After spending 83 days at Ballymaloe Cookery School, I’ve taken in a phenomenal amount of information and have created things that I never imagined I could do.
On reflection, there are definitely things that I think students should know before heading on this intensive journey, so I’ve put together a list of things I think might be of use – without bias.
If you’ve any questions about my experience, feel free to contact me and a pre-warning, this is a lengthy read. Let’s do this:
A car isn’t necessary, but it’s helpful
I didn’t have a car while I was at Ballymaloe, but I can see how you would have gotten so much more freedom if you had one. To get to the shops in Midleton, I was reliant on housemates (who thankfully didn’t mind as long as you chip in for petrol), but if you want to go exploring the surrounding areas or breakaway at the weekend, it’s worth bringing a car if you can.
By the way, petrol is much cheaper to get in Midleton rather than in the local station in Shanagarry.
A single room can be a blessing
Why? Because you could have an awful roommate. Thankfully this didn’t really affect me much because I had an awesome roommate in Maddie here in Ballymaloe.
Though a bit more expensive, I can see how having your own space just for yourself can be pure bliss especially after a long day in the kitchen. By the way, where I was on campus the walls weren’t exactly soundproof so at times I benefited hugely from having earplugs.
You won’t always get on with everyone on the course.
Because you’ve got people from all backgrounds, the chances are, are that you’re not going to get on with everyone. Like a lot of situations there will be a huge clash of personalities and while you can try to like everyone, some days it can be tough.
The most important thing I found on this course was to not try to fake it and treat people the way you want to be treated – don’t bitch about people and don’t alienate people either.
There are people that are prone to gossiping and if that’s your thing, then that’s your thing, but I feel that you’d make way more friends by being a good teammate and a supportive soul. There are some days when a good cup of tea and a chat away from the kitchen can lift the spirits.
Doing the extra-curricular activities gives you a richer experience
Considering the amount of money you’ve paid for this course, make the most out of it. I had so much fun doing all the extra bits that aren’t strictly compulsory, as well as looking after a baby sourdough starter (wee Alfred), I also got to make my own cheese (howdy Brienne!) and help run to the stall at the farmer’s market.
Though you may not feel like getting up slightly earlier than usual to milk the cows or stay on in the evenings to hear someone do a talk, doing a bit extra is actually worthwhile.
Eat, taste, smell
Even if you know that you don’t like a certain type of food, taste it.
Think about it – what are the chances of you ever having such excellent ingredients at your fingertips? For years I didn’t think I liked walnuts, but as it turns out, a lot of the walnuts we get commercially are pretty rancid anyway. A fresh walnut is to die for. If you’re a picky eater than is it worthwhile even considering the course if you’re not going to embrace the food?
Keep to your rota
Something you’ll experience on the course: Inevitably the same people end up cleaning the dishes and cleaning the house, instead of it potentially becoming a glaring competition in your accommodation, stick to the rota that’s provided.
Same can be said for laundry days, there’s nothing worse than heading to laundry and having no machine available because someone nabbed your slot.
For those coming overseas, your bags will be MUCH heavier going back
I don’t remember this ever being mentioned before the course, but for those who’ve come overseas, bear in mind that you’ll be hauling about four large folders worth of paper back.
Ballymaloe Cookery School can organise the costs for shipping but it’s good to know in case you were wondering halfway through the course and need to save cash. Better to plan in advance!
Faking a sick day is not worth it.
Again, consider how much you’re paying to do the course, then consider how much you’re wasting by not bothering to come in to cook or to demo. It’s not worth it and you may miss hearing some valuable tips and information.
Keep on top of your filing
You’ll understand once you start the course, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep on top of that pile of paper and file things properly. Keep things in folders so that you can find them and don’t worry about anyone else’s filing system. They’re your notes.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
I’m one of those people who plays out a scenario in their heads asking “Why? Why didn’t I ask that?”, so let me tell you that it’s up to you to take that leap and just ask. The teachers are there to help you, you’ve paid enough money, so don’t be shy. Even in demo, just raise a hand or call out, the chances are that five other people are wondering the same thing.
Don’t be tempted to talk during demo
Seriously, don’t. If you’re in rows further back the sound travels up through the room and to be frank, annoys the heck out of everyone. There’s plenty of time to have full-blown conversations outside of demo or at the break so bear in mind that other people have paid to do the course too!
Read, read, read
This isn’t stressed to you really until after the halfway point, but I genuinely think that it’s a good idea to start keeping notes on the things you learn from the beginning. You get a starter pack with some information on it and it’s worth flicking through. Whether it be a casual browse-through culinary terms or gawking at mother-daughter sauces, know that they’ll be in your exams and throughout the 12 weeks you’ll be getting PLENTY more notes.
That being said too, familiarise yourself with various foods, cuts of meat and fish because that’s the stuff you’re meant to learn in your own time.
Personally, I would have preferred more of a continuous assessment approach on each topic rather than a Leaving Cert-esque exam week, but as long as you stay calm, revise on time and keep on top of your notes – you can do as best as you can in it. The exams are not easy by any means, they’re actually surprisingly hard (on this course anyway), but my advice would be to go through notes as early as possible.
Do you need previous cooking experience?
In the FAQ they say “there is no problem if you have no cooking experience whatsoever; this is a cooking school; our job is to teach you”, though I would slightly disagree on the experience point.
I came in from a home cook background, only dabbling in my spare time but even my little dabbling helped me forward.
In my opinion, I don’t think you can be a complete novice coming to the course, I think it’s worthwhile knowing a bit about cooking or at least have a genuine interest. Why? Well, the course is fast, it’s intense, there’s a lot to learn, and you could fall behind. Though of course, the teachers do an excellent job at helping you along, you have to remember that they’ve six students to look after and it’s not a one-to-one lesson for three hours each day. A little knowledge goes a long way.
You’re going to be exhausted
There are days when you’re probably going to feel angsty and down, but they will pass. But remember the majority of the days are happier days.
Normally there’s a certain week when everything seems to go in a downward spiral but know that there are many students who have gone through what you’re going through. When they say “intensive”, they mean “intensive” but also, incredibly rewarding.
If you put your heart into it, you can have a great time – I certainly did, and I’m glad I took the leap.
Update November 2020: I’m not sure how much has changed in the 12-week course since I’ve been on the course. It was never my intention to be a chef after it because you do not become one there, for that you need real-life experience. However, the knowledge that I gained was invaluable and I am a far more confident cook. I did work briefly in café kitchens and as kitchen staff in other establishments but it wasn’t for me. It was more important for me to utilise my knowledge to appreciate food and so I got into food writing amongst many other things. You can find out more on WeAreIrish.ie.