Highlights of the 2015 Ballymaloe LitFest

Ballymaloe grounds

For the second year running we spent a most glorious weekend at Ballymaloe (pronounced Bally-mal-loo), which hosted the third Kerrygold Cooking Literary Festival of Food & Wine (LitFest for short). The venue for the festival is split between the Ballymaloe House grounds and the nearby Ballymaloe Cookery School, which is helmed by Darina Allen and numerous members of the Allen family. Both the house and school are located in County Cork, Ireland.

The literary festival grew out of a suggestion by Geoffrey Dobbs, founder of Galle Literary Festival, that Ballymaloe celebrate its literary tradition, which includes publishing three generations of cookery books. The festival celebrates food and wine writing and draws authors, chefs, educators, wine experts, gardeners, publishers, and others for a weekend filled with stories, discussions,  music, dancing and of course, delicious food and drinks.

Allegra McEvedyFaced with a difficult decision about which cooking demonstration to attend – talented presenters included April Bloomfield and Fuchsia Dunlop – we ended up seeing the wonderful Allegra McEvedy, who amused us for three hours. Her demonstration concluded with a wonderful feast of seven dishes. The weekend also included talks, tours, interviews, discussions and even foraging – the hard part is choosing which events to attend. As if there weren’t enough to keep you busy from morning ’til night, between events you can visit the Big Shed, which transforms every year into a stunning mecca of entertainment and food stalls featuring delicious local food and beverages.

Other highlights of the weekend were:                                                      

April BloomfieldAn interview with April Bloomfield, who told us her girlhood dream was to join the police force, and that she only went into cooking because she missed the police application deadline. Her goal in culinary school was to come out knowing how to cook a lamb chop – she never thought cooking would be a serious career. April has worked in some of the most famous London restaurants including Rowley Leigh’s Kensington Place, Bibendum (where she worked with Simon Hopkinson), Roscoff, the Brackenbury, and 4 years at the River Café. It was there that she realised cooking was her life, and she credits two dishes from River Café as being life changers: Walnut sauce and Kale puree. She thinks she’d still be at River Café if she hadn’t received an amazing offer to open a restaurant in New York. In addition to that restaurant, The Spotted Pig, she has also helped revamp Tosca Cafe in San Francisco, and has opened three other NYC locations: The John Dory Oyster Bar, The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, and Salvation Taco. April’s discussion was an amazing story of someone who started from humble beginnings and whose passion for food and cooking grew slowly. In recognition of her persistent hard work, intelligence, and drive to continue to learn and improve, the Beard Foundation named her the top chef in New York in 2014.

David LebovitzDavid Lebovitz‘s entertaining talk, where we learned that he was turned down in his first attempt to get a job at Chez Panisse. But in a later interview with Alice Waters, when she discovered he shared her love of eating lettuce out of the bowl with his fingers, he got the job – although I suspect there was more to it than that! He loved his 14 years at Chez Panisse, where he worked mainly as the pastry chef. But it was his discussion of his time in Paris that was the most interesting. It tells a lot about him that he relocated to a country which he knew little about and where he didn’t speak the language – he has little sympathy for people who tell him he’s lucky and they wish they could do what he did! Fourteen years later, he’s the author of a highly successful food blog (indexed on EYB), which is used by thousands of Americans and others as their personal guide to Paris (and a few great cookbooks, too!). Despite the frustrations of living in a culture that is so obviously different to his own, Lebovitz doesn’t see himself leaving in the short or long term. It’s obvious that he’s incredibly hard working and his success is as much a result of his work ethic as it is his talent as a writer.

Sam ClarkA discussion by Sam Clark: It is always interesting to hear how successful chefs arrived at cooking as a career and we heard very diverse stories over the weekend. Sam Clark claims his inspiration was being the child of a single working mother which meant he spent time in the kitchen as a means of survival! Unlike other kids who might not have ventured beyond pot noodles, he explored different cuisines and often his cupboards were bulging with ethnic foods. Sam feels that because there is no distinct food culture in England, chefs aren’t constrained by tradition. You can definitely see that in his two hugely successful restaurants, Moro and Morito.

Chez Panisse reunion: Since several Chez Panisse alumni were present at Ballymaloe it seems only fitting that they got together to reminisce. Alice Waters – restaurateur, Chez Panisse alumnifood activist, and pioneer of the American organic and local food movements – was a delight. David Lebovitz reflected on his time at Chez Panisse where he became a perfectionist, particularly concerning dressings and flavours. This now means he can rarely go out to eat without being disappointed. David Tanis spent many years as the Chez Panisse chef, and his appreciation of what a great green salad is means he always has to make his own! April Bloomfield was only there for a short time before she went off to create her successful restaurants, but the restaurant made a lasting impression on her and took her to a new level of appreciation for the fresh, simple cooking championed there.

Alice was asked if Chez Panisse could have started anywhere else besides Berkeley, California. She noted that a combination of the rich and fertile soil, people who were open to trying new things, and the area’s winemaking industry that was just beginning to take off, together created the perfect storm that allowed Chez Panisse to thrive. She told us that the open kitchen at the restaurant was created because she wanted to see the sunsets from the windows. Another interesting tidbit we learned was that most of the restaurant’s staff at the time hadn’t gone to cooking school  and operated under the philosophy of “fake it until you make it.”

BallycottonAfter reading about our wonderful weekend, I’m sure you feel tempted to attend next year (the dates are May 20-22).  If you need any further encouragement, this was the view from our hotel window in the morning.  

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  • Rinshin  on  May 27, 2015

    oh my, I would love to go next time. Ireland is on my list of places to visit since I'm half Irish. Is this venue open to public?

  • Bikkie  on  May 28, 2015

    Delighted that EYB was at Ballymaloe litfest. I got there for Fuschia Dunlop only and she was well worth seeing. I'll certainly be putting it in my diary for next year and hope to meet some of the EYB crew there!

  • IvyManning  on  May 29, 2015

    I am so glad I was able to go, so sad that so many of the events were sold out! I'll get a jump on tickets next year and will pack lightly so I can snap up some of the lovely wares that were for sale including all the cookbooks!

  • Breadcrumbs  on  May 30, 2015

    Wow Jane & Fiona, what a fabulous experience this must have been! It sounds like a remarkable event and a terrific opportunity for you to promote EYB. Definitely living vicariously through your adventures there…thanks for sharing with us!

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