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How a NI writer's cooking tweets caused an online frenzy ... and stirred up some salty replies

When writer Louise Kennedy tweeted a list of cooking tips for families stuck at home, drawing on her experiences as a chef, it quickly went viral. Linda Stewart talks to the award-winning Holywood-born writer

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Write approach: Louise Kennedy at home where she is currently writing her debut novel

Write approach: Louise Kennedy at home where she is currently writing her debut novel

Home comforts: some of Louise's cooking

Home comforts: some of Louise's cooking

Family life: Louise with her mum Brenda in 1970

Family life: Louise with her mum Brenda in 1970

Working as a chef in Beirut

Working as a chef in Beirut

With sisters Joanne and Sinead in 1974

With sisters Joanne and Sinead in 1974

Write approach: Louise Kennedy at home where she is currently writing her debut novel

It started with a night of insomnia, worrying about the pandemic. Struggling to sleep, Louise Kennedy took herself off with the laptop to the garden shed where she writes at her Sligo home, intending to do some work on her forthcoming debut novel, but was so tired she couldn’t think straight.

Instead, she found herself drawn into Twitter and the challenges for all those families out there who are deluged with home cooking during lockdown.

A few days previously, she’d posted a recipe for a simple naan bread that could be made in a frying pan and it proved hugely popular, and now she found herself riffing on the same theme, drawing on her 30 years of experience as a chef.

It was all there — how to cook onions correctly, how chefs manage to deliver so much flavour, what to bake with your kids and still keep your sanity, the shortcuts that work.

“I’ve left commercial kitchens but haven’t managed to avoid cooking, and like most people I am at home in a full house at the moment, cooking meal after meal,” Louise says now.

“I decided to put a few notions about cooking on a Twitter thread, reasoning that if I’m struggling with all the cooking it must be hellish for people who are not trained. Really it was like a stream of consciousness, a list of tips and notions kind of thing.

“I thought about five people would read it, but there were hundreds of thousands of interactions with the thread, and millions of people appear to have seen it; people all over the world, who are in the same boat as us.”

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Home comforts: some of Louise's cooking

Home comforts: some of Louise's cooking

Home comforts: some of Louise's cooking

The list was full of good advice — and reassurances on why delivering an omelette and chips to the table during lockdown is no mean feat. Not to mention THAT Maldon salt tweet, recalls a somewhat bemused Louise.

The controversial tweet read: “Maldon is my favourite salt, but it’s not cheap. Use any ould table salt for boiling pasta etc and save the good s*** for when you’ll notice the difference.”

Combined with another tweet that pointed out that home cooks often don’t use enough seasoning, the tweet outraged a few Twitter critics, including one person who called her patronising and another who insisted it was a fake account because it mentioned Maldon salt.

“The vast majority of responses were really, really positive,” Louise says.

“There were probably about four out of hundreds of thousands of responses that were a bit weird — a few fellas who got really upset about salt.”

She’s still bemused by the handful of people who took umbrage, but relieved that there weren’t more, adding: “Nobody threatened to kill me, so I got off lightly.

“It almost seemed as if I was trying to force feed salt to people who have kidney problems — which I wasn’t — but there were so few of those tweets.”

Thanks to a retweet from columnist India Knight, the thread took on a life of its own. “Very quickly, lots of people were responding to it, but it went completely nuts over the weekend,” says Louise.

Now living in Sligo, the 53-year-old writer is married to Stephen, who works in accountancy, and has two children, Tom (20) and Anna (17).

But she grew up in the seaside village of Holywood, Co Down, a pupil at St Patrick’s Primary School, moving down south at the age of 12.

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Family life: Louise with her mum Brenda in 1970

Family life: Louise with her mum Brenda in 1970

Family life: Louise with her mum Brenda in 1970

As a child, Louise admits, she wasn’t particularly well behaved.

“I’d say I was a bit bold,” she recalls. “In Holywood I lived on a hilly street full of children. We used to freewheel the whole way down it on our bikes, taking the corner like Barry Sheen, almost parallel to the road.

“I probably read a lot. On a sunny day like this, I would have been lying on the bed with my window open and the curtains blowing, reading a book.”

Her parents were originally from Belfast and at one point her family owned a pub in Hollywood called The Seaside Tavern, sold in 1975 and now long demolished.

“My father worked for the Belfast Telegraph in the early Seventies. The BT Christmas party was the highlight of our year, although I remember being given the worst present of my life at one, a red plastic handbag so hideous I cried for two days,” Louise says.

“Later he worked for Dale Farm. We were put on a tasting panel and every week he came home with cases of Polly Pineapples and Pear Picking Porkies and Rocky Raspers packed in dry ice. The freezer was in our garage and I used to lord it up over the other kids, deciding who got to eat — appalling, really!

