It’s all happening for Cork’s Clodagh McKenna. Just as she starts her own chain of restaurants, she is becoming a star in a America, while the cookery school and the books keep ticking away too. This self-propelling force in Irish food is not afraid to say she is ambitious, that she really chased it, and she doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But on one of her to-do lists, she tells Sarah Caden, is children with her new love. Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Liadan Hynes
Clodagh McKenna has her arms up in the air, waving them around and whooping in imitation of the 200-strong television studio audience that faced her in New York only a matter of days earlier. She’s laughing at the memory, through a slight fog of jet-lag and a small sense of disbelief that it actually happened.
“I came out there and they were just screaming and yelling,” Clodagh says, “and I was giggling inside, because this was not like an Irish or a UK audience or anything I’m used to. And I’m halfway through the baking and I ask them if it looks good and they’re yelling, ‘Yeah, it’s awesome!’ It was just amazing.”
A tiny, tiny part of Clodagh was concerned that she might freeze in front of the American crowd on the Oprah Winfrey Network’s Nate Berkus Show. “I’m usually pretty relaxed on television, though, so that kicked in,” she says. But the whole set-up was beyond anything she has ever known, she says. Tyra Banks was in the building filming her show and the production was huge, and she recognised Berkus’s co-host from years ago on 21 Jump Street; it was another world. And she liked it. And they liked her.
“I left and I said to my boyfriend that we should go for a glass of wine,” Clodagh explains, “and by the time we got back to the hotel and went to the bar, I got a call saying that they wanted me to come back and do a regular slot. And, you know, you leave that kind of thing on a high, and they’re all saying you’re amazing, we love you, but you have no idea how you have really come across. It was just brilliant.” So, Clodagh McKenna will be off to New York for more TV next month and again in January. Asked what it was that American television liked about her, Clodagh says that she has a high energy that works over there and admits that it’s easier to have fun when the audience don’t know you from Adam, but there’s more to it than that. It’s easy to see what America liked about Clodagh McKenna. While utterly Irish in many ways, she has that get-up-and-go and lack of embarrassment at being ambitious that they love in the States. Ireland can respond to Clodagh’s capacity for hard slog — the US TV breakthrough comes hot on the heels of the publication of a new book, Homemade, and the opening of two cafes of the same name in Dublin’s Arnotts, where she is totally hands-on — but America can appreciate her self-confidence.
It is almost five years since Ireland became aware of Clodagh McKenna, through her first RTE television series, Fresh from the Farmers’ Markets. The series was inspired by her first book, The Irish Farmers’ Market Cookbook, which had been published the previous year and had, in turn, been inspired by her years producing and selling her own market wares. She was immediately an engaging personality, with a sharp media savvy and a great story to tell about falling in love with food and then falling in love with a dashing Italian, with whom, at that time, she lived in Turin.
Blonde and pretty, the comparisons with Rachel Allen were immediate and inevitable, but Clodagh was Rachel without the family-name recognition of Ballymaloe behind her, a self-governing, self-propelling new force in Irish food, who emphasised her entrepreneurial ability and independent spirit. And that’s what we now perceive Clodagh to be, a foodie businesswoman, with a school and restaurant in the Village at Lyons, Co Kildare, going strong, as well as the books, the new cafes, the range of aprons and the bakery she has planned. Oh, and the magazine and further branches of Homemade about which she dreams.
“My family had high hopes for me from a young age,” says Clodagh, trying to pinpoint why, from childhood, she always wanted her own business and believed it was achievable. “I don’t know where it came from, but there was always high hopes of what I would do.” The youngest of four children brought up in Cork’s Montenotte, by a father who was a guard and a mother a legal secretary, Clodagh was taught the value of hard work from the start. “They both worked, but we always had a three-course dinner every evening: starter, main course, dessert,” she says. “And we grew our own vegetables. I wouldn’t call it a foodie house; we lived in a semi-d and grew the vegetables at the side, but there were always fresh linens, always flowers on the table.
