How to Become a Chef with Nikki Walsh
Nikki Walsh sits down for a chat about starting Lady Eve Cookery School, how to become a professional chef and why she's thankful to Lady Gaga.
WHO I AM Nikki Walsh from Lady Eve Cookery School. I opened a school at my home in Dublin in March 2013. My demonstrations have a very relaxed informal atmosphere because of the home environment. Subjects range from good every day eating ideas, to smart dinner party plans, to themed sessions for celebrations for families, to hen parties and professional team building. THE NITTY GRITTY What type of training did you have? I did the three month residential Professional Cookery Course at Ballymaloe Cookery School in 1990. That was an amazing experience where I learned about connecting cooking to the produce. After I graduated I worked as a chef at the Crawford Gallery Cafe in Cork, and as a pastry chef at Ballymaloe House for a time, before returning to Dublin to work with several different catering companies and restaurants. But I left the food industry to go back to my family’s pharmacy business for a long time, so there was a gap of quite a lot of years before I returned to food in 2013. What were the challenges along the way Well obviously you have to try to keep up with your competitors. But I suppose the biggest challenge for me now is that as I am not in the High Street, and I am a private home-based cookery school, it’s about getting the word out there about what I do. In recent times I’ve been doing cookery slots on a Saturday or Sunday morning for TV3, once a month, which has really raised the profile. Also networking with fellow chefs really helps spread the word. Were their any major positives or crucial turning points in your career? Yes, there was a massive turning point in my career when I had a legal issue with Lady Gaga! I use an Aga in my kitchen and I love it. I use it in all the demos, so I originally called the business Lady Aga Cookery. I got the name registered, but then I had a letter from Lady Gaga’s legal eagles saying I wasn’t allowed to use that name. I couldn’t believe they had picked up on it, but instead of fighting them, I rolled over and gave them what they wanted, agreeing to change. But I made sure I told the press about it and it created quite a stir of publicity! Business dramatically improved from then on! I changed the name to Lady Eve Cookery School after my daugther Evie. I thank Lady Gaga every day because my business wouldn’t exist in the way it does now without her influence! Which people influence your cooking? Well first, my mum, and my aunt. They are two wonderful cooks and if I hadn’t had them I wouldn’t have learned so much about food so early on in my life. After that, Darina Allen and Rory O’Connell at Ballymaloe Cookery School have had a major influence on me from the earliest days of my professional career. They are both amazing teachers. Of course I like creative chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi. But I am quite an individual in cooking, I have my own style. I tend to experiment a lot and travel so I can see other cuisines, which I think is really important for broadening the experience of food. I don’t have much trouble coming up with ideas or recipes. For me that’s the easy part of my job! Which food styles/trends interest you or influence your cooking as a professional chef? Well trends are always changing. My motto is “No Waste Lots of Taste” and I live by that. Trends can be very exciting but I tend to take my inspiration from all sorts of dishes and cuisines. I like to combine flavours which you might not necessarily combine, and it normally works really well. I have no rules or maybe I break every rule! I think the most important influence for me is using fresh local and Irish ingredients. I tell my classes that if they think certain flavour combinations will work in their minds, they will probably work on the plate. It’s all about confidence at the end of the day. Why do you love your job as a professional chef? I adore my job because it brings huge satisfaction. I love teaching, it’s a real passion to give people confidence in cooking. Also to educate them in using the best of Irish ingredients with which you can create any cuisine. What's the worst thing about your role as a professional chef? I don’t have anything I don’t enjoy doing! Describe a typical day in the kitchen… On days when I have classes, I have to get prepared for whatever the session is going to be. It could be a three course meal with tasty bites beforehand. Sessions start in a very relaxed way, with a glass of wine and welcome before we get started. I will do a demo and the group will watch and can ask as many questions as they wish. And it always turns out to be a very lively session. When the demo is finished we all enjoy eating what was made, and have a discussion about the session and ideas that have come out of it. Everyone gets the recipes going home. I teach all levels of cookery so it really is dependent on what the group wants. I can take up to 30 people for a general demonstration, or do smaller private groups of ten minimum for special events. It’s always very relaxed and informal but it’s surprising how much they learn in that environment. And I always notice everyone seems to leave with a new spring in their step and some new confidence in the kitchen. Which is brilliant because that’s what I hope to achieve with them. It’s a really nice feeling. What are your strong points? I am extremely relaxed in my teaching style, it’s not a ‘sterile’ atmosphere. I do everything myself, from sourcing produce to the actual teaching, which allows me to form a more personal bond with everyone who comes here. I can execute a demonstration confidently in a very relaxed, informative way. I think I have a very approachable style which appeals to people. Cooking is all about confidence and I think I am very good at delivering that. Would you change anything about your journey so far? In hindsight, I should have stayed in the food industry that I loved, instead of breaking off to go back to the family pharmacy business. I had quite a big gap in my food career. But I think, at the time I left food, I just wasn’t mature enough to be ready to run my own business, I didn’t have what it took at that time. I am glad I waited till I was older to start my business, because once you have the hunger for success it makes all the difference. I’ve realised that when you have that, there’s no stopping you. Who does the cooking at home? Me! I am always at the Aga, thanking Lady Gaga! When I’m not cooking I am making things. I got a sewing machine for Christmas so I’ve been making aprons, cushions, all sorts of things. This is it, when you have a creative streak, you can extend it to anything! Any early cookery disasters? Not lately! But there is one incident that stands out from the early years. I was making Mushrooms A la Creme to stuff pancakes, and a bolt from the food processor ‘got involved’ with the mushrooms! They went out to customers and we got a note back saying the pancakes were lovely but we didn’t like the bolt very much! Luckily, and quite by chance, it turned out to be my mother’s cousin who got the bolt! Any advice for anyone who wants to become a professional chef? Passion is 100% the most important ingredient. You will have the long hours, but if you have the passion you can cope with that. This is an extremely intensive career but you will be ready for it and learn what it takes to become a chef if you have passion for the job. I would advise anyone to spend time in different kitchens for at least a year at a time, because that’s how you learn. Hardcore working is how you become confident. But you must start with passion and dedication. That will get you through the toughest times. What’s your favourite dish or recipe? I have to confess I really love specialised French cooking. The fine dining element, with all the classic reduced meat and fish sauces and stuff. They are very special dishes and look absolutely gorgeous on the plate. I love to cook Irish beef fillet with a red wine reduction in the French style. It’s such a classy dish.