Women Of The Irish Food Industry – Róisín Matthews, Educator
Róisín Matthews owns Mess Chef, a business which offers cookery and sensory play classes.
There is more and more talk around the fact that food education matters greatly and that teaching kids the basics of food and cooking helps them have a healthy and fulfilling relationship with food later on in life. With her business, Róisín Matthews is at the helm of this movement.
The concept behind it is simple, there are no fussy eaters. Róisín Matthews will teach children and parents alike. I love the idea of messy cooking, it’s possibly because I’m a messy cook. I’m particularly impressed that she’s actively including kids with autism. They need cooking skills too. Click on to Mess Chef to see more about the business.
I would love to see someone like Róisín Matthews on festival line ups. She most definitely has a lot to teach us all.
I’m talking to women in the food industry, what brought you into this category and what do you do?
I grew up surrounded by cooking and my mother is the best cook I know. She can taste any dish and name all the ingredients for you. She has taught me so much, I was well able to cook alone by age 10. I have aunts and uncles who are chefs and my first jobs were with them, on catering gigs.
I considered studying Culinary Arts but I had thought it meant becoming a chef – I had no idea then of the breadth of careers in the food industry. My mam was firmly against me becoming a chef – the hours, the lifestyle, the detrimental effect of these she had seen on family members. So I went off and did an Arts Degree to keep myself busy, continuing to work part time in cafes and catering.
After college, during a stint working and living in Germany, I resolved not to go home again until I figured out a way to work in food – with a day job. I discovered a (then) brand new Masters Course in Food Product Development in Cathal Brugha St. I had never heard of product development, but soon learned it’s the project management part of food manufacturing – how you get from an idea for a product through market research, recipe testing, sourcing ingredients, factory trials, developing packaging, negotiating with retailers and eventually launching a product on to the supermarket shelves. I worked in product development for about 10 years, until after returning to my role as NPD Manager (New Product Development) in a large private label fresh food manufacturer after my first maternity leave, I found huge changes afoot in the company and couldn’t see myself continuing on in that environment.
Being on maternity leave had given me the head space to look at what I wanted to do next – I couldn’t get out of my head that I wanted to start a business but wasn’t quite sure what. I’d seen from my work in food manufacturing, that though people were watching a lot more cookery shows, they were cooking less and less. The huge range of new, exotic and different ingredients and dishes available on our shelves in the last 20 years seemed like a facade, when you could see from sales figures that people were still spending vast amounts of money on ready meals, chicken nuggets, highly processed foods. I also felt that people took a far greater interest in what they feed their children that what they fed themselves.
This is all a roundabout way of telling you that I am now the owner of a business called Mess Chef Cookery & Sensory Play Classes. I started off with parent & child class for young children aged 2-7 yrs. I wanted to give busy, stressed parents, who may or may not have confidence in their own cooking skills, the chance to interact with their children around food in a positive way, creating simple recipes, allowing children to play with foods and make a big mess – and to leave that mess behind! The classes have been a hit and I’ve since branched out in to preschool and primary school workshops, and working with children and young adults with autism who have specific issues around food. I work very hard but also keep plenty of afternoons free to spend with my own two children – Rowena and Oscar.
How does your career fulfill you?
My career took a huge turn when I started Mess Chef. It’s fulfilling now in a very different way than it had been. It can be a struggle, but overall it is a far better work life balance than a full time job in food manufacturing. I get to drop off and pick up my children myself every day from their short day in child care. I get to bring them to their swimming lessons and dawdle with them as we walk home and really a lot of the benefits of being a stay at home mum, while still having the mental focus and drive that a job can give you. The classes themselves are hugely rewarding and great fun. It doesn’t feel like work. I’ve gotten to use a huge amount of the skills from my previous employment too, while also gaining a whole new set of skills. I absolutely love my job.
What are your ambitions for the next 2 years? What’s next for Róisín Matthews?
