I first heard about the Oxford Symposium through my university lecturer, Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire, a trustee of the symposium. I had been looking to broaden my knowledge of gastronomy outside university and to push myself into new fields.
I began cooking at age 16 in the restaurant kitchen of Ballymaloe House in Cork, Ireland. I would cook here in the summers and holidays when I wasn’t at school. I started to connect to the ethos of using local ingredients and suppliers. I took a year off before starting university and travelled to work in San Francisco then Rome. I worked as an intern in the Rome Sustainable Food Project, started by Alice Waters. This completely changed my cooking style and introduced me to the importance of sustainability in food. I returned to Ireland to study a degree in Culinary Arts in Dublin. Last summer I did an internship working in River Cottage, UK. When I learned that the 2017 theme of the symposium was “Food and Landscape”, I knew I would find it fascinating.
My trip to Oxford started in London’s Borough Market. Here I was given a behind the scenes tour of the market with David Matchett and spent the afternoon in the Bread Ahead bakery, helping the bakers. The next day, I travelled down to Oxford to give a hand in the kitchen, preparing for the Friday dinner. Rob Krawczyk was heading the Irish dinner with his team on Friday, under the theme of Ireland’s Ancient East. It was definitely comforting to jump into a kitchen full of Irish people. Over the next two days I helped with making the dessert, canapés and really just tried to make myself useful in preparing the delicious feast. The kitchen was a very relaxed environment and each element was well thought out. At the dinner, each table was given a platter of oysters on a bed of seaweed. The middle of the platter was filled with dry ice and a powder that mimicked the smell of the sea. Girish, the other receiver of the young chef grant was also giving a hand. It was very interesting to hear his story and I am very tempted to visit his bakery in India once I finish university. Tim Kelsey and his team were especially helpful to us, offering a calm hand whenever we needed one. It was a very fun and exciting experience to be a part of.
The next day was filled with going to talks and meeting other symposiasts. I was surprised by how welcoming everyone is and you learn something from every conversation you have. One of the first talks was by James Rebanks, who spoke about his life as a sheep farmer in the Lake District. I come from a very rural part of Ireland so I really connected to his talk. I ended up sitting next to him at the Turkish-Armenian dinner on Saturday night and was able to discuss this more. I bought his book and had read it before even reaching the airport to fly home. I also met another speaker, Joshna Maharaj, a chef and activist who has been improving the food in hospitals and universities, which was inspiring as that is something that has yet to be implemented in Ireland.
Looking forward to each meal was a definitive part of the Symposium,where you sat next to someone new each time, which made each meal more enjoyable. The standard of food was extremely high and each of the meals had a great deal of meaning behind them.
Each talk I went to was thought-provoking and entertaining, like reading a book I never wanted to end. Around the time of the symposium, I had been playing with the idea of writing a food column for students in Ireland and I felt my time at Oxford really encouraged me to go for it. Since then I have been writing a regular column for the Irish Times about how to cook as a student. I think if I hadn’t had the opportunity to go the Oxford Symposium, I wouldn’t have had to confidence to dive into the writing.
I can’t wait to return to the symposium and to meet the friends I had made and hopefully meet a lot more. I would advise the next young chefs to try and speak to everyone they can, there’s something to learn from each person.