Katie Sanderson (30), the rising star of Irish food
With pop-up cafés, raw-food events, festivals, chef collaborations and a highly addictive peanut condiment on store shelves, 30-year-old Katie Sanderson is the rising star of Irish food. Now, with an 11-month-old baby added to the mix, she's taking time to consider her much anticipated next move
Perhaps you first ate Katie Sanderson's food at one of the plant-based, raw-food Living Dinners that began in 2012, and took place in venues as diverse as a Wicklow forest and a crumbling Georgian mansion in Henrietta Street.
Or perhaps it was at The Hare, the pop-up café that Katie ran with Fiona Hallinan, or at The Fumbally, where she worked as a chef, or at one of the Dillisk dinners in Aughrusbeg, near Cleggan in Connemara - the seaside project that she and her partner Jasper O'Connor ran over the summers of 2014 and 2015? (If it was the latter, you are probably still boasting about it to your friends; Dillisk was the Irish food event of those summers, where fish landed just yards from the boathouse in which you ate was cooked in a home-made tandoor and there was a joy about the experience that lingered long after the meal was over.)
Perhaps you were one of the fortunate few who secured a ticket for her collaboration with Takashi Miyazaki for one of two ichigo ichie dinners at the Fumbally Stables in 2016 ("I feel so humbled that I was able to do that dinner with him") or simply turned up to a yoga event only to find that the food was by Katie.
Perhaps you didn't make it to any of those places, but you've enjoyed a rice bowl - a cross between a Korean bibimbap and Japanese donburi with kimchi, pickles and peanut rayu, topped with a crisp fried egg (or tofu for the vegans) - from the White Mausu stall at a festival or in Eatyard.
Or perhaps you just have a jar of the highly addictive White Mausu rayu - a hybrid condiment of Japanese and Korean origin - in your refrigerator and you are already starting to panic about what you will do when you have finished it?
Those are all Katie Sanderson food projects. Katie is 30.
In the little seated area at the back of Lilliput Stores in Stoneybatter, Katie is enjoying the sunshine, a decaf flat white, and a few minutes away from the Spade Enterprise Centre on North King Street where White Mausu's Peanut Rayu is produced.
She's just back from Body & Soul, the first major festival to which she brought her White Mausu rice bowl stall since she had her son, Ruí, 11 months ago, and she's reflecting on how challenging it is to be a working mother.
"Body & Soul was really tough," she says, "because Ruí was being minded by my sister in Dublin and he got sick. She brought him up to me on the Sunday morning. I was down to work all day, because I always take the last day of a festival myself as it's more difficult to get people to work at the end, everybody wants to work the beginning… I was sitting under a tree with my sick baby looking at the rice bowl stall, and I really didn't know how sick he was, because I hadn't seen him over the course of eight hours so I didn't know if he had turned the corner or not. I decided that I had to get him out of there, it was just too hot. Thinking about it now, it's good to know that I could drop everything and leave, because he's the priority. But it's a bit of a learning curve, being a mum."
Almost a year into her new role, Katie's coming to the same conclusion as so many women before her, that it's not so much gender that stands in the way of women succeeding in work, but motherhood.
"In order to be creative, thrive and be really good at what you do, you need headspace, but when stuff is going down, and babies are sick, it's really hard. This has all come as a surprise, I didn't really even think about it before, this huge adjustment that's required when you become a mum.
"And it wasn't that Jasper and I sat down and planned it! So it was a sudden transition from having all these plans and work that I wanted to do to having a baby coming along. The way that you look at your work changes and you say, 'Well that has to go on the back burner - I'm going to be a mum!', so you throw yourself into the baby and it's all fine and then you get to around the seven-month mark and the maternity benefits stop and you think: 'Jesus, I have to go back to the real world!' Then you look at this place - the world of work - and think: 'But I'm all changed, how am I going to fit back in there? Find the space to be creative?' Having a baby is a constant reminder to go a bit easier… which may be a good thing."
Going back to work is hard for any new mother, but the realities of being self-employed and running your own business present particular challenges.
"Those first few weeks, if someone had said, 'You need to go over there and put all this data into a computer,' I think I would have been fine, but because I have to make this, apply for this, come up with ideas… I felt swamped."
The realisation that life is very different now means that Katie has made a conscious decision to change the way that she works.
"This year I'm only bringing the rice bowls to a few festivals, including Another Love Story (taking place in Co Meath in August), which I think will be great, although I've been asked to do many more. There are so many things that I want to say, 'Yes,' to, but then I go away and have to really think about it, and I end up saying, 'No'. In the past I would have said, 'Yes,' to everything and run myself into the ground… Body & Soul is really worthwhile for us in financial terms, while smaller festivals are good for getting the word out about who you are and what it is that you do. They can be a bit hit and miss, though, and if you get a rainy day, people leave early and you can sometimes end up barely breaking even."
