Thursday, October 06, 2016

Cooking for happiness

I have been trying to write this piece for a very long time and put into words why cooking fills a need within me. Since this article was published in the Irish Times in September I have been overwhelmed by the number of messages and emails from people telling me that they understood this feeling too. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I loved writing it. There will be so much more to follow...


When your heart is breaking you can still find respite in cooking...

A dozen fairy cakes sit, slightly shrunken, in their wrinkled paper cases. She picks one up and cuts out a rough circle from the golden centre. Then slices it in half with the kitchen knife, its worn out white plastic handle grasped in her hand. Filling the gap with raspberry jam and lightly whipped cream, she places the cut pieces, which are now wings, back on top and hands it to me.

There” my mum says – “a butterfly cake”. I devour it quickly in one bite. The taste of the still warm soft buttery cake wraps itself around me and I remember how it felt like everything was going to be OK because all that mattered at that moment was eating it. This feeling is why I cook.

Throughout my life I have found comfort and reassurance in cooking. In college toast with melting pools of butter reminded me of who I was when I was trying so hard to be somebody else. I was fighting against myself and if you have done this you will know how tiring it can be. But I found some tiny solace cooking what I wanted even if it was only toast.

In summer we’d drive to Cork to visit my granny in those days when driving to Cork from Dublin took a long time. Walking into her warm house we were greeted by the smell of a roast chicken. There was buttered cabbage and boiled new potatoes. A steak and kidney pie simmering on the stove for hours awaiting our arrival – steam slowly rising from the top of it. Dessert was a Madeira cake which she served in thick wedges.

Then a few years ago when my dad was in intensive care I cooked my way through it. Actually I also burnt a lot of food during that time but let’s not dwell on that. When I couldn’t sleep I would get up and cook. The dishes I cooked were from my childhood – one was a chicken pie with fluffy potatoes – balls of flour my dad used to call them. When you cook you have to focus on the process itself and this is where the relief lies. When your heart is breaking and everything you eat tastes like sawdust you may still find some respite in the physical action of cooking. I used to stand in the kitchen, reciting a recipe from start to finish to myself, weighing out ingredients and lining them up in a row in front of me. Their orderliness would sooth me because it was the opposite to my jumbled thoughts. I would chop mushrooms feeling the edge of the knife slip easily through their smooth skin. Stirring vegetables in a pan my mind would start to wander and for a moment I would forget about what ever immediate worry I had.

Finally I decided to leave my office job and learn how to cook professionally. Off I went to London to become that cliché of reinventing myself. I wanted to learn how to cook. I wanted to throw myself deeply into it. I wanted to understand why and how things work in a kitchen because cooking is what has always been there for me.

There is a happiness to be found in food that may often be overlooked. If you go beyond the primal need to eat there is a joy to be celebrated in it. We are assaulted daily by headlines telling us what to eat. What makes something a ‘good’ food or a ‘bad’ food? How can anyone decide that for us? It vexes me that we are made to feel guilty about what we eat. I want to eat what I love and enjoy it. I don’t want to be told I cannot eat something because it is not a ‘clean’ food. There are so many other things I would rather spend my time doing than spiralizing carrots. For instance, the simple joy of sweating thinly chopped shallots in olive oil. Cook them gently now on a low heat until they become sweet and juicy – then pick one up between your thumb and forefinger, squeeze it and it will give way. Pop a cube of butter into a hot pan and watch as it starts to swirl and foam becoming a gold noisette colour and you catch a wave of that nutty aroma like digestive biscuits. I am not suggesting that cooking can solve all your problems. Imagine the burger that reorganises your life for you, tidies up your bills and does the ironing too. If only. I’d be making burgers all week. 

Life can be hard – be kind to yourself. When I cook I feel like I am just properly me. It is a world where we are often told that we have to try to be someone else, or we must be better at this, or we can’t do that. But when I am cooking none of this matters. Here I stand just making a mayonnaise by whisking oil and egg yolks together, then adding a little garlic to transform it into a beautiful aioli.
Or getting excited about foaming butter and all the things you can then make with it like a hollandaise, or a béarnaise, or stirring it into mashed potato.

