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
‘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.
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.
Cardiovascular disease is the single highest cause of death in Ireland and salt is a contributing factor: in excess, it raises our blood pressure and puts us at an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, often without revealing any symptoms.
“The problem is a lot of our salt consumption is so subtle that we might not be aware of it,” says nutritionist Paula Mee. There are the obvious sources, such as crisps, peanuts or ready meals, but it’s everyday items such as bread, soup, cheese and cereals that can push us over the limit.
So if salt is already in the food we eat every day, why are we adding more of it to our meals? Mee tried to find out when she spent a month visiting culinary schools around the country promoting the idea of cooking without salt. The reaction was mixed.
“Some of the chefs were so dogmatic they would not engage with the idea at all. They felt that salt equals flavour, so removing it would mean bland food. Others were very open and did a brilliant job of spending time developing flavours around the absence of salt, using the likes of garlic, chilli flakes and ginger.”
While we can control what we eat at home, there are no standard measures in the catering industry. Some of the TV chefs Mee has worked with will use a tablespoon to represent a ‘pinch’.
In the past decade, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s salt-reduction programme has made some progress. We now consume around 1g less per day than we used to.
But, says Mee, “There’s a huge resistance because food is such a personal thing and some people do get very defensive about what they feel is right for them. But I think if people were exposed to the amount of evidence that we look at as dieticians and scientists, they would really look at this.”
A reduction of 3g of salt per day would cut the stroke mortality rate in Ireland by about 13 per cent and coronary disease or heart attacks by 10 per cent, explains Janice Morrissey of the Irish Heart Foundation. “That’s the potential of salt reduction in Ireland, preventing 700 deaths per year,” she says.
Back in Donegal, McDermott guides me through a chicken casserole as well as a sweet potato and red lentil soup, letting his bubbly nature break everything down into the simplest terms. He demonstrates how to prepare vegetables more efficiently, how to get chicken thighs crackling to a golden texture and how the little details – a dash of freshly-ground nutmeg in mashed potato or a twist of lime in soup – can produce transformative flavours.
McDermott has found a niche for himself as “the no-salt chef”, branching into cooking demonstrations and festivals, speaking at schools and developing afternoon classes for children.
His own renewed wellbeing has proved a reward in itself. “I didn’t do this to be different; I did it because I want to live another 40 or 50 years,” he says.