Paula McIntyre: 'I fell in love with cooking at 14. I would have left school to work in a restaurant... but my parents wouldn't have let me'
In the second interview of our most revealing series yet Rachel Dean talks to chef and broadcaster Paula McIntyre MBE (52), who lives in Portstewart.
Q. Tell us about your childhood.
A. I was brought up in Aghadowey and my mum Rae and dad Davie were both headteachers. I have one brother, David, who's two years younger than me.
My mum taught me from P1 until P3, in a primary school just outside Maghera but then my parents had to move me on to a different school because of my asthma. We were travelling 20 miles and back to Maghera and it was too much.
I was in the Brownies and then the Guides right through my childhood. I had all the badges. Ironically, I had a badge for ironing and I don't think I've ironed anything since! I've always managed to pay someone to do it for me.
I've always been surrounded by great cooks - my mum, my aunt Doreen, friends of the family and even our next-door neighbour. We had family friends who moved to Edinburgh when I was eight and they took me to a deli there called Valvona & Crolla. It's such an authentic Italian delicatessen with all the different hams hanging up.
That was a turning point for me as I decided then that I wanted to cook. As well, my mum owned loads of Le Cordon Bleu cookbooks and I used to work my way through them. When I was 14, I got a job in the kitchen of MacDuff's restaurant in Aghadowey while I was still at school - I would have left school but my parents definitely wouldn't have let me. I had made up my mind by then - I had fallen in love with restaurants and cooking.
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My mum and dad were brilliant because they would have always taken us out to restaurants even back when me and my brother David were toddlers. We were under threat of death to behave ourselves, so we were the best-behaved children in Ireland! My mum says that people used to come over and say 'congratulations, your kids are so good'.
We were little terrors at home, but when we were out we were lovely. I remember once, my brother would have only been about seven at the time and they brought over a children's menu and he was absolutely disgusted. It always sounds precocious, but we just really loved food. Whatever my dad ate, I ate. If he was having snails or pâté, I would too.
Q. What are you most proud of?
A. I've been a judge on the Radio Four Food Programme's Food and Farming awards for five years now. I've been on Radio Ulster from about 2000 and latterly on the John Toal Show and before that The Saturday Magazine for about 14 years.
I love that. Radio is a great thing because it makes you more approachable. It's great when I go somewhere to do a demo or event and people come up to me and say 'hello, Paula'. I'm always thinking 'do I know you?' but I think that's such a lovely thing - that people feel like they know you and are comfortable to come up and chat to you.
This year I'm judging BBC Cook of the Year which is such an honour. I have long admired the show and the presenter Sheila Dillon and producer Dan Saladino, so it's been a joy to get to know them.
I've published two books - A Kitchen Year and Down to Earth. I'm proud that I wrote every word and styled every photo.
Q. The one regret you wish you could amend?
A. To be honest, I don't really regret anything. I've made mistakes, just like anyone, but you learn from mistakes. Sometimes I've thought 'oh, I regret that didn't happen', but it always turns out for the best anyway. I live my life in a way that I don't have regrets. I have a really great group of friends that all know how I feel about them, so I know there wouldn't be any regrets about what I should have said.
If anything, I wish I'd passed my cycling proficiency test. If only not to have to be reminded by my brother David of this failing every year since primary school. I thought the blue and white emulsion that I painted onto the bike was a big improvement on the dull Raleigh colours of the 1970s - until the rust set!
Q. Do you have any phobias?
A. Rats! I've been terrified of them since I was a child. My dad has always been afraid of rats, so maybe it's an inherited thing. I think when he was small he was petting a rat and his mother caught him and went into an absolute panic - maybe that triggered his fear. I used to be afraid of flying, but have had no option in the past few years but to fly. Now, I have no problem with it at all.
Q. The temptation you cannot resist?
A. Cheese - we have wonderful cheeses in Ireland but I love Italian gorgonzola and a particular parmesan variety made from the milk of rare red cows that graze in the Emilia Romagna region.
I have a barbecue and I love making pizzas on it. I make a white pizza - it has a creamy, garlic sauce instead of the traditional tomato, and whatever cheeses are floating around my house. I like making fonduta, a recipe from the north of Italy. It's pretty much cream, egg yolks and butter with cheese melted through it. I would only have this about once a year, if that. But, I wouldn't be able to resist it if it was put out in front of me.
