Cork chef: "Food invokes memories of my childhood and being in a happy place"

In her first WoW! Bites article of the year, KATE RYAN talks to one woman whose journey with food began as a child - Ali Honour, the new Executive Head Chef at the Imperial Hotel
Cork chef: "Food invokes memories of my childhood and being in a happy place"

Pictured Sketch at the Imperial Hotel is Ali Honour who is the new Executive Head Chef at the luxury boutique hotel.

FROM Bakestone to Ali’s Kitchen to the Imperial Hotel, Ali Honour’s name has been synonymous with great baking and wholesome food in Cork for two decades.

Baking is in the blood – how could it not be with a surname like Honour? France’s patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs is Saint Honoré; “It’s like The da Vinci Code, I have a direct line to the Holy Grail of baking!”

At 42, Ali has packed in three lifetimes of cooking and running successful businesses, but food “happened” for her at an early age.

Born in Oxfordshire in England, her maternal grandpa farmed prize-winning beef, and ran his own butchery and a pub. Grandparents on her father’s side were older, already adults during World War II. Rationing, adapting, growing your own food and making do were everyday actions.

“Granny was an exceptional woman. She taught me how to adapt recipes and added whatever Grandpa had grown in the garden. There was a big section in the garden for fruit and vegetables, and he grew everything. I learned about seasonality, when something was ready to eat, how to prepare it, and about utilising what was around us.

“Food invokes memories of my childhood and being in a happy place. I’m surrounded by memories of the past but also the present and future when it comes to food. I think that’s why I’ve always found it so exciting.”

Ali spent childhood days beside her Granny in the kitchen, baking and adapting recipes – if one called for 300g of sugar, she halved it.

“During the war they cut back and adapted recipes all the time. I learned so much from that.”

Ali took charge of the kitchen baking, making elaborate afternoon teas, hot pot for family dinners. Her first experience of a professional kitchen was at 13 when a family friend, also a trained Cordon Bleu chef, asked her to help prep for celebration events.

“It escalated from weekends to after school during the week up until I was 18, doing everything and service with her. When I look back now, it was the best training.”

Despite an affinity with food, the dream career was Honour QC, barrister at law, and Newcastle University beckoned. But soon it became clear the dream required deep pockets, so she turned to cooking to fund it.

“I went to a restaurant and asked for a job. I was 18, managed to get a trial and went from there. Within a couple of weeks, I was running pastry and larder at weekends.”

Pictured outside Sketch at the Imperial Hotel is Ali Honour who is the newly appointed Executive Head Chef.
Pictured outside Sketch at the Imperial Hotel is Ali Honour who is the newly appointed Executive Head Chef.

The executive head chef became curious of her – this was no ordinary student teenager in his kitchen, but a burgeoning cooking talent. Beside the school of law was a catering college, and he encouraged her to enrol, but there was nothing new there to learn. Instead, she kept working in the kitchen and took the catering exams without attending lectures.

“It wouldn’t be allowed now,” admits Ali, but she got her qualification. As for law, the expense of reaching her dream made it unobtainable. She switched to a mixed arts degree, qualified, then left for Europe to travel and cook.

“I travelled around: Tours, Lyon, Bordeaux; a ski season in Mirabelle. When I came back, my parents had moved to Ireland.”

That was in 2004, but soon after Ali’s father became unwell and she decided to take time out to be closer to him. “I came for a holiday, and never left.”

It was through a nosy village postman that Ali got her first gig cooking in Cork.

“The postman knew everything and everyone. The next day I got a call from a restaurant down the road who found out I was a chef and needed a dig out.”

It was two years before Ali left the parish and ventured into Cork city, quickly finding work, and for eight years diligently building her professional reputation. In 2013, Ali opened her first business, Bakestone café, in Carrigtwohill.

“It was my baby: I came up with the name, the concept as this destination garden centre cafe, and it just took off. It was a great business and gave me opportunities to do things my way, to put my personality on a place, playing with cakes and literally making things up.

“I was cooking for hundreds of people coming through the door, so I had to adapt and think on my feet very quickly, learning as I went, which I loved.”

