Amanda Freitag could scarcely walk down a New York street without being recognised, but here in Ireland she recently managed to fly largely under the radar as she sampled many of the delights our exciting food scene has to offer.
An esteemed judge on Food Network’s Chopped as well as a former Iron Chef America contestant, chef Freitag has a glittering culinary CV to her name and added connoisseur of Irish gastronomy to this as she toured around Ireland tasting some of our finest food. Invited as part of the Creative Minds initiative run by the US Embassy in Ireland, Amanda’s visit took her from Cork to Dublin to many foodie destinations.
The Embassy invites distinguished visitors to Ireland, to host masterclasses, meet with their Irish counterparts and visit universities to share ideas. We caught up with Amanda to find out what she loved most about her Irish food tour, which culminated in an evening of dining at the US Embassy.
Where has your Irish food adventure taken you?
We started out at Kinsale College, I did a cooking demonstration for the students there followed by a delicious lunch at Blue Haven Restaurant. After that we went to Ballymaloe Cookery School and spoke with the students before Darina scooped us up for dinner in her home kitchen! She insisted and it was absolutely incredible – the level of hospitality there is beyond!
She literally made us scrambled eggs but I’ll tell you, they were the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever had! Also, some smoked salmon with rocket from her garden, beautiful mushroom soup and stunning terrine. It was so wonderful.
We then traveled to Dublin and started the next day with a cooking demonstration at DIT, to a much larger group – by the end of the demo they were really excited and asking loads of questions so that was really cool. Next, we went to Newmarket Kitchen – which I just loved – it was such a great energy in there with everyone helping each other get their businesses going. All really young products but all with such great potential for success.
How could I forget – we went to The Happy Pear! Oh my god, they were just amazing, they fed us, gave us a tour, we tasted coffee – those guys are unique beings! They lifted up our spirits for sure. We finished with dinner at L. Mulligan Grocer, which was really delicious.
This morning, we started the day at The Cake Café, which was so yummy, then we went to Forest & Marcy where Ciaran (Sweeney) opened especially to serve us lunch. He is so great, we spoke about the industry, how chef problems are universal, chef shortages, relationships within the restaurant, work/life balance, everything. Then we went to Murphy’s and had some ice-cream, I loved hearing about how passionate they are and how much integrity they have around the product.
Having explored the food scene here, what are your thoughts on Irish Food today?
Well, I was here 18 years ago in Galway and all I have are (fond) memories of delicious brown bread with golden butter and pudding for breakfast and I loved it. These are things you don’t really get in the States. But I hadn’t been back since and what I’ve had here this time is very different – there are chefs who are really pushing the boundaries, in Blue Haven I had beautiful scallops with the roe on, incredible flavours that are super memorable, even at Ballymaloe the standout feature was the high quality of every ingredient on the plate. Everything is pure-tasting here.
I loved what they are doing in Forest & Marcy, Ciaran has such an interesting take on Irish classics. These beautiful small plates, black pudding he makes himself, his potato bread with bacon in cabbage that is just stunning – he has really elevated it into modernity but it still feels like comfort food.
I was shocked to see Happy Pear’s food is mostly vegan. I didn’t expect to see that in Ireland – I think of Beef and Guinness Pie, Black Pudding, Lamb – meatiness, heavy food. The food at the Happy Pear was bright, colourful and delicious and importantly, they were using produce from their farm down the road.
I also loved seeing what the vendors in Newmarket Kitchen are doing. The general idea that under this one roof in this commissary kitchen there are people who have an opportunity to build their business without having to worry about the cost of overheads and starting a business. Unlike the people I know in the middle of starting a business, who are stressed and struggling and the product focus goes out the window because you are worrying about everything else, they seem so bright, vibrant and energetic about their product because there is hope. We heard success stories about people who graduated from there and went out on their own and it clearly really works.
You brought your expertise to the young chefs here, what will you be taking back with you from your trip?
I’m hoping from what I have seen, learned and tasted here that I can bring some of it back with me. I think there is a whole idea and stigma around Irish cuisine in the US, that it is just the same old same old corned beef and cabbage and green beer on St. Patrick’s Day. There are very few beautiful foods associated with Ireland there, except your butter – We LOVE Kerrygold!
I would like to bring the message back about how wonderful the products are, how pure they are, how amazing the dairy is, the incredible cheese – it is crazy good! We should honour that more and support it more in the States.
What was the high point of your trip?
Everyone has been so wonderful, welcoming and willing to share their stories, because they are so proud of everything they are doing and they really want to talk about how hard it is for them to get their message across. Anybody who is trying to change the face of the culinary scene here really wants to talk about that – chefs who are striving to source locally, sustainably and seasonally.
It is too hard to pick a favourite place – Ballymaloe was like Utopia, there is nothing else like that, I loved it. I loved seeing Kinsale College and how into perma-culture they are, they’re small but mighty with a huge passion for what they are doing
Also, I’m a chocoholic, so my sweet tooth was very pleased to see that you guys have had kind of an artisan chocolate explosion here! We tried a bean to bar chocolate in Kinsale – Koko – and it was such a delicious product, I was so happy to find it!
How have you found the Irish hospitality – have we lived up to our reputation?
Very much so, I think we’ve each gained about five pounds in three days! I have not needed or wanted for anything along the way – not for food, for laughs, for drinks – the only thing I need is sleep but I can do that back in the States!
Amanda’s first cookbook “The Chef Next Door: A Pro Chef’s Recipes for Fun, Fearless Home Cooking”, which she describes as a love letter to the home cook, can be purchased here.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that(and greed) as the ultimate motivator, I realised that baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, fuelling my desire to focus on food in a serious way. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting.