Joanna Bourke

Working In My PJs – Joanna Bourke

You know those cliched career change stories. The banker turned craft brewer. The teacher turned dog walker. The lawyer turned bakery mogul. That X turned Y formula makes the transition sound so fast and so simple! Like The Walking Dead, where you’re a human one minute then bam… you’re a zombie!

Okay, maybe that’s not the best analogy. But anyway, I like hearing all the mucky details in between the X and Y, because shifting careers is rarely a straightforward process. For most of us, there’s a lot of exploration and experimentation and dithering and day jobs and swearing and self doubt before things start to take shape.

Today’s Working In My PJs guest Joanna Bourke turned from Google project manager to chef and life coach… kapow! When we met at the Sacred Rascals retreat last year I was fascinated by her journey from Silicon Valley to the kitchen. How does one do that? Any story involving food, I must know more!

After making the big decision to leave Google in 2014, Joanna returned to her native Ireland, trained as a cook and life coach, launched her venture The Chopping Board and was soon cooking at retreats in fancy French chateaus – all while still holding down a day job. I was so chuffed that Jo was up for talking about her unfolding adventures here today.

1. Can you recall the moment when you decided, I’m done with Google, I want to work with food!
It was February 2014. I was living in San Francisco and and very stressed out. I was travelling a lot, with a long commute and working with different time zones. I was never off my phone. I knew something had to change, but I really went the whole hog and changed everything.

I had always wanted to go to Ballymaloe cookery school. After looking at their website every day for a month, I went for it. Six months later, I had left my job, moved from the US back to Ireland and was starting the 3 month course on their farm in Cork.

It was bliss. At that point I didn’t know what would come after, or how I would work with food, but I was ready for a big change.

2. In your recent Irish Times interview you’re open about the realities of “living the dream”, including moving back home with your folks as you build up your business. As someone who’s had a slow start to self employment too, I love that honesty and acknowledgement that these things don’t happen overnight. So… where are you right now with The Chopping Board?
Since leaving Google I’ve combined cooking projects and temporary office work. I was lucky last year to find a great place for temp work and they were really flexible so I could also take on freelance work. I was able to travel and cook at retreats in France and the UK, and do private event catering at the weekends. I think when starting out in self-employment it’s important (for your emotional and financial stability) to have a source of regular income, whether a temp job or a steady client.

I recently did a Farm to Table lunch with a friend who grows food with a demo on cooking with fresh herbs. I did food writing, recipes and photography for a workbook on self-care and coping with burnout. I offer 1:1 cookery classes in client’s homes and I’m really excited about my new workshop which I’ll be hosting in Dublin soon.

3. When we worked together at Sacred Rascals, you were always a picture of serenity in the kitchen. What goes on in your mind as you cook for a crowd? 
I usually have some nerves a day or two before an event, particularly if it’s in a new venue or kitchen. There are always some unknowns you will encounter in a new kitchen, like figuring out an oven, or minor catastrophes like locking yourself out of the house with a saucepan of water on the boil (deep breaths). But once I’m in the middle of a job, I’m in the zone and feel like I can handle anything. Preparation and lists are key. Cooking for a large group can be pretty high-octane so adrenaline keeps you going. I find that I learn something from every job that I do, what worked and what I would/wouldn’t do again.

4. What’s your favourite dish to cook?
Spiced chicken with almonds, an Indian recipe by Madhur Jaffrey. It’s really tasty and popular with lots of clients. It’s also fun to cook, grinding and roasting spices, letting the sauce simmer while the flavours deepen and develop, the fresh herbs it’s served with, the texture of the chicken and the sauce and the bite of the almonds. It’s aromatic and really rich in flavour.

Madhur Jaffrey's curry
Madhur Jaffrey’s curry

5. I love your peaceful approach to food – your dishes are always so tasty yet light and healthy. And you always make room for some treats. Have you always had a healthy relationship with food or has this evolved over time?
Since I was young my family have always enjoyed cooking at home and eating out. Mealtimes are a great get-together in our house. I have a savoury rather than sweet tooth and I love a quarter pounder, chips and curry sauce from the chipper. But I love vegetables and a good salad as much as a takeaway. Food is a pleasure for me and I like to indulge.

