Clodagh McKenna

The Oxford English dictionary defines ‘decadent’ as something which is ‘luxuriously self-indulgent’. I imagine if the terminology ‘Clodagh’s Kitchen’ is ever added Oxford’s catalogue, it will be listed as a synonym of decadent – and not just because of their incredible carrot cake.

Clodagh McKenna is an award-winning chef but regularly ventures into the domains of television, radio, publishing and most recently, entrepreneurship. Sitting across from her in ‘Clodagh’s Kitchen’, Blackrock it’s evident that Clodagh’s success is derived from her work ethic, a passion for food, her drive and family.

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Clodagh, how would you describe yourself?

Gosh, that question is really difficult to answer. I would describe myself as somebody who is in love with food and has always been. Somebody who loves working; I grew up in the country and I think I learned a very strong work ethic as a child. I’m very family-orientated, I love spending time with my family. Even now, I’ve just arrived up to Dublin from Kerry, I was visiting my mum.

I would describe myself as someone who loves life in every form, I love exploring too. For a recent holiday, I travelled throughout the South of England and all of the great restaurants found there. I ate in Mark Hix’s restaurant, Rick Stein’s and River Cottage. It was a really exciting journey and with my job, it helps that I love travelling too.

As a person though, I feel happiest in the mornings. It was actually something my mother said to me just the other day, she said ‘you were always happiest in the mornings’ and if I’m not, I stop myself and I look at myself in the mirror – I haven’t actually ever told anyone about this before – but I look at myself in the mirror and I say, ‘it’s so important that you decide what way your day is going to be’. We all wake up in moods that are not great or perhaps we’re a bit down but every time that happens, I look in the mirror and say that ‘you are the only person who can make your day better, you yourself can change the way you feel’. I guess I’d be a little spiritual in that way. That’s something that most people wouldn’t know about me.

It’s very much mind over matter. I think it almost shapes your personality too.

Totally, I’d completely agree with that. It has a huge impact on me.

Me too, I was actually in Waterford recently speaking to over two hundred students about being a little person. One of the most popular questions was ‘how do I feel / react if someone says something negative about me, because of my height?’ My honest answer was to ask who would be the better person in that situation: them, who has to say something nasty about me to make themselves feel better or even entertain their friends or me, who is confident enough in myself to embrace being different and to be happy with my particular uniqueness. It’s probably rather biased of me to say so, but in that situation I think I come up trumps.

You’re exactly right, we’re all different and it’s important that we accept and embrace it.

Steak Yes, but back to the world of food. You had your first taste of international cuisine at age 14 in France. Was it daunting in any way being so young and is it something that you would recommend to teenagers today?

I would, definitely. I came from a very humble, ordinary family. Growing up, my parents worked and I didn’t have a mother at home all the time. When I did the French exchange, the mother of the host family was a very good cook. It was quite new for me when I went to France first that the mother was home all day. Afterwards, I spent every summer in France with that family. We got on so well and spending three months of every year with them was just a really lovely experience. I think I got the best of both worlds, I saw that side of family whose mother worked from home and the other in my own family where the mother had lots of children and a really strong work ethic. My mum would get up very early in the morning to wake everyone for school, she would pack the lunches and then go and do a full day’s work. The two of us were only talking about this the other day actually; I mean that was a time pre-…

Internet? Social Media? Cars?

Yes, pre-internet and even pre-washing machines! My mother had to spend every Saturday washing clothes. I remember it being a big deal when we got our first washing machine.

My own mother frequently talks about getting their first phone. It was such a milestone and today, most people have at least one on their person every day.

Exactly, it’s a little scary. Chicken

It is. Then in terms of your cuisine education, you’ve had some incredible experiences from France, to Ballymaloe, to Italy. I wouldn’t ask you to choose between them as I imagine it would be like attempting to pick your favourite child but if you had to pick one thing that you took or learned from each of them, what would it be?

That’s a really good question. Em. From each of them…From France, I took away the importance of sitting around the table and the importance of family cooking. From Ballymaloe, I took away the importance of the taste of fresh local, seasonal food. That was something I learned from both Dorina and Myrtle. From Italy, I took their passion for food. They’re so passionate, it’s almost ridiculous!