Don’t take it too seriously. Ultimately it is only cooking. Sometimes you spend two hours recreating your mum’s butterfly cakes. Sometimes you just want a toasted cheese sandwich. Whatever you cook, please, just enjoy it. I know I will.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

When I met: Alain Ducasse

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on 9th January 2016. 

A minature  army of black trompette mushrooms awaits its fate on a blue cloth as a chef picks over them.  One is held up for inspection – a wisp of black velvet with a perfectly furled stem. Another chef – me – selects our best-looking sourdough. Nearby, Robin Gill, owner of The Dairy restaurant in Clapham, south London, paces while eyeing the pans arranged on the stove. He has cancelled his plans for today. Cancelled, because Alain Ducasse has just sat down for lunch. For Gill, this is “like having the chance to cook for Escoffier” – the grandfather of French cuisine.

The 59-year-old French chef has 23 restaurants in seven countries, including two in London, and a total of 20 Michelin stars. He also runs cookery schools, has written numerous cookbooks, and last year he even devised a menu for the International Space Station. Back in The Dairy kitchen, seven chefs flock around each plate as it leaves the pass. Later, an excited murmur ripples through the kitchen: Ducasse liked it. That night I, the novice, hatch a plan to win an audience with the master.

Two months of badgering later, I’m perched on a stool at our sister restaurant The Manor, also in Clapham, nervously flicking through my questions: on the industry, his opinion on the current chef shortages in the UK, how he feels about women in kitchens, and how much cooking a chef with 23 restaurants actually does.

A sleek black car pulls up and Ducasse hurries in, dressed in a sharp grey suit. He has come straight from the airport and has a packed schedule in London, visiting his own restaurants and dropping in on the Chelsea antique shop Bentleys (to pursue his hobby, collecting vintage luggage and travel trunks). He surveys the restaurant and is immediately curious about the artwork and furnishings. He fires the first questions: “Where they are from? How do we source them?” (Ducasse prefers to conduct interviews in his native French; as my questions and answers are translated, I interject in my mediocre French.)

We are meeting not long after the Paris terrorist attacks of 13 November, and talk turns quickly to his pride in the restaurant industry’s response to the atrocity. “I was in New York a week after the 9/11 attacks,” he says, “and the atmosphere was the same in Paris afterwards. We must continue living our lives as normal. No one has the right to change our destiny,” he states, with no little passion. A few days after the Paris assault, in a pointedly Parisian show of solidarity, he had organised a lunch for some big political figures at the Eiffel Tower. Though, he adds, “There were more security personnel than diners.” 

Such a display of support was the loyal act of a figurehead of French cuisine. Yet Ducasse has endured criticisms that his empire – a term he bristles at – has long prevented him from spending enough time behind the pans. His longstanding response is that he had plans to get out of the kitchen by the time he was 28, following a plane crash in the French Alps, of which he was the sole survivor.“The pain and suffering I endured turned out to be a starting point in the way I envisaged my work as a chef,” he says. Following his rehabilitation from severe injuries, he began to delegate the cooking on a daily basis to his chefs. “It opened up a way I did not see before: the possibility of running high-end restaurants in different locations simultaneously.” Ducasse swiftly went on to become the youngest chef to win three Michelin stars, aged 33; in 2006, he became the first chef to win three stars in each of three restaurants.

It might never have come to pass: had Ducasse’s mother had her way, he would still be in south-west France, running the farm where he grew up. When he announced at a young age that he wanted to cook, she sent him to train in local routiers (road restaurants), hoping that the harsh reality of cooking might deter him. One of his earliest memories of kitchens is of plucking turkeys for Christmas when he was 16. He laughs at the recollection. “The harder it was, the more I simply wanted to cook.” When he went to hospitality school in Bordeaux, he left before the end of the course and started working in restaurants: “I wasn’t learning quickly enough.”

