Most individuals who decide to become pastry chefs might attend culinary school. Others might embark on the gruelling journey of starting off in a kitchen with no prior education and working their way up, never stepping foot on a college campus. But JR Ryall, Food and Wine Ireland’s 2022 Pastry Chef of the Year, and Head Pastry Chef at Ballymaloe House took, as he says, “a very scenic route” to becoming a professional pastry chef. In 2010, Ryall graduated from Trinity with a BA in Biochemistry with Cell Biology. But how did this STEM-focused student make his way to the top of the pastry world? Trinity News sat down with Ryall to answer just that.
Since as long as he can remember, Ryall has adored food. At four years old, he was taken on a tour of Ballymaloe Cookery school in Shanagarry, Co. Cork and from that point forward, Ryall decided that he would pursue any opportunity in the culinary world that came his way. “At the end of the tour, I met the director of the cookery school Darina Allen… She signed a book for me saying ‘For John Robert, who will be a great chef when he grows up. Love from Darina Allen, 1992’.” So I’ve always kept that book and that day so defined and I decided then that food was something I was fascinated in and any opportunity that I had, I pursued it.” As Ryall got older and attended boarding school in Co. Cork, this affirmation that he made to himself at four years old became reality. “I had a part-time job at Ballymaloe House […] so I used to take a taxi from school to Ballymaloe on a Saturday morning, work through the day, and then take a taxi back to the boarding school.”
When time came to apply for college, Ryall knew for certain that he had a definitive passion for the culinary arts but he wanted to try something different. At school he had done well in science, and so decided to pursue a degree in it — “I thought that I should pursue another interest and it kind of opened the door to another world that I didn’t know existed, that I would’ve missed out on.”
Even though much of Ryall’s time in college was spent studying science, he absolutely did not let his affinity for food fall into the shadows. Not only did Ryall continue to work full-time at the Ballymaloe House pastry kitchen during holidays but from his first year, Ryall became extremely involved with a number of College societies, including DU Food & Drink. Here, Ryall spread his love for food to the larger College community: “I attended some events, got to make friends with people who were running the society, and then I ran for a committee position and I ended up becoming Treasurer.”
The Food and Drink Society became a core part of Ryall’s college experience as it provided him with experiences that entirely shaped his professional future for the better. “Having to organise events, learn how to budget for things, you learned the highs and lows of what it was like to do something. As we went along, we got better and better and they are definitely skills that you use everyday no matter what you’re doing.”
Ryall and his friends were instrumental in growing the Food & Drink society to its position as one of College’s largest societies today. “When we started running it, it was really small — I think there were like 200 members in it — and like two years later we had like 1200 members.” One particular event during his time in the Food & Drink Society stuck with Ryall: “We held a large Christmas party called Yule’n’Joy in the GMB. We spent weeks planning it. A feeling of conviviality reigned over the event. It taught me the importance of doing events with wide appeal that include the whole community.”
But Ryall did not limit his involvement to only one society. He became treasurer of Trinity Arts Festival: “It was great because I got to spend time with people from the arts block because otherwise I was always in the Hamilton.” After this, Ryall ran for Central Society Committee Exec and held this position for a year. Here, he reviewed societies’ requests for funding and allocated money accordingly.
In order to ensure that he could both perform academically and participate in societies, Ryall developed a system to help compartmentalise his time: “My approach would be to have as much fun as I could during the year and then, within a month of the exams, I’d knuckle down and bury myself in the library. I really gave exams the best shot I could but I never let wanting to do well get in the way of actually enjoying the journey.”
After he graduated from College, Ryall became the full-time Head Pastry Chef of Ballymaloe House where he is involved in menu planning and preparing food for the hotel and restaurant. Ryall is also an instructor and examiner at Ballymaloe Cookery school, the very school that officially solidified his passion at four years old. In September 2022, Ryall completed his greatest professional achievement yet after ten years of dreaming about it by publishing his own cookery book, Ballymaloe Desserts. Then in November, he was named Pastry Chef of the Year by Food and Wine Ireland. Ryall’s job has allowed him to travel all over the world where he has baked in pop-up demonstrations, collaborated with other chefs, and as of late, promoted his book.
“I like to call biochemistry a very scenic route to becoming a professional pastry chef. I don’t ever tell anyone that it’s essential but there are moments where it’s useful because baking is essentially cooking with chemistry. So, if you understand a little bit of what’s going on, it can definitely help but I think it might be a little bit eccentric to study biochemistry if you want to be a pastry chef.”
It was the friends that Ryall made through his involvement in societies that he deems the most valuable takeaway from his college days. “[…] Friends that I otherwise wouldn’t have met who were studying other courses. Today I have friends in New York, London, Sydney. Having that fabric and that experience means that I can contact friends and not just people that I’m looking for a favour from. That’s actually the best thing from those days, having those connections. We did all those things together, we worked on projects, we know each other’s skill sets and we studied different things and now have different careers.”
For all those who might be struggling with college life, feeling like the work you are doing day in and day out is doing nothing for your future, Ryall has one piece of advice for you: seek out a mentor: “If you have a good relationship with a mentor and you get to the point where you become friends with them, you almost become dedicated to them and they’ll invest in you and you’ll have a return on that investment. For me, the matriarch in the business took interest in me and I love what she did so that relationship gave me a lot of opportunities in my career. But that can be anywhere. You can find people in your college department who will inspire you, connect with them, see if they can mentor you or even just in the societies world. Connect with people who are higher and learn from them.”