Jillian Bolger: A life in food journalism

By Katia Valadeau
6th August 2019

Simply put, Jillian Bolger is one of Ireland’s most successful freelancers. She has nigh on 20 years editing experience writing about food and travel, and has won multiple awards for her journalism work. If you are into food writing like I am, Jillian Bolger is the end goal. Her career is phenomenal.

I’m talking to women the Irish food industry. How did your career path bring you here?

I fell into food writing by accident 20 years ago. Starting off working on interiors magazines I was asked to help out at Food & Wine Magazine on a project.

I got on well and they asked me to stay. I realised very quickly that it was a dream job – meeting amazing chefs, producers and restaurateurs, sampling wines and dining out for a living. Within a year I had been made editor and ended up staying at Food & Wine for over 5 years.

I’ve been freelancing for 14 years, since returning to Ireland after a 20-month holiday! (I left Food & Wine Magazine to embark on this wonderful trip.) Since then, I’ve been writing, editing magazines and working as Dublin editor for Georgina Campbell’s Ireland Guide.

Most of my features are published in Image, The Irish Independent, Image Interiors and The Sunday Business Post. I love the freedom and flexibility freelancing gives me – allowing me to travel lots, take on diverse projects and be a mum.

In recent years, I’ve added copy writing to my CV, working with luxury hotels like Dromoland Castle and Sheen Falls Lodge. My knowledge and experience of this sector have made it a natural fit for my career.

How does your career fullfil you?

I’m naturally curious, sociable (and greedy!) so can’t imagine doing anything else. I have huge regard for chefs and hoteliers and find it a pleasure to write about them and understand their world. I love travelling too and am fortunate to marry travel writing with my food writing.

Culinary experiences always attract me when I’m abroad and my job has allowed me access to the most fascinating food stories – from being in the kitchen at Eleven Madison Park during dinner service to exploring a tea plantation in Sri Lanka and watching an elderly lady hand roll noodles in her tiny workshop on a Malay island.

Being paid to travel and share my experiences is a privilege.

What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Jillian Bolger?

I am planning several more trips for 2019 and 2020, hoping to take in some new destinations and cuisines.

I’m also enjoying working with hospitality clients at the moment, telling their stories for them. I’m currently lining up new clients and am looking forward to helping connect them to their customers, through beautiful words on their websites and in print.

Whether it’s a restaurant, café, hotel, country house or food business, my strength is communication and my passion is hospitality. That means I’m invested in every word I write, which is better for the client and better for the reader.

In your opinions, what challenges women face in the food industry in Ireland?

I’ve seen so many talented women in publishing drop down to part-time work when they become parents. Often they’re at the peak of their powers and have to walk away from promotions and bigger opportunities.

Sadly, the majority of women still earn less than their male counterparts, necessitating us to give up work or go part-time when children come along. The long hours in hospitality make it an even harder industry for parents: late nights, weekend shifts, restricted holidays in peak season.

Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistently inspire you and why?

I admire many great women, from Sally Barnes to Jess Murphy, Darina Allen to Mag Kirwan, Domini Kemp to Denise McBrien, but honestly, my biggest inspiration is Georgina Campbell.

For years, through her guidebook and website, she has been nurturing, promoting and supporting small, home-grown Irish businesses, giving them a national platform and celebrating their commitment to excellence in hospitality.

She is low-key, old school, charming and such a grafter. Everything about her business is ethical –  reviewers work anonymously, no-one can buy their way into her guide and her awards are independently assessed.

She has supported so many wonderful restaurants, country houses, cafés, producers and hotels in their infancy and has done countless good for so many small businesses. I am lucky to work for her and call her a friend, but I can also see the huge contribution she makes to Ireland’s food and hospitality scene.

What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?

Women need to be given equal billing in the media. Girls need to see females taking part. We need to champion the best – the world class chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, restaurateurs, growers, farmers, producers, managers, hoteliers, baristas, cocktail makers.

We need more women headlining food festivals, more chefs making noise about their skills. And we need to get the message out about what a rewarding industry hospitality is.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

I’ve won a few awards over the years, both for my writing and editing. The recognition feels great and ensures I keep on my toes. I’m frequently asked to cover holiday leave and staff change-overs in different magazines, and I take this as a real compliment.

To be asked to jump into a well-oiled machine and fill an editor’s shoes, albeit temporarily, reminds me that I am good at my job and respected by my peers. (Plus, working in an office every so often makes a nice change from working at home, alone).

What advice would you give your younger self?

Believe in yourself. Take chances. Understand that the knock-backs will make you a better person.

What are the top skills required to do your job and why?

A natural curiosity; a keen eye for detail; good time management; good communicator; a thirst for knowledge and an ability to juggle many projects at the same time.

What Irish food should tourists make sure they try?

Our seafood is superb. Irish crabs, Dublin bay prawns, smoked fish, all taste of home to me. It’s great to see Dublin getting more seafood restaurants. Our beef, lamb and  farmhouse cheeses are all excellent but seafood should be our big story as an island nation.

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