I’m also a chef at the start of my career, and keen to learn about his view of women in the traditionally macho environment of kitchens. Several of Ducasse’s head chefs are female, of whom he speaks very highly: “It has always been important for me to have women in my restaurants, both front and back of house.” The Michelin-starred Hélène Darroze, head chef at the Connaught in London, trained with him at the Louis XV restaurant in Monaco, and was encouraged by him to begin working in the restaurant kitchen. “Two of my head chefs are female. Laetitia Rouabah at Allard, perpetuates the legacy of Marthe Allard – a ‘mother cook’ who founded the restaurant in 1932 – and brings it up to date aptly. At the helm of Benoit, one of the last authentic Parisian bistros, we have Fabienne Eymard. Both maintain the traditions and bring their touches to those places.” In 2011, Ducasse established the Femmes en Avenir (Women of the Future) programme in association with the French government to encourage women in the outskirts of Paris to earn a culinary diploma and then into relevant employment. Ducasse points out that cooking itself is a “social ladder” and that regardless of background, “anyone can start as a commis and become a successful chef”.

Provided, that is, that they are willing to work hard enough. “This difficult trade”, as Ducasse calls it, is often portrayed unrealistically in the popular TV shows that claim to reveal the working life of restaurants. “Beyond the glamour, one must not forget that our trade is very demanding,” he says. “But also cookery shows can reactivate the desire for young people to be part of this adventure.” What’s more, Ducasse believes these shows can be positive for the industry in helping to combat a current shortage of chefs in the UK: according to reports at the end of last year, there has been a drop in the number of students enrolling in chef courses. If the trend continues, it’s thought there will be a shortfall of 11,000 chefs by 2022.

Given the relentless nature of the restaurant trade, how does he remain motivated after so many years? An obsession, he tells me, with talent and diversity. By way of example, Ducasse starts enthusing about a Japanese chef he met two years ago, Toshio Tanahashi, an expert in shojin cuisine, a vegetarian Buddhist tradition. Ducasse invited Tanahashi to work at his restaurant at the Plaza Athénée hotel in Paris to learn from his techniques and, indeed, pass on his own. “We wanted to capture a few characteristic flavours, such as tofu and seaweed. Some elements of Japanese cuisine were retained by integrating them into our own vision and culinary culture.”

Still, Ducasse is often viewed as a chef most interested in cooking up new business ventures. In other interviews, I find little detail about how he actually now enjoys cooking. He insists it remains his “hobby” and, at home, “I am both the chef and the commis.” At his country house in the Basque region of France, he says he has the time at weekends to seek inspiration from his local market and cook with his favourite ingredients: vegetables from his garden and “freshly caught fish straight from the boat”.

In fact, fresh fish and veg are now the predominant ingredients on the menu at Athénée. It was big news in the world of fine dining when Ducasse announced in 2014 that the restaurant would be refurbishing, and reducing the number of meat dishes it would serve. When it reopened, Michelin removed one of its three stars. Can haute cuisine retain its cachet, I ask. Ducasse replies by drawing a parallel between fine dining and haute couture: “Each is a window to their industries,” he says, “creating interest and setting trends.” Nevertheless, he adds, his restaurants are a portfolio of fine dining and bistro cuisine. And the one venture that Ducasse will tell me he has in store for 2016 (“I have many, many plans – too many”) is a bistro, in the Les Halles neighbourhood of Paris.

Time is pressing and his restaurant at the Dorchester beckons. If he hadn’t been a chef, he would have been an explorer and architect, he tells me: “[Now] I get to do all three.” I ask him when he might stop. He smiles… “I guess I will keep doing this for as long as I can.” Before leaving for his restaurant, he invites me to visit and stage (do kitchen work experience) at the Plaza Athénée. Who can say no to the master?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Three years later...

This article originally appeared in the Irish Times on 25th November 2015.

