Myrtle Allen, food pioneer and the first Irish woman to be awarded a Michelin star, has died at the age of 94.
Dubbed the “renowned matriarch of Modern Irish cuisine”, Allen founded the Yeats Room restaurant in her County Cork family home, Ballymaloe House, in 1964. She went on to open what became the Ballymaloe Cookery School, which has gone on to train a plethora of chefs and domestic cooks who now ply their skills worldwide.
“When I started, my only ambition was to serve perfect food, or as near to perfect as I could get. So I opened the dining room as a restaurant and based it on home and local foods. I was not thinking of expanding very much, just making a bit of pocket money, ” she told The Caterer in an interview in 1996.
Her philosophy of using local artisanal ingredients and changing her menu daily to reflect the best offerings of the season was considered revolutionary at the time but no doubt contributed to Allen holding a Michelin star from 1975-1980.
A founder member of Euro-Toques International, Allen served as its president from 1994-1997 alongside legendary chef Paul Bocuse. She was the author of the Ballymaloe Cookbook and Myrtle Allen’s Cooking at Ballymaloe House, wrote cookery columns for the Irish Times and the Farmers’ Journal and in the early 1980s she ran Paris restaurant La Ferme Irlandaise.
But in her first newspaper column, published in 1991, Allen admitted that she never set out to pursue a culinary career.
She wrote: “I unexpectedly found myself married to a card maniac who is also a gourmet, ” referring to Ivan Allen, a gardener and vegetable grower whom she married in 1943.
“I did not play cards beyond snap in the nursery, and vaguely felt that I was meant for something else, and that I couldn’t cook, ” she admitted. “The night we arrived home from our honeymoon my husband taught me how to make his great bachelor standby, scrambled eggs with mushrooms.”
It marked the beginning of a career in food and hospitality that lasted well into Allen’s 80s and inspired future generations of her family, including her daughter-in-law Darina Allen, with whom she shared responsibility for her newspaper cookery column and who now heads the Ballymaloe Cookery School, and television present and author Rachel Allen, Darina’s daughter.
Commenting on Allen’s passing, Irish celebrity chef Kevin Thornton said on Twitter: “What a gigantic footprint Myrtle Allen has left on the Irish food landscape – huge respect to her.”
Allen passed away peacefully at Cork University Hospital today. She had been suffering from dementia. She is survived by her six children, 22 grandchildren and 36 great grandchildren.