When did you first become interested in food and nutrition?
I have been in the hospitality business from the age of 15, working in and managing restaurants. My parents ran Select Stores, a greengrocer in Dalkey, which supplied many local hotels and restaurants, so I was always surrounded by fresh produce growing up.
I suffered from acne as a teenager, as well as sinus problems and hay fever, and I visited Joan Hanrahan, a nutritional therapist in Dalkey, who advised that dairy was a problem for me. Switching to a dairy-free diet really helped, and that’s when I realised that people have different nutritional needs and a change in diet can make a big difference.
It’s interesting how nutrition gets handed down through generations of families, often without anyone evaluating what’s right for them. Like many Irish families, mine always tended to drink plenty of milk with meals and I hadn’t realised that dairy was an issue for me.
You have travelled the world, working in organic, vegetarian restaurants and stores. How has your travel influenced your approach to food?
I travelled in Australia for 3 years and the US for a year and worked in restaurants and health food stores. That’s where I discovered juicing. I was intrigued by all the juice bars popping up in cafés and shops there. This trend hadn’t hit Ireland yet so I was really keen to see how I could incorporate it at home.
In 2004 you reinvented Select Stores Dalkey (established by your parents in 1959), from a traditional family greengrocer to a dynamic healthy organic whole food store which now includes an award-winning natural juice bar. How did that come about?
After my travels I worked in the store for 3 years. I was studying nutrition at the time and was always putting little notices in the window with nutrition advice. I think that some people thought I was mad but that was kind of the start of it. It was almost like a blueprint for what the store has become. We renovated the store in 2004 and put in a juice bar, and it gradually evolved into the successful health store and deli it now is.
What do you think your parents would think of the store today?
I think that they would be very proud that the store is still here, yet completely up to date. I do feel like they are still looking down on us. It will be 60 years in business in 4 years’ time and that’s something to be proud of.
What did your parents’ customers think of all the changes?
Some got it, some didn’t, but we had a very loyal customer base and that has been a huge help in driving the business forward. We were quite young when my father died and he was very community orientated. I think that people were happy to see the business continued and brought up a level.
What is the secret to the store’s success?
Our USP is listening to our customers and what they want. Acting on the feedback we get from them helps to keep us popular.
Your siblings are all involved in the store so it’s still very much a family business. What are your roles?
My brother Leo is the owner and boss. I’m the general manager, multitasker and chef in the store. I create all the recipes. I trained with Carmel Somers in West Cork, whose focus was all on natural ingredients. My sister Mairead is front of house and Hilary is a sous chef.
Your store is also a big hit with the stars. Bono, The Edge, Neil Jordan, 007 actress Eva Greene, Woody Harrelson, Josh Hartnett and Ryan Tubridy have all popped in. What do you think attracts such big names?
The store has a good vibe and a great atmosphere. We are very fortunate to be located in Dalkey. Apart from the beautiful scenery, Dalkey is a real hub. Having Ardmore Studios nearby means that there’s a good chance of actors popping in. People have said that it’s like a store you might find in The Hamptons or L.A., which I take as a great compliment.
You’ve become something of a celebrity yourself and have appeared on TV shows like TV3’s Xpose and Ireland AM, as well as RTE’s Capital D, The Afternoon Show and Nationwide. What do you make of this fame?
Dalkey is a bit of an epicenter. You get a lot of TV people, media people and journalists dropping in. We don’t really go chasing it but it’s nice when the opportunities arise.
In 2007 you graduated as a nutrition coach with the Irish Institute of Nutrition and Health. What made you do the course?
If I was going to run a health food store I knew that I needed as much knowledge as possible to ensure that I could give the right advice to my customers. It’s not one size fits all when it comes to food and you need to treat everyone as an individual.
You have won many awards for your store, including Top 10 ‘Healthiest Cafés/Delis in Dublin’ by LovinDublin.com, Top 10 ‘Best Shops in Ireland’ voted by Irish Times readers, and McKenna’s Guides ‘Best Whole Food Store’ in Ireland 2015. What the secret?
Hard work. Quality. Keeping things simple. Less is more. Having a massive menu is not good. It’s all about knowing what sells and listening to your customers. We have very popular signature dishes, some of which are on the menu since we opened.
Small things mean so much to customers, things like giving samples. We also offer free nutrition advice, which they really appreciate. Of course, it also helps to have the education and knowledge to back it up.
I think we’ve got the layout right and everything is finally where it’s supposed to be, with the café at the centre. It means that we can see our customers from every part of the store and be fully attentive to them. It’s also very important to have good relationships with your suppliers.
What is your own philosophy on food and nutrition?
