In the stars: Meet Ire­land’s only Miche­lin-starred fe­male chef

Danni Barry does not want to be known as the only ‘fe­male’ chef in Ire­land who has a Miche­lin star. Her gen­der is ir­rel­e­vant, she tells Joe McNamee

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Content -

SINCE Danni Barry gar­nered her first Miche­lin star, in 2015, there has been a huge de­mand on her time, but she didn’t hes­i­tate when Tess Perry, of Glebe House, in Bal­ti­more, West Cork, asked her to cook a pop-up din­ner for Taste of West Cork last year. Cook­ing in a coun­try house that boasted its own small­hold­ing, which sup­plies the kitchen, is Danni’s idea of culi­nary heaven, a farm-to-fork life­style she has known since her child­hood as a GAA­mad young­ster, in Co Down.

Danni is the sec­ond child of four and grew up on the fam­ily farm, in May­obridge.

“It was a mixed farm, beef and dairy,” says Danni. “When­ever there was har­vest­ing to be done, gath­er­ing pota­toes, bal­ing hay, girls and boys were all out­side, so there was no dif­fer­ence at all. We all grum­bled a lot about hav­ing to go and work on the school hol­i­days. Mum was a good cook; meat and two veg. We had a big farm, so she was al­ways pre­par­ing lots of food for the work­ing men and I’d have helped.”

When she was 14, Danni got a sum­mer job wash­ing pots in a lo­cal restau­rant. The chef soon gave her ba­sic cook­ing tasks, along with a copy of An­thony Bour­dain’s

Kitchen Con­fi­den­tial. None­the­less, it came as a sur­prise when she an­nounced she wished to go to cater­ing col­lege.

“I was quiet, I en­joyed school, worked hard. It was quite a sur­prise, even to me, when I didn’t con­tinue on the aca­demic route. I was do­ing my A-lev­els and I went to an all-girls school, where ev­ery­one went on to teach­ing, nurs­ing, law. When I left to go to cater­ing col­lege, in 2003 — even then, be­ing a chef was a lesser job — it was a bit ‘odd’.”

Through the ’90s and early 2000s, Michael Deane was one of a lonely few fly­ing the culi­nary flag for North­ern Ire­land, his epony­mous restau­rant hold- ing a Miche­lin star for 14 years. Af­ter sec­ond year in col­lege, Danni cold-called, ask­ing for a job.

“I moved to Belfast. I just wanted to learn from the best. If I’d left school to train to be a chef, I wanted to prove to my par­ents that I could be the best I could,” Danni says.

But be­fore that, she had to first prove her­self to her peers. “Af­ter two years of col­lege, you feel like you know things and then you’re be­ing told to even wash salad dif­fer­ently. Some days, you felt, ‘that was good, I un­der­stood that,’ and then, other days, you felt like it was your first day. It was tough. You got a hard time at the be­gin­ning, back when there was a sense that you had to be ‘bro­ken’ to see what you could take. It was a ma­cho en­vi­ron­ment, but there was no dif­fer­ence if you were male or fe­male; it was just hard, very com­pet­i­tive, very high­en­ergy. Ev­ery­one had a role: you were a cog and it was a ma­chine. If you couldn’t han­dle it, male or fe­male, you were gone. If you could, you got the re­spect.

“The other side was the ca­ma­raderie. Once you earned your stripes, they would show you things, take you un­der their wing. I had moved from the coun­try to Belfast and there was a sense of them look­ing out for you. It didn’t feel like you were go­ing to a job. Ev­ery­thing was so new. You were learn­ing some­thing ev­ery day; so much to see and do.”

Af­ter four years, Danni headed off to see the world. First was Australia, work­ing in a Syd­ney brasserie for a year. She toured, through South-East Asia, South Africa, New Zealand. She was the chef on a pri­vate yacht in the Med.

“I knew Deane’s in­side out and wanted to learn else­where, to see a bit of the world. There were no fe­males in the kitchen in Syd­ney. It was very male­dom­i­nated, but it was re­ally good fun. To be fair, they were all very sup­port­ive and I was quite sur­prised at the very high stan­dards. At first, do­ing the tougher jobs, maybe deep-clean­ing, one of the guys might say to me, ‘do some­thing eas­ier and I’ll fin­ish this’, but I’d keep do­ing what I was do­ing and they’d get it, they’d say ‘sorry,’ and wouldn’t say it again. I quite en­joy the ban­ter with the boys. I was used to it, at that stage. Af­ter all, I had worked on the farm and that was a very male en­vi­ron­ment. I prob­a­bly had that bit of a tomboy na­ture.

“Work­ing on the yacht was fan­tas­tic, for a while. I could get the train to Barcelona, some­times, and stay the night and eat, but I was work­ing en­tirely on my own and it was lonely. I missed the buzz of the kitchen.”

Danni’s im­me­di­ate boss in Deane’s was head chef, Derek Creagh, and she sought him out on her re­turn home, work­ing briefly with her for­mer men­tor in the Salty Dog, in Ban­gor.

