‘Flavour always comes first’: Dublin students reinventing healthy food

TU Dublin students are blanching, braising, fermenting, pickling, curing, baking and stewing their way to glory

The first-floor mezzanine of the main building at the Tallaght Campus of Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin) is transformed into a smart dining space with 10 tables. Pairs of guests are ready to enjoy the food prepared and cooked by students on the master’s in applied culinary nutrition course.

As one of the 20 guests, it is my job to give feedback, together with my co-diner, Phillip Gleeson, the executive chef of Killashee Hotel in Co Kildare and graduate of this master’s programme.

While tasting and commenting on the food is not a bad gig in itself on a wet day in January, talking to the students – most of whom are chefs in their day jobs – about what they see as the food trends for 2023 is the cherry on the cake.

But there are no cherries and very little cake served, as the mission of these students is to create tasty food that is bursting with nutrition and guided by the current restaurant food trends.


“Flavour always comes first. There is a perception that healthy foods don’t have a lot of flavour but by exploring natural flavours of vegetables with herbs, spices and sea vegetables through different preparation and cooking, these menus defy that perception,” says Annette Sweeney, senior lecturer in culinary arts and programme lead on the master’s in applied culinary nutrition at TU Dublin.

The health and wellness menus created by these second-year students are innovative and exciting both in their mix of ingredients and preparation styles.

Forget about boiling and frying (which most of us do if we haven’t invested in one of those trendy air-fryers) and instead think about blanching, braising, fermenting, pickling, curing, baking and stewing. And yes, forget about meat, chicken and fish too because the emphasis here is firmly on plants – vegetables, legumes, herbs and spices. And the challenge is to serve up dishes with little or no added salt or sugar, relying instead on the clever combination of natural flavours to enhance the taste.

Take Makenna Finlay-Mulligan for example. Her Plant Planet menu is a vegetarian take on the traditional food truck concept. “I wanted to reinvent classic food truck dishes and make them as satisfying as the greasy foods that people love,” she says. So instead of a tub of fries with pieces of steak on top, she served couscous with butternut squash “steak” in miso dressing, topped with hummus, pomegranate seeds and fresh mint. Her sweet-potato “churros” were blended with oat flour, coconut oil and cinnamon and topped with dark chocolate.

Luana Morandini, a production chef based in Co Wicklow, says plant-based seafood is one of the strongest food trends for 2023. “There is a lot of plant-based meat and chicken but very little plant-based seafood because the taste of fish is very hard to mimic. I marinade the vegetables in seaweeds to bring out the fishy flavour,” she says. Her Mara Glas menu includes Norwegian creamy vegetarian smoked tofu “fish” chowder and Japanese style vegan sushi made from pickled ginger, tamari soy sauce and wasabi avocado mousse.

Brian Heffernan’s Mood Foods menu focuses on foods that uplift our spirits, with the premise that if you aren’t in a good mood, you are unlikely to eat nutritional foods. “Most of the serotonin [the feel-good hormone] made in the body is produced in the gut and, if gut bacteria is imbalanced, less serotonin is produced. The dietary fibre in fruit and vegetables enhances gut health,” he says. Heffernan’s menu included a “Bloody Mary” oyster shot, leafy green soup with wholemeal seabread and an upcycled salad made from carrot peels, pineapple, beetroot and cauliflower trimmings.

Vivienne Johnston, who runs the Mellow Fig coffee shop in Blackrock, Co Dublin, has created a menu based around healthy spices. “For thousands of years, spices were used for treatments but now we’re overusing antibiotics and other drugs. We need to get back to understanding how to use spices and we need the science to back it up,” she says. Her Mellow Out menu includes spiced butternut squash with whipped sumac feta and cannellini chestnut mash with grilled Portobello mushrooms with tomato coriander jam.

Abhishek Tiwari, who grew up in Delhi, is the head chef at the Osprey Hotel in Naas, Co Kildare. His Sattvic Kitchen menu is based on legumes, vegetables, nuts and dairy. “I never had an egg or meat until I was 19, and my menu is inspired by what my grandparents ate,” says Tiwari, whose Hindu background followed Ayurvedic principles for cooking foods in season that aid digestion and mood.

Gleeson and I are making our way through the shoots and roots menu created by Derek Oman. He has opted to use traditional seasonal vegetables with spices in a zero-salt, zero-sugar, zero-food waste menu.

“Chefs should be educators for using sustainably produced local foods. My menu focuses on what’s available at the moment with a Korean influence,” says Oman. He also believes that chefs can reformulate flavoursome dishes without salt and sugar. “And, we can repurpose vegetable waste into our dishes by pickling, fermenting and dehydrating,” says Oman, who is in tune with the Michelin Guide restaurant trends for 2023. As well as back-to-basics cooking, the guide states that sustainability is not just a trend but a necessity as more chefs become conscious of their responsibility to help manage global food waste.

I can personally vouch for the braised hispi cabbage rolls with a red bean rubinade and minted cooking dip served with roasted celeriac and green lentil gochujang. The cured carrots with tofu hummus and sunflower crackers and roast leek nori rolls with pickled shallots, onion coffee syrup and cashew nut cream are also tasteful treats.

Gleeson says there is a lot of focus on vegan and vegetarian dishes now. “People are also very conscious about where food comes from, and they want to see local producers on the menus,” he says. Colm Folan, lecturer on the applied culinary nutrition master’s agrees. “It’s local first as people are looking for sustainably produced vegetables and meat. But lots of people are also reducing meat in their diets and eating more vegetarian dishes,” says Folan.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment