Paula McIntyre: 'People expect me to be a total cooking diva with a huge ego, but I’m very down to earth'
As her latest cookbook is published, one of Northern Ireland's best-loved chefs, Paula McIntyre, explains why we should support local farmers and why eating red meat needn't be bad for you. By Una Brankin
Celebrity chefs tend to be control freaks with huge egos. Paula McIntyre admits to the former characterisation as she's giving out about her new cookbook being late back from the publishers - anathema for someone who sticks rigidly to her deadlines and for whom precision and timing are all-important.
But it's clear there is no galloping narcissism at play here and the much-loved Radio Ulster personality doesn't even consider herself a celebrity.
"I am a bit gobby, but I don't have a rock and roll lifestyle at all. I don't like parties and I hate small talk," she emphasises in that familiar Aghadowey delivery.
"It's a waste of time. I lead a very boring life - yes, my work is creative and I like eating out, but what I like best of all is to go home and light the fire and eat truffles."
She is just back from London, where she dined at Miss Moneypenny's table in Rules restaurant, Covent Garden - hardly a boring way to spend an afternoon - and she has an hour to chat before a lunch to celebrate the recent PPI media industry award for her BBC NI colleague John Toal's Saturday magazine show.
Tall and striking, she has wide-set deep blue eyes and full lips, set off by the merest hint of eyeshadow and lipstick that she "threw on" for our photoshoot at the Clayton Hotel, opposite Broadcasting House.
We click fast, over a sparkling water for her and a cappuccino for me; I can just imagine the fun if some of her favourite Prosecco was involved. As her loyal listeners and readers know, she is very good company, and as no-nonsense in person as she is on the airwaves - hence the title of her new book of recipes.
"It's called Down to Earth because people are always tell me that's what I am, at demos, when they've been expecting some diva," she explains.
"I like talking to people, and the 'earth' bit ties in with the slow food thing, which I'm very involved with."
As director of the Northern Ireland branch of the global Slow Food movement - a not-for-profit organisation seeking to promote a better way to eat - the 48-year-old is keen to extol the virtues of our local produce and is cross about the treatment of dairy farmers who are paying the price for misguided foreign trade policy.
"I've a lot of respect for dairy farmers - we pay Fair Trade prices to chocolate and banana producers, but not to our farmers at home," she says.
"They've to rear the cattle and feed them and they should be paid a fair price.
"I've had an aversion to milk since childhood, but I cook with it and I appreciate the very good quality of our dairy products here. I go by the Slow Food motto: 'good clean and fair'. Cheap food comes at a very high cost to people's health."
On the day we meet, the latest fright from the World Health Organisation - about processed meats being as potentially carcinogenic as cigarettes - has just hit the headlines. Bacon and sausages are not off the menu, however, in Paula's house in Portstewart, where former BBC presenter Sarah Travers - "a great girl" - is a neighbour.
"It's all broad strokes, if animals are raised properly, outside, there's nothing wrong with eating red meat," Paula asserts.
"The problem arises when they've antibiotics and growth hormones in their systems. It's sad. Emulsified, mass-produced pork isn't good for you, but there's no comparison with bacon injected with brine and the good stuff that produces that delicious fat on the pan.
"That's like comparing me to Elle McPherson. You should always ask questions when you're buying meat. It should always be traceable. Buy from your local butcher - it works out cheaper, it's healthier, tastes far better and by doing that, you're supporting the local economy."
Paula was raised in an old farmhouse on land owned by her father Davy, a teacher. She describes her mother Rae, who also taught, as a great cook who would put garlic in the stew and who made spaghetti in the Seventies - very adventurous for the time.
She recalls a home where children should be seen and not heard, and agrees this led to her shyness and inability to speak in class, at Dalriada grammar school in Ballymoney.
"I'm still nervous if I have to perform in front of my peers, it's a fear of being judged," she says.
"I had a brilliant teacher for English A level, Rory Alcorn, and one time he said 'no one can leave class until Paula McIntyre speaks'. I put my head in my hands and said 'shit' - that was good enough for him and he let us all go!
"I still do get nervous about public speaking, but you just have to go for it and not cry into your coffee. Friends and colleagues don't believe I was so shy, but I was. I was also terrified to fly, but I had to get over it.
"I remember having to go to an event in England and saying I'd take the bus, I was so scared. I've done about 30 flights now and I'm fine, but I used to have a couple of brandies."
There were a few tipples on the go at Paula's recent visit to Ardtara country house in Upperlands, Co. Londonderry, now owned by the award-winning Browns Restaurant Group. But she is convinced the wine she had with dinner wasn't the cause of her spooky experience in the grand master bedroom of the elegantly restored 19th century ancestral home of the former local linen magnate, William Clark.
"I'm a very level-headed person and I know what saw," she states.
"I'd just had the most delicious dinner cooked by Eddie Atwell, the very talented chef at Ardtara, and had gone back to my room and I saw the figure of a woman by the wardrobe in the corner, very clearly. She had a sort of 1920s hairband and there was a glow around her. She was just standing looking at me, but her features were blurred.
"I wasn't long turning the light on," she continues. "When I got up the next morning I told Valerie, the manager, and she said another guest had seen this ghost in the mirror. Apparently, it fits the description of Alice Clark, who was married to the original owner of Ardtara."
And Alice isn't the only apparition witnessed by the previously cynical Paula. She was working as a chef at the famous Castle Leslie in Monaghan, venue for Paul McCartney and Heather Mills' wedding reception, when she saw the entity, known as the Grey Man, in the basement.
"I was down getting vegetables and I saw this footman in the old-fashioned gear, with laces up the back of his britches, coming out of one wall and walking through another. He wasn't looking at me at all, he was just getting on with his business.
