Top Irish chefs go head-to-head in new RTÉ series

Resistance and rebellion as dietician takes control of restaurants’ signature dishes

If you want to make a chef cry, put the salt out of reach, bin the sugar and ban the butter.

Let's hope no tears – apart from crocodile ones – are shed by any of the 16 Irish chefs who go head-to-head in Healthy Appetite, a new eight-part RTÉ One TV series in which they are challenged to create more healthy versions of their signature restaurant dishes.

But there was resistance, and rebellion, as evidenced in the first episode, which airs on Wednesday at 8.30pm, by the reaction of chef Gary O’Hanlon to dietician Aveen Bannon’s suggestions as to how he could make his signature dish – quail cordon bleu – a bit healthier.

"I'd rather just lose and have the judges enjoy their dinner," says O'Hanlon, who will be familiar to TV audiences from his appearances on The Restaurant and Operation Transformation.


In a concession to the cameras, he promises that he will take the dietary advice on board. “Maybe I’ll make a little dehydrated All-Bran crumble and roll it in that rather than panko [breadcrumbs],” he says, unconvincingly.

O'Hanlon's opposition in episode one is chef Kate Lawlor from The Oyster Tavern in Cork, who chooses chicken liver brûlée with blue cheese ice-cream as her signature dish, giving Bannon plenty of scope for calorie-cutting.

Yoghurt, skimmed milk and honey make it into Lawlor’s more diet-friendly version. She asks O’Hanlon’s opinion of the it, while conceding that he’s not likely to give her an honest opinion. “Oh I am. It’s rotten,” he says, licking the spoon.

Each week, the competing chefs choose their own signature dish and cook it in their restaurant for presenter Pamela Flood. Then Bannon waves her calorie counter over it, tells the chefs exactly how much fat, sugar and fibre is in it, and banishes them to the Healthy Appetite test kitchen with instructions to do better.

The revised dishes are taste tested by a panel of judges, with Bannon joined at the table by London chef, restaurateur, food writer and TV presenter Adam Byatt, and Irish food critic and writer Ross Golden-Bannon.

In episode two, Derry Clarke of L'Ecrivain cooks aged Lambay sirloin and lobster with horseradish curd, while Delahunt head chef Dermot Staunton plates up roast lamb rump with sheep's cheese. Hard to see where the cuts will come here.

If you've ever wondered – an no, you probably haven't – how many calories are in Paul Flynn of the Tannery's crab crème brûlée, you'll find out in episode three, when Maria Raftery of Kernel in Kilkenny opts for the safer-sounding smoked trout croquettes.

Desserts come into the equation in episode four when Aoife Noonan (Glover's Alley) goes head to head with Darren Hogarty (Chapter One). It's hard to see how Noonan's assiette of chocolate and espresso can go low-cal, low sugar – and still be delicious – but there might be more scope for killjoy tactics with Hogarty's "Flavour of Milk & Honey".

In episode five, the smart money will be on exercise and healthy eating enthusiast Gareth Mullins of The Marker, whose venison loin with cauliflower, capers, grapes and tarragon is practically "clean-eating" even before Bannon casts her rule over it. Jess Murphy's lamb chops with whipped ricotta and muhammara – delicious as it sounds – will have it all to do here.

JP McMahon (Aniar) and Wade Murphy (1826 Adare) both go for fish dishes, with the Galway man offering an economical "monkfish, rye and clams" as his dish description. Murphy, meanwhile, conjures up visions of seafood swimming in a rich sauce, topped with buttery mash, with his version of fish pie. Calories be damned.

Classical French cooking features in the penultimate episode, when the butter meister Garret Byrne (Campagne) – who just might cry when Bannon takes the Kerrygold away from him – cooks turbot with peas, asparagus, broad beans and clam Hollandaise.

Hollandaise ... the sauce that’s practically 100 per cent butter, with a egg yolk or two for added richness. Good choice Garret. David O’Byrne (Richmond), counters with roast quail, quail egg, carrot potato rosti and chard. The chard might just swing it.

Finally, Stephen Gibson (Pichet) sets out to be teacher's pet with his buttermilk chicken, creamed corn, chorizo, chia seeds and avocado. Chia seeds, and avocado? With fried chicken and sausage? In the same episode, Lina Gautam (Monty's of Kathmandu) offers up chicken tikka masala, no doubt with low-fat yoghurt – and no ghee, never mind glee.

Healthy Appetite, RTÉ One, Wednesdays, 8.30pm. Produced by Mind The Gap Films.