My days were once consumed with emails, appointments, spreadsheets and procedures. My wardrobe was a formation of pressed suits in dark shades blending into one another, with perfectly matching heels below them in their boxes. Obsessed with having flawless and manicured nails, I’d repaint them when I detected the slightest chip. On my sparse work desk all items were neatly arranged, flanked by an orderly stack of reference books. I clutched my Blackberry in my right hand as I marched from desk to car, unable to be separated from it for even the shortest of time, a safety blanket between me and my work.
Looking up from my spattered Birkenstocks (what is that on them I wonder), I eye up another delivery landing into the kitchen and wonder where we’re going to find space. Already every inch of the stainless steel benches are cluttered with boxes, chopping boards, plastic containers, and now this wobbling tower of fruit crates. It’s hot in the kitchen and I’m frantically trying to remember where I stashed our fans. A distant memory of an air-conditioned office flashes into my head, I push it away. Time to unpack the delivery and get back to work.
This transition from corporate world to kitchens started three years ago. I’d always been somewhat obsessed with food. In my former life as a HR manager in Dublin I’d bake at home, always making too much, bringing the leftovers into work the next day. I fed my colleagues breakfast with scones and biscuits; a white and dark chocolate cheesecake laced with Kahlua was a particular favourite.
Having always been more academic than practical, I went straight into college after secondary school, studying psychology then a Master’s in business, before starting work in a large retail pharmacy group.
I genuinely loved my old job, and as I climbed up the ladder I hid the thought of doing something else. My mum of course knew better (don’t they always), and would often say that I hadn’t found what I should be doing. Dismissing this I would focus on the next big project in work.
But when my father survived a critical illness, my life was turned inside out and I began to question everything I had built for myself. Around this time I started a blog, where I began to pour out my fixation with cooking. I’d stay up late at night writing it and at weekends I’d wake up early and spend two days in a cooking and baking frenzy. This continued for a number of months and eventually the opportunity to move to London came about a month before I turned 30.
For a while, I maintained the illusion that I would continue to work in HR when I moved abroad. It seemed easiest to answer questions with this rather than admitting I was finally going to try and follow my dream to become a chef and writer.
It was then that I realised how much you can let your work define you. When I first moved to London I didn’t work for a number of months, having saved in my old job. I had become so used to saying, “I’m Laoise, I’m a HR manager”, that when meeting new people and having to introduce and talk about myself I felt I had little to say. But moving to London rather than starting over again in Dublin made it less complicated to “re-invent” myself. In London I was anonymous, but I quickly found there were connections to be made here too.
As is often the case with the Irish abroad, I’ve ended up working for an Irish person. Robin Gill set up The Dairy restaurant in Clapham in 2013, and it has since won many awards, including the Good Food Guide’s Chef of the Year award for Robin himself. Last year he opened another restaurant The Manor, closely followed by his farm shop, The Delicatessen early this year and his fourth site Paradise Garage a few months ago. With his teams, he has created beautiful restaurants which make their own bread, butter, and charcuterie like pork and fennel salumi, guanciale, goose ham and lardo. At The Dairy we even have a rooftop garden complete with beehives, looked after by Dean Parker, head chef at The Manor.
Having an Irish connection in London has certainly helped me and I’ve been overwhelmed by how supportive the industry is here. Once you show a willingness to learn opportunities open up to you, and I’ve met a number of Irish people who echo the same sentiment.
I went to cookery school and completed a professional diploma, during which I started working in a pub kitchen to gain hands-on experience. Moving from a background of a constrained and always politically correct HR environment to entering a kitchen where anything goes, was refreshing.
Cooking at home back in Ireland, I’d think I was only marvellous having small dinner parties for friends with ooohs and aaahs over my cooking. Sure didn’t I know how to cook already? I hadn’t a clue.
