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St. Petersburg woman inspired a new wave of Irish cuisine. She died at 81.

Noreen Kinney traveled the world and brought the flavors she found home to Ireland, then to Florida.
Noreen Kinney, left, traveled the world before returning home to Ireland, where she started teaching housewives to add new flavors to their dishes. 'I don't think she really got her due for the kinds of things she did,' said Janet Keeler, the former food editor for the Tampa Bay Times.
Noreen Kinney, left, traveled the world before returning home to Ireland, where she started teaching housewives to add new flavors to their dishes. 'I don't think she really got her due for the kinds of things she did,' said Janet Keeler, the former food editor for the Tampa Bay Times. [ Courtesy Rachel Wheeler ]
Published Oct. 11
Updated Oct. 14

By the time Noreen Kinney moved home to Cork, Ireland in the 1970s, she’d already had a lifetime of adventures. Born and raised in India, she attended secretarial school in London, where she also trained with the British Olympic diving team. She worked for three years for the Shah of Iran’s son-in-law. She played piano on the set of a Columbia Pictures movie in Italy. She met her husband in London. They lived in Australia.

In the early 1970s, the Kinneys moved to Ireland with their two young daughters.

There, Mrs. Kinney did something she’d never trained for but spent her life studying. She started a revolution in Irish kitchens that helped transform the country’s cuisine.

“I’m not really qualified for anything,” she told the Irish Independent in January 1974.

She spent the rest of her years proving herself wrong.

Mrs. Kinney, who lived in St. Petersburg, died Sept. 26 due to complications from a stroke. She was 81 and leaves behind two daughters, five grandchildren and many treasured recipes, including her Irish Soda Bread recipe, which you’ll find at the end of this story.

Noreen Kinney and her husband, Fred Kinney, lived all over the world before settling down in Ireland. Mrs. Kinney was made an honorary lifetime member of the American Culinary Federation and inducted into the American Academy of Chefs.
Noreen Kinney and her husband, Fred Kinney, lived all over the world before settling down in Ireland. Mrs. Kinney was made an honorary lifetime member of the American Culinary Federation and inducted into the American Academy of Chefs. [ Courtesy Rachel Wheeler ]

Cooking in formalwear

Mrs. Kinney did not grow up over pots and pans in the kitchen learning family recipes.

But she did savor the flavors in all the places she lived and often found herself in kitchens and markets, asking how it was done.

In Cork, Mrs. Kinney saw potential that went past potatoes and cabbage. So she put on formalwear and offered a few cooking demonstrations.

“This proved so popular that Noreen was encouraged to spread her wings and, last Wednesday and Thursday, she began two six-week courses in the Leprechaun Restaurant, Patrick Street, Cork,” read a news clipping from Jan. 24, 1974. “Despite wind, rain, high water and broken telephone lines, both are completely booked out and, if last Wednesday night’s crowd is any indication, will be the forerunner of many more.”

Mrs. Kinney wasn’t trying to teach people how to cook. She wanted them to know what other people were cooking around the world and how it might enhance their own dishes.

She said something then, in the Limerick Leader, that she’d repeat for years to come:

“This country is a virgin territory for becoming a gourmet’s paradise.”

Noreen Kinney with her two daughters and their dog. Mrs. Kinney cared for Shih Tzus for most of her life. 'She was an active ambassador in promoting Ireland, its food and cuisine and in bringing cuisine tours to Ireland,' said Matt McNulty, former director general of Irish Tourism.
Noreen Kinney with her two daughters and their dog. Mrs. Kinney cared for Shih Tzus for most of her life. 'She was an active ambassador in promoting Ireland, its food and cuisine and in bringing cuisine tours to Ireland,' said Matt McNulty, former director general of Irish Tourism. [ Courtesy Rachel Wheeler ]

Out and about with Noreen

Mrs. Kinney excelled in the kitchen, but she did not intend to stay there.

The cooking demonstrations led to a culinary tour, which led to a society column, “Out and About with Noreen,” in the Cork Examiner. She wrote a monthly column for a magazine. She founded the Irish Gourmet Society. She wrote several cookbooks.

Rachel Wheeler and her sister, Muirgheal Montecalvo, were little when their mom started her culinary tours, and they got to go a few times. Wheeler remembers collecting money and passing out tickets.

At home, Mrs. Kinney cooked simple, delicious meals: Chicken paprika, Chicken Muirgheal, Montecalvo’s favorite, and Salad Rachel, a tuna dish Wheeler loved.

They did not know their mom was a big deal, Wheeler said.

Mrs. Kinney and her husband eventually separated and later divorced, and when her daughters moved to Florida, Mrs. Kinney followed. In 1990, she made St. Petersburg her home, but kept promoting the food of Ireland.

In 1996, Ireland’s tourism board named Mrs. Kinney an honorary culinary ambassador to the United States. In 2002, the Irish food board honored her as the pioneer of the new Irish cuisine movement.

In the U.S., Mrs. Kinney founded the Cordon d’Or International Culinary Academy Awards. Janet Keeler, then the food editor of the Tampa Bay Times, covered that first award ceremony in the community room at the library. Two years later, the event was at the Vinoy Renaissance resort.

Mrs. Kinney didn’t act any different at the historic hotel than she had at the library, Keeler said.

“It was like a grand thing and she was all in, all the time.”

Mrs. Kinney, right, with her daughters, left top, and grandchildren, left bottom.
Mrs. Kinney, right, with her daughters, left top, and grandchildren, left bottom. [ Courtesy Rachel Wheeler ]

‘She wrote her own rules’

Around 2015, Mrs. Kinney hired Belinda Hanks as her housekeeper. “But I never cleaned anything,” Hanks said.

She took Mrs. Kinney out to lunch (Indian restaurants were a favorite), the British grocery store (to stock up on teas and candies) and helped organize a lifetime of awards, news clips and scrapbooks. Mrs. Kinney was a brand ambassador for Kerrygold butter and Baileys Irish Cream, and she had plenty of both in her kitchen.

Hanks listened to Mrs. Kinney’s stories for years, and she is struck still by her friend’s boldness – to divorce when she did, to advocate for herself in her career, to speak up in her very proper British accent about things she found unacceptable.

“She wrote her own rules,” Hanks said. “She wrote her own rules with everybody in her life, from her parents to her husband to her children to anybody she did business with. She was her own woman.”

Here’s Mrs. Kinney’s Irish Soda Bread recipe, which was published in the Wisconsin State Journal on March 12, 2008.

Noreen Kinney's Irish soda bread recipe was printed in the Wisconsin State Journal on March 12, 2008.
Noreen Kinney's Irish soda bread recipe was printed in the Wisconsin State Journal on March 12, 2008. [ Via newspapers.com ]

Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Mrs. Kinney met her husband in London. Actually, it was in Italy.

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