Katie Sanderson

10th March 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

10th March 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

Katie Sanderson is a chef on the move. For the past five years she’s been putting on imaginative food events in locations around Ireland: a café for artists in a Dublin gallery; raw food dinners in a forest in Wicklow; a seaweed-themed restaurant in a boatshed in Connemara. She’s nomadic in her home life too. When we track her down, Katie is doing a residency in the newly-renovated stables behind Dublin’s wonderful Fumbally café. This means that for the next six months she’ll be sleeping in a communal area above the development kitchen, with the life of a busy café humming around her.

She seems well-adapted to this transient lifestyle. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Katie went to school in Dublin when she was 12. Later she spent time in East Africa and India and has done a variety of different cooking and catering jobs in Ireland and the US. Two months at a culinary school in Oklahoma turned her onto raw vegan food, though she’s quick to point out that her repertoire is broader than that. The night before our visit she cooked a dinner here for 50 people which, in addition to raw veg dishes, featured slow-roast pork shoulder and a Hungarian lard dip.

When we turn up at 11 on Sunday morning, Fumbally owners Luca D’Alfonso and Ashling Rogerson are helping Katie clean up after the dinner. It’s the first event they’ve hosted in the new space and they’re excited to show us around. The building, which was built as a brewery stables in the 1750s, has been carefully restored and is really impressive. There is a long atmospheric dining room, a studio space above it that’s used for yoga, and the living area that Katie currently calls home, with the bed on an open mezzanine accessed by step-ladder.

The most exciting part of the building, however, is the enormous kitchen, which Katie has been filling with good things since she moved in here three weeks ago. From the moment we arrive, she is unscrewing jars and pulling containers out of fridges so that we can sample fruit vinegars and black garlic and indulgent desserts that turn out to be almost entirely good for you. After three weeks it’s already a foodie paradise. What’ll it be like in six months’ time?

Continued below...

So what’s it like living in your workplace?

It’s strange being in a communal space like this. Sometimes people come in and make orange juice at 7am. I feel like I’m back at boarding school, but I reckon I’ll look back in 20 years and remember the amazing time when I lived in a studio on top of a kitchen.

Did you move out of somewhere to come here?

No I’m sort of in transition at the moment. I moved out of a place in Dublin last summer to go to Connemara and do the Dillisk Project, then I went to San Francisco. When I came back Ashling and Luca [the owners of the Fumbally] asked if I wanted to do some consultancy. They came up with this offer: I’d stay here, help out, and be able to use the kitchen downstairs.

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What does helping out entail?

At the moment I’m making up new juices and drinks to put in the fridge: we want to take out all the labels and make all the drinks in-house. I’m also trying to find uses for leftovers from the café and generally make the larder bigger. At Bar Tartine1, where I did a stage a few months ago, they make all their things in-house: cheeses, butters, creams, cured meats and fish. If they can do it, so can we. I’m also teaching raw food workshops here and putting on yoga brunches.

Do you tend to move around a lot?

Last year I realised, Jesus, I really don’t stay anywhere that long. Somebody who wrote about one of the projects I did recently was saying that I don’t make life easy on myself. That stuck with me – maybe I don’t. I’m always changing.

Somebody recently was saying that I don’t make life easy on myself. That stuck with me – maybe I don’t. I’m always changing

Tell us about your various food projects.

The first one was called Living Dinners. About five years ago I went to do a raw food course in Oklahoma with a chef called Matthew Kenney2. I went on the spur of the moment but it opened up a whole new world for me. A lot of raw food you see on blogs is that really holy stuff that makes you want to go the other way, but this was coming from a restaurant background and the food was really creative and it looked beautiful on the plate. By honing in on one aspect of food, I felt like I started to get more knowledgeable about everything.
Anyway, I came back to Dublin and did a pop-up for 30 people, just friends mostly, and it was all raw. I wanted to show people what I’d learned.

What was their reaction?

