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Alex O’Neill of Bahay on her life in food

Alex O’Neill of Bahay on her life in food


by Sarah Gill
18th Jun 2024

Co-author of the very first Irish-Filipino cookbook, Masarap, Alex O’Neill of Bahay shares everything from her earliest memories of food to her favourite flavours and culinary inspirations.

Alex O’Neill and Richie Castillo are the faces behind Bahay, an award-winning food pop-up focussed on introducing people to Filipino flavours created with the best Irish ingredients. Well regarded industry wide and extremely high on just about everybody’s watch list since first bursting onto the food scene late 2021, the pair have become well known for their innovative approach to exploring modern Irish food.

Last year they pair released a cookbook—Masarap—that received rave reviews across the board, with mother superior Nigella Lawson calling it “a small book of Filipino food that [she] love[s] in a big way,” the Bahay star continues to rise.

This weekend, Bahay will become the first sit-down bookable restaurant to grace the grounds of Glendalough for Beyond The Pale with a Midsummer Feast offering in a space curated to feel like stepping into a Filipino Bahay Kubo, a type of house indigenous to the Philippines that is an icon of Philippine culture. Expect delicious sharing plates and dishes from Bahay, bright Filipino flavours, using the best Irish ingredients.

Here, Alex O’Neill shares her life in food…

Alex O’Neill of Bahay

What are your earliest memories of food?

I loved getting little picnics in bed. I was a terrible sleeper as a toddler/child and I would never sleep through the night. My parents had to make deals with me to get me to sleep or go back to bed when I woke up, and one of those deals was bringing me up a little nighttime picnic.

The nighttime picnics consisted of little square marmalade sandwiches on soft white bread, with a tiny scrape of butter (I hated too much, but needed just enough), cut up into perfect little squares, with no crusts. This is what made it a picnic. My mam or dad would put the four little squares on a sheet of kitchen roll, the ’90s kind with the little painted flowers on each corner, and it would be served with a bottle/beaker of hot, sweet (and strong) tea. It’s my earliest memory, and a lovely one, and funnily enough, I am still a midnight snacker, often getting up to make myself my own little picnic even now.

How would you describe your relationship with food?

Food is a source of happiness for me, a pleasure to be enjoyed, and a part of life’s celebrations. Food is often how I delve into learning about other cultures and regions, and for me, food is a way to create connections, a way to show people I care, and something I find comfort in when I need it. It’s a companion in joy and a comfort in solitude.

It would be wrong of me to not admit and own that there are moments when my relationship with food is shadowed by the spectre of body image. Like many people who grew up in the 2000s and 2010s, the idea that ‘skinny’ was the ideal was so prevalent when I was growing up, and that’s left a lasting impression on me. Those early ideas about body image can sometimes still shape how I view food and myself, even if only slightly.

What has helped me massively, is the understanding that food, above all else, is nourishment. It’s fuel for our daily lives, it’s needed for our brain to be able to come up with ideas, and the plans on how to achieve them.

This realisation has allowed me to see my body and health in a new light: that my body and health is something to cherish, take care of, and do the best I can for. Healthy looks so different for so many people. It’s vitally important to avoid endorsing a narrative that conditions acceptance of bodies on being ‘good’—defined as healthy, only if they fit into various expectations of what our bodies should look like, and should achieve, according to societal expectations.

No single way of living or belief system suits everyone or every body type; our diets are as diverse as we are, and that is truly a wonderful thing. The goal for me is to find harmony between my mental and physical well-being.

I sometimes give in to cravings and eat more than necessary, or I might skip meals during busy workdays and then overeat later. I’m trying to be mindful of these habits and to approach my eating patterns with more understanding and self-compassion.

What was the first meal you learned to cook?

I decided to be a vegetarian first when I was about 13. I first learnt how to make a simple vegetarian curry, after trying the famous Shop Street market potato and pea curry on one of my trips out West as a child. I quickly made it my mission to learn about and cook a huge variety of vegetarian curries and dahls.