Bakestone’s popularity launched Ali into TV and writing recipes for glossy magazines, opening a window on how she saw herself and what was possible. But Bakestone came to an end in 2014, much sooner than Ali had hoped, and it hit her hard. “I didn’t want it to come to an end, and I took it hard personally. But that night, I toasted myself with champagne and asked: what’s next?”

What came next was Ali’s Kitchen. Just ten days after Bakestone closed, Ali found her premises on Rory Gallagher Place. As run down as it was, the potential shone through. The doors opened in 2015.

“I wanted to go back to my roots, my baking days, and open a place that actually made things on site, because no-one was doing that anymore.”

Ali took inspiration from how her mother and grandmother baked – making a big batch of base pastry or dough and making lots of different things from it.

“That’s how it started: cinnamon buns, Chelsea buns, all different kinds of buns and it just grew. I wasn’t expecting it; I had my reputation, but everything was on a shoestring. There was barely enough money to open the doors, but I had to. I just grafted and made it work. I put my blood, sweat and tears into the building – it really was Ali’s Kitchen.

“I wanted a big bakery counter, but customers wanted something different. But if they wanted more it had to be with an Ali twist on it, and that’s how we ended up doing brunch.”

Ali’s Kitchen quickly developed a reputation as the hottest place in Cork for brunch and for the pure indulgence of her dishes.

“For such a small place, it was thronged. It was open for seven years; I learned a lot about myself and grew as a business owner - almost killing myself in terms of blow out to build a business.

“It wasn’t really until I got pregnant, I realised I had to try and slow down a little bit. It didn’t happen while I was pregnant – I worked the straight way through and never took maternity leave. I didn’t really appreciate being pregnant; it felt like I had this business, and I can’t stop.

“Anyone who runs their own business knows it’s hard. If you’re a woman and a single mum, it’s very difficult. You must have a strong mind to do it; but I also don’t know any other way.”

Ali was again adapting on her feet: as a new mum and as a business owner trying to find a way through Covid.

“When I reopened, I knew Ali’s Kitchen was ending because it was drawing to a close in me. I had changed and moved on and knew it was time for the next project.”

Ali’s love of nutrition and training led to a new business idea, called Fodia, focused on reconnecting people with good nutrition and raising awareness of what people are eating, and how. For now, Fodia remains a passion project in her back pocket while she pursues the next chapter as Executive Head Chef of the Imperial Hotel.

Pictured in the iconic lobby of the historic Imperial Hotel are General Manager Bastien Peyraud with Ali Honour.
Pictured in the iconic lobby of the historic Imperial Hotel are General Manager Bastien Peyraud with Ali Honour.

The Imperial’s General Manager, Bastien Peyraud, and Ali are long-time friends. A conversation over coffee one day sowed the seed of joining Bastien’s vision to reinvigorate Cork’s Grand Dame of hospitality.

“I said I would love to, but I need to come in and be Ali.”

What that means is a complete reorganisation of the hotel’s food systems; brilliant teams, brilliant collaborative spirit, new menus, and an increased commitment to food sustainability goals such as seasonality, sourcing locally grown and produced food, and a focused strategy to reduce food waste.

“It’s a big project, but I’m bringing back team vibes, laughing, dancing, a bit of fun into the kitchen. I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know my team, who they are, what do they want to achieve, and finding ways to help get them there

“You have to be a certain age to be an Executive Head Chef. You’ve done your due diligence because you need to know what you’re talking about - and then show everyone else you do. This is who I am, where I come from, and why I am the person that I am today.

“It’s a big team and there’s always a lot going on. They must be on it, be adaptable and change it up anytime. I’m very hands on, but I also give them time and encouragement.”

Bringing brunch to the Imperial Hotel was a “no-brainer, but it’s not the old AK brunch,” she says, “there’s a twist to it. Obviously, the French Toast is there – that’s at Bastien’s request!”

There is more to Ali than just this next chapter in a long career. There’s Fodia, and the not so small matter of being a mum. There’s also a burning desire to share her story of a life filled with recipes and menus.

“There’s about 50 volumes of cookbooks in me, that’s what I really want to do.”

Ali Honour is a modern woman with respect for old-fashioned values instilled by her grandparents. She has survived standing by the principle that anything, any situation, any recipe and anyone, can and must adapt to succeed.

“Be Madonna,” she says, “Oh, and there is always room for cake!”

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