Hold the salt: A chef seeks other sources of flavour

Irish people consume too much salt. A diagnosis of heart trouble prompted chef Brian McDermott to remove it from his kitchen

Sodium opprobrium: ‘I didn’t do this to be different; I did it because I want to live another 40 or 50 years,’ says chef Brian McDermott. Photograph: Philip Gamble

Sodium opprobrium: ‘I didn’t do this to be different; I did it because I want to live another 40 or 50 years,’ says chef Brian McDermott. Photograph: Philip Gamble

Sat, Feb 22, 2014, 01:00

‘Remember: there are no mistakes. Only lessons.” The words are etched on a wooden plaque in chef Brian McDermott’s cookery school, a quaint kitchen studio overlooking Lough Foyle, in Co Donegal. Sunlight is streaming through the pine cabin and the scent of freshly baked scones hangs in the air as the 38-year-old explains his own biggest lesson in life.

One day, after years of running his own restaurant and working at award-winning establishments, it felt like the conveyor belt he’d been running on had ground to a halt. “I just couldn’t function,” he says. “What I didn’t realise was that my family had noticed I’d been unwell for a while. I gave in, saw a doctor and, through a couple of month’s investigation, discovered that I had cardiac issues. I remember thinking, ‘Wow. I’m only 33. What’s going to happen to my career?’ I never thought about what’s going to happen to family or to me or to anything else. All I thought about was my career. The advice was to take some time out and rebuild myself.”

As a starting point, McDermott resolved to clean up his diet. The one thing that kept going through his head was salt. McDermott’s father suffered a heart attack at the age of 46 and the image of him coating meals with salt lingered in his son’s memory. McDermott started pulling it out of recipes, only slightly at first, having been told it would take six weeks for his tastebuds to adjust. “As a chef, it was one of the weirdest times I’ve ever had. I completely lost the taste of everything. I genuinely remember thinking, ‘What is going on?’”

He still remembers that first undisguised taste: a bit of purple sprouting broccoli with a bitter, almost clay-like flavour. “That was the one moment I remember thinking, ‘This is what broccoli tastes like.’ All I knew before was the taste of butter, salt and everything over the top of it.” McDermott had been “classically trained, which means butter, salt, cream” so he decided to take a culinary arts degree, questioning every bit of received wisdom until he realised that fewer ingredients mean more flavour.

The idea of restarting as a chef took hold when McDermott began to volunteer in Moville, where he lives, gradually setting up a series of community gardens across Co Donegal. Showing locals how to use what they grew proved mutually beneficial: he could practise a new, wholesome approach to cooking while teaching others the means to live more healthily.

Community gardens
More people began to show up at the community gardens, particularly stay-at-home dads who want to make affordable and accessible family dinners. The interest gradually led McDermott to setup a small cookery school in his back garden.

Although we need sodium in our diet to maintain a balance of fluids and minerals, as well as to help our nerves and muscles work properly, we get too much of it. The maximum recommended dietary allowance is 6g per day, but Irish males consume almost twice that (11.1g), while women average 8.5g and children between the ages of seven and 10 consume 7.5g.

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