The RNLI and me: Clodagh McKenna
The international TV chef and restaurateur tells us about her love of the sea - and the people who work on it.
Born in Cork, Clodagh McKenna describes her cooking as: ‘A fresh modern take on Irish food, with a focus on seasonal and local produce.’ Seafood is at the core of her cooking, influencing everything from the menus in her restaurants to her bestselling cookbooks.
Her TV appearances, including the series Fresh From The Sea and Clodagh’s Irish Food Trails, are watched by over 15M people in the USA.
Now living in London - following stints in Italy and France - Clodagh’s cooking has many influences, but Irish ingredients are her passion.
We caught up with her to learn more about why she supports the RNLI.
Your grandfather and your uncle were both fishermen. What impact did that have on you?
I grew up in Cork and our family has always lived beside the water. My grandpop was a fisherman for all his life and my uncle for some of his life. Fishing was a massive thing in our home, so I really appreciated the value of having fresh local fish from a very young age.
Did they ever tell you any stories about their time on the boats?
Fishermen have a really tough job, especially on the Irish Sea and the Atlantic. They’re heroes, in my mind. It’s a tough way to make a living, so there were never any stories shared. But for the two TV series I made based around the sea, I spent a couple of months meeting fishermen and getting out on the boats with them. I was cooking the produce but also showing the challenges they face and the fact that so much of our seafood is now exported.
Despite being an island nation, we sometimes turn our backs to the sea and don’t appreciate the amazing fish that we have available.
Are you a water person through-and-through then?
Yes, I am! I fish and I sail and I’m very attached to the water. Even though I spend half of my life travelling for work, if I’m not around the sea for a while I miss it terribly.
Have you ever had a difficult moment in the sea?
How far back does your awareness of the RNLI go?
My sisters and my uncle have been involved in the RNLI and they all sail, so I’ve known of the RNLI since I was born. The RNLI was a big part of that chapter.
What made you want to get more involved with the RNLI?
I’ve always appreciated the RNLI’s brave volunteers, but I hadn’t realised the challenges they face every day until I joined a lifeboat crew in the RTE series Fresh From The Sea. That ‘drop everything’ mentality - leaving from wherever they are for a shout - it’s a major commitment
Young fishermen face a really tough job now; they are putting their lives in danger, being on a boat in the middle of the water. The RNLI allows them to feel safer and to carry on the great tradition of fishing in Ireland.
And they're even on the Thames doing incredible things. I’d walked over the bridges so many times, but had never thought to look out for a station on the river.
You’re splitting your time between North America, Ireland and London at the moment. What do you miss the most when you’re away?
When I’m away I miss getting to cook at home. Home is my creative space where I can test all my recipes. The first thing I do when I get back to my little coach house is to bake bread and go down to my local fishmonger to pick something up for a quick supper. Fish is faster than any takeout you could ever buy - and it’s so incredibly good for you.
How does the food culture in Irish fishing villages and towns compare with London? What can you find in Irish cuisine that you won't find anywhere else?
In Ireland, we’ve such incredible access to fish; it’s so easy to get fresh fish daily. In London, it’s more of a struggle. You’ve really got to find a fishmonger you can trust - and understand where the fish is coming from.
Things that we have that you can’t get in London? Incredible seaweeds, which I love using in my cooking. Otherwise, our waters are quite similar, but I do think our shellfish - especially our crabs - are the best in Europe.
Striking a truly sustainable balance is key for the future of both local fishing communities and our oceans. As shoppers, our demand drives supply. What advice can you offer for enjoying seafood that is harvested in less damaging ways?
Sustainability requires a change in mindset about the way you shop - that goes for every kind of food, but particularly for fish. It takes time to do the homework; when I moved to London it took me a couple of days to find the best local fishmonger. But putting the time in to find a really good fishmonger is the first thing.
And then tell them what you are looking for - a good fishmonger is always happy to hear our requests for local and in-season seafood. In every area of Ireland and the UK there will be different species that are sustainable within that particular area that we should be choosing. Good fishmongers want to be able to show you the different fish you can try. Shopping carefully gives their business sustainability too - it’s a really big circle.
My other tip is to watch the seasons. Whether it’s salmon, sole or seabass, what is sustainable now won’t be sustainable in 2 months - it will be out of season and we shouldn’t be eating it then.
Having spent some time on both fishing boats and lifeboats, what key piece of safety advice would you share with fishermen?
I think my number one piece of advice for anyone going to sea is: Always wear your lifejacket.
I noticed when I was making the series that a lot of fishermen unfortunately don’t wear them and we really have to convince them to put them on.