I get a bit giddy at this question. My daughter starts school in September and my son will start school in 2 years time. In the next 2 years, I feel mostly that I need to restrain myself. It seems counter-intuitive to not build your business in every aspect and direction that it can be built. I feel Mess chef is absolutely bursting with future potential. But I also chose to become self employed to be able to have time with my children when they are young. To spend time in our kitchen and garden and to practice what I preach in my classes and online! So to be honest, for the next two years I will be very selectively choosing my opportunities, slowly building my brand and polishing my classes. However, two years FROM now – you just wait and see!!
What challenges women face in the Irish Food industry?
From my point of view, the biggest challenge in food manufacturing is maintaining a work-life balance after having children. In the two companies I worked in the longest, leaving at 5pm was majorly frowned upon, management meetings were scheduled for late in the day, last minute trips to the UK were common – things that are a pain but not a major deal when you are single and building your career, but simply not possible when you’ve to pick a baby up from childcare. I think the attitude towards working mothers has a long way to go. It can be very difficult for small, family-owned companies (of which there are a lot on the Irish food industry) to have the ability to support its staff after returning from maternity or paternity leave, but I think if a positive attitude is maintained and a willingness to see the benefits of keeping dedicated and experienced staff on side, than that is a very good starting point.
Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistently inspires you and why.
Gosh I don’t think I could choose just one! The course coordinator for my Masters in DIT – Anna Cruickshank – along with other female lecturers, were a huge inspiration for me. I was also lucky to have had excellent female managers in my food manufacturing career who were a good influence on me! Two who come to mind are Susan Zaidan, who was my manager in my first product development job in Odlums, and later in Nature’s Best Ltd., Amanda Martin was someone I learned a great deal from.
What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?
For female entrepreneurs, I’d like to see some of the focus on women over 35. There are awards out there to support young entrepreneurs but I don’t think there is enough credit given to people starting a business with several years experience under their belt. I’ve met some very hard working women and mothers since starting Mess Chef, who have also chosen to be self employed for the necessity of flexibility. There are great organisations like Network Ireland doing a wonderful job of putting the spotlight on women in industry, but as far as I can see a lot of the financial awards out there are directed towards young entrepreneurs. If I had a few spare quid to invest, I’d definitely be backing someone who’d already proven themselves elsewhere before starting their own business!
Have you had a wow moment to date in your career? If so which one was it and why?
I had great moments working in product development, when launching new products I cared a lot about, winning Blas awards and receiving promotions, but I suppose I had a bit of an epiphany during the IBYE a couple of years ago, when I was researching the possibility of starting my own business. I was taking part in a boot camp funded by the Local Enterprise Office (Louth), facilitated by Rob Marr of Catalyst Consultants. Rob spoke about different types of entrepreneurs – and the concept of a lifestyle business. This is essentially a business that fits around your lifetstyle, with the purpose of supporting that lifestyle. I learned that is was totally valid to start a business with the main purpose being to support me to spend a larger amount of time at home with my young family. Up until that point I had thought that if a business wasn’t going to make a huge profit from the get go then there was no point to it. A hangover from working in industry I suppose! I also learned that there is nothing to stop a lifestyle business from pivoting in to a more aggressive form, at some future point.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Put a lot of research in to what course to study at third level – think about what you’ll enjoy studying for a few years and where you’d see yourself in the future. Don’t just stick a few things that sound good on to a CAO form!
Oh and travel, wherever and however possible, near or far.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
Communication, culinary skills, organisation and social media skills!
What’s your go to comfort food and what do you cook when you want to impress?
My main comfort food is still the one my mammy makes me – homemade chicken soup, a slightly thickened broth with a dash of cream. Heaven.
When I want to impress, I usually go for simple dishes cooked right! I love collecting recipes from holidays…one of my favourite dinner party dishes is a starter of very fresh lollo rosso, with warm slow cooked onions and bacon lardons, tossed with chunky homemade garlicky croutons and a light vinaigrette, all served in a large wide bowl in the centre of the table, with freshly baked yeast bread alongside. We had that one in a little farmhouse high up in the hills near Rodez.
Or sushi. I love Japanese food!