IN 1968 — when Alice Waters had just graduated from Berkeley, when Paula Wolfert was studying couscous in Tangier, when Diana Kennedy was writing recipes after years of research in Mexico — another young woman, this one from the Irish Midlands, went to work at a peculiar new restaurant on the southern coast of County Cork.
“I had heard that there was a farmer’s wife running a restaurant in her house, serving Irish food and writing the menu every day depending on what was in the garden,” said the woman, Darina O’Connell Allen. “You can’t imagine how revolutionary all of that was at the time.”
None of these women knew it, but they would all pursue the same radical culinary goals: to break the stranglehold of French haute cuisine in the English-speaking world; to cook seasonal food, grown sustainably; to cook with respect for traditional home cooks and simple, excellent dishes.
“It had to happen, the return to cooking,” said Myrtle Allen, the “farmer’s wife” who took on Ms. Allen at Ballymaloe House and later became her mother-in-law. “People don’t just throw away an entire food culture after centuries.”
But they came pretty close.
At the time, Irish cooking, even in Ireland, was almost a joke. (The Irish actor Peter O’Toole once said that his three favorite Irish foods were all Guinness.) Few Irish towns had more than a chip shop and a pub, the (very few) white-tablecloth restaurants were French, and virtually all the chefs were men.
Darina Allen had just graduated from hotel school in Dublin, and along with the few other women in her class was being firmly nudged toward a management job.
“But I didn’t want to wear a suit,” she said. “I wanted to be in the kitchen.”
And so she was, and remains. Now, 42 years later, she is the founder and chief instructor at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry, manager of its 100-acre organic farm, author of 16 cookbooks and director of Slow Food Ireland. She is also the mentor to thousands of ex-students who have fanned out across the globe, carrying her message of simple cooking integrated with gardening, preserving, foraging, animal husbandry and the ability to make excellent soda bread in an hour.
Last month, while on tour to promote her latest cookbook, “Forgotten Skills of Cooking” (Kyle Books, 2009), she visited the Union Square Greenmarket in search of her favorite pale-green eggs from Araucana chickens.
The book is an outgrowth of the school’s “Forgotten Skills” workshops, popular one-day classes that teach the basics of making butter, curing bacon and skinning animals.
In Ireland and the United Kingdom, and increasingly in the United States, Ms. Allen’s stature as an educator and activist is on a par with that of Ms. Waters, Julia Child and Jamie Oliver, all chefs whose ideas expanded far beyond the kitchen.
“Her influence here is immense,” said Skye Gyngell, the chef at Petersham Nurseries, a local-seasonal restaurant with dirt floors, set in a plant nursery outside London. The restaurant — like Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.; River Café in London; Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Mich.; and other havens for handmade food — is often staffed with alumni of the Ballymaloe school, which Ms. Allen started in 1983.
As more Americans teach and study at Ballymaloe, it has gained a reputation as an artisanal nirvana, where the scraps from the organic vegetables are fed to the chickens, which in turn produce organic eggs; where nasturtiums grow into thick hedges and where the jam is always homemade.
Ms. Allen, now 61, teaches most of the professional classes and many of the amateur ones, and students say she is a constant and informative presence.
“I remember having to nudge chickens and geese out of the way on the way to class,” said Bing Broderick, a 2004 alumnus of Ballymaloe’s 12-week professional training course. He now runs the Haley House Bakery Café, a nonprofit restaurant in Roxbury, Mass., a Boston neighborhood where fresh produce and Fair Trade coffee are rare sightings. “And God help any purveyor who came to the school,” he said fondly. “She’d drag him in front of the class and make him tell his whole life story.”
On the first day of class, he said, each student begins by sowing seeds that produce lettuces, radishes or herbs before the course is over.
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