Ali Dunworth: ‘If there’s care and thought put into sourcing, cooking, serving, and setting — you can tell’
Here, we speak to food consultant, writer, curator, and host Ali Dunworth to get her take on all things food-related.
From early memories of Saturdays spent in Superquinn, doing the weekly shop with her dad, to go-to dishes, favourite restaurants, and culinary inspirations, here’s a glimpse inside Ali Dunworth’s relationship with food…
What are your earliest memories of food?
Probably Saturday mornings doing the weekly food shop with my Dad, usually in Superquinn. There was always loads of sampling in the supermarkets, you’d get fed while you did the shop. I remember there was a lobster tank in the Blanchardstown branch at some stage!
How would you describe your relationship with food?
It is of course completely cliched to say this but it’s a total love affair. I honestly don’t remember a time when I didn’t think about food all day – even in school, I’d look forward to having my lunch as much as I would a break from class and catching up with friends. My days have always been planned and punctuated around what I’m going to eat and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What was the first meal you learned to cook?
I don’t remember learning to cook as such, we were just always hands-on in the kitchen at home, so I sort of always knew how to do a few things. I do remember when we first got a toasted sandwich maker, the one with the triangle-shaped indents in the hotplates. Myself and my sister worked our way through the recipe booklet that came with it. There wasn’t much we didn’t stuff in between those hot plates and toast. I remember trying some sort of apple ‘tart’, sliced apple and loads of sugar in white bread. That wasn’t great.
How did food become a part of your career/business/personal brand?
I always knew I wanted to write and growing up I’d read every magazine and newspaper supplement I could get my hands on. I went to London College of Fashion and studied journalism with a dream of writing for a glossy magazine, but while doing my degree I worked in restaurants and hotels and became enthralled with the food world. London in the 2000s was a very exciting time for food and I fell head over heels for everything culinary.
I ended up making food the focus of all my university projects instead of fashion and set my mind on getting into food TV. A chef I worked with, Paul Merrett, let me tag along with him to Saturday Kitchen when he was doing a cookery slot. They were short a runner on set so I stepped in and started washing the dishes. Then I kept showing up every week working for free until they eventually caved and gave me a job. I’ve been working in food in various creative roles since then (and still washing dishes when it’s required!).
What’s your go-to breakfast?
Barry’s tea first and then usually some form of porridge. I love breakfast food though, eggs especially, and I’ll eat breakfast stuff at any time of the day.
If you’re impressing friends and family at a dinner party, what are you serving up?
I wouldn’t do anything too fussy, I always think the easiest way to impress at a dinner party is to make it look effortless, so I always plan ahead and get all the work done well in advance. Good ingredients, cooked well and served in a relaxed, family style. I love to barbeque, so I’ll often do a nice piece of meat, something slow-cooked that you wouldn’t really do just for yourself. Whole smoked chicken or pork with Alabama white sauce never fails to impress. I have a repertoire of go-to salads and sides that always go down a treat. Then add delicious wine, great bread, some interesting condiments and always cheese to finish. I’ll usually ask someone else to bring dessert.
Who is your culinary inspiration?
Pretty much every chef and cook I’ve worked with, I’ve learned from and been inspired by but in particular the home economists behind the scenes in food TV and publishing. They are incredible powerhouses of knowledge and skill, they could turn their hand to any cuisine or dish. There is so much work that goes into what they do, especially making restaurant dishes and chefs translate into the TV shows, books and recipes we love. They don’t get enough credit for what they do.
What would your last meal on earth be?
Depends on where I am but I’m hoping it would be by the sea so I’d want to eat lots of oysters, then crab, brown bread and butter with Guinness, followed by fresh lobster or prawns, grilled, with a big buttery white Burgundy. A chunk of ripe blue cheese and Champagne to finish.
What’s your go-to comfort food?
Sausages on over-buttered sourdough toast with Ballymaloe Relish and lots of tea.
What’s the go-to quick meal you cook when you’re tired and hungry?
Scrambled eggs with sourdough toast and peanut rayu.
What is one food or flavour you cannot stand?
Garden peas – the flavour I don’t mind, it’s the texture that I have an issue with.