I love Italy, I was really fortunate to be there last summer.

Oh really, where did you go?

We actually did a driving holiday and we went to Venice, Milan, Rome, Verona…

Verona is one of my favourite places.

Mine too but I was a little devastated to realise that Giuliette’s balcony isn’t as authentic as you might think.

Ha! No, unfortunately not but yes, I definitely took my passion for food from Italy but also their simplicity of cooking. They put together a dish without even thinking about it. They are really good at pairing ingredients.

It seems almost innate.

Exactly, it’s more something that I think they’re born with rather than something they have learned. It’s in their rich and wealthy culture of food. They are also an incredibly organised nation, I found that out through looking at their kitchens – I’m a little obsessed with kitchens – but looking in their fridges and cupboards, everything has a place and a purpose. They’re also immaculate in how they cook and live.

Clearly, I don’t have any Italian in me at all…

Ha! I’m sure you do somewhere…

Lemon(I’m not so sure…) You’re involved in so many mediums, from television, to print, to radio but now owning your own establishments in Arnott’s and particularly here in Blackrock, how has your relationship to food changed in the past year?

I guess I’ve just become more, and sorry for the pun, hungry for it. I’m constantly looking for inspiration for new dishes. This afternoon, I have a big meeting with Aer Lingus, we’re currently planning the menus for the transatlantic flights. It’s really important to constantly be looking for new ideas and more importantly, your signature dishes. I’ll be looking at the summer menu and thinking what are the dishes that I really feel taste like the dishes I crave, then I will take out the ones that don’t. I’m constantly evolving and trying to better myself and my food. It doesn’t stop!

I can imagine it doesn’t. Knowing now that you’re not only responsible for the food but for the rent, the lighting and the heating, has that in any way tainted the experience or has it just added to it?

It makes it all very real. I can have an idyllic view of having a restaurant but there is a realness about it too. That means making sure that customers are happy and most importantly, ensuring consistency. That’s probably the biggest challenge that I face, so that the carrot cake that you had today will be the same in two weeks when you try it again because you will remember that taste and you will want that taste on the day. Plus, even if it is beautiful but if it’s different, you will recognise that as taste buds have an incredible memory. So yes, consistency is challenging but it has been a really great experience and I feel it has helped me to understand people too. Three years ago, I wouldn’t have been as good with working with so many people for so long each day.

That’s important as you’re only as good as your team.

Exactly, they all look to you for direction too. You have to learn that job, it’s not something that you can just pick up straight away. It takes times, it takes mistakes. I hate the word failure and fail, but I do think starting up your own business requires you to make mistakes and learn from them.

It’s interesting that you mention the word failure. Recently, the Science Gallery held an exhibition called ‘Fail Better’. The words failure and fail often have such a negative connotation, particularly within the domain of education but the exhibition examined the fact that if we didn’t fail at certain projects or experiences, we wouldn’t be where we are today. In a way, failure educates us and often gives us the confidence to try something else or helps us to re-assess our situation and find a different way to overcome our particular challenges. I thought it was a really interesting idea!

Wow, that is interesting. How do you find out about these things?  

I would find out about most of the city’s events through LeCool and Totally Dublin. Twitter would be a huge resource too!

I’m just going to write that down.

Just while you are writing that down, the list of interviewees who are being featured in this blog series are undoubtedly many of the women who I’m inspired by but who are the people you look to for advice or encouragement?

On Twitter, I follow a lot of chefs. For example, Alice Waters in California; I find her really inspiring. Then there would be Angela Hartnett who is also an incredible female chef. For inspiration, I do tend to look to the States, France, Italy and London just because of the accessibility for that with Twitter.

Then, for advice, I go to my Mom a lot just because she would give me completely different advice to anyone else. She was with me for this entire journey, when I first started in Ballymaloe, at a time when we had to take out a loan, the farmers markets – everything! She’s a very kind person too and I always think that if you start with that basis, it’s a good way to go on.

Mothers are great as they’re not afraid to disagree with you and you’re not paying them for their opinion either.