“For a few years I lived within walking distance of all the relatives on my father’s side — my grandmother had a pub in the town.

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With sisters Joanne and Sinead in 1974

With sisters Joanne and Sinead in 1974

With sisters Joanne and Sinead in 1974

“It was sold in 1975 and some of those relatives moved down south. We followed them in 1979, moving to Kildare and eventually Dublin. I was 12 and found it hard to fit in — I read my way through a pretty miserable adolescence and was relieved to leave school.”

While at school, Louise decided to become a social worker and embarked on a social science degree at UCD, but soon found it wasn’t for her. Next came a move to London and a “horrific job” at an American merchant bank.

“I had arguably the most menial clerical job in the City: putting microfiche in alphabetical order in an American merchant bank, but while I was there I became interested in cooking,” Louise says. “I came home a year later and borrowed money to do a crash Cordon Bleu course. After that I cooked all over the place, including a stint as a private chef in Beirut in the mid-Nineties.”

It wasn’t long after the end of the Lebanese civil war and she worked there for about four years.

“A lot of people were opening businesses there at the time — lots of Lebanese people who had left during the war and then came back. It felt like a very positive place — it was wrecked, but it was great,” she says.

“When I came back from Lebanon I worked in Eden restaurant in Temple Bar, Dublin. Its owners opened a bar and restaurant in Sligo and I set up the kitchen for them. I thought I’d stay for a few months, but I met a nice fella in a pub and have been here ever since.

“He was a friend of a friend and we met in the pub one night on a bank holiday weekend and I’ve been in Sligo ever since.”

In 2007, Louise and Stephen opened their own restaurant, but things didn’t go according to plan.

“We opened a restaurant in Sligo at possibly the worst time in Irish history — within a year the economy had pretty much collapsed. We limped along for about seven years and we closed in August 2014,” she says.

“It was really tough. Everybody I know was having business problems — I wasn’t that special. But it wasn’t easy.”

Earlier that year, however, Louise had joined a writing group, under duress from a friend. “I found the first week excruciating and I felt like I shouldn’t be there, but I agreed to write a short story. The others were very encouraging so I kept writing,” she says. “In the very beginning I started writing stories, probably based on things I’d heard in my own family.”

Her very first story was about her granny and her attempts to become a flapper in the Ardoyne of the Twenties when she had no money, and it progressed from there.

“Probably within six or seven months, I was writing proper fiction,” Louise says.

“I won a few writing competitions in the meantime and I did an MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s from 2015 to 2016.

“As a child, I’d wanted to study there, because my aunties and uncle did, but I never expected to walk through the door at the age of 48. I began a PhD in 2017, but I still haven’t finished it.”

At the same time, Louise’s work began to receive a lot of attention after she won a number of competitions, including the Ambit Short Fiction (2015), Wasifiri New Writing (2015), John O’Connor (2016) and Listowel Los-Gatos (2016) prizes.

She is a current recipient of an ACES award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland

“One story which was published in The Tangerine, a Belfast-based journal, got me a brilliant agent in London, Eleanor Birne. It was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, the richest prize for a single short story in the English language,” Louise says.

“By that time I had a collection of short stories written and they seemed to go together. So my agent submitted my work — a short story collection and a sample of a novel — and after a nine-way auction, Bloomsbury bought it. I gave up my day job in the autumn and now write full time in a shed in my garden. I’m still kind of thinking ‘Really?’, but yeah.”

After giving up her day job in October, Louise has been working away on her novel in a shed in the garden of her Sligo home.

“It’s not madly rural, but there is the sea within a 2km walk and you can see mountains from where I live. It’s the best of both worlds — it’s a nice part of the world,” she says.

The novel itself is set in Northern Ireland in 1975, but Louise is cagey about the storyline.

“My husband says all my short stories are about bad relationships,” she laughs.

“I guess this one is about a relationship that doesn’t have a lot of chance of working. I’m probably about a third of the way through the third draft with lots of work still to do on it.”

Now locked down with her husband and children, she’s doing a lot of cooking at home, which is how the Twitter thread emerged.

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Working as a chef in Beirut

Working as a chef in Beirut

Working as a chef in Beirut

“Restaurants are closed, takeaways are closed — we’re all stuck in the house for every meal,” she says. “So I’m doing a lot of cooking, I’m doing a lot of reading and a bit of writing, but it’s not easy to write.

“I’m trying not to have a nervous breakdown every time I go to the supermarket and think about how manky the trolley handles are!”

Louise says she’s been working at home since October, so lockdown hasn’t been such a major adjustment for her, but it has been harder on the children: “They’re kind of cracking up in the house.”

