The hugely talented young chef behind Ballymaloe Desserts
Discover how a kitchen pratfall pushed JR Ryall down a distinctly sweeter path
When the American chef, writer and tastemaker David Tanis visited Ballymaloe House, Shanagarry, County Cork, Ireland, he found much to remark upon. There was the house itself, a remarkably handsome country estate, parts of which date from the fifteenth century; there was also the surrounding countryside, “a magical spot,” writes Tanis, “located in a small village by the sea, in East Cork, Ireland;” and then there was the food.
Tannis knew of Ballymaloe – its reputation as a country hotel, a Michelin-starred restaurant and an acclaimed cookery school reached far beyond the Irish border – but, upon arrival he was quite taken aback by the conviviality of its founders, the Allen family, as well as those who worked there. They were all so genuinely friendly, “I wondered, is there something in the water?” he writes.
Ballymaloe House, County Cork, Ireland. Photo by Cliodhna Prendergast
However, the greatest surprise lay not in the water supply, but in the pastry kitchen. There Tanis met John Robert Ryall, known to all as JR. “At once you could tell he was the type of fellow who would excel in any field,” writes Tanis. “Early on, though, he found his true calling – creating desserts for a living. By the time we met, JR was already Head Pastry Chef at Ballymaloe House. For a young man to have become so proficient at his craft, so quickly, is quite remarkable.”
JR’s proficiency and quick progress is all the more surprising, when you consider that the young chef ended up specialising in desserts, partly by accident. As JR himself explains in his new book, Ballymaloe Desserts, he always harboured a passion for food in general, and a fondness for Ballymaloe in particular, yet he once believed that his true calling lay elsewhere.
In the book’s introduction he writes how he first became interested in serious cookery as a child, when he began to watch Darina Allen – Ballymaloe House restaurant founder Myrtle Allen's daughter-in-law, and founder of the Ballymaloe Cookery School – whose Simply Delicious television series aired on the Irish TV channel, RTÉ One.
Baked Alaska. Photo by Cliodhna Prendergast
Then, one day, his culinary TV hero invited him to rise from his couch, and join her in the kitchen. “When I was four years old, my aunt Evelyn, who worked with Darina at the Ballymaloe cookery school, brought me on a tour of the school’s kitchens and gardens,” writes JR in his new book. “Visiting the cookery school that day is one of my earliest memories. At the end of the tour I met Darina herself – perhaps the first time I was starstruck: her red-framed glasses still stick in my mind – and she gave me a copy of her book Simply Delicious. Inside the cover she wrote a note: ‘For John Robert, who will be a great chef when he grows up. Love from Darina Allen – March 1992.’”
That prophecy didn’t seem so very fanciful. Over the following decade, JR spent a great deal of time cooking in his family kitchen. “It wasn’t cool for kids to cook at that time – hipster cooking culture had not yet taken hold – though I was happy with a hobby that I could practise every weekend,” he says.
Wild Blackberry and Sweet Geranium Sorbet. Photo by Cliodhna Prendergast
He received a course at the Ballymaloe Cookery School as a thirteenth birthday present, and returned to the school the following summer, on work experience.
That year, Darina prepared a surprise for JR; she arranged for him to take a break from the cookery school, and take a look at the kitchen that served Ballymaloe House’s restaurant. “I was thrilled but nervous,” he recalled. “It would be my first time entering a professional kitchen.” It was, in many ways, a dream invitation; the teenager could chat to the chefs, ask questions about their skills, and taste anything he liked. Yet this sweet opportunity ended a little sourly.
“At the end of service, just before I left, I slipped on the kitchen’s tiled floor,” he recalls. “As I fell backwards, I accidentally flung the tray of salad leaves I had been carrying across the kitchen. It made quite a clatter and so did I. The leaves scattered everywhere, and everyone stopped for a moment when they heard me fall. This was not how I envisioned my first day in a professional kitchen ending.”
A more mature visitor might not have thought twice about such a pratfall, but for the young JR, it felt formative. “As I placed the damaged leaves in the compost bin, I decided there and then that the professional kitchen was not for me!” he writes.
Ice Cream Bombe. Photo by Cliodhna Prendergast
He was invited to return the following evening, and once again JR accepted, though he was relieved to find himself stationed not in the restaurant's main kitchen, where he had fallen the night before, but with the pastry chefs.
“It was like a different world,” he recalls. “I loved it.” That evening he was taught to make meringues, among other dishes, and he enjoyed the pastry kitchen so much that he returned to volunteer in the kitchen over the following weeks. At the end of that summer, head chef Rory O’Connell offered JR his first paid job: a Saturday shift in the pastry kitchen. For the following two years, I took a taxi from his boarding school to Ballymaloe House every weekend so I could cook professionally.
As a weekend job it was great, but JR wasn’t sure the kitchen offered him the kind of career trajectory that suited him best. When he finished school, he accepted a place to study natural science at Trinity College Dublin. Those taxis to Ballymaloe would have to stop. He discussed his new life with Myrtle, Ballymaloe’s founder chef, and reached a compromise with her, whereby he would return each summer and Christmas during his degree course to cook in her kitchens. “By the time I was twenty-one, I had been working the peak season in the restaurant’s pastry kitchen for six years,” he remarks.
A scientific career might have come calling following graduation, but on his final day in the kitchens before his last year at uni, Myrtle offered JR a different career choice. She would like to employ him as the full-time head pastry chef.
“I wondered if she knew I was leaving for Dublin the next morning,” he recalls. “I also wondered if she realised I was only twenty-one!” Sweetening the deal, she added that JR could change his mind at any time during that initial year, if he felt the kitchen wasn’t right for him. Of course, it proved to be a remarkably good fit for the young chef. Though he has subsequently staged in some of the best restaurants around the globe, he’s still most thankful for having cooked alongside Myrtle Allen. Allen died in 2018 at the age of 94, and in his introduction to his new book, he pays tribute to her talents.
“By focusing on seasonality and what was around her, she set an example,” he writes. “She championed the best-quality produce, always looking for natural flavour. Her statement was feeding people food in which she felt thoroughly confident. Working with Mrs Allen was always exciting and often unpredictable. Her approach seemed eccentric yet it always made sense. She believed in her ideas, knew her own mind and, through her life, became an expert problem solver. Myrtle had a clear vision and she shared it with everyone around her. I feel very fortunate to have learnt from her.”
We’re equally lucky to have JR’s recipes set out in his new book. To see more of his work, and to recreate some of his dishes for yourself, order a copy of Ballymaloe Desserts here.