Indian food, specifically dishes from Western states and the Northern area, was a huge comfort for me in these times, as I wanted to find foods that were already vegetarian, rather than trying the very poor selection of Quorn processed fillets that were the majority of supermarket veggie offerings back then. Though my dad already had a lot of his own spices—he’s always been a huge fan of Indian cuisine—I filled my parents’ spice cupboards with my own Masala Dabba (Indian Spice Tin).

How did food become a part of your career?

I always loved food, cooking and exploring culture through food. Wherever I went, I wanted to taste the local dishes, try the delicacies, and bring home jars or bottles of locally produced honey, sauces, vinegars, chutneys, oils and spices. I was a fan of going to Asian stores since I was very young, always going into Easter European markets to pick up snacks, chocolate and drinks, and even IKEA’s food market for my Swedish favourites (I have family there).

Food was always a huge interest and joy, but doing an undergrad in Computer Science, and working in Fintech and Software Development since leaving college meant I never saw it in my career for me. So many of my friends were working in restaurants, cafes and the hospitality industry, and I always felt a little jealous of the camaraderie they all shared with their teams, how they could be themselves, act how they wanted, say what they wanted, while I put on a suit and heels to go into corporate offices, making sure to watch everything I said, afraid to be my true self.

This all changed with Bahay, which Richie and me started in 2021. I was undertaking a masters in Science in Digital Marketing, and decided to use Bahay as the test case for this. I first stayed doing the socials, writing and front of house, but in the last year I have stepped into the kitchen more and more. I get so much joy and fulfilment through what we do with Bahay, particularly so in the months since our cookbook, Masarap, came out in October 2023. Writing was always a love of mine, as well as creative endeavours like crafting, painting and drawing, but I never expected this would allow me to delve in deeper and marry these creative passions with food. Our book has changed our lives. The stuff we’ve done, the people we’ve met, and the doors it has opened is something were still coming to grips with, and we are just so grateful for every single bit of it.

What’s your go-to breakfast?

I am a demon for a pastry. I often organise my day around what bakery I can stop in, both at home and especially when I am travelling. My ideal breakfast is a pastry and a strong short black.

If you’re impressing friends and family at a dinner party, what are you serving up?

Whenever I am cooking for others, I mainly try to introduce whoever I’m cooking for to something they haven’t tried before. I’ll consider what they usually eat, their spice tolerance, their likes and dislikes, and come up with something that I think they’ll enjoy. I usually pick something that’s not too challenging, so that they’ll hopefully get brave and try the next thing, and maybe continue to look for new dishes, ingredients, ways of cooking etc.

I recently made Okonomiyaki—Japanese Cabbage Pancakes—the last time I cooked for my family. I made Chicken Adobo and garlic rice for the attendees of the fantastic Bia Zine Issue 2 launch. I made a full Irish breakfast with soda bread for a friend in Madrid, and battered longanisa (filipino) sausages for guests at a recent demo in London.

Who is your culinary inspiration?

Fuschia Dunlop. Fuchsia Dunlop is a globally renowned British author and chef who has championed and celebrated Chinese food in the West for the last 30 years. She was the first Westerner to train at the prestigious Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in Chengdu, China. She speaks fluent Mandarin, and has spent most of her adult life exploring the wonders, techniques and history of Chinese food.

Dunlop’s approach to Chinese cuisine is enveloped by her deep and genuine respect and curiosity for Chinese culture, which has earned her a loyal following both in China and internationally. Fuchsia Dunlop’s work really is a testament to how you can appreciate and share a culture with sensitivity and respect, fostering cross-cultural understanding and appreciation rather than appropriation, which is something that’s hugely important to me, and vital in all that I do with Bahay and Filipino cuisine.

What would your last meal on earth be?

Kopitiam on Capel Street. Deep fried seven spice Aubergine, Sotong Goreng (salt and chilli deep fried calamari), Bean Curd Tofu Roll and Hot Sour fish soup to start, followed by their Prawn Rendang, Sambal Kangkung Belacan (morning glory in sambal) and nasi lemak coconut rice. If I can eat anything more, I would get the coconut jam and butter toast (Kaya and Mentega Bakar) for dessert with a Teh Tarik (Malaysian milk tea).

What’s your go-to comfort food?