As for her plans for after lockdown, her ambitions are modest. She talks about one friend who is thinking about moving to her parents’ homeplace to convert a cottage and keep chickens when this is all over.

“But I can’t think beyond sitting on a bar stool with a pint of Guinness. I’d just like to be able to walk out of the house, maybe without washing my hands, and have a pint somewhere — I’d be happy with that!” Louise says.

Bloomsbury will publish Louise’s debut short story collection, The End of the World is a Cul de Sac, in January 2021

The Tweets that went viral

- So I'm thinking that most of you are doing way more cooking than normal. For about 30 years I worked as a chef and learned stuff that might make your lives easier. I'll add them here as I think of them.

- If you think your food isn't tasty, it's because a lot of home cooks don't use enough salt and pepper. Season as you go, taste, season again. You can't get flavour into a shepherd's pie by sprinkling a bit on at the end. You need to sort that before you assemble it.

- If a recipe says s*** like 'cook the onions until they're translucent, about 3 mins' they're lying. It takes 10-15 mins to achieve this. It's likely they will start to colour, which leads me on to the next thing.

- Water is your friend. A splash will stop your onions from burning, thin that sauce, make that pastry rollable.

- If you're going to roast or bake something for dinner, lash on a tray of roast veg for lunch the next day, or a cake. If you pinch the tray from the grill you'll have 3 shelves. Cheaper and better for the planet.

You might be baking with your kids. Do NOT begin with scones. Scones need the gentlest touch, like pastry. Make fairy cakes or a Victoria sandwich that will withstand their overzealous mixing.

- It's good to look in your fridge and come up with new dishes. But some combinations just don't work. I was once served sardines with strawberry puree, which was muck. However mackerel with pickled rhubarb was sublime. Think about what you're doing.

- Don't be afraid of heat. Most domestic hobs can't reach the temperatures an industrial one can. As soon as you throw a steak, chicken breast, bag of mince on a pan, the temperature will plummet. You'll be left with a pale, simmering stew rather than a burnished prime cut.

- Maldon is my favourite salt, but it's not cheap. Use any ould table salt for boiling pasta etc and save the good s*** for when you'll notice the difference.

- 'From scratch' doesn't mean you can't take shortcuts. I couldn't be bothered roasting and skinning peppers for romesco or muhammara etc. Lidl sells them in jars and if you rinse them well they work a treat.

- You are not cooking in a restaurant. Some dishes are impossible to recreate perfectly at home. Commercial pizza ovens are set at 2 temperatures; very hot at the bottom for a crispy base and cooler on top so as not to burn the cheese. Accept this and get on with it.

- Also most restaurant cookbooks are coffee table books. You're cooking your way through a plague, in closer quarters than any of us ever imagined. For the purposes of this exercise, foams and gels are for the bathroom. Getting an omelette and chips onto the table is no mean feat.

- I worked in some decent kitchens but never in one where we made vegetable or chicken stock. The bubbling pot of what's known as 'jus' is another story. It's okay to buy stock. They vary quite a bit. Some taste too strongly of celery, some have gluten or MSG. Try them out.

- However, I make chicken stock most weeks. I roast two chickens and serve one for dinner. The other I strip down for coronation chicken or a pie. I put both carcasses in the slow cooker overnight with water and aromatics then use the stock for soup, risotto, etc.

- Tinned tomatoes are better for cooking. Only buy the chopped ones because the whole ones take years to break down. They ALWAYS need a bit of sugar, more than a pinch. Do it to taste, but take it handy or there will be a ketchupy vibe.

- Always slice fresh tomatoes with a serrated knife. I have a small one that I use for lemons too, or you can use a steak knife or the bread knife. The acid from tomatoes will wreck your straight blade, blunt it almost immediately. I don't know why, but it does.

- We're getting (virtually no) exercise and this could go on for weeks. Baking a cake with your kids every other day isn't sustainable. Get them to help with actual meals. Small ones can roll meatballs or falafels, or pick herbs.

- Older ones can use knives, peelers, graters. (It's up to you to decide what age or which child; my daughter was handy with a knife at 7 or 8 but there are adults I wouldn't like to see wielding a blade)

- I've tried so hard to like all your interactions but I can't keep up. Really, thanks. Okay. The husband just fried steaks (special offer). He oiled the pan; it's best to oil the meat and heat a dry pan. Also, season the meat after you oil it, or the salt will eat into it.

- To clarify: the husband is not on special offer.

- My dad has a tip for youse. To clean a cast iron frying pan, rub salt on with a piece of old tinfoil. When the dirt is gone, wipe a wee bit of oil on it to keep it from rusting. He said 'reusing the tinfoil will keep that nice wee Swedish girl happy.

Belfast Telegraph