From Cullahill, Co Laois, Rory O’Connell was one of nine children raised by his widowed mother. He cooked in Le Manoir au Quat’ Saisons in Oxford and Chez Panisse in California, before becoming head chef at Ballymaloe House. He founded the Ballymaloe Cookery School with sister Darina Allen, where he continues to teach, along with writing cookbooks and presenting a series on TV. He lives in Co Cork.
Interview by Sarah Caden
WHAT WERE YOUR PARENTS LIKE? My father died when I was three, so I have no recollection of him. My mother was left widowed with eight children and expecting her ninth. My sister was born a month after he died. My mother was a wonder, really. When I was growing up, she didn’t really speak about my father, but then, as she got older and we got older, she would mention him and he sounded marvellous. But for a long time, she just couldn’t do it.
DID YOU FEEL LOVED? Absolutely. My mother would give us a kiss before we went to school and a kiss when we got home from school. We didn’t say, ‘I love you,’ or anything but absolutely we felt loved and completely secure in that love.
WHAT ARE THE BEST TRAITS THAT YOU HAVE INHERITED? This is a very manly answer. I think it’s my work ethic, but then I inherited that from my mother. That and just general kindness. My mother wasn’t gossipy and a type of resistance to being bitchy seems to be part of our genes.
WHERE DID YOU GO TO SCHOOL AND WHAT LEGACY DID IT LEAVE? My primary school was in the village where we grew up called Cullahill. Secondary school was boarding in Cistercian College, Roscrea. Would I have preferred to be at home? Undoubtedly, but the Cistercian monks I found to be extremely honourable. It was a good, solid education.
“I thought maybe I’d be a nice sort of country solicitor and be able to go hunting at the weekends and have all of that life.”
WERE YOU GOOD AT SCHOOL? I was really very average. My birthday is November, so I always seemed to be almost a year younger than all the other people in my class, but that sounds like I’m making excuses for my lack of academic prowess. I always did everything other than the academic things, every play, every musical, debating, that kind of thing.
WHAT DID YOU THINK YOU’D GROW UP TO BE WHEN YOU WERE A BOY? I thought maybe I’d be a nice sort of country solicitor and be able to go hunting at the weekends and have all of that life. I had no clue in reality, just a ridiculous pretension.
AS A YOUNGER MAN, WHAT GAVE YOU A COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE? Having learned how to cook growing up, literally learning by proximity, and my mother was a really good cook. All of our meals were delicious. I don’t know how she did it. She was frugal and talented and food was our medicine. We looked forward to every meal and growing up helping her was a huge advantage when I first went into a professional kitchen. I had no fear.
WHAT HAVE YOUR FEMALE RELATIONSHIPS ADDED TO YOUR LIFE? Growing up, I thought Ireland was full of widows. It seemed there were widows everywhere and there was there was a sort of a beauty to them, or that’s how their inner strength seemed to me. They ran farms and, in my mother’s case, ran our family business. So what I learned from women is strength.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR FRIENDSHIPS? I don’t make a million friends, but I have a very old, very dear friends. I think I value solidity and reliability and trustworthiness.
HAS THE #METOO MOVEMENT MADE MEN MORE FEARFUL? I hope so. I think it’s made men think before they jump in feet first.
HOW COULD MEN’S HEALTH BE BETTER SUPPORTED? It’s important to teach young men to speak to each other the way girls speak to each other. I certainly see that is happening in younger friends now. I have a much younger partner, he’s 40, and I’m completely fascinated by his relationship with his friends. I mean, they tell each other they love each other and stuff and that’s so good. We’d have been run out of town if we said that in my youth.
YOUR MOST PHYSICALLY ATTRACTIVE FEATURE, IN YOUR OPINION? I used to say that I had very nice hands, but that was a long time ago. After after over 60 years of chopping and cooking, maybe not so good.
WHAT IS YOUR STYLE SIGNIFIER? I wear a lot of scarves. I love the bit of colour and the comfort. I envy how in other cultures, men can put on a huge scarf and it drapes and falls almost like a carved statue. I think that’s fantastic.
WHEN DO YOU BUY YOUR CLOTHES? I buy fewer clothes the older I get, but I seem to have a lot of clothes and that’s because I mind them. I have a Barbour jacket that’s 35 years old and an old corduroy suit I bought in a secondhand shop after a boozy lunch in Turin years ago, so god knows how old that is.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE SHOES? Shoes that last, leather and suede. There’s most wonderful shoe shop shop in Marrakech called Atika. Anytime I go to Marrakech, I buy shoes there.
DO YOU USE SKINCARE PRODUCTS? I use a Kiehl’s moisturiser every morning after I wash my face.
DO YOU LIKE TO HAVE A TAN? I have a lot of grey going on, so I love a tan.
WHAT DOES YOUR EXERCISE ROUTINE INCLUDE? A bit of walking, and sea swimming. I do that less in winter but I’m lucky enough that I live five minutes from the sea, so I can swim twice a day during the summer. It’s just glorious.
WHAT WAS THE MOST RECENT BOOK YOU READ? I’m reading a book at the moment about Christian Dior’s sister [Miss Dior by Justine Picardie]. Catherine Dior was a member of the French Resistance and a prisoner of war in Germany.
HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH A SETBACK? I just use it as a moment to think and and come to the realisation quite quickly there is no setback, really, unless it is your physical health. Maybe it comes from growing up in a family where you just had to keep going.
WHAT’S A HOLIDAY THAT YOU’D LIKE TO REPEAT? I absolutely adore Morocco. I go to Tangier a lot and I love when you get off the ferry from Tarifa in Spain and instantly know you’re not in Europe. I love being a foreigner in another land.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST EXPERIENCE OF GRIEF? I was too young to remember my father or his death, so my first experience of grief was falling in love and discovering that the person loved me, but wasn’t in love with me.
DO YOU THINK ABOUT RETIREMENT? No. I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t play golf and I don’t want to play golf. I love gardening but you can only do so much of that every day. I think that not teaching on a day-to-day basis would be a sort of grief, actually. I feel as energetic as I ever did.
WHAT DOES YOUR PERFECT WEEKEND INCLUDE? Being at home, with my partner Rúaidhrí, delicious food, maybe maybe some pals coming, maybe going to the pub for a pint before dinner. It’s really just the people that I love, and food.”