“And because they both worked, when you got home from school, there would be a list waiting for you every day. It was only a couple of things — peel carrots, wash potatoes — but it was good for us all because me and my two sisters and my brother, we all have such a good work ethic. We work really hard. At the time, it was such a pain in the butt, and really embarrassing in front of your friends, but I see the sense of it now,” Clodagh adds, and it’s hard to miss the two books of to-do lists by her elbow. After school in Cork, Clodagh won a scholarship to New York Business School, which was “probably the best move I ever made”, she says. There wasn’t much time for letting her hair down or going wild, as her grade-point average had to stay up to maintain the scholarship, but it was a wonderful time. She loved the big city, where nobody knew her, and fell in love with the city’s coffee-shop scene, visits to which were funded by her big sisters’ very generous gifts of the odd few quid in the post. Back in Ireland in her early twenties, with her US-acquired business skills under her belt, Clodagh had already decided that she wanted to work with food. A coffee shop was the dream, but she needed some training. “My parents co-signed a credit-union loan for me to go to Ballymaloe and that was amazing, eye-opening,” she says.
“Darina is just amazing,” she says, “and Myrtle, of course, and, you know, all the rest of it. But Darina just lives and breathes Ballymaloe. She’s tough to work for, but you understand why when you move on and work for someone else or for yourself. She demands perfection and that’s for the customer. It’s a way of life. It changed my whole thinking on food and where I wanted to be in my career; it’s a whole education. “And Darina never forgets anything. I got a lovely card from her when I opened Homemade. She remembers everything. She has a presidential mind, I always say.”
After the three-month cookery course in Ballymaloe, Clodagh stayed on as a chef in the house for more than two years and, during that time, started producing pasta, breads, pates, pestos and sauces for the renowned farmers’ market in Midleton, east Cork. Myrtle Allen kindly let her use the kitchen in Ballymaloe and her co-workers called Clodagh “the ICA lady”. “I loved the whole thing so much,” says Clodagh, with an enthusiasm that you recognise as characteristic after even a short conversation. “On a Friday, I’d finish service at 11 or 12 o’clock at night and then I’d start making the pastas and all that. I mean, I was about 24, I could do all-nighters. I’d get everything ready and then I’d pile up my Renault Clio and off I’d go. It was a fantastic experience.”
She ultimately moved on from Ballymaloe and although she kept up the markets for another few years, eventually Clodagh felt it was time to focus her energies. “I had too many balls in the air. I had the markets and I was very involved with Slow Food, which was totally voluntary, and then I had just been offered a book — actually, that’s not true, I chased that, big time,” Clodagh says with a laugh. The very fact that she admits to chasing her first book deal is telling of Clodagh’s character. She’s ambitious and she knows — not least, she says, from interviews conducted by men — that this is taken to be somewhat strange in a woman. But she’s unabashed about it and refuses to be coy about it. Coy is just not Clodagh. She believed that she could do a book, she convinced others of the fact and, as her subsequent strength-to-strength success proves, she was right.
“I really chased it,” Clodagh adds of the book deal. “Six months or even a year. I knocked on doors, I looked for an agent in the UK, but nothing was happening. I think I made it happen purely on my determination, nothing else. And then RTE offered me a show. “At the time, there was nobody doing TV in Ireland. Like, Rachel hadn’t shows at that time, there was nobody,” she says, though, in fact, Rachel Allen had been doing television for three years before Clodagh arrived on screen in 2007. “But I never had a plan to do TV. I need to do more planning, I think, or maybe it’s more that I just go with whatever I love right at that time; I just jump into it.”
At that time, when Clodagh’s career really took off in Ireland, there was another love affair in her life besides food and she was, physically, elsewhere. She had met Sebastiano Sardo in 2002, through the Slow Food Movement, of which his father is a founder, but they did not begin a romantic relationship until several years later and, after some back and forth, Clodagh eventually moved to his native Turin. She had written her first book by that time, and wanted to write another, and she believed that Italy could prove inspiring professionally as well as romantically. “And my career started hopping once I went away,” she laughs. “Isn’t it funny how that happens? But I was quite happy to be away when the TV series was on. The recognition doesn’t sit easily with me.” The success at home meant, however, that Clodagh spent a lot of time in airports, a lot of time on the road, an increasing amount of time away from Sebastiano. “In the last year of the relationship,” she explains, “I was away so much that we had kind of grown apart and become more friends. And he understood the passion I had for my work but there was that little bit of heartbreak and it was sad, but he’s really happy now.