In a professional kitchen you are faced with every task being amplified. You’re not dicing one onion, you’re dicing 20. You’re not making a small bowl of mayonnaise, it’s a vat, and you just know this is the time you split it, over and over again as you stutter “honestly I know how to make mayonnaise”. You’re not peeling one potato, it’s a sackful. You’re not plating up four dishes, it’s hundreds. Now think of doing that over and over again, every lunch and dinner service and doing it consistently to the same standard.
In a domestic kitchen you can easily control the environment, your equipment, your music, no distractions. Now enter the professional kitchen where you may be surrounded by one or more of the following: loud music, deliveries arriving, other chefs working around you all wanting to use the same equipment at the same time, suppliers ringing, front of house staff calling out cheques, crashing trays, dishes, pans, basically loud sounds all the times, your work space being invaded by other chefs, equipment, more deliveries. The list goes on.
You might think that being an organised person is a vital part of being a chef, and yes it is definitely important, but it can also be immensely frustrating, as you’re working in an environment that is often chaotic.
Before I started learning how to cook professionally I imagined I’d glide elegantly around the kitchen in my Birkenstocks, stirring sauces, sipping stocks, adding a pinch of salt, another sprig of thyme, a sprinkle of cracked black pepper. I would be serene, smiling sweetly as I conjured up another batch of pomme purée.
How wrong I was. Here are a few things that have stood out during my very brief experience of professional kitchens so far.
Blue paper: You will develop an unhealthy obsession with blue paper. It has so many uses. A new roll seems such an abundant thing. But where does all the blue paper go? It’s an unanswered mystery.
Rage issues: An uncontrollable rage fills you if someone uses a chopping board without blue paper underneath to secure it. Or worse still they’re using blue paper but it’s not damp. An Incredible Hulk type rage consumes you when you don’t have a spoon when you need one, or can’t find a spatula.
Backs: You’ll shout “backs” more times in a day than is humanly possible. “Backs! Backs Baaaaaaaacks!” Soon you’ll begin to chant it like a little refrain in your head. When you leave the kitchen you may bark this out at strangers who spend more than five seconds moving out of your way.
Your nemeses: cling film and tin foil: These everyday food coverings may seem useful at first, but they are in fact evil beings which will conspire to become stuck to everything. You will spend more time than you really should cursing them. But when you manage to unravel them you will feel victorious (enjoy it, it’s a temporary feeling).
Respect for spoons: Before working in kitchens, I wouldn’t have given the humble spoon a second thought. Now it is a prized gemstone. Find yours. Keep them. Never let them go. Ever. Ever. They are magical objects that disappear only to reappear at the end of service.
Kleptomaniac tendencies: On the bus home you’ll wonder what that is digging into your back pocket. Three tasting spoons. Two dough scrapers. Plus some blue paper.
On the long days: When you’re aching where you never thought possible and you’ve entered a whole new level of tiredness, you’ll wonder why the hell you ever left your office job for this crazy world.
On the best days: And then someone gives you a one-word compliment on a dish. It is the best feeling. You’ll wonder why the hell you didn’t leave your office job sooner. That’s why you go home, sleep for four hours and get up and do it all over again.
I long stopped caring about my nails, and laugh at the old me that endlessly repainted them and actually cared the day she first had to cut them to cook. My wardrobe now has a new work uniform: mismatched jeans, a row of white t-shirts on a spectrum of white to grey or cream following many cycles in the washing machine. The heels are long gone, replaced by an extensive sock collection, perhaps a tiny nod to my old life.
Laoise Casey is a chef at The Dairy and The Delicatessen in Clapham, London and also writes regular columns for the London Evening Standard and Independent about one of her favourite subjects, lunch. Laoise first wrote for Generation Emigration in 2013 about leaving Ireland to cook up a new life in London. She blogs at and tweets at @cuisine_genie.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Pack it up