When going out: Dim sum has been my comfort meal for when we want to recharge after a busy period. At home: Toasted batch bread with butter and multiple cups of strong sweet tea.

What’s the go-to quick meal you cook when you’re tired and hungry?

My own version of bibimap which is a Korean dish named after bibim meaning ‘mixed’ and bap meaning ‘rice’. I will do up some tofu, edamame, quickly stir fry whatever veggies I have in the fridge with some garlic, ginger, a splash of vinegar or oyster sauce, and Maggi seasoning. I always have pickles in the fridge, the more the merrier here. I’ll add in some crunch with some crispy fried shallots, crispy lao gan ma chilli oil, and top it with a super crispy fried egg.

What is one food or flavour you cannot stand?

Coriander, I hate it so much. It’s how to ruin a meal for me. That, and also cucumber. I’m allergic, and nobody believes me, so it finds its way on my plate much too often.

Fine dining or pub grub?

There’s a place for both, and I go from one to the other at different times, but well done pub grub is definitely it for me right now. It’s honest and authentic, and I appreciate that.

Favourite restaurant in Ireland?

I can’t say I ever have a mainstay favourite restaurant in Ireland, but right now I am so looking forward to our annual trip down to Kerry, where we always stop off in Castlegregory to go in to Milesian restaurant. The head chef and owner Frankie Fitzgerald is a great friend of ours, and opens up his restaurant only during the summer. We did a pop-up there in 2022 and 2023, and are looking forward to getting down again sometime in August.

Best coffee in Ireland?

Vice Coffee is hard to beat for me. I was sad to see Drip Coffee go into hibernation after a series of landlords letting a new, thriving business down, but excited to see where Fionn goes next.

Go-to beverage accompaniment?

Something to have with a beverage? Olives. My go-to favourite beverage to accompany a meal? Sparkling water with the meal, Kombucha after.

What are your thoughts on the Irish foodie scene?

I have a lot of thoughts. A lot.

What’s your favourite thing about cooking?

Mindfullness. I think providing food for yourself, or others of course, is such a way to show appreciation, love and care.

What does food — sitting down to a meal with friends, mindfully preparing a meal, nourishment, etc — mean to you?

It means taking care of people, having time to sit down, connect and chat over a meal, which for me, is one of life’s best things. It’s how you really create a close bond with people, it’s how you forge connections, and that’s something that’s really important for me. One thing I do wish I had, is more free time. I work full time as an IT Project Manager, in a Social Housing Charity, which gives me genuine fulfilment as it’s really important work, which gives me a huge amount of job satisfaction. This alongside the commitments with Bahay, however, is a lot, so I don’t find myself with much time to organise meals with friends, either new or old. I’d like to have more time for that.

Food for thought — Is there room for improvement within the Irish food/restaurant/hospitality scene?

1000%. I think every major industry/scene in Ireland needs and could do with improvement. At a very basic level, I think first up, if a restaurateur or restaurant has any serious complaints of abuse of staff, that there should be strong industry-wide support for the victims first. Far too often I see international and national praise of chefs and restaurants that have harboured known abusers, bullies and just outright bad people, and I think it’s ridiculous that it’s something people are afraid to say, agree with, or even acknowledge.

This brings me into my next point. There needs to be much more support for female chefs and kitchens. Michelin has proved itself to be a massively outdated awarding body, and is only very recently making pretty feeble attempts to deal with their very clear issue of favouring white male chefs when awarding their prestigious stars.

But the problem isn’t just this, it starts much closer to home. There is an overall lack of support, attention and opportunities opened up to women and people of different cultural, societal and ethnic backgrounds in Irish kitchens. Many are much happier to speak about the new fancy openings of international chefs, the new restaurants that are backed by billionaires, and the media chefs who are essentially the Daniel O’Donnells of food (no offence intended to Daniel). But come on, we need to support people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, and young people trying to further the already incredible Irish food landscape.

Alex O’Neill of Bahay

I’m glad to see people like Ali Dunworth, Caroline Hennessy, Katy McGuinness, Marie Claire Digby and of course the formidable McKennas, Kristen Jensen of 9BeanRows and Victory Nwabu-Ekeoma (to name a few), who have been key in championing a more diverse culinary landscape that is truly representative of Irish society and modern Irish food.