One of the decisions that Katie has to make is whether White Mausu should seek a permanent home, or whether it should become one of the interesting pop-ups in unlikely locations that have started to appear around the city, such as Vietnom at The Glimmerman and Village Pizza at The Belfry, both in Stoneybatter.
"I don't know whether it's better to be somewhere where there's just one of you, or somewhere like Eatyard where there are others giving it a shot, too. But a more permanent home for the rice bowls would be a good thing.
"When I used to do the dinners, there was so much work involved in moving and setting up. The more that you do it the quicker and more efficient that you become, if you have a really good team. What's great about the rice bowls and the peanut sauce is that for ages I was doing things that really required me to be present, where - how do I say this without sounding egotistical? - I put myself as an integral part of the project, which is just not sustainable, particularly now that I'm a mum. Also it means that your business can't grow, whereas if you can do something more streamlined, which I almost would have been against a few years ago and might have seen as selling out, it's more sustainable. I used to think that you had to be grafting and not really making any money in order for it to have integrity and be authentic, which makes no sense. It was just a funny thing going on in my naïve head - a very 'young' thing. But I still think that it's a good place to start from. I love to work, but if you start getting really big then it becomes not so much about you and more about this other thing, more about a business. I always want to enjoy what I'm doing and I'm scared that as you grow a business you lose the soul part of it, that's always been a fear of mine."
Katie was born in Hong Kong, the eldest of three, where her parents - mum, Irish, and dad, half-English half-South African, who sadly died before Katie reached her teens - lived for 18 years.
"I came back to school in Ireland at the age of 11. I was quite dyslexic and school was always a bit of a tough one, and the schools in Hong Kong didn't really cater for me. I knew that I was going to get lost in the system. For my parents, I think sending me away was a tough decision but it was what needed to happen, and I'm so glad that they did. I loved school and had a great time there. After school I went straight to Ballymaloe at the age of 17.
"My mum was from Dublin but she spent all her summers as a child in the west, and from the time we were really small, the day school finished we'd be on the plane back to Ireland and straight over to the west. It was really interesting growing up in Hong Kong, but it was so busy, I remember being out on the street going to Dad's office and having to look out and jump into your place in the crowd; there was no place you could go and sit on the grass. Then, during the summer in Connemara, you'd be picking blackberries and periwinkles, it was a totally different environment and feeling.
"That pattern makes sense for me and I feel slightly out of sync now because for the last few years I haven't gone west in the summer. I've realised that working in the west for the summer and being in other places doing other things during the rest of the year is actually in me, it's what my body clock has been doing for 30 years.
"The dream is to do this for a while and get back to the west. We'll definitely do it, it's just a question of when and where. The idea is always in my head… chickens, growing vegetables, a bit of land and some kind of way of serving food that makes sense. Since doing Dillisk and being that connected with nature and the land and the sea, I've found it quite difficult to come back up to Dublin and do food in the city that's Dillisk-style. I don't do many dinner parties or events where people want that kind of catered menu, as it makes me feel like a phoney because I don't have the same connection with the place. Of course, there are really good growers here - I love Jenny McNally - and there are some really good suppliers, but I don't feel as if I want to cook that food in Dublin. When I was feeling like that I thought, 'Well, why don't I get my influence from somewhere else?' and it actually just started coming through from my youth, and at the same time I started looking at old pictures of myself from Hong Kong, and looking up restaurants that we used to go to as a family, and my head when to that kind of place. So I started doing loads of Japanese and Asian-style food; I feel it's more appropriate for me here in Dublin. Whereas if I moved to the west I would go back to doing more of the same kind of food that we did at Dillisk … I don't think rice bowls would make sense in Connemara."
Although Katie is known for plant-based food, she is not vegetarian.
"When I was pregnant, I craved meat a bit and I eat it a little more now than I used to, but we hardly ever cook it at home. I will definitely use meat protein again in some shape or form if I do more Dillisk-type dinners, although at the moment I actually don't feel very confident cooking it, because I've fallen out of the way of it. I had a leg of lamb recently and I kept calling Jasper to check what to do with it, I was getting stressed. Because it's an animal, that plays with my head, so if I am going to cook it then I have to do it really well, do it right. Until I am back in the swing of it and cooking in a knowledgeable way and giving it the respect it deserves, I'm going to steer clear."
With White Mausu, Katie and Jasper are currently focusing on getting the rayu out into more retail outlets, and developing other products, such as an equally addictive walnut miso and a chilli ginger pickle that's a much more sophisticated version of sweet chilli sauce, with just a little honey for sweetness.
