is just one of the downsides that comes with it.”
But for all her fame and fortune, Rachel is, at the end of the day, humble and generous with her time, as she explains that even after 15 years on screen, watching herself has never gotten any easier.
“When we had The Restaurant on in the house I’d walk into the room every so often and just go “ugh no!” and leave again, thinking oh god did I really say that?!It really is like watching a horror film through my fingers!” she laughs. And with that parting chuckle, Rachel ventures back out into the cookery school garden to plant the seeds of the future of Irish food – no wonder she is always smiling.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake Off and am passionate about discovering and creating delicious things – I can sometimes be caught in the act on TV3’s Six O’Clock Show or RTE Today. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me on my pursuit of deliciousness.