Keep it simple. Don’t stress about it. Get back to basics. I have people coming to me in a panic about their diet but there’s really no need. Eat 3 meals a day and maybe 2 snacks. Drink lots of water. Get enough sleep.
Breakfast is very important and if you get that right it will set you up for the day. Avoid sugary cereals. Eat oats – muesli or porridge is great. Eggs and avocados are also good choices.
When you buy meat and fish it’s important to build a relationship with your butcher or fishmonger and ask questions. Where is it coming from? What has it been fed? Has it been injected with anything? When was it caught?
If you read a label on a product and don’t understand an ingredient, don’t buy it. If the sales assistant can’t answer a question about it, definitely don’t buy it.
Always listen to your body and what it wants – unless you’ve been out the night before and have a hangover!
Satisfy your cravings but look for healthier alternatives. If your body is craving something sweet give it something sweet, but try to choose wisely – substitute dried fruit or an apple for sugar. If you must have chocolate, go for dark chocolate with at least 85% coco and maybe a bit of almond butter. I don’t rule out coffee, but make it GOOD coffee!
It’s all about BALANCE. The body loves balance and moderation. If you’re going to do something naughty, then do something good to balance it out.
We Irish do like a drink and an alcohol culture can make it tricky to stay on top of your nutrition. My advice is to take plenty of water between your drinks, and take B vitamins before bed. Shower and get some exercise next day, and drink green smoothies.
What do you do to keep fit?
I’m conscious that if you run a health food store you need to look the part, so I do make an effort to look after myself. When it comes to exercise I think its vital to have something that you enjoy. Zumba works for me!
You give talks on nutrition to schools and colleges. Do you find that there is a growing interest in nutrition?
I enjoy going into schools and spreading the word on nutrition to the next generation. In the local secondary school there are 15 girls going to study nutrition this year, which I think is fantastic, and I hope that I have helped to encourage them in some way.
What’s the best way to get today’s kids eating a bit more healthily?
People get very stressed about preparing nutritious meals for the family. They are stuck for time and it can seem easier to reach for a ready meal or a takeaway.
The key is to make meals in bulk that will last for 3 days. Get a baking tray and start layering. A veggie bake is a good option – start with a millet layer, add a ratatouille layer, a lentil layer, spinach and cheese. You could also add chicken. Vary it by changing the side dishes each day. You could have it with salad one day, veggie chips the next and mash the next.
Often it’s the simple things that help to get kids into a healthy food environment. In the store one of our most popular smoothies with kids is called “Peach My Ass”. Kids just love asking for that!
You are involved with local business initiatives, and charities like the Irish Cancer Society, Barnardos, Crumlin Children’s Hospital and Temple Street Children’s Hospital. Is it important to you to give something back?
My mother and father were very involved in the local community and I like to do the same. I believe in voluntary work and I think it’s really important to be thankful. Look after others and they will look after you. It all comes full circle. And always remember your roots.
Where do you see the nutrition movement going?
It seems to me that everyone’s looking for the next big thing these days. So many people are into it for the money and are trying to make a few quick bucks.
The market is getting a bit saturated, people are all looking for the next big food ingredient and this can lead to a worldwide scarcity of certain foods. The price of quinoa is going through the roof. But we don’t have to scour the world for the best ingredients, we can simply look to our own seasonal veg.
I like to set trends, not follow them, and I think that the new trend is leaving the fads behind and getting back to basics!
You are launching a cookbook this Christmas, The Select Stores Fuel Food Cookbook, from Mercier Press International. Can you give us a taste of what to expect?
The book has 130 recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I don’t believe in fancy, hard to get ingredients. I list 20 ingredients that are store cupboard essentials.
I concentrate less on calorie counting and more on healthy eating, which keeps people more focused on eating the right foods to give them plenty of energy through the day. My book is all about combining healthy foods. You have your nutrients from protein (plant/animal), your good fats (like avocados and eggs), and your low GL complex carb foods (e.g. oats, quinoa, millet), rich in dietary fibre. I combine them in each recipe.
How does it differ from other cookbooks?
Lots of cookbooks these days have lost touch with reality and often they don’t think about regular people. Their recipes could cost €60 for a family of 4, which I think is just wrong. Many people are tight on time, tight on money and are looking for something a bit less complicated.
People tell me that they have lots of cookbooks but only use one or two recipes from each. I think you should be able to use all of them.
The new book has beautiful photos. It’s the first book from a health food shop and also lists all the allergens in the recipes.
So what’s next on the agenda?
I’ll be doing some travel promoting the book and doing cooking demos, which I’m really looking forward to. There will also be some TV, when I’ll be cooking for a change, so that will be fun. We’ve also got Select Stores “Safari Nights” coming up in September, where customers get to explore different foods.