Back to School…

Imagine the situation.  The phone rings, it’s your old Headmaster from School.  I’ve been asked to speak at the school prize night.  What an honour.

So we chat about what I’m going to talk about, how life has been over the past 20 years.  I make a visit to the school on a trip home and I offer to present a new cup to the pupil who is like me, the hard worker, the one who wants to do their best in Home Economics – The James McIntosh Endeavour Award for Home Economics in Tandragee Junior High School in Northern Ireland.  The school that made me who I am, that gave me the love of my subject of Home Economics.  I’m get really excited as I hear my old Home Economics teacher – Mrs Humphries is attending.

Tandragee Junior High School is 50 years old this year.  It’s a town in the middle of County Armagh, a farming community near my family home in Ballylisk.  If your interested my speech is below.  It’s quite “Northern Irish” in tone, but I wanted to give thanks to the town and school that made me.  Tandragee, the home of Tayto Crisps and Speedicook Porridge.

Headmaster, members of the Board of Governors, honoured guests, staff, Mums and Dads, pupils of Tandragee Junior High School. Thank you for inviting me here today.

Like many of you, I am blessed. I had the privilege to grow up in a place where nature had lavished its bounty on the orchard of Erin’s green land.

This beauty, of course, is at odds with an accent which is best described as “unique”. For me, hearing the dulcet twang of “how are you” tells me at once that I’m back home. I have had the privilege of travelling all over the world, much further than I could ever have imagined. I have journeyed from my family home in Ballylisk to Beijing, from Australia to the Florida Keys.

I always knew that I wanted to explore the world, to find new places and soak up other cultures. It takes one from their comfort zone. I am frequently reminded of how mother birds teach their young to fly: they boot them out of the nest and wait for them to flap their wings on the way down to the forest floor.  Well, I’ve been booted out of the nest on many occasions.

The funny thing is: when you hail from Northern Ireland you can travel to the ends of the earth but you can never escape your shadow or your accent. Everyone knows my accent. I used to be embarrassed by it, and I’m not ashamed to admit that when making videos for television or the Internet I occasionally lapse into a hoity-toity, jolly hockey sticks voice which is a halfway house between Simon Cowell and Mary Berry. After a few failed attempts, I catch myself on – to use a great Norn Irish phrase – and stop pretending.

When I phone clients or people I know, they say “Hi James” before I even say my name. I work all over the world and the Chinese like my accent because it sounds like a mixture between English and American. On one occasion I landed in Beijing, I met my interpreter and he told me his name. I repeated “Myingtom” several times. He appeared puzzled and perhaps offended by my mangling of the ancient Chinese language. “No,” he affirmed when the penny finally dropped. “My Name Tom.”

 Home Economics, contrary to popular belief, is not about cooking. If it was all about “wee buns” I would be very fat by now. It’s a subject about the family – whatever shape that is in today’s society. It’s about all of the factors that affect the family in terms of food, clothing, housing, finance and energy. I specialize in food and appliances.

At the moment I spend a lot of time in China. I’ll not lie when I say that I find it strange. Whilst I love travelling I am also a fan of my home comforts – and Chinese food can be a little bizarre to the Westerner. More of that in a moment or too.

I regularly present on China Food TV. More people have seen me on TV than have seen Jamie Oliver. That’s a bold statement I know, but regularly I have ratings of 1 billion viewers on a Saturday night watching my show. I have cookbooks published out there – I can’t even read my name in them, as I don’t speak Chinese! An interesting country with a very different structure, history and ethos. I co-present with a Muslim Chef, filming takes 40 days at a time and I have seen so much of that country. I represent British brands in China as ‘Britain’s Food Ambassador’ and I’m about to launch AGA cookers there. I’m the man who is bringing the oven to China. They currently (and for the last 3000 years) cook in woks they don’t have ovens. It’s a big job, but the highlight of my career so far. You see I like a challenge.

The Chinese crave anything Western. But as for the food… well, I can tell you some stories. I have 3 rules for Chinese food in China. I assure you it’s ‘not within a hounds goul’ of what you buy in Poon’s in Tandragee:

1              If it’s beige then it’s probably safe to eat.

2              Does it move when I touch it with my chopstick? No, I’m not joking.

3              Eat, swallow and smile for the camera.

Now, I know what you’re all thinking: do they really eat dog in China? Yes. Rest assured that song “how much is that doggie in the window?” has a whole new meaning for me. It tastes of lamb and it’s only the yellow dog they eat. I’m told it has a good smell. And that is tame for some of the – for want of a better word “delicacies” I have been given. You see, it’s rude when at a State banquet not to eat what is set down in front of you. To refuse food would be deeply offensive as you would be breaking all manner of cultural rules. Think about that the next time your Auntie makes you egg sandwiches when you are craving a Big Mac.

There are no borders in Gastromomy. America currently has ‘food ambassadors’ on diplomatic missions. There are literally millions of pounds for food book translations between the Western and Muslim worlds. It’s the only non-political thing that can achieve peace. We share food, recipes are non-political, they tell stories, they show how we live. But, oh for Speediecook porridge. Chinese porridge, if you can call it that is called Congee. I can’t eat it, and don’t know what it is. But I know it’s rough. If you think China is the future, I’m afraid you’re too late. China is the fastest growing economy in the world and it’s very much now.

I’ve mentioned I’m an Ambassador, I hold 2 Ambassadorial titles, one as Britain’s Food Ambassador and another for AGA Cookers. The doors that these titles open are immense. You see, in my business your contact book is very important. AGA cookers being the most famous cookers in the world, made in England by hand and together with brands like Rangemaster and Rayburn employ 2,500 people in the UK. It’s my job to make “Great British Cookers Famous”. Ambassadors do get to lovely parties, drink champagne and eat chocolates with the rich and famous, but we are there to keep British people in British jobs and keep Britain manufacturing. To find new sales opportunities and advise the Senior Management teams in the companies of new trends and identify markets.