No, that’s very true. She has no problem telling me the truth! Do I sound like a child saying that?

Not at all, I would be very similar.

Phew! Salad

Ha! You have such achieved such an incredible amount in your career thus far but what remains on your ‘bucket list’ for 2014?

So much! I would love to open up a restaurant in Cork, just because it’s my hometown.

Would you be more nervous opening up in Cork rather than Dublin?

No. I’d be much more nervous in Dublin, Cork will always be home. I would also love to open a restaurant in New York, I know that’s a big idea but it’s something that I would love to do.

It was Victoria Beckham’s 40th birthday recently and she once said that ‘if you can get your head around your dream, it means your dream isn’t big enough’.

I like that, I think it’s going to be my new motto. I must actually start following her on Twitter too! I can’t believe she’s only 40. How did you know that?

I’ve been a fan of Victoria Beckham’s since I was eight years old and although it may look as though I have been stalking her since then, the fashion community were building up to her landmark birthday for quite some time. It was difficult to ignore it – not that I wanted to…

That’s amazing and how did you start your blog?

My undergraduate degree is in primary school teaching and my Masters is in Broadcast Production for Radio and Television but when I was training to be a teacher, we had ICT lectures. Within that class, one of our assignments was to start a blog so that we could bring it into the classroom to create a link between home and school. It was an assignment but we were permitted to write about any topic – I wrote about Cate Blanchett wearing Givenchy Couture to the Oscars.

When I was younger I felt that the fashion domain was a space that I couldn’t infiltrate because of my height but I had this insatiable interest for it and would sit around the dinner table at home, there are seven in my immediate family, and relay to them the antics at Alexander McQueen or Simone Rocha. My family were hugely supportive but there’s only so much that you can hear about John Galliano before you’re incredibly bored. I needed an outlet and when college finished, I re-opened the blog and that became a way for me to document what I found interesting in terms of fashion and pop culture.

Wow Sinéad, that’s fantastic! Passion

Thanks so much, you’re very kind but this is supposed to be about you. I need to stop talking!

I can imagine that it would be difficult to choose but what would be your proudest moments of your career so far?

There have been three, I think. The first one was getting my first book published which was ‘The Irish Farmers Market’, bringing it home to my late father and my mom – they were so proud. With that the tv series too, my parents got such a kick out of me being on tv. Second then, I did a pop-up restaurant in New York and the Taoiseach booked in. It was on the eve of Saint Patrick’s Day, the next day my picture was up in Times Square for the whole day, it was really surreal and I actually didn’t understand the significance of that until I came home and I posted it on Twitter. People went crazy about it and it was only then I realised how amazing it actually was. That was definitely a moment! The third has to be opening this restaurant, my dad was here for it too which is particularly important as he passed recently and it was amazing just to share this experience with him.

I can only imagine what that mean to you…

For my final question, if you had to give someone advice, not just those who hope to be a chef but particularly women who have this goal and dream but don’t yet think it’s possible, what advice would you give them?

My advice would be to realise your dream and only take advice from people who care for you. Never allow yourself or your dream to be dismantled by someone who doesn’t care for you. I only share my dreams and my thoughts with people who really care for me. That’s really important because your dreams are all that you have on life. Our time on earth is such a short period and you have to go for it and it’s ok to make mistakes – I have made so many in my career. The important thing is that you learn from your mistakes and that you learn how to get up from them too!

I would also advise that you work hard, that you get into a routine, get up early in the morning if possible, go to bed early and make a list. Someone once told me, and since then I’ve lived by it – make your list at the beginning of the day but make it achievable. At the end of the day, you should feel that you have reached a goal. Finally, I also think it’s essential that you give yourself time to be creative. It’s extremely important that you work hard trying to achieve the present but you must also take time to discover the future and where you want to go. 

Thank you so much to Clodagh and Erin for taking part in Extraordinary Women.

To find some of Clodagh’s recipies, go to her website or you can find her on both Twitter and Facebook. Make sure to tell her you favourite Spice Girl!

Written by

Sinéad Burke is an academic and a writer with an obsessive interest in fashion, education and 'Extraordinary Women'. She is an ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the National Women's Council of Ireland.