Clodagh McKenna on new Channel 4 show Beat the Chef
Clodagh McKenna talks to Donal Lynch about ambition, grief and her ‘Downton’ boyfriend Harry — and shares some delicious recipes from her latest cookbook
It's late afternoon in beautifully bucolic Hampshire, and from her office in the grounds of Highclere Castle - where they film Downton Abbey - Clodagh McKenna has just spent an industrious few hours tending to her culinary empire. She's had meetings about her new Channel 4 show, Beat the Chef, which will see her pit her skills against members of the public, written up her Evening Standard column, and now she settles in for our interview.
Clodagh is not just an arbiter of all things food-related, but also a newly minted figure in aristocratic circles in England. The latter status comes courtesy of her boyfriend, the Honourable Harry Herbert, whose blood could hardly be bluer. Herbert is the grandson of the Earl of Carnarvon, who, along with Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1922. Herbert's brother-in-law and father were bloodstock advisors and racing managers to the Queen. They've just finished filming Downton, the movie, in the house where he grew up, and he and Clodagh share a home in the grounds of the castle.
Not that Irish-born Clodagh finds her new surroundings intimidating - she makes it sound like she was to the manor born. "Some people mind find it daunting getting to know someone like Harry, but a lot of the things that would daunt other people would kind of go over my head," she explains of the now two-year-old relationship.
"Manners and things like that are important, but when you fall for someone, you realise what's important in life, and the most important thing is that the person is lovely and kind, and nothing more. Their background really isn't important," she says.
Moving with Harry from London - where she still has a studio - to Hampshire, has also been a way to reconnect with her own rural roots, Clodagh says. "We lived in Montenotte (in Cork) when I was a teenager, but I spent my childhood in the country just outside of Blarney... I think when you grow up in the country, you never really get away from that. It's so peaceful, and I love foraging and being outdoors."
Just as the Press fascination with Meghan Markle's observance of royal protocol is understandable, so too is a curiosity about how McKenna has adapted to this rarefied world. Perhaps the most courteous and upper-crust way of dealing with differences is to blankly pretend they don't exist - that seems to be Clodagh's tactic, anyway.
"I didn't learn anything about etiquette and all that stuff (from getting to know Harry)," she says. Anyway, if anyone is punching above their weight, relationship-wise, it's probably Herbert. In our celebrity-obsessed world, fame counts for slightly more than mere breeding and, over the last decade, McKenna has established herself as one of TV's most popular celebrity chefs.
Her sunny disposition and irrepressible charm have helped her break the UK - she is a regular fixture on morning telly there, and has appeared alongside the likes of Nigella Lawson - and America, where she has a regular slot on the Rachael Ray Show and the Marilyn Denis Show. She recently launched a new brand of gin with Glendalough Distillery, for Tesco.
In between, she's dealt with broken relationships, business ventures that didn't work, and the death of her father; hers is a story of survival as much as it is one of glittering success. "Every single thing I've done took a lot of work," she explains. "There were a lot of doors to knock on, and a lot of rejection. It's when rejections come that you have to keep believing in something. You have to know when to stop and when not to stop."
She grew up between the Cork countryside and Montenotte, the youngest of four children. Her father was a police officer and her mother was a legal secretary. It was a normal semi-detached household, but her parents grew their own vegetables and always had fresh linens and flowers on the table.
Because both of her parents worked outside the home, she and her siblings helped out with the household chores, and Clodagh says that her work ethic started early in life: "I got it from my parents, but you teach yourself that stuff as well, and that's what I did. I think the Irish are inbuilt good workers. From the time I was a child, I had a sense that nothing was going to be handed to me; I had to go out and get it."
While still in her teens, she won a scholarship to go to the prestigious NYU in downtown Manhattan. She was too young and probably too driven - she had scholarship grades to maintain - to avail of the student party scene in those years, but it was a period when she came to a realisation about how she would work in the years ahead.
"I really just began to understand during that time that, whatever happened, I was definitely not going to work for someone else," she explains. "I just wanted that independence and freedom to do my own thing - that was actually more important to me than success."
Armed with this valuable piece of self-knowledge, as well as a business master's, she returned to Ireland, and set her sights on establishing herself as a chef here. Ballymaloe has strong connections with the New York culinary scene, and it was there, in Cork, that Clodagh decided she would learn her trade.
Her parents co-signed a Credit Union loan for her to attend Ballymaloe's famous cookery course, and Darina and Myrtle Allen taught her everything they knew. After the three-month course, Clodagh stayed on as a chef in Ballymaloe for more than two years and, during that time, she started producing breads, pates, and sauces for the renowned farmers' market in Midleton, east Cork. She often worked late into the night.
