Ballymaloe’s head chef Dervilla O’Flynn on how she rose from the lowliest role to the top job, and how she uses locally grown ingredients to keep Ireland’s farm-to-fork tradition alive
When Dervilla O’Flynn got a summer job working in the farm shop at Ballymaloe, little did she think she would one day end up as head chef.
The first thing I was shown was by Rory O’Connell (the founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School),” she says. “He showed me how to put garlic and rosemary into a leg of lamb, and that really sealed the deal for me.”
Dervilla, a Dubliner, went on to do the cookery course at Ballymaloe and then taught there with Darina Allen for a number of years.
“It was the best job and the hardest job I ever had,” she says. “Darina always had her finger on the pulse of everything that was happening globally, even then, 30 years ago.
“I then went on to work in different places before returning here (to Ballymaloe House, down the road from the school) four years ago as head chef. I had my three children reared and I just knew it was time to come back.”
Dervilla is a big advocate of local ingredients. She says the most simple herbs, grown in the back garden or on the farm, can transform a family dinner.
“Herbs such as basil and rosemary are lovely and easy to grow,” she says. “And just a handful of good quality, local vegetables such as green beans or kale can totally transform a dish. They’re so versatile and can be easily grown on most Irish farms.
“Sapori is another lovely garden herb and it’s really hardy — you can leave it out and forget to water it and it’s still fine.
“Rhubarb, apple trees and gooseberries grow easily in Irish gardens and they’re always a lovely addition. And having your own compost heap really helps.”
She says getting over-ambitious when starting out is the biggest mistake most people make and you need to learn how to manage what you’re growing before “going too big”.
The 100ac organic Ballymaloe Farm (run by Darina’s husband Tim), three miles from Ballymaloe House, is home to pigs, beef cattle and a dairy herd, and Dervilla uses the produce in her dishes, “even though it’s run as a separate business”.
“At the moment there’s loads of beautiful seasonal fruit and vegetables growing there. Then when they butcher a cow for meat, I take a lot of that for the restaurant.
“They make buttermilk, cream, cheese and yoghurt there from the cows they’re milking.”
Dervilla’s cooking reflect what is in season on the farm and in the garden.
“Using what is in your locality supports local jobs and keeps the Irish farm-to-fork tradition alive too,” she says.
“I write a new menu every day to keep the customers at the hotel happy, because if they’re staying at the hotel for say three nights, they don’t want to be eating the same thing every day.
“It’s a bit mad and you just have to be on it all the time.”
“We get pork from a local farmer
, and we have another farmer in Middleton supplying us with local beef and lamb.”
This week, Dervilla is working with seasonal vegetables such as golden beetroot, chards and kale to create her dishes. She says her week starts by putting in her orders for the week.
“I ring our gardener every week and she will tell me what’s good for this week and what not to touch for another week or so.
“I also ring the gardener at the cookery school every morning at 7am and get my order in for the day, and I do the same with the fishermen for our fish.
“We have our own lovely walled garden and at the moment and we have chards, kales, peaches carrots, rhubarb which is just finishing, and broad beans, which are all on our menus this week.
“Then at the cookery school we have cherry tomatoes which are just starting, and courgettes.”
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