“He really wanted a family, and he had a little baby girl recently,” Clodagh says, insisting that she felt no pang of regret at that news. “No, I’m happy for him. I’m quite ‘when it’s over, it’s over’. I’m not one to hold on. And I had felt guilty, too, when I first moved back, because I ended it and I was happy to come home and happy with my decision, so for him to go on and find someone and have a child, which is exactly what he wanted, that’s great. And she’s not career-oriented, she’s a stay-at-home mom and she’s perfect for him. “I was never going to be the stay-at-home mom. Never,” she laughs. “If I do have a kid, they’ ll be on my back in a kitchen somewhere.”
Children, concedes Clodagh, as we broach something that’s as thorny to suggest to a woman as her ambition, are on the to-do list for next year. She has been in a relationship with Peter Gaynor for two years now and is very happy, though, she laughs, customers still come up and ask her if “the Italian is here”. “I’m quite easygoing about children,” Clodagh continues. “It’s not something I’ve had a huge longing for, but it’s something I’d like to do. And, yeah, it would fit in. A small family, at this stage of my life — 36 — like, one or two. I’ll think about it next year, when I’m older and more mature.
“Not now, no, not now” says Clodagh, and you can see why. The cafes are barely starting, she’s in them four days a week, and then teaching in the Village at Lyons and then the whole, unanticipated American thing. It’s a lot. Clodagh shakes her head in wonder as she recounts how it happened that she ended up on US TV. During the summer, her brother, whose wife, Erin, manages her day-to-day business, gave Clodagh’s latest book to a journalist from Forbes magazine, with whom he was playing golf in Co Clare. The journalist’s interest was piqued and he visited Lyons and checked out Clodagh’s RTE shows. This led to a write-up on the Forbes website, which, she says, reached far more people than she could ever have imagined, and a slot on Martha Stewart’s radio show followed, as well as various US newspaper interviews and, ultimately, Nate Berkus. She can’t quite believe it — this is easy to see — and perhaps not just because it’s potentially so lifechanging, but because Clodagh didn’t have to go after it. America came after Clodagh.
“I am ambitious,” she says. “I’m ambitious about my own life. After interviews, for a long time, I examined the question I always got asked, ‘Why are you so ambitious?’ But I’m ambitious for my own career and I never look at other people’s careers. I never look at Rachel Allen or Jamie Oliver. I never look at them and think, ‘That’s what I want to be like.’ I’m very honest about what I want. In my mind, I have my own dreams and I want to fulfil them. “I’d like to have my own magazine, I want to bring out another book next year, I’d like to open another branch of Homemade in Cork,” she says. “I am quite ambitious, and anyone who works with me, they know it. But they know it’s not ego-driven. It’s just about how exciting it would be if we did this or that. It’s the excitement of doing something.”
It is, maybe, the excitement of doing something, and aspiring to do everything, that drives Clodagh McKenna. Though even she is aware of the dangers of doing too much. Advice she once received on the subject of her to-do lists was among the best she’s ever had. They must be achievable, she explains, or you can end up disheartened and disappointed in yourself. You can always add more to them if you get everything done, she laughs, but they must start out realistically. “America is so unexpected and I’m a little bit nervous that I’ll be able to manage it, but I’ll just see how it goes. And, knowing me, once I get a glimpse of it, I’ll just throw myself into it,” Clodagh McKenna says with a laugh. “When I get a glimpse of something I like, I’m like a bulldozer.”
Don’t miss Clodagh McKenna’s cookery demos at Taste of Christmas, the season’s L finest food, drink and shopping festival, at the Convention Centre Dublin from November 25-27, featuring the MasterChef Ireland’ live theatre show with Dylan McGrath and Nick Munier plus ‘MasterChef Ireland’ finalists. Tickets on sale now from €15, excluding booking fees, see www.tasteofchristmas.ie
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Assisted by Jessica Gaffney
Make-up by Seana Long
Hair by Roy Leigh, both at Brown Sugar, 50 Sth William St, D2, tel: (01) 616-9967
Shot at Clontarf Castle, Castle Ave, Clontarf, D3, tel: (01) 833-2321, or see www.clontarfcastle.ie