"We are getting the momentum going with the rayu, and it's really taken off - we are in all the Avoca stores now. I find that everything takes a bit longer when you have a baby. We have these 'to do' lists and instead of being able to get through them the way I used to, 75pc of the list ends up on the next day's list. I think it's a sign that we need to hire more people! Currently we have two people helping to make the sauce two days each week, but Jasper and I do all the marketing, deliveries and back-room stuff ourselves and I'm sure some of those jobs could be done better by someone else."
For the time being, Katie doesn't see herself going back to cooking full-time the way she did at The Fumbally - "working four days a week for someone else doesn't make sense at the moment" - but she is in the market for the odd shift there to fill in, as she'd like to keep her hand in cooking for those numbers. She enjoys teaching her veggie workshops at the Fumbally Stables, which will resume in September, and her yoga collaborations with Lou Horgan - she's doing one in Sicily this summer - and is open to other projects on the side.
One of her favourites was cooking for director Michael Keegan Dolan and his dancers as they put together a new production of Swan Lake two summers ago.
"It made me feel the way that Dillisk did. We were working from an old barracks in Longford. When you do a pop-up or a stall then people come and eat just one meal from you, but to cook for people day in day out for breakfast, lunch and dinner is so rewarding, especially in that kind of context. I felt that I was oiling the machine, that I was part of it, nourishing them. One of the dancers was really tall and big and used to have to snack constantly and we just gave him really good food, and he was able to work without all the snacks. Other people used to get the slump after lunch because they'd get baguettes from a newsagents that would make them feel really bad. Michael said it was the first time that he could get people to work after lunch! He'd bring me veggies from his garden each morning, I found gooseberries and raspberries out the back and I'd send the compost home with him at the end of each day - the flow felt completely right."
As well as being open to new projects, Katie says that she's trying to figure out a way of starting to give back.
"I think as a business grows there's a duty to see what you can do to help outside of it. I'm inspired by what Jess Murphy and Lisa Reagan are doing with the Refugee Food Festival, and by Ellie Kisyombe of Our Table. Direct Provision and the inability to cook within that system is not right. I would love to volunteer to see if I can help in this area or get involved in the festival next year. I also have a friend who works with Mary's Meals which, despite its name is a multi-denominational charity organisation feeding school children for as little as seven cent a day. I've lived and worked in Kenya where the charity is involved with schools and I can see how important this is. Food is energy and I'd love to be able to contribute somehow. There is also the fact that the food in hospitals in this country is not always nourishing. I have some friends who we lost to cancer in the last few years - something my own father had also - and the food that was served to them didn't make sense. There is so much I want to do. But now is like respite, time to work on ideas, figure it all out, get White Mausu running properly and spend time looking after my baba. Then, when the time comes, start to give back."
In the meantime, she says that if anyone would like to give her a farm in the west, seaviews optional, to please get in touch.
Katie takes two...
Weekend eggs with Rayu and kale
I first learnt to make eggs in this way when I worked in the Fumbally. They do them with Gubeen cheese and topped with fresh tomatoes. Rayu goes so well with all egg
dishes. I buy all my bread these days from Scéal Bakery
(scealbakery.com). Their bread is the best.
Few good glugs of oil
Two handfuls of kale or cavelo nero, stalks removed
Salt & pepper
4 eggs from happy hens
1 clove of garlic, chopped smallish and rough
Small bit of chilli
Toast your bread. Fry your kale in some oil with salt and pepper. Resist moving the kale around in the pan too much, or overcrowding your frying pan — this means the kale will slightly blacken.
Crack your eggs into a bowl. Then, add a few more glugs of oil to the pan, add your garlic and cook for a few seconds, infusing the oil.
Add the eggs in one go, leave for a second and then do a quick fold or two with a spatula. Your aim is to cook the eggs as quick as possible but not scramble them. You should have two tones in the eggs, the bright yellow and white. It tastes so good.
Place on top of your toast, with your kale and chilli and a big dollop of Peanut Rayu. Enjoy!
Quick Cheat Cucumber pickle
My kitchen, when I’m in a good swing, is full of ferments and pickles to add a good gut boost or an acid component to dishes. Although, since becoming a mama I’m lucky if I can find a slice of toast! This quick pickle can be done and ready in about 5 minutes, although if you had an hour or two it would taste better.
1 cucumber or 3 small snack-sized cucumbers
1 tsp grated ginger
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar or other sweetener
1 tbsp rice vinegar or white or cider vinegar
Wash your cucumber and place on a board. With a sharp knife, indent some lines going across on a vertical. Turn the cucumber another two times doing the same. Then flip it around so you're indenting across your previous indents. This just adds a bit more of an interesting finish to the pickle. However, if that doesn’t make sense just make some marks with your knife, and then slice to desired thickness.
Layer on a tray and cover with the rest of ingredients. The cucumbers will release their own juicy liquid once they come into contact with the salt. Serve on a Rayu bowl, or alongside something of your fancy.