They all said it was really good and I should do more. I was like, I don’t think people in Ireland in January are going to want to come and eat raw food. And I was right. I did a dinner out in Wicklow but didn’t sell very many tickets and ended up paying friends to fill the seats. That was disheartening, but something told me I had to do it one more time. So I did the next one in Dublin and it sold out really fast. Then they started to become really popular. I was putting on two nights each month but I didn’t really know what I was doing. At one point I spent something ridiculous like €1,700 on organic nuts, which is twice as much as I spent on my car.

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Is Living Dinners still happening?

It kind of is – I still advertise through the site – but I’m not sure I like the constraints of it any more.

What are the constraints?

It’s raw vegan, but isn’t really my approach now. I love veggies more than anything but I’m not vegetarian and the raw thing is just an influence.

So what have you been doing since Living Dinners?

After that I did a project at the Temple Bar Gallery called The Hare with an artist called Fiona Hallinan. We came up with something called the three-in-one…

What’s that?

In Ireland you get deep-fried chicken, rice and a curry sauce from the Chinese and it’s called a three-in-one. Our three-in-one was vegetables, dips and bread, but really colourful things like candy-cane beetroot, pomegranates and mangoes. We were in Temple Bar for a month and a half. The Hare has moved a few times since then: it was in the Irish Museum of Modern Art for a few days in the summer and we took it over to Paris as well. Then, last summer, me and Jasper did the Dillisk Project.

Who’s Jasper?

My partner [Jasper O’Connor]. We met when I was working at the Fumbally. Both of us have a connection with Connemara. My mum used to bring us there on holiday when I was a kid and Jasper’s family have a house very near where we used to go. It’s this unbelievably beautiful spot on the water, really secluded. We went down there for Christmas and over a glass of wine decided to convert their boatshed into a restaurant for the summer. There was a connecting donkey shed that we turned into a kitchen.

So it ran throughout the summer?

Yeah, three nights a week for four months. At first we had this really idealistic vision of spending time fishing and sunbathing on the beach, but that was so far from the truth.

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How many people were you getting a night?

About 30. It felt small – the dinners I did before were for 60 to 70 people – but it was a lot of work. At the start of the evening everyone would have a gin and tonic outside, then sit together at one long table. Because people had made the effort to come to the middle of nowhere, there was a great sense of camaraderie. I know loads of people who met through Living Dinners or Dillisk Project and stayed friends with the people they were sitting beside. That makes me so happy.

Was there a theme or style of cooking?

One aim was to learn more about seaweed and how to cook with it. We wanted to be in a place where we’d be able to use it every day. It was unbelievable: we would collect seaweed in the morning, we’d go cockling. We’d have to work with the tides, because you can only get nori at certain times, when there’s a neap tide. The cooking would have to wait because the tides aren’t going to fit around your schedule.

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Now that you’re living here at the Fumbally, what’s an average day for you?

I try to get up and do yoga because there’s an amazing space next door, but that doesn’t always happen in actuality. I usually have ginger, turmeric and lemon tea when I wake up – that makes the morning start off pretty well. I drink a lot of smoothies too: I keep frozen bananas in the freezer and I’ll probably make a smoothie before lunch – or for lunch if I’m busy. Sometimes I go next door [to the Fumbally café] and get my lunch, that’s pretty handy.

Do you tend to graze rather than eating three meals a day?

Definitely. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten three meals a day. And the busier I get, the less regularly I eat.

Do you ever lapse and eat something that’s really bad for you?

Yeah, I think everyone does, and I think you’ve got to as well. You can’t be so rigid that you don’t indulge a bit. I definitely eat things that make me wish I hadn’t eaten them.

We realised that if you cook fish in a tandoor for three minutes it’s the nicest thing ever. We liked the idea of using an Indian cooking technique on the west coast of Ireland

The occasional 3am kebab?

Definitely.

Is there anything you don’t eat?

Not really. I used to not like mushrooms and now they’re some of my favourite things. A chef I worked with once said you just have to eat things a few times and you’ll get to like them.