"I was so young after Ballymaloe, and so passionate about food, that it didn't feel like work. When you love what you do so much, there is nothing else you want to do, and even on the days that are hard, you never think of giving up on it. I don't put in the long hours now; I don't work weekends; but there was a time when I worked crazy hours, and I did feel a bit burnt-out."
She had met Sebastiano Sardo - whose father, Piero, was one of the founders the Slow Food Movement - in the early noughties and moved to Turin with him towards the latter half of that decade. After they split, she subsequently embarked on a four-year personal and professional relationship with Peter Gaynor, with whom she opened several food businesses. Together they brought her brand to Arnotts, Aer Lingus and Blackrock Village in Dublin, where they had a restaurant. The fortunes of the three ventures were mixed.
"(Clodagh's Kitchen at) Arnotts did well during the recession. So it all worked really well," she explains. "Blackrock didn't work well. It was a lesson for me in terms of trusting my instincts more. People thought I was mad letting go of Aer Lingus, but I like being authentic and I felt it was not working out."
It was around the time these ventures ended that she moved to London, where she already had a posse of friends, including Fiona Leahy, who runs a design agency in the English capital; and Sally Greene, who owns the Old Vic and Ronnie Scott's. To pay the bills, she also undertook a fascinating experiment: she opened her own kitchen to paying punters, serving them up the best of her cooking.
"I did two or three (suppers) in a row per month for about six months. Everyone was like-minded in that people loved food, but what was surprising was that people were flying in from all over Europe. There was a big emphasis in making the table look beautiful. It was also where the idea for the book Clodagh's Suppers came from," she says.
The experience taught her what the most important elements of being a hostess are, as well as the potential pitfalls: "I wouldn't really call it a mistake, but people get stressed about trying to make things perfect," she explains. "For me, it's all about taking the stress out of it. The most important thing is that you, as a host, are relaxed. It's all about the feeling when the guests walk in the door, and the food is really secondary to that. It's important to plan out your dishes - you can make things ahead of time. There should be very little to do on the day. In terms of presentation, work with the seasons; comfort and textures are important."
Lighting is something people often overlook, she says. "Soft lighting is so important. Strong lighting doesn't make anyone look good. Everyone looks good in candlelight. I would love to live by candlelight."
The late, great food critic AA Gill loathed dinner parties, because, he said, "They usurp the most basic human goodness of hospitality and succour and turn it into a homunculus of social climbing." Clodagh says that in her experience there is no pretension around dinner parties, however. "That's not what it's about for me. If you talk to anyone in the creative world, it's just about making the table beautiful and really letting that thread within you unleash."
She had been on American TV before - she'd appeared on The Nate Berkus Show, which is owned by Oprah Winfrey's media group - but it was a fateful appearance on NBC's flagship daytime programme, The Today Show, three years ago, which crystallised the feeling that she had made it in The Big Apple.
Her segment went down a storm, and by the time she'd returned to her hotel, the producers had called, inviting her back. Her phone began to blow up with people trying to congratulate her, but rather than field excited calls, she took a little time for herself.
"It was so exciting when I found out. I was on my own walking down Park Avenue," she recalls. "God, it's so cheesy, I probably shouldn't tell you this, but I put Where the Streets Have No Name by U2 on my headphones and just blasted that song. I walked the length of Manhattan, from the Rockefeller Centre to the East Village. It took over an hour. I didn't care if I ever got back again, I just needed that time to myself. It was an incredible feeling."
She says the overall key to her coming over so well in these appearances is "authenticity", and she brought that approach to her personal life, too. Marriage was never particularly important to her, she explains, and she rose above the pressure society puts on women to get hitched. "I just stuck to being true to myself. You have to keep pulling yourself back to what you want and believe."
Does she think she would still have achieved the same success if she'd had children? "Yeah, I definitely think so. If you want something, you can make it work. I'm sure I would have." Hampshire is now "home", she says, but she gets back to Ireland frequently. Her father died three years ago. "It was a tough period, but it's also part of life," she says of the period after his death. "He had a very good life."
She's about to appear in a new Channel 4 series called Beat the Chef, and says the concept challenged her. "I'm one of four chefs and we are the house chefs, and you come on and have your signature dish that you love," she explains. "I get to see the dish for one minute, then both of us have to go our work stations, and then we are on the clock. I have to try to create the best version of their dish, and they do the same. It's given to five critics, and if the contestant gets just one vote, they get through to the next round. If you last all five rounds, you get £10,000. Frankly, I was shocked at the talent out there, some of it is incredible."
She turned 44 the week before we speak, but says birthdays are not an occasion for reflection on the past. Instead, her eyes are permanently trained on the future: "I don't really look back," she says. "I just feel happy if I feel I'm going to eat well on my birthday, and I did. The last few years have been incredible, and I'm really looking forward to this one."
- Clodagh's Suppers: Suppers To Celebrate the Seasons by Clodagh McKenna is published by Kyle Books, £20,