Burger, chips and Diet Coke. It has to be a classic hamburger vibe, nothing big or convoluted. Bunsen, Wow, Eddie Rockets, McDonald’s, they’ve all helped me at some stage.
Sweet or savoury?
I will mostly crave savoury but I do love sweet also. Can I pick both?
Fine dining or pub grub?
Again, love them both and love that they co-exist in my world of eating. Fine dining done properly is an art form and I appreciate everything that goes into it, creativity, skill and years of hard work and research. Sometimes it’s what is called for, escaping into a meal for a few hours, soaking up all that goes with a tasting menu but equally I appreciate eating a really great casual meal. An open crab sandwich with a pint of Guinness can be hard to beat. Or even a toastie and crisps. Delicious.
Favourite restaurant in Ireland?
This is a tough one, I have lots of favourites, but somewhere that is truly unique and I’m always excited to visit is Assassination Custard. It’s tiny, with two tables and only open for a few hours for lunch Tuesday to Friday. They call themselves ‘A sort of Italian’ and serve up seasonal plates of vegetables from McNally’s Farm they do magical things to and usually some local fresh fish and always some kind of offal, with daily menus written on a paper bag. I urge you to seek it out if you haven’t been. Bring a friend and try everything, it’s a divine way to eat.
The best coffee in Ireland?
There is so much good coffee in Ireland these days, too many to mention here. My go-to in Dublin is Vice on Middle Abbey Street. When I first moved home to Ireland from Melbourne I was searching for the perfect flat white and Vice was nailing it then and they still are. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad coffee there.
Go-to beverage accompaniment?
It has to be crisps. I adore them all. I’ve done quite a few crisp and drink pairing events over the years. Crisps and Champagne taste great together – Meanies and Skips in particular go well with bubbles.
What are your thoughts on the Irish foodie scene?
Looking past the obvious struggles at the moment, it’s an exciting place to be. We’ve gotten so much better at embracing what we’re good at, celebrating Irish food and ingredients. It’s encouraging to see more destination restaurants, Michelin recognition and fine dining. Even if this isn’t how you like to eat out, it’s places like this that attract talent and encourage talent to stick around. It’s great to think that chefs and hospitality staff can gain such varied experience in Ireland, without necessarily having to work abroad, which would have been the norm for a long time.
What’s your favourite thing about cooking?
Honestly, I find it meditative. Cooking dinner after a busy day can be a great switch-off. Weekend cooking or when you’ve got more time is my favourite, I can happily spend a day, or two, shopping and prepping food for a dinner. I find it really satisfying and people are always happy to be fed.
What does food — sitting down to a meal with friends, mindfully preparing a meal, nourishment, etc — mean to you?
It’s the best. As I said, I love the ritual of cooking for other people, even when it’s a lot of work, the payoff is hopefully a happy table of family or friends. I’ve grown up in a family where catch-ups are always around a meal and I think I’ve always managed to gravitate towards friends who love this too.
Food for thought — Is there room for improvement within the Irish food/restaurant/hospitality scene?
Yes, there’s always room for improvement. It’s a really hard industry to work in, there are changes being made which is great but there is still so much to do. I don’t think hospitality workers in Ireland are given enough credit for the work they do. Eating out is the best! What would we do without them?
Chef’s kiss — Tell us about one standout foodie experience you’ve had recently.
A long, languid Sunday lunch at Pilgrim’s in Roscarbery, Cork. I’ve wanted to eat here for ages and was not disappointed. They serve beautiful seasonal dishes, and plates full of flavour in a room that looks like it’s straight from the pages of Kinfolk Magazine.
Compliments to the chef — Now’s your chance to sing the praises of a talented chef, beloved restaurant or particularly talented foodie family member.
My Dad has always been ahead of the game when it comes to food – we call him the original hipster. His interest in cooking and seeking out good food and wine has definitely been a big part of my food education and interest.
Secret ingredient — What, in your estimation, makes the perfect dining experience?
There is no such thing as the perfect dining experience, it’s too subjective. We all want different things all of the time. I think the secret ingredient is when restaurants are confident in what they do and they do it well. If there is care and thought put into sourcing, cooking, serving, and setting up a restaurant or food truck or whatever it is, you can tell.