In my coach training I learned a lot about intuitive/mindful eating which really resonated. It teaches you the tools to listen to your body and hear what it really wants – that could be a hot, comforting Shepherds pie in December or a tomato or potato salad with herbs in June. It’s about tuning into our bodies rather than the voice in our minds telling us what we “should” be eating. It can take a while to get our head around this as it’s not typically how we were brought up to think about food and eating.

Serving up a retro egg salad (and jumper), circa ‘89

6. Who inspires you in?
In terms of cooking, Darina Allen and Rory O’Connell from the Ballymaloe Cookery School where I trained, they are so passionate and knowledgeable. On TV, I love watching Rick Stein and Nigel Slater, they’re both very soothing to listen to. In business, our mutual friend Sas Petherick has been a great mentor to me.

7. What is your least favourite work task?
Admin (sad-min?) and tax-related matters cause me to procrastinate and think about how the oven really needs to be cleaned.

8. What’s the nicest thing a client or fan has ever said to you about your work?
The emails I’ve gotten about my retreat cooking have been really rewarding. At retreats people are out of their comfort zone, with new people, and some are processing a lot of emotions. The kitchen is the heart of the house and can be a sanctuary for them to take a break, sit at the table with a cup of tea and chat about what’s for dinner. Many women do all the cooking at home, so it’s a chance for them to get taken care of for a few days.

9. What are your favourite ways to procrastinate?
It usually involves my phone and social media. Instagram Stories is a new one, it’s just hard to stop watching. And procrasti-dating (just made that one up)… work avoidance through Tinder swiping.

10. What are your desert island business tools?

  • My chef’s knife (Global)
  • My cookbooks
  • Phone for recipe checks and taking photos of what I’m cooking
  • Canon Rebel T3 for food photos for my blog

11. Time to dream big. Where would you like The Chopping Board to be in five years? 
The dream is to teach cooking for wellbeing in a beautiful cottage in Ireland with a huge kitchen with space for demos and groups to cook and learn. I want to teach people how cooking can be therapeutic and an outlet for creativity.

Instead of counting the minutes we spend cooking our meals (30/15/5 minute etc..) I see time spent in the kitchen as beneficial to our physical and mental health. This applies if you are cooking for yourself or for your family. It can be hard to motivate ourselves to cook, and I certainly feel this at times too, but it’s also so rewarding. The kitchen is a place where we can practice mindfulness and engage our senses and intuition. Chopping veggies can be very meditative.

12. As someone who loves food but has yet to venture beyond Dublin, where I should go in Ireland and what I should eat?
Cork is my favourite place for food in Ireland especially for seafood. I wrote about great places to eat on the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland on my blog here and here.

Kinsale lobster
Kinsale lobster in Cork. Photo by Joanna.

13. Tacky question but my stomach wants to know – what’s your death row meal request?
It would be the meal that I made for my final exam at cookery school – we had to choose a theme for a 3-course meal with wine pairings and I went for French Bistro with Bordeaux red wine. It’s rich, indulgent happiness.

  • French onion soup with gruyere croutons
  • Sirloin steak, medium rare with Bearnaise sauce, frites and a green salad with French dressing
  • Lemon posset with lemon shortbread biscuits
Joanna's steak frites
Joanna’s steak frites

14. Can we get a peek at your work space?
I’m currently house-sitting in a place with a gorgeous kitchen and a window-view out to the garden.

Joanna's view
Joanna’s view

Thank you gazillions Joanna for your time!

Want more Joanna in your life? Visit her at The Chopping Board where you can read her blog and get her free e-book Green Juice & Rosé: The Bon Vivant’s Guide to Happy Eating & Cooking, a collection of cooking tips and recipes from her French retreats. You can also drool over her dishes on Instagram.

About Shauna Reid

Ahoy there! I’m Shauna, an author, copywriter and content mentor. I love telling stories about life and helping others to tell theirs.

Find out more about me and how we can work together – I’m now booking for December 2022.

6 thoughts on “Working In My PJs – Joanna Bourke

  1. Nice interview – and green pictures! Can we get a recipe or link to the Spiced chicken with almonds recipe? Thanks!

  2. So interesting to learn more about the transition process – especially that Joanna did paid temp work while building up her business. Sometimes I think we feel guilty for even thinking about money!

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