The Creative Islanders is a new interview series showcasing some of Ireland’s brightest creative talent and enterprise. It is about people who are stepping into their dreams, purpose and possibilities and embracing their one wild life.
The interviews give a rare ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse into creative practice, motivations and mindsets- shining a light on what makes people tick, and how, collectively, Ireland is alive with creative possibility.
A bundle of life and talent, Aoife McElwain, food stylist, recipe writer, and a creative force behind Forkful is next up in the Creative Islanders series. Her food writing brings an elegance and charm to even the simplest of dishes, offering unusual twists on classic dishes. Teamed up with photographer and videographer Mark Duggan, Aoife has a knack of peeling back a recipe to its basic structure and revealing, step by step, the sheer delight of cooking it. That it will be tasty is unquestionable.
Beyond food writing, one of the things I admire about Aoife is her honesty about the creative process and what it really means to be a creative practitioner, speaking candidly about the highs, the lows and the dogged determination it can take to keep our internal critics at bay. We spoke together last weekend at the Creative Islanders event at Another Love Story but for those not able to attend, I hand you now over to the lovely Aoife McElwain…
All imagery below: Recipes and food styling: Aoife McElwain / Photography: Mark Duggan
What keeps you in Ireland?
My community keeps me in Ireland. That includes my close community of family and friends, as well as the wider community of taxi drivers who talk about metaphysics on a Monday, old ladies who love a chat at bus stops, event enthusiasts who strive to create happenings that increase the happiness of people around them… I think the size of Ireland and our openness for craic and banter lend itself well to making connections which can help make good things happen.
What makes you tick? What motivates you?
Cold, hard cash. Hah! Just kidding. I’m motivated by creating things for people to enjoy. Making yummy food for people is one of the ways I say “I love you and think you are wonderful.” Though I have no problems saying those types of things without cake, too. I go to extra effort when setting a table for dinner so that it feels like a special occasion that my guests will remember. I spend days planning and organising treasure hunts so people have fun discovering a new place. I’m also motivated by newness and connections. I like learning new things and meeting new people.
What do you do just for the love of it?
It’s interesting because I love a lot of what I do. I’ve been really lucky in the last few years to have put myself in a position where I’m doing things I love all the time. This doesn’t mean that I don’t get stressed or I don’t procrastinate… but even when I’m wrecked after writing, cooking and styling ten recipes in one day for a photoshoot, I feel very grateful for the opportunity to get to work at doing stuff that makes me proud of what I’ve achieved, and the funny little diverse career I’m starting to carve out for myself.
What does the creative process teach you?
To me, the creative process goes like this: “Aaarrrrgghhhhhh oh CRAP I can’t do this, there’s no way I’m ever going to be able to do this arrrrgghhhhhh…. Oh! Wait. I think I have it. Oh, yeah, that’s actually pretty good.” The more I go through this process the more I trust myself at the outset, and the better able I am to deal with fear of failure and the anxiety that surrounds putting yourself out there creatively.
Why do you do what you do?
My aim is to lead a life where I keep learning. I really do believe that every person you meet has something to teach you, even if it’s something mundane like the name of their local football hero or something profound like their thoughts on the meaning of life. I like to push myself to try new things, whether it’s horse-riding or a recipe for shortcrust pastry, even though change and newness can a bit scary sometimes. It can be hard to keep up the momentum of discovery however, and, as I get older, I’m better at allowing myself breaks from activity to make room for rest and renewal. Chilling out is so important.
What were some of the key moments along your own journey that helped you to get where you are today?
When I met Niall (my husband) ten years ago, I didn’t really know what a blog was. He helped me get set up with my first food blog (I Can Has Cook? www.icanhascook.com) which led to my columns in Totally Dublin, The Irish Independent and The Irish Times. At that time, I had been trying for a few years to break into radio (I had a show for five years on Dublin City FM interviewing Irish bands) and I was feeling pretty rubbish at how little success I was having. So when I started the blog for the fun of it, it was an amazing thing to have it turn into a career of sorts. When I met Mark Duggan in 2012 and we started working on forkful (www.forkful.tv) together, it also brought opportunities to work more full-time in food, which I’m really grateful for. It’s allowed me to develop my skills as a food stylist, which is a fun and challenging job wherein I have to use my creative wits to make challenging vegetables like celeraic look gorgeous.
How do you get unstuck? Any secret tools?
I very often suffer from procrastination paralysis when it comes to writing features. I’m grand with recipe writing but when I have to articulate my own opinion about something, I start to hear the voices of the world’s best writers in my head saying “Oh… so you call that writing? Wow. Scarleh for yer ma.” Sometimes the voices get so loud I have to take to bed with bowls of cocoa pops for company. This is not a nice place. If this happens in the late afternoon or early evening, I’ve learned to indulge it. I let myself take the time off and then I wake up very, very early the next day. I’m talking 5am early, when the foxes still own the streets and twitter hasn’t woken up yet. My inner critic only seems to wake up at around noon (she’s lazy as well as mean) so if I can get a good few hours in before that, then I’ve already had a productive day. Productivity really spurns me on too, so once I get one job done, the rest can often follow.