Q. Your number one prized possession?
A. My car - I've had my Jaguar (a modern model is pictured above) for about six months. I've loved cars all my life in all shapes and sizes and I've always wanted a black Jag with red leather seats. Because I spend so much time in my car it's like an office too, so these days a little bit of luxury goes a long way. It's still a chef's car though - it's filled with pots and pans.
Q. The book that's most impacted your life?
A. The Third Plate by chef Dan Barber where he digs deep into the roots of food and what it means to be a farmer or fisherman. The book is divided into soil, land, sea and seed and their impacts on the ecosystem and the future of food. When I finished it I started it again. The book changed the way I looked at food.
Q. If you had the power or authority, what would you do?
A. Insist that we have a functioning government in Northern Ireland. If people don't talk to each other, nothing gets done. And a blanket ban on dirty grey tracksuit bottoms.
Q. What makes your blood boil every time without fail?
A. Laziness - from sloppy service in restaurants, bars and shops to litter louts. We all have a responsibility to do our best and make the most of the situations we find ourselves in. A sense of entitlement is a scourge on our society.
Q. Who has most influenced you in life?
A. My parents have had a great influence on my life and have been very supportive of my decisions, and still are to this day. My mum and dad are both academics and I truly value their advice.
Also, my grandparents were equally encouraging and shaped my love of travel.
Q. Your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive, and why?
A. Michelle Obama - she was an exemplary First Lady with intelligence and social responsibility.
Bette Midler because she's funny and dislikes Donald Trump as much as I do.
James Taylor to provide the live soundtrack and make the Martinis.
Q. The best piece of advice you ever received?
A. A friend told me something her English teacher once said. It's to 'never compare yourself to anyone else - plough your own furrow'. I think it's great advice. You should never think 'oh no, they're doing that and I'm not or I should have' - just do your own thing.
Q. The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?
A. At the end of last year I took up cold water swimming and I love it. As often as I can I swim with a group on the north coast called the Menopausal Mermaids. I have a dry robe and a towel robe for when I get out and we have hot drinks - never alcohol - which helps to warm up the core. I wear divers' gloves because my hands get so cold and special shoes in case the surface is a bit rough.
There is no greater stress buster than cold water swimming, and it's great fun. When you're in the cold sea all your problems disappear. And no, we don't wear wetsuits, even when it's subzero!
Q. The poem that touches your heart?
A. The poem Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney was the first piece of literature that made me cry. The line 'A four foot box, a foot for every year' really touched me. I remember the first time I read it in English class, when I was 14, and I just felt this tear running down my cheek. I told myself to keep my head down so nobody could see, but I'm sure I wasn't the only one moved by the poem.
Q. The happiest moment of your life?
A. Receiving my MBE from Prince William in November last year at Buckingham Palace.
My mum and dad came with me to get it, then we met with my brother, sister-in-law, my niece and nephew and a few friends flew over to celebrate with me, which was lovely.
Q. And the saddest moment of your life?
A. When my grandparents died.
They died within 40 days of each other - my granda Jim died at the end of 2008 and my granny Kathleen died in January 2009.
I still think about them every day.
Q. The one event that made a difference in your life?
A. In 2014 I represented the UK at the world's biggest food festival, the Slow Food Terra Madre in Turin. I cooked in the kitchen with a group of women from Uganda and it was probably the most significant four hours of my life.
Dan Saladino recorded it for Radio 4's Food Programme and it opened a lot of doors for me in the food world.
Q. What's the ambition that keeps driving you onwards?
A. I love what I do and feel extremely blessed with my career and life. I want to continue to do what I'm doing for as long as I can. I like moving in different directions with my career periodically. I'd love to do another book.
I have missed working in restaurants over the years so now I do pop-ups with my friend Leona Kane of Broighter Gold Rapeseed Oil (broightergold.co.uk) at Quilly House outside Coleraine. It's perfect - I get to cook food that's seasonal in a beautiful setting.
Q. What's the philosophy you live by?
A. Kindness. A few years ago I heard Father Brian D'Arcy on BBC Radio Ulster saying 'if you could do someone a good turn, why wouldn't you?' It stuck with me and I try to remember it every day.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. Game for a laugh, didn't take myself too seriously and proud of where I'm from.
Paula McIntyre will be cooking at an Italian Feast Cookery Demo on May 24 and a Private Dining Experience on June 1 at Quilly House, between Articlave and Coleraine. For bookings or more information, visit www.broightergold.co.uk