I’ve realized that for the few who care about the mundane in’s and out’s of what you do at cooking school, I haven’t properly described how my days are structured at Ballymaloe! I think technically every morning begins at 9 am, but if you’re there later than 8:30, you’re already late. We also have chores, called “duties,” and some take place before the start of the day, in which case we have to go in earlier. This morning, I was on stock duty, which meant helping to make a fresh batch of chicken stock, something that Ballymaloe has gallons of on-hand at all times to enrich various dishes. My housemate Lucy and I roughly butchered probably 12 chickens with a cleaver in half an hour, so that was a fun start to a Monday morning.
The morning is spent in the kitchens. You and a partner are assigned no more than eight items, sometimes as few as four depending on how complicated they are, to divvy up and prepare from 8:30 to around 11:30. Ballymaloe is pretty special in the fact that there is one teacher to every six students, which is a very low teacher to student ratio for cooking schools. They’re fonts of knowledge and do their best to manage all of our questions and queries throughout the morning. The ideal time to be serving up your plated dishes is at 12, but sometimes everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong and lunch is as late as 1. You also have to prepare a single serving of everything you cook, presented beautifully, for your teacher to taste and grade.
Whenever lunch is ready to be served, we all eat together in the dining room and brag on each other’s delicious creations, or lift one another up if something didn’t quite turn out. If your kitchen (there are 3 full kitchens here) is on time and you eat around noon, you have a lovely long break until 1:45 where you can sip on some mint tea and soak up some sun, or revel in a little fresh Irish mist. Priority numero uno for me in this precious gap of time is to change out of my chef whites and back into civilian clothes.
Starting at 1:45 are the afternoons demonstrations. We cover a packet of around 30+ pages full of recipes that we will be making the next morning. Demonstration leaders have ranged from Darina Allen, of course, her daughter-in-law Rachel, and one of our amazing teachers named Pam. For the last week, however, we’ve been given demonstrations by the cookery school’s other co-founder, Darina’s brother Rory O’Connell.
Rory was the head chef at Ballymaloe House for 10 years and has been awarded the title of Ireland’s Chef of the Year twice. He’s spent more than 20 years working in kitchens all over the world, so we basically just lap up every word he says. We’d hang on the end of his every word if he were the dullest person on the planet, but the last week has been particularly entertaining because Rory is a hoot. And I genuinely don’t think he knows he’s being funny.
Standing in front of us with stylishly-cut white hair and tortoise-shell glasses, Rory works though the afternoon’s demonstrations. He usually has his head down, chipping away at the recipes, showing his consideration for every part of the imaginary diner’s experience. He says some of the funniest things, as if they are half thoughts, with his voice trailing off at the end.
During the demo for the chocolate pudding, the final step is to gently fold in the fluffy egg whites. He has a particular method of doing this in which he first adds just a single blob of egg white to the batter and incorporates it, making the mixture “more receptive” to a gradual folding in of the rest of the egg whites.
First of all, he talks about food as if it has personality and feelings. It’s hilarious while also being incredibly accurate and a helpful perspective. Egg whites don’t like to be violently whisked in. Yeast likes to be warm and have a snack of treacle or honey. Cabbage hates sitting around after it’s been cooked. He just gets it.
Anyway, back to the pudding. When adding in the bulk of the egg whites, without looking up and fastidiously folding, he says very seriously, “Now, don’t let the egg whites bully you!” Because there is always that one cook who can’t stand to see a lump of egg white in a beautifully silky chocolatey mixture, when you could spend 20 minutes making it completely smooth to no real advantage. Even as I write it, I know I can’t do him justice. You’ll just have to sign up for a weeklong course and see for yourself!
Here are a few more Rory-isms: After finishing a beautifully refined presentation of prawns on brown yeast bread cut into rounds, with intricately placed tips of watercress leaves, and homemade mayonnaise, he said “You’d need your head examined to think of doing this in a cafe or something. You’d never want to do this kind of thing for 500 people. Maybe 50.” We all looked at each other because that presentation took a solid 10 minutes and even 50 sounded steep…
When garnishing another dish, he told us to “let the sorrel be the exclamation point.” Never in my life did I think a perennial herb on a dish could be exclamatory, but Rory makes you think otherwise.
Every morning, I walk through the school to my kitchen, kitchen three, and look out onto a small garden right off the demo room and can’t believe I’m here. I can’t believe I get to take in this view with a glass of coffee (I’ll save the glasses for coffee for another blog), and create all day. And that I get to share every bit of it with my mom (who’s sharing even more Rory-isms over on her blog so go have a read!).
Until next time!