My other work is in the USA. I’ve seen 22 states, worked in most of them for one client or another. Occasionally, I will see things which remind me of home. Once, on a layover in Cleveland airport I saw a shelf of hallowed crisp packets. Yes, Tayto Cheese and Onion. The wrong Tayto, the ones from Dublin, but it was as close to Tandragee as I was going to get.

On one occasion I was launching a cooker to the press in New York. A Journalist exclaimed, “You’ve got a great accent, are you Italian?” “Aye,” I said. 60 magazines printed, “The AGA Italian chef James McIntosh”.

Now, speaking about words like “aye”, did you know that ‘yousnes’ is not a word?

I’ve always wanted my own food trend. I now have one, launching next year in the United States. This is a very complex business plan as no one has ever ‘owned’ a food trend before. I have spent my career developing food trends for every celebrity chef you know and many more. I’m the man that makes food exciting and sets the current trends you see in the supermarkets. I can tell you that Dec / Jan is going to be all about caramel, that this Christmas, Cake Pops will be mincemeat in flavour, I was the first to bring the red velvet cake to the UK. I make the ordinary special. If I say to you: braised Cavalo Nero with balsamic dressing on a bed of crushed Anya it sounds impressive, but it’s cabbage and mash to you and me. It’s a subject called marketing, it’s the practice of making people want to buy things.

Who wants one of these? [James pulls out iPhone 5]. Why? Is the Samsung not a better phone? Apple used to be a joke, but now it’s the biggest company in the world. Some people even sit outside their stores in all weather for days waiting to buy the new products. Why? Because they believe in the brand and it’s my job to make them believe in British brands. Look at what we did in the UK this year, we sold our country to the world with Her Majesties Diamond Jubilee, the Olympic and Paralympic Games and boy we did well. Is it by chance that the next James Bond movie Skyfall is out today? I’m missing my invite to the premier in Leicester Square tonight to come home. I’m going on Sunday. I’m happy! These events are not put together by accent, it’s called marketing. The Best of Britain to sell to the world.

Life is not always easy. Things happen that we cannot plan and sometimes do not want. That’s when it’s important to remember the values that we learn in school, and indeed throughout life. Care, Courtesy and Consideration. That covers most of it really. Make everyone you meet feel special, a smile, remember a name and a little fact about them. People, who cause you undue stress, don’t have them in your life – that does not include family by the way! Be kind, forgive, don’t be afraid, be you. Have faith. Personally I believe in God, but to have faith, whether it’s as a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu is important, it’s good to believe in something. I’ve had my ups and downs, but Care, Courtesy and Consideration have always got me through. When things go wrong, don’t be a victim, others copy your work, do something better.

My dad when to Tandragee Junior High School too. 5 years ago when I was 28 he died. I decided to do something for my dad, to get me back on track, so I wrote my first cookery book. It won best cookbook in the world at the world cookbook awards. You’re only a victim if you want to be one. I was bullied when I was your age, I kept going. I’m employing some of those bullies now. I’m dyslexic, in my day in school it was classed as ‘bad spelling’, I still won multiple best in the world awards with it. However, Tandragee, I do blame you for this, not the school, but Tayto. I have gone through life thinking that Worcestershire Sauce was spelt W.U.S.T.E.R. as on the crisps! But cheese and onion Tayto, a Veda, a bacon soda and a Sukki I always have when I’m home. I’ve eaten in the world’s best restaurants, write for all the celebrity chefs, but nothing matches the ‘Taste of Tandragee’.

I’ve had the best career. I’m living my dream. A dream that started in this building. Forget my accolades and titles, I’m James McIntosh, I sat where you are now 20 years to this year ago. I was not the most academically fabulous. I was not interested in sport. I wanted to change the world. I have. I wanted to live my dream. Everyone of you have experienced my work, you have bought products or food trends I have developed. All because Mrs. Humphries who is now retired put a love of my subject Home Economics in to me, she was a special teacher, she taught from her heart – not from a book. My mum who is sitting here tonight was a big influence too, she taught Home Economics in Killigomaine. I was told I would never make money from it, society then told me ‘boys don’t do Home Economics’, that there was no future in it. You may say the best chefs are men, however Home Economics is an academic profession whereas being a chef is more of a creative vocation. With Home Economics currently off the curriculum in England and Wales, I applaud my Provence for keeping it strong in the curriculum, for teaching vital “life skills”.

Whatever you want to do, who you want to be. Do it, I did it and I had the same chances as you. Some of your teachers taught me. I’m not saying who! But be your best, make it count. Don’t dream it, be it. What is Nike’s slogan? Just do it. If my first ever prize had not come from my ploughing attempt at 16 for Mullahead and District Ploughing championship I would never have known what I could achieve.

For me, although I’ve often left Tandragee, in foreign lands to roam, no matter where I’ve wondered, through cities near or far, my hearts at home in Tandragee in the County of Armagh. I’m proud of our province and this little town. And every day since I left, no matter if I’ve been in Siberia, Jamaica, China, Australia or Clapham where I live in London I’ve phoned home to Tandragee. You can take the boy out of Tandrage, but never Tandragee out of the boy.

Tandragee and Tandragee Junior High, thank you for making me the man I have become. For giving me the opportunity to know right from wrong, to live a life of the morals with the knowledge you taught me. Pupils of Tandragee, you have the same changes and opportunities I did. You can be anywhere in the world in 24 hours. Live your dream, do your best, and BE THE BEST.

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