Gillian Hegarty, 35, was the Head Chef at Ballymaloe House for four years. The Courtmacsherry native has been working in busy kitchens since she was a teenager, among them Cayenne restaurant in Belfast owned by Paul Rankin and the River Café in London. Now living in Clonakilty with her husband Conor O’Neill and their one-year-old daughter Lucy, she has taken some time out from her career.
She is however one of the guest chefs at this year’s A Taste of West Cork Food Festival, hosting an evening of garden gastronomy at Fernhill House Hotel on Thursday, September 14. Gillian will demonstrate how to prepare and use fresh herbs from Fernhill House gardens, then create a delicious garden cocktail. After the herb demonstration and cocktail making, guests will enjoy a cocktail and canapé reception, followed by a three-course seasonal menu featuring wonderful local produce including beef produced by Gillian’s husband, Conor O’Neill.
Gillian speaks to West Cork People about how her passion for food developed and the wonderful culinary journey it’s taken her on.
Was food an important part of family life for you growing up?
Absolutely, we grew our own vegetables and herbs and we had our own beef and lamb. We bought our fresh fish from local fishermen. My grandfather had such an appreciation for produce and we used to have family meals celebrating the food that was in season. When crab was in season, we would get so excited about going down to the pier to buy them. We used to cook them and then sit in the kitchen for hours trying to get every morsel of sweet crab out of the shells. Then we would forget about crab and get excited about some other food like peas, wild salmon, courgettes, mackerel, strawberries, lambs liver, damsons, the list is endless. There are a few special things to look forward to each month. It is a fantastic way to bring up children, as you have more of an understanding of nature and the weather.
Why did you become a chef?
I really loved cooking but had no intention of making a career of it. After my Leaving Cert, I decided to take a year out and work in a busy hardcore kitchen to get it out of my system. After a few months I just knew I couldn’t do anything else. I got such a buzz from the speed and the intensity of service. I was working with a team of fantastic chefs and they were so inspiring.
Training and Experience?
During secondary school I used to work at the weekends and summer holidays. I started my first cooking job at the age of 14 in Butlerstown house. Families rented the house for a month at a time and I was hired to cook for them. Then at 15, I got a job in an Indian restaurant in Courtmacsherry, which was fantastic experience. Then I worked in a Thai restaurant in The Venue in Clonakilty.
When I decided to become a chef I was initially going to do some formal training. But I asked a few people I knew in the catering industry for advice and they suggested that I gain experience in really good restaurants and work my way up and that is exactly what I did.
I started in Cayenne restaurant in Belfast owned by Paul Rankin. I worked there for two years, it was hard work and long hours but I absolutely loved it. I then moved to the River Cafe in London. I stayed there for four years, as it was so difficult to leave. I was learning so much everyday. They brought us to Italy every year in November when the new season’s olive oil is pressed. We would then decide which oils we should buy for the following year. We ate amazing food prepared by the women in the vineyards where we stayed. It was an experience that will stay with me forever.
I went travelling for a year and worked in La Sala restaurant in Sydney Australia. I came home and worked in O’Callaghan and Walsh’s in Rosscarbery for a spell. Then I helped Theo Randall set up his restaurant in the Intercontinental Park Lane in London. I moved back to Ireland to work in Glebe Gardens in Baltimore where I stayed for two years. Jean and Peter Perry are great gardeners and I loved the idea of writing the menu each day depending on what was available in the garden. I worked in Cafe Paradiso during the off-season.
Then Darina Allen offered me a job teaching in Ballymaloe Cookery School, I stayed there for two years. I worked for a spell in Deasy’s in Ring and then got offered head chef position in Ballymaloe House where I was for four years.
Who has inspired or influenced you?
My grandad was a huge inspiration, as he was so passionate about food and really enjoyed cooking.
My father had the same passion. My mum is a great cook and so was my grandmother.
Rose Gray who used to run the River Cafe was an amazing person and chef, she was so clever at combining flavours and menu planning
What drives you?
I get really excited about seasonal produce and when I come across something super fresh, I just can’t wait to work with it.
What are the highlights of your career?
Being head chef in Mrs Allen’s kitchen in Ballymaloe House. She is an amazing person and she has done so much for food in Ireland.
I also had the pleasure to work for Darina Allen. She is just incredible, her energy and enthusiasm is astounding. She is a huge support to food producers and she is so passionate about teaching people to grow and cook food.
I feel so privileged to have worked with both of these inspiring women
Chefs/restaurants/food producers you admire in West Cork and why?
I have so much respect for vegetable producers, as it is such a difficult job especially to grow everything organically.
Jonathan Doig has a company called Narmada organics and he grows fantastic herbs and vegetables near Rosscarbery.
Tim York, also recognised by Lisheen Organics, grows a wonderful selection of vegetables near Skibbereen
Glenillen natural yoghurt is a fantastic product. Alan and Valerie Kingston have done such a brilliant job building up their business and they deserve all the success they have.
What is your idea of the perfect meal?
My perfect meal is sharing beautifully prepared vegetables from the garden and either fresh fish or good quality meat with family and friends. I love the Italian way of getting everyone involved in preparing the meal.
What advice would you offer someone interested in becoming a chef?
It is very physically and mentally demanding. It is not at all glamorous despite what people think but it is a fantastic career if you really love your job.
If you are interested in become a chef I suggest working in a good restaurant kitchen for a few months. If you can’t wait to go into work each day and you thrive on learning new things then this is the career for you.
What are your future hopes or ambitions?
I would love to be able to use my experience and knowledge to teach children about food and nutrition. I think we really need to start educating children from a very young age how to grow and cook vegetables and herbs.
I have done a few classes with children and it is just amazing how interested they are. It is lovely to see them getting so excited about something they have just made or watching them enjoy a perfectly ripe raspberry and so on.
It would be very rewarding to be able to pass on my passion and appreciation for food and encourage people to cook and make better decisions when choosing produce.
I have started doing cookery workshops. I take a maximun of ten people at a time and teach them a selection of dishes. It usually includes a few sweet treats, bread, salads, dressings, a few exciting quick ideas for dinner but I can tailor the workshops depending on what the group would like to learn. It is great satisfaction giving people the skills and confidence to cook new dishes.
For more information on workshops with Gillian email email@example.com.
Guest Chef Garden Flavours with Gillian Hegarty, Fernhill House and Gardens, Clonakilty 7pm: Herb Talk and Cocktail Making Demonstration; 7.45pm: Cocktail and Canape Reception €45 (or take advantage of festival special offer of €199 dbb for two) Booking essential on 023 8833258 or firstname.lastname@example.org.