Do you think that’s true?

I think so. The only thing that I haven’t totally gotten to like is olives, though I love olive oil. But I don’t hate them as much as I used to. If they’re in a salad, instead of pushing them aside I’d just eat them. It feels like I’m getting over that.

Do you have a comfort food?

Frozen peas. I just love them. I always have bags of them in the freezer. When I’m working really hard, I’d have a bowl of peas when I come home – on their own with olive oil and black pepper.

On The Menu

Lunch with Katie Sanderson
Dublin, February 2014

To eat:

Japanese rice balls with stewed nori »
Sweet potato with beetroot, crème fraiche and amaranth popcorn »
Avocado with Jerusalem artichoke oil
Lard with onions and paprika and bread to dip
Coconut vanilla sauce with blood orange and pecan crunch »

To drink:

Apple vinegar
Almond and toasted black sesame milk
Filter coffee from The Barn roasters, Berlin

Did you grow up in a food-loving household?

Yeah, definitely. My mum is big into food. She used to throw a lot of dinner parties in Hong Kong. She missed home loads so she was always inviting people over to stay.

Did you become interested in food early on?

I got a big Fisher Price kitchen set for my fourth birthday, that was a big turning point in my life. My mum said it was the best present ever: I was totally absorbed. Then, when I was eight or nine, my mum would give me 20 dollars on Saturday or Sunday night and I’d go to the shops and be able to buy whatever I wanted and everyone would eat it – through clenched teeth a lot of the time, I think. Sometimes I’d choose these weird frozen pizza parcels, then the next day I’d want to make vegetables the way mum made them. I was allowed that kind of freedom because you don’t really have that in Hong Kong. That was the space where I was able to have fun.

You must enjoy having this big kitchen to play around in now.

I do, but with a kitchen this big I tend to sprawl myself over the whole place. Sometimes it’s better if you only have a small space. So what I do is work on that little bench over there and clean up after every job. When I’ve got all of this space, I get so excited – I’ll remember I’ve got something in the rice cooker over here, then I’ll go over there and start a new job and it all ends up in a mess.

So would you say you’re an organised cook?

No, but I think I’ve definitely got more organised since I went to San Francisco [to work at Bar Tartine]. It was an amazing experience but really strange, because I haven’t really worked in restaurants and don’t have much experience of the brigade system. I’m used to running my own gigs and being in charge of the kitchen, but at Bar Tartine I was put right back to the beginning. I spent so much time picking parsley. But it was good because I realised I could be much more structured in my approach.

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What kind of food do you most like to cook?

In general I like simple food that’s really tasty and has a big flavour. I don’t like lots of fuss. Sometimes there’ll be 10 different components on a plate but it won’t look like that. One of our favourite things in Dillisk was a pollock and fennel dish. There was so much fennel around at the time so we’d have fennel jam and pickled fennel flowers and fennel dust, and we’d serve it with a brown butter made with sea-beet leaf. There were so many parts of the dish that made me excited but on the plate it looked quite simple.
The other fun part of it was that the pollock was cooked in a tandoor oven. Jasper always wanted to have a tandoor so we built one and realised that if you cook fish in a tandoor for three minutes it’s the nicest thing ever. We liked the idea of using an Indian cooking technique on the west coast of Ireland.

Can you see yourself settling on a project that’s more long-term?

Yeah, and I’ve only started to see that in the last few months. Dillisk was super-intense but I was sad when it ended and I’m sad we won’t be doing it again this summer. I loved the sense of connection down there: we built up a relationship with so many people. For me the coolest thing about that project was that we knew the name of every single person we got our produce from. As a chef, that hardly ever happens.

For more on Katie, check out her website

  1. Acclaimed San Francisco restaurant that grew out of the game-changing Tartine Bakery in the Mission district
  2. Award-winning American chef specialising in raw plant-based food, Kenney started his career in the New York restaurant scene

Posted 10th March 2015

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

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