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Life

Derry-bound Rachel Allen on how she creates recipes daily at home in Ballymaloe

Rachel Allen is a much loved and popular Irish TV celebrity chef who believes in simple but tasty home-cooked food. She's heading up to the LegenDerry Food Festival tomorrow to share her obsession with food and tells Joanne Sweeney how it's forever on her mind

Top Irish celebrity chef Rachel Allen will be at LegenDerry Food Festival tomorrow
Joanne Sweeney

YOU won't find TV chef and food writer Rachel Allen in the kitchen cooking this St Patrick's Day.

Instead of whipping up something healthy and tasty for her family of husband and three children as she's prone to do, she will be celebrating our patron saint's day in a much more social way.

"We will probably go to watch a smaller parade near home like in Whitegate [near Cork] as it's always lovely. It's just nice to see everything. But after that, from 2pm we will be down at the local pub watching the rugby over a glass of beer with a few crisps and peanuts," she says, referring to this afternoon's rugby match when Ireland face England in a bid to win the Six Nations Grand Slam.

However, tomorrow Ireland's answer to Nigella Lawson will be heading up north once again to the LegenDerry Food Festival where she will be cooking up a storm in the Guildhall marquee.

The Derry food festival has become a popular event for Rachel to cook at, particularly as she appears alongside some of her favourite northern chefs, such as Donegal's Brian McDermott, who will be launching his new cookbook, Donegal Table.

"When I was asked if I would demonstrate at this year's event, I jumped at the chance," says Rachel from her home in Cork. "There's always so many bits of gorgeous produce there and it's always great fun. The lovely Brian McDermott is a friend, so it's always good to go to. It's such a great food festival as it provides an opportunity to showcase local produce as well as local new talent who may not be as well known yet.

"The food industry is expanding very quickly as we are now starting to realise the importance of eating well and just feeling better about ourselves, and that's what I aim to bring to the LegenDerry Food Festival event."

What can we expect from the chef who rubs shoulders with the best of the chefs in these isles?

"I'm going to make some really simple and quick dishes that work equally well as a family meal or you can doll them up a bit for a dinner party. And I'm going to bring up some wild garlic with me and I'll make a wild garlic pesto to go with a main course. I'll make something with rhubarb for dessert as it's in season now."

While she can be currently seen judging alongside fearsome chef Marco Pierre White in TV3's The Restaurant – a show where stars such singer Mary Coughlan make six restaurant-quality dishes for the chefs to get a rating – Rachel tells me that she still manages to do a lot from the kitchen of her home, based on Ballymaloe Farm.

Rachel left Dublin at age 18 for Cork chef Darina Allen's famous Ballymaloe cookery school as a student before she departing, by that stage a cookery teacher, for Vancouver where she worked as a caterer for several years.

But the warm and friendly blonde, who inherited her good looks from her Icelandic mother, never really left Ballymaloe as she fell in love with and married Darina's son Isaac. The couple live with their two sons and daughter – Joshua (17), Lucca (15), and Scarlett (eight) – at the farm.

The 45-year-old's work rate is prolific; 14 cookbooks in as many years to coincide with her TV shows, countless guest appearances on Irish and British TV, opening her own restaurant in Cork called Rachel's last year and she's still teaching at Ballymaloe – never mind raising three children.

She's as much in demand across the water as she is at home as last year she partnered Michelin starred restaurateur and Great British Menu course winner Glynn Purnell in Channel 4's My Kitchen Rules UK competition show.

Rachel was also rumoured as a possible judge on Channel 4's relaunched Great British Bake-Off last year, but alas, it was not meant to be this time.

She's uncharacteristically coy when it comes to talking about Bake-Off and her chance of career being further jet-propelled by the ratings-winning show.

"I can say I was photographed at one of the screen tests for Great British Bake Off," she demurs. "That show is iconic and I absolutely would not have said no if I had been offered it. But I do think that they made a really good choice with Prue (Leith) as she's amazing. She knows her food so well and is a really good judge and critic as well as an expert in some many areas of the business. They made the right decision, they really did."

There's another famous Allen in the making as Rachel's son Lucca is now a Formula 4 driver. So how does the seemingly unflappable cook cope with her son's dangerous sport?

"It's like rugby, or like any other sport where there are safety rules and regulations, so you kind of just have to let him go with his passion. He's very good at it," says Rachel.

"That's not to say that my stomach is not in bits when he's driving – it is, completely. And as I'm speaking with you, he's over in England with my husband on a testing day. Once I hear that they are leaving the track and are on the way to the airport, my tummy will feel less in a twist."

Of course, there's yet another book in the making and she's at the recipe-creation stage of the process, the stage she loves.

"I do my creation of recipes all from home and it takes quite a while as I do it on my own or with Ivan, my husband's cousin, who sometimes works with me. We will bang ideas back at forth across my kitchen, so I don't have a team of people behind me doing this for me.

"So I will be at home cooking every day, writing everything down. Some days are just disasters and some days are really good and you're getting quite a few recipes down. But others are just so frustrating”.

LEGENDERRY FOOD FEST

The LegenDerry Food Festival is a free family event, held over today and tomorrow as part of the St Patrick's weekend celebrations, running from 12 midday to 6pm.

Celebrity TV judge Rachel Allen from TV3's The Restaurant and My Kitchen Rules UK will be giving food demonstrations tomorrow at the Marque in the Square in Derry Guildhall Square at 1pm and 3pm.

Also, top Donegal television chef and writer Brian McDermott will be MC for the day and will be launching new cookbook Donegal Table at the festival.

Apart from food-tasting and all focus on local artisan foods, there will lot of activities to keep the whole family entertained.

The festival is part of the Spring Festival Programme supported by Tourism NI and DAERA's NI Regional Food Programme and organised by Derry and Strabane City Council.

:: For full programme details see derrystrabane.com/food

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