Catherine Fulvio’s new TV series and book is all about getting back around the dinner table. Alan Corr talks to the Wicklow chef about winter fare, her family and why the recession means Irish people now see dinner as much more than just eating

Catherine Fulvio better watch out! She’s got a pretender to her throne as Wicklow’s culinary chief. It’s her nine-year-old daughter Charlotte. “My daughter walked into the cookery school a few weeks ago and I said to her, ‘sorry darling I’ve got a class right now’”, says the Wicklow-born chef who runs the Ballyknocken House and Cookery School. “But she came back a few minutes later with a Ballyknocken apron on and marched up to two ladies and said, ‘you’re doing a great job’. I said ‘darling, you start at the bottom here. You’re not putting mammy out of a job!’” A normal day in Ballyknocken so.

Catherine recently began her new series, Catherine’s Family Kitchen on RTÉ One (there’s a book to go along with the show) and as we enter the autumn/winter season, she’s busier than ever. She watches the seasons change from the idyllic vantage point of Ballyknocken House near Ashford, where she lives with Charlotte, seven-year-old son Rowan, and her husband, Sicilian financial advisor Claudio, whom she met in a pub on Mount Street in Dublin. “His chat-up line was all about the food in Sicily. I’m not joking!” laughs Catherine. Catherine’s current series on RTÉ is just the latest in a long list of TV shows, books, newspaper columns, radio appearances and cookery demonstrations.

The old cliché, how does she do it, really does apply here. We caught up with her just as she’d finished the school run and the first of the day’s cookery classes.

In your new book, you say that one of your responsibilities is to create great memories for your children, but what are your own earliest cooking memories?

Catherine Fulvio: Being on the farm getting the cream and collecting eggs from the hens, which I dreaded because the hens were about the same size as me at the time! They’d be looking back at you with two beady eyes and it wasn’t very pleasant. I used to scream my head off! My mum was a great cook. She cooked three meals a day, so if I wasn’t helping in the kitchen I was sitting down at the table eating. She used to make the most amazing Irish stew but the biggest treat was rice pudding. She’d make it without raisins for my brother, and raisins for the rest of us. There were two boys and two girls and it was always very busy. Dad was outside on the farm and appetites would have been big so mum cooked in volume.

Is the tradition of the family sitting at the dinner table dying out?

I think in the current climate it’s actually coming back. How we all feel at the moment in Ireland is that we’re all looking to our families and friends for support, for emotional support and a feelgood factor because a lot of the other things that used to make us feel good are gone! So there’s that homeliness and we’re cooking a lot more and having friends around for dinner a lot more. There is more awareness of the importance of sitting around the table, not just for the chat and the family feel and what really went on at school today or did you really do all your homework, but also for health reasons. Studies have shown that when families sit around the table there is a lower incidence of eating disorders or childhood obesity. At the height of the Celtic Tiger we were all eating on the run – a pizza here and a pizza there and that’s not a balanced diet.

The idea of the family eating around the table conjures up an image of a big Sicilian family gathered for dinner. Your husband Claudio is from Palermo, so that must have had a big impact on your life...

Oh yes. Just the whole buzz of sitting around the table and 20 conversations all happening at once. The only thing we’re missing in Ireland is that normally there’s a big match with Palermo playing on the telly. You could be having a really detailed conversation across the table and in the middle of it, they’ll shout ‘GOAAAAAAAL!’ How do they see that?

It’s a sixth sense. Does Claudio come from a big Italian family? He has five brothers and sisters and then he has an array of cousins in Palermo and they’re all married now with their children so there’s a fantastic buzz with the young ones and all their friends coming in. We’d all meet in Palermo in these little apartments. There’s a lovely homely feel and there would be eight women in a tiny galley kitchen cooking away, no bother to them at all.

It seems you have a pretty idyllic life in Ballyknocken. What’s a typical day for you?

What I like about my choice of work is that it never seems like work even though I work very long hours. A normal day would be the school run in the morning; I have two different schools to go to, in two different directions. Then there’s a cookery class at 9.15 and another class in the afternoon and then I’ll be supervising homework, then I’ll sit down with everybody at 7.30 for dinner. I also have to arrange some haircuts and a whole load of other things to do! It’s a fine balance. I take Tuesdays off but when I ring everybody they’re all working. I’m like a child without a play date on Tuesdays!

You dedicated your new book to Charlotte and Rowan with the line, ‘My little angels . . . most of the time.’ Did they like that?

It went over their heads. They’re unbelievable, both of them! You wouldn’t be up to them. They’re just cheeky monkeys. Example – they decided during the summer that they wanted to work with their mother to earn pocket money. We had this American couple in and I said go and check if they’re OK for drinks. So Rowan went up and the man said ‘I’ll have some water’ and Rowan said ‘will that be red or white?!’ We have a farm here as well and it’s great for the children because it helps them release their energy. They’re outside in the fresh air, getting sheep in and feeding lambs. All the things that really add up to a healthy lifestyle.

Are they showing any culinary flair at this early age?

Are you joking!? They love it! Charlotte is particularly interested in the cookery. Rowan is interested in the science of it all. Boys like the actual detail of cooking; girls like the creativity and between the two of them, there’s plenty for them to do in the kitchen.

There’s a very famous culinary dynasty down in Cork. Are you looking to establish one in Wicklow?

Many generations behind! It would be brilliant and I’d be so proud if the kids were interested, but one way or another they will grow up to be good cooks because they cook with me and I have a bee in my bonnet about getting kids into the kitchen. I always say to parents – and we do special classes here for parents and kids – getting kids into the kitchen might seem like such a pain because the clean-up is massive afterwards, but not only is it family time, but with all the reading and measuring, it’s also a real education. They’re learning a skill – just think, by the time they’re 21, you can retire young!

Are you enjoying MasterChef Ireland?

Loving it! Nick I know and Dylan I’ve met a couple of times. I think there’s a lovely balance between their personalities. The ‘cheffiness’ in Dylan is so apparent and Nick not only has a passion for the food but also the saleability of the dishes. The contestants are really good and the standard is very high. It goes right back to what I said in the first episode of MasterChef – it can be as fancy as you want but if you don’t have salt and pepper, you can forget about it!

Is there any rivalry with the other Irish celebrity chefs? We all get on like a house on fire, on the phone and texting and slagging each other. Donal Skehan was down here last night doing a class. It’s a very small business and we have to help each other out. People like us are delighted to be fed. A lot of my friends say, ‘Oh my God, you can’t have Catherine Fulvio around for dinner! You’re cooking for Catherine? Haha! Good luck!’ Chefs and cooks are only too delighted when someone puts a home-cooked meal in front of us made with love.

What is your signature dish for the this autumn and winter? My Asian-style roast beef, which I did in the first episode of the new series. I do it with Chinese five spice rubbed over a regular Irish roast beef and soy sauce goes over and it gets half glazed, half roasted in the oven. It’s a Sunday roast with a twist. That’s a whole lot of mealtime memories for Charlotte and Rowan when they come to feeding their kids.

Alan Corr