Chef’s kiss — Tell us about one standout foodie experience you’ve had recently.

We cooked a meal for 100 on Sherkin Island the last weekend of May this year. We were asked to cook up a feast to kick off Open Ear Independent Music festival, for a mixture of residents, volunteers and musicians; all of whom allowed this fantastic festival happen.

It’s the second time Filipino food has ever been cooked on an island of Ireland. The first time was us in Sherkin two years ago, which we still hear praise about to this day. The incredible Kurdish Syrian musician Mohammad Syfkhan, who came to Ireland as a refugee in 2017, was playing in the courtyard of The Jolly Roger, Sherkin Island’s only pub, while we served people Inihaw na Manok (BBQ Chicken Skewers) and Lumpia (Filipino style spring rolls) with spiced coconut vinegar dip, followed by mains of Adobo, sticky Sinangag (garlic rice) and Monggo Guisado (mung bean stew).

We heard Mohammad play the music of his life on the beautiful Bouzouki (a traditional folk chordophone instrument). The sun was beating down all day, the air was warm, a light salty breeze of the Atlantic wafted the aroma of some of the most loved Filipino dishes around the little vibrating pub until the early hours. It was an incredible evening of art, music and cultural expression to have witnessed, never mind be a part of. I spoke Irish to locals, while I heard French, Spanish, Arabic and more spoken throughout the evening. Everybody loved the food, and it’s a night I will never forget. I know I probably shouldn’t pick out own event for this questions, but nothing has struck me quite this much as far as I can recall right now.

Alex O’Neill of Bahay

Compliments to the chef — Now’s your chance to sing the praises of a talented chef, beloved restaurant or particularly talented foodie family member.

There’s two people I want to shout out here. Richie and Grainne. Richie is my partner in life and bizz, but most importantly, my best friend who makes all of the best things in my life possible. His technical ability as a chef is incredible, to see him jump between refined fine dining menus that he designs in his head, to expertly executing without even doing a dry run, to serving 10,000 people a day (and sometimes even more) through a tiny food truck, to being cool, calm and collected on major international television cookery shows and nailing demos like a seasoned pro, only to then go home and be a wonderful son, friend and partner, is something I feel privileged to witness.

I don’t think he gets half as much credit or recognition as he deserved for his insane talents as a chef, writer or businessman, but that’s really okay, because he doesn’t do it for any honour, validation or applause. He does it all because Bahay is his passion, a true expression of self, his creativity and his experience growing up as an Irish-Filipino forging his own path.

Grainne O’Keefe has been somebody I have looked up to for years, long before I was lucky enough to call her a friend. She is a rare talent, a chef who understands flavour, methods and ingredients more than anybody I know, but that isn’t even what’s most special about her. I have never seen somebody so committed to creating, fostering and building up a supportive, comfortable, educational and dependable work environment, that not only celebrates every single team member, but also builds them up to be the best version of themselves.

She has decided to take on the culture of toxic kitchens, toxic masculinity, and toxic money hungry owners, and flip the whole thing on its head, proving you can have a hugely successful, widely appreciated, and deeply loved restaurant without following these old and outdated kitchen orders, that are thankfully now very much on the out. She is fearless in speaking her mind, calling out injustice in the food and hospitality industry, and is a champion of women in the industry, a fierce ally to young, queer chefs from all backgrounds, and is just somebody I admire, look up to, and go to for any and all questions and advice I ever have. She’s another food idol of mine.

Secret ingredient — What, in your estimation, makes the perfect dining experience?

Calamansi is our secret ingredient in Bahay, we put it in everything from dressings, marinades, beurre blanc, pickles, curries, drinks, desserts, even in our own sauce, Bahay’s Banana Ketchup. It raises the flavour profile of anything and everything with its totally unique banging hit of sweet, tangy, brightness.

My own secret weapon in the kitchen at home? Maggi Savor, the Filipino version of the umami flavour bomb Maggi. I add this to stir fries, eggs, on rice, anything that needs a little salty umami hit.

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