"I thought it was somebody from the kitchen, but it definitely wasn't. There are too many inexplicable things like that going on for them to be dismissed. There are such things as ghosts, no doubt."
Having lost two friends to cancer very recently, including the baker David Semple of the Belfast Cookery School, mortality has been weighing on Paula's mind. Mr Semple, well known for the Garden Kitchen tea-rooms in Saintfield, died of cancer last month.
"Life can be just snuffed out," she reflects. "Three of the girls I went to school with died before they were 40. I think it's disrespectful to their memory to be coy about my age. I'm 48 and I appreciate life. You've more respect for life, the older you get.
"And you can get away with more bad behaviour! When you're older, it doesn't count as much."
When she's not on air or doing cooking demos, Paula lectures in catering on the Professional Cookery programme in Northern Regional College, passing on her skills to a new generation of chefs and restaurateurs. She also writes a newspaper column.
Happy to be single and content to be auntie to her brother's two children, Paula has no wish to ever marry.
"I don't have time, I'm constantly on the go. I went from Frankfurt this weekend to the London market for the Apple Day fair, which was beautiful.
"I work so much and push myself so hard, I just like to relax at home in my time off. My niece Janine will be coming around this week and we'll have dinner, then sit in front of a peat turf fire and watch some rubbish on the TLC television channel.
"I like spending time with close friends and family, people I know and love."
Dinner for her niece Janine will be wholesome and hearty, with no trendy or overly exotic ingredients - as per Paula's Down To Earth cookbook.
"I'm not into fancy cooking - been there done that. What do I hate? Baby sweetcorn and green peppers - they're just unripe. That sharpness with green peppers is not nice, especially compared to the sweetness of lovely red and orange and yellow peppers from the oven.
"And you won't get anything with mange tout in the book. But there's carrot wine and bacon braised with cider and baked in a paper bag with fennel and lemon oil, for example. You cook fish that way; why not bacon and vegetables? It's all about trial and error, experimentation."
Our native fruits, berries and herbs are widely used in Paula's cooking; a delicious fruity crumble features on the front cover of Down To Earth. Inside there are some wonderful recipes for jams, jellies, plum gin and elderflower wine with blackberries (for sweetness), and innovative concoctions featuring fermented tomatoes, wild garlic buds, sorrel and alpine strawberries that grow at the side of the road.
So, does this famous foodie get her five-a-day? "That figure was just made up; there's all this fuss about sugar now and there's a lot of fructose in five portions," she points out.
"It's all about balance. Yes, you use a pound of sugar for every pound of fruit to make jam, but sure you only take a smear of it on your bread.
"I know I'm overweight, but that's more to do with Prosecco," she laughs.
"I just try to eat as naturally as possible. Have butter, not margarine - Abernethy butter is fantastic. Use locally produced rapeseed oil, it's great for cooking. We have world-class artisan produce here and there so many more now curing and smoking fish and meat."
As for the future, she would like to have her own cookery school one day, but is in no hurry.
"I'm risk-averse, I don't want the stress or a VAT reg. I'm self-employed and I like having no responsibilities and to be able to travel and I do make a good living from the teaching and the radio. I like performing - cooking demos require a bit of showmanship and I really enjoyed doing William Caufield's panto last year."
She laughs at the memory of acting in the Lurgan-born comedian's show, but isn't planning to branch on to the stage. Publicity-seeking is not her thing and she doesn't have much time for self-aggrandising and gimmicky gourmands.
"The best chefs are the hard-working ones with no ego, like Eddie Atwell and David Rea, he really inspired me. I get crushes on chefs, like Michael O'Hare from Leeds and Yotam Ottolenghi in London, and Diana Henry from here. She's another Dalriada girl, but she got a first at Oxford in English, excuse me!
"I love her recipes and I love Derry Clarke's cooking. His l'Ecrivain restaurant in Dublin is my favourite in Ireland; it's infused with Derry and his wife Sallyanne's personality. Derry moves with the times, he never sits still. He's innovative and fresh and amazing. He should be famous worldwide."
It's impossible to imagine Paula flirting with food and the camera, like the suggestive Nigella. What does she make of the saucy vixen?
"Nothing," she deadpans. "I have no opinion on her. I'm not into fluff. I'm hardcore."
We wouldn't have her any other way.
- Down To Earth Cookbook by Paula McIntyre is published by Colourprint Books, price £9.99
Career recipe for success
From rural Aghadowey, Co. Londonderry, Paula McIntyre trained in culinary arts at the prestigious Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, USA, returning to the UK in 1993 to open her own restaurant in Manchester.
Back home in 1998, Paula worked as head chef in several establishments, including the atmospheric Georgian Ghan House in Carlingford and Fontana in Holywood.
In 2000 she appeared as a guest chef on Ready, Steady, Cook, beating Paul Rankin in her second appearance.
In autumn 2001, Paula was given her own TV series on BBC 2 NI, Taste for Adventure. She also appeared as a guest chef with Eamonn Holmes on BBC 1 NI’s Summer Season programme, and as a reporter on food issues for BBC 1 NI’s Inside Out programme.
A regular contributor to Radio Ulster, Paula was asked to develop her own series. The result, McIntyre Magic, was broadcast on Saturday mornings, and since 2004 she has been hosting the cooking slot on Radio Ulster’s weekly Saturday Magazine show with John Toal.
Paula lectures in catering on the Professional Cookery programme in Northern Regional College and has contributed her expertise to most of the national newspapers.
Her first book, A Kitchen Year, was published in 2008 by Gill and McMillan.