“Derek is fan­tas­tic, one of the best I’ve ever worked with. He’d al­ways en­cour­aged me in Deane’s, say­ing, ‘don’t be stay­ing in Belfast. You need to read, you need to eat and you need to travel — and he was right. He said, ‘you need to go some­where where they’re grow­ing their own pro­duce,’ and told me to ap­ply to L’En­clume.”

Si­mon Ro­gan is one of Bri­tain’s most-renowned chefs, with a hos­pi­tal­ity em­pire founded on two Miche­lin-starred L’En­clume, in the post­card-per­fect English me­dieval vil­lage of Cart­mel, in Cum­bria. The bulk of pro­duce for Ro­gan’s restau­rants came from his 12-acre nearby farm, in­clud­ing fruit, herbs, veg­eta­bles, beef, chicken and pork. Pretty soon, Ro­gan in­stalled her as head chef at Ro­gan & Co, L’En­clume’s sis­ter restau­rant, a ca­sual din­ing take on its stel­lar sib­ling.

“Si­mon is a de­mand­ing per­son to work for and it was com­pet­i­tive and tough, but there was no dif­fer­ence, male or fe­male. There were lots of fe­male chefs and the farm man­ager was a girl. Cart­mell is beau­ti­ful, very pic­turesque, and I en­joyed my work. Get­ting to know the lo­cals, you felt like part of the vil­lage, but it is pretty iso­lated and small and gets a wee bit suf­fo­cat­ing,” Danni says.

In 2011, Deane’s had lost their star, fol­low­ing an ex­tended forced clo­sure. Michael Deane pub­licly shrugged and got on — very suc­cess­fully — with busi­ness, but, pri­vately, he be­gan star­chas­ing once more.

“Michael wanted me to come and look at a new restau­rant he was open­ing. He wanted some­one who knew the Deane’s way of work­ing and I was ready to come home. Ox had just opened, you could see there was a grow­ing food scene in Belfast, and peo­ple were talk­ing about it.”

Eipic (the Ir­ish for ‘epic’) opened in Jan­uary 2014 and, just one year later, re­ceived its first Miche­lin star. In 2017, Danni was crowned best chef in Ire­land at both the Restau­rant As­so­ci­a­tion of Ire­land awards and the Food & Wine mag­a­zine awards.

“That was the first time any at­ten­tion came on me about be­ing fe­male. Be­fore that, you were no dif­fer­ent to the boys, but then it was much more a me­dia thing, ‘the only fe­male in Ire­land with a star’. It’s a dou­bleedged sword. You get recog­ni­tion and young girls coming up to you, say­ing ‘you’re an in­spi­ra­tion,’ which is very hum­bling and you want to en­cour­age them, but you don’t want to be known as the only fe­male. I am best chef of the year, not best ‘fe­male’ chef of the year. Judge me just on my food.”

Danni spoke last year at the Athrú, a con­fer­ence in Gal­way aimed at em­pow­er­ing fe­male chefs in pro­fes­sional kitchens.

“If you go to Miche­lin kitchens, es­pe­cially twoand three-star kitchens, there are lots of women at that level, be­cause those kitchens re­quire a cer­tain stan­dard of or­gan­i­sa­tion and dis­ci­pline and you need to work me­thod­i­cally. I think those are fe­male traits and women re­ally thrive in that par­tic­u­lar en­vi­ron­ment. But, at the same time, I’ve been for­tu­nate in the ex­pe­ri­ences I’ve had, though I’ve heard the hor­ror sto­ries [of bul­ly­ing and abuse] from other fe­male chefs, but I think that kind of thing needs to be changed for ev­ery­one — male and fe­male.”

Danni still re­turns home reg­u­larly. “I do a bit of hik­ing. I like the out­doors, I would have played for the [GAA] club, at home, but th­ese days, on Sun­day [af­ter stand­ing all week], your legs wouldn’t work and, any­way, you wouldn’t be able to go to train­ing dur­ing the week. My fam­ily are very proud of me; they’ve al­ways been very sup­port­ive. They might com­plain about the hours I work and say you look tired and pale, but they get it. They al­ways en­cour­aged us to do what­ever made us happy and Daddy worked all day, ev­ery day, so we had the work ethic — work­ing hard didn’t seem strange to me.

“I’m re­ally happy with what we’ve done here at Eipic, but prob­a­bly, in the fu­ture, I’d like to do some­thing out­side the city, some­thing more ca­sual. I’d love to be able to do some­thing with the farm at home, some­thing along the lines of Cart­mell or Glebe — I loved it last year and am do­ing two nights this year — or Bal­ly­maloe, where you’re grow­ing and cook­ing your own pro­duce and hav­ing your fam­ily around you as you do it. But that’s the fu­ture, when­ever the legs give up and I’m too old for the stove.”

Danni Barry will be cook­ing at Glebe House, Bal­ti­more, West Cork on Monday and Tuesday, Septem­ber 11 and 12, as part of Taste of West Cork food fes­ti­val (Septem­ber 8-17). (www.atas­te­ofwest­ &­be­gar­

Danni Barry learned her trade in Michael Deane’s restau­rant in Belfast, and now cooks at his Eipic restau­rant.

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