Elaine Lavery was working as a chalet chef in the French Alps when she had the idea for Improper Butter as a way for people to easily access delicious flavoured butters for the benefit of their home cooking. Meanwhile, her best friend Hannah O’Reilly had taken a year out after finishing a UCD commerce degree to train as a Soprano in the Royal Irish Academy of Music. When Elaine arrived back from The French Alps and told Hannah her butter idea, her love of business kicked in and the pair worked on launching Improper Butter earlier this year, helped along by a baptism of fire (and arias) on Dragons’ Den.
What is your earliest butter-based memory?
Elaine: From a very young age I was interested in baking, so butter would always feature quite heavily – never margarine! The first time I came across the concept of flavoured butters was in a recipe by Nigel Slater. It was for a Moroccan spiced lentil soup. All the flavour came from a butter you made by mashing up good old butter with ground cumin and coriander, paprika, fresh coriander and flat-leaf parsley. I have made it often since. It is divine!
Hannah: Helping my wee ma prepare her Christmas cake is a very early butter memory. I would stand on a chair and help her weigh all of the ingredients including softened butter. I can remember that really well. It’s a cool memory to have.
Tell us about the Dragons’ Den experience – what was it like to pitch in front of the Dragons? How much did it help in progressing your business idea? And what was it like for Hannah to be asked to sing as part of your pitch?
H: Ah here, the singing was ridiculous! It was one of those moments where you’re like, “Oh my god, I’m actually gonna have to do this”. It was a bit of craic, I suppose. All in all, the Dragons’ Den was a great experience. We met five seriously accomplished individuals who were very supportive of our business idea and of us. The ones who didn’t offer money declared themselves out by telling us they would be customers and not investors of Improper Butter. It was a nice way to put it. After the show was aired we had such a lovely time. People went out of their way to contact us to say congratulations and wish us luck for the future. It was so cool to have that kind of goodwill from people we don’t even know.
Tell us about the Kilkenny Co-op that you source your dairy from. Why is it important to you about using Irish creamery butter?
E: I honestly believe that Irish butter is the best in the world. The quality and consistency of the butter we produce is unrivalled. That’s why it sells for double or triple the price in the US as it does at home! It’s all down to the quality of the feed – the luscious green grass and nothing else. That’s one positive about all the rain! We wouldn’t source our butter from anywhere else. That would be sacrilegious.
What are your personal favourite flavours of Improper Butter?
E: It’s quite difficult to say. I think we both have a massive penchant for our Cashel Blue butter, which recently won two gold starts at the Great Taste Awards! It is the definition of moreish. Our Garlic butter is our best seller but I like the Garlic, Chilli and Basil butter for its speckled colour and the spicy kick you get from the chilli.
H: Like Elaine said, I love our Cashel Blue butter. It is beyond delicious melted onto a seared fillet steak. However, my favourite of our butters is actually a custom butter we make for Mulberry Garden in Donnybrook. It’s a pink peppercorn and chive butter and it is so good. The breads head chef Tom Doyle makes there are delicious, and our butter is a pretty good compliment to them.
What have been some unexpected challenges of running a food business?
E: Every day brings new and unexpected challenges. Nothing ever plays out the way it did in your head! On the upside, we have been unexpectedly surprised by the goodwill and support we have received from the food business community – including some of the big retailers who often get a media bashing for being too cutthroat.
H: I think it can be easy to sometimes forget about the bigger picture and get bogged down with day-to-day activities. That can be a challenge.
What have been the positives of the experience?
E: This will make me sound like a sap, but for me, the number one outstanding positive of the experience has been working with my best friend every day. We are constantly in contact – if not face to face, by phone or Whatsapp – and constantly laughing. Hannah always has a gag, she’s a born entertainer! We divide up most of the work so we’re always learning from each other too.
H: Ah what a sap! It’s so cool to work with Elaine everyday. She’s so capable it freaks me out. It’s great when things get a bit heavy to have her there. We laugh loads. Also, I love looking back over the last year and seeing how we have managed to find solutions to problems that seemed pretty insurmountable. It’s a good sense of achievement and keeps us feeling positive.
Keep an eye out for Improper Butter and the new butter flavours, sweet butters and non-butter products they’ve got up their sleeves. Find them at improperbutter.com, on Facebook and @improperbutter on Twitter.
Recipe: Seared Dublin Bay Prawns with Improper Butter
100g Improper Butter – Garlic, Parsley and Lemon OR Garlic, Chilli and Basil flavour
16 Dublin Bay or Tiger prawns, shelled
Salt and pepper
Drizzle of olive oil
1. Season the prawns with salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.
2. Place a frying pan on a high heat until smoking.
3. Add the prawns to the dry pan and cook on each side for 1 minute. They should have good colour.
4. Add Improper Butter to the pan. Swirl around the pan until the butter is melted. Turn of the heat.
5. Divide the prawns between 4 plates and spoon the butter over them.
6. Serve with new potatoes, salad and great bread.