Where do you find inspiration? Any hidden gems?
For recipes and food styling ideas, I look to my peers like Imen McDonnell, Cliodhna Prendergast and Jette Virdi. I also follow a load of great people on Instagram for inspiration from folks like Beth Kirby (@local_milk) and publications like Root + Bone (@rootandbone), Lucky Peach (@luckypeach) and Fool Magazine (@foolmagazine) who are doing something a little different in their approach to food journalism. For personal inspiration, I often find myself looking to comedy for answers. I adore Amy Schumer, Louis CK, Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham. I read their books and tweets, and watch their TV shows. They make me laugh and help me understand the world.
How do you get through tough times? What sustains you?
I do try to go easy on myself. Though I have found it really hard to learn this, it’s ok that life isn’t all ice-cream sundaes and sunshine. I’m getting better at listening to myself. If I’m feeling overwhelmed, I take a break (if deadlines allow it – and usually, they do). Hanging out with my dog Daffodil can be a great release. Apart from the times she bullies other dogs in the park – she can be quite the terrier. But she thinks I’m absolutely brilliant, in every way, and is completely blind to my flaws. When I’m feeling low, hers is a good energy to have around. She mirrors my mood and will snuggle up to me quietly when I’m taking time out of the world, just so I know she’s there, if I need her. Apart from my canine companion, my husband Niall always has my back, as I do his. We’re a good team. He makes amazing sandwiches which is a crucial skill to call on in a crisis.
What key lessons have your learned about doing business or being a creative practitioner along the way? What have you learned from your ‘failures’?
That you don’t have to get things right straight away. That you can will your life to be slow and conscious, rather than too fast and stressy; you just have to work quite hard on your own self to achieve that. Taking time to slowly evaluate problems rather than emotionally reacting to things is a good pattern to try to live to. I’m only beginning to wake up to this and to see it as a possibility of a way to work and live. Some slow, gradual early success living and working to a more mindful beat makes me hopeful for the future.
Do you have a morning routine? Or other creative habits or rituals?
My favourite morning habit is to take my dog Daffodil to the park first thing in the morning. Then I like to come home and have a proper breakfast (the best is boiled eggs sprinkled with ground cumin and sea salt, with sourdough for dunking) and a coffee, brewed by my husband Niall. But I’m not going to pretend that routine happens every morning. Mostly I wake up later than I’d like and spend the rest of the morning catching up. I try not to get too angry at myself when this happens because that adds insult to injury. When I do get my ideal morning though, it sets me up for a happy and productive day.
What books have inspired you? Or what websites do you turn to?
The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit is the most thumbed and food splattered book in my kitchen. It’s an absolute must for cooks who are ready to start finding their own creativity in the kitchen. I really enjoy reading memoirs by chefs, including the classic Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (a lovable rogue) and Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. I’ve also been inspired by the work of Michael Pollan, an American food journalist and writer whose work has taught me a lot about the basics and history of food.
What advice do you wish you had received as you were stepping onto your own creative path?
You don’t have to be good at everything and you certainly don’t have to be perfect at doing something straight away. And you don’t have to tell everyone you don’t know what you’re doing. Most of the time, this actually isn’t as endearing as you think.
And what advice would you give to your future self?
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath and think about the other times you thought you were going to make a total mess of things and then actually did a pretty good job. You’re not a total dumdum, McElwain. And stop comparing your productivity levels to those of Michelle Obama! She has a team of, like, ten people. Of course she’s super productive!
What is coming up next for you?
Myself and Mark Duggan are releasing some new forkful videos this autumn, which I’m really excited about. We have been focusing on refining our still photography skills, as well as working with brands on video and photography content for their websites. I’m also working as a copywriter helping small brands develop their messages and identity. I’ll continue to work on my recipe columns and restaurant reviews for The Irish Times, The Irish Independent and Totally Dublin, and I’d like to flex my non-food writing muscles too. My current passion project is to develop a treasure hunt design agency. I recently organised an island-wide treasure hunt on Inishturk island which 35 visitors and islanders took part in. I designed it so they would not only bond with their team members but also discover the island, in a historical and physical way. I think there’s great potential to design place-specific treasure hunts around the country to enable people to embark on adventures of discovery. And I’m ready to start doing it.
Recipes and food styling: Aoife McElwain / Photography and Direction: Mark Duggan / Editing: Killian Broderick / Music Supervision: Niall Byrne