The vac pack is a vital piece of restaurant equipment. Removing the air from a bagged food/liquid and sealing it allows you to preserve it for a lot longer. You can also use it to infuse food with flavours by compressing. Imagine vac packing diced apple with apple juice, infusing carrots with a pickle liquor. When ours breaks down in the kitchen you realise just how reliant you are on it. 

You also realise just how reliant you are on it when something goes wrong. Like when you forget to set the timer to stop at 10 seconds and let it run up to 50. Now this might be OK if you were vac packing some innocuous liquid like, perhaps, water. However, when it's bone marrow butter it can be rather upsetting. Upsetting like making you want to stab yourself in the eye upsetting. You watch as the butter explodes in the machine and jab at the stop button which for some reason won't obey you and for the-love-of-god-why-won't-it-stop. You glance frantically around you, exhaling with relief as you see there's no one around to witness this supreme display of idiocy. Then you spot the KP who helps you clean up the disaster and promises not to tell anyone.

(And then you write a blog post about it)

Image source

Friday, October 23, 2015

Le Shoe Parfait

Alas, not an ode to the perfect shoe.

There is a highly useful piece of kitchen equipment called a Vitamix Vita-Prep - a blender. Relatively fool-proof to use. You'd imagine. 

So. About that.

While it may seem like a fairly straightforward step in the process of using a blender always ensure you put the lid on. Tight.

Otherwise there will be an episode. A combination of partially blended chicken livers, foie gras, emulsified butter and eggs all over your shoes. Your apron. Your hair. Your face. And the ceiling. As you watch the livers slide off your shoes onto the tiles you start to feel a little like this:

Image source Wikipedia

You brush the congealed butter off your face and flashback to this time last year when you were sitting at your desk with your manicured hands in your business suit typing away on your emails delighted with yourself. 

Time to go home and cry into your calloused hands.

You won’t forget to tighten it next time, will you? 

Thought not. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Broad Bean Gate

Before I started learning how to cook professionally I imagined I'd glide elegantly around the kitchen in my Birkenstocks, stirring sauces, sipping stocks, adding a pinch of salt, another sprig of thyme. A sprinkle of cracked black pepper. A serene presence. Smiling sweetly as I conjured up another batch of pomme purée with the sleight of a hand. 

Within a few weeks-days-hours I had turned into a stark raving lunatic. 

What follows is a series of incidents where any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental. 

Like this one time. With the broad beans. 


stage is where you basically work for free in a restaurant kitchen to gain experience. 

During a stage your main aim is to stay out of the way, be helpful and not cause any hassle to the kitchen. Note: not to cause any hassle to the other chefs is really your main aim. 

If they ask you to cook  a load of broad beans and peas you should probably have the foresight not to throw them all in the same pan and cook them together.

Had you not had the foresight to do this you will now spend the next 58 minutes separating them. Feeling like the world’s biggest plonker as the rest of the chefs look on grinning. You probably won’t be coming back there again. 

Image source Wikipedia
The broad bean, not to be confused with the pea

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Oh hello again...

So for the last year and a half I sort of disappeared from Cuisine Genie.

Time passed and glancing guiltily at old posts I figured it would be silly to start writing on here again. This blog seemed more associated with my old life (as a HR Manager, as I was when I first started it) and sure wasn't I too busy now learning how to cook and writing my fancy newspaper column?

Oooo  yeah. Remember Mr. Moustache's lunch box? Well turns out other people like them too. And I've somehow ended up with a column all about the humble lunch box for the London Evening Standard. Except this is now about lunch boxes inspired by my favourite London restaurants and their signature dishes. And now you can read all about turning restaurant dishes into simple lunch boxes. If that kind of thing floats your boat you can read about it here. And if it doesn't well that's ok, I get that some people don't swoon about lunch boxes. 

So there I was writing about lunch boxes. Trying to cook. Living the dream in the big city, well chuffed that for the moment at least I won't have to hang my head in shame and skulk back to the corporate world.  But still my little blog lies neglected, slowly gathering dust in cyber space. Each week my mum would ring and demand to know when my next update would be. 'But I'm really busy with work and y'know writing about the lunch boxes and y'know I just don't have time...'. And I'd roll over, turn on Netflix and figure I'd start writing again on it some day.

Then just this evening I figured I'd do it. (I'd watched the last episode of Narcos). I started this blog before the crazy journey from HR to kitchens began and now that I'm a little way into it well it might just be the right time to keep going. 

Perhaps now is a good time to share with you all the mistakes, disasters and general catastrophes that feature in learning how to cook professionally. So g'wan, pull up a chair, pour a cup of tea and read about what happens when I stopped talking about it and just did it. (except I actually kept talking and sometimes I can't stop and that probably gets really annoying, but you know what I mean it's good to talk isn't it?).