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Waking Hours with Staple Foods' head chef Jessie Cusack


Jessie Cusack, chef at Staple Foods in Temple Bar

Jessie Cusack, chef at Staple Foods in Temple Bar

Jessie Cusack, chef at Staple Foods in Temple Bar

I get up at 7. I shower and then I have a super-strength coffee. I make a power shake with fruit, vegetables and protein powder. Everyone uses protein powder. You need it for recovery after exercise, and it keeps you fuelled for the day. I normally do a quick circuit before work - press-ups, squats, and I do about 40 minutes working on different muscles of my body. I do all this at home.

This way of life started because I had a back accident when I was 18 and as a result, it made me quite unhealthy. I fell down an escalator and damaged my coccyx. After that, I was on a lot of medication. I was more or less a zombie for three years of my life. Then, one day, I just decided that my health was at risk, so I stopped my medication. I didn't think I needed it. I sorted myself out and became really healthy. I started exercising as much as possible to strengthen my back muscles.

Back then, I was lethargic and I had no energy. I used to need a lot more coffee, and I felt like I was running on fumes. Now my skin is so much better, my hair is glossy and thicker, and I'm a lot more toned. This was a bonus, but I didn't do it to look any better. I just wanted to be fit and healthy.

I am the head chef in Staple Foods, a restaurant in Temple Bar. I've been working there since February, and I became head chef two months ago. In the beginning it was like a little kiosk and a health-food shop, and then we moved to The Button Factory. Now it's on a much bigger scale - we do breakfast, lunch and dinner. We do take-away too. It's not fine dining. It's very casual, and we do healthy food. In the beginning I was working from 5am, but now that I've launched an established team for breakfasts and lunch, I start work at 3pm and work on dinner.

Our menu is very simple, but there's a hell of a lot of prep work involved. We're simply about fresh food. We don't even have a freezer. Everything that comes into our kitchen leaves the same day. Everybody who works here is on a health buzz. My dad jokes that my generation is going to live to 100, at least. Everyone I know is seriously taking care of their health. This is usually because they have a parent or someone related to them who has been massively affected by something regarding their health. People are way more health conscious nowadays.

In the beginning, I didn't work in a kitchen at all. I lived in London for three years. I worked in merchandising, but I'm a creative person, and this was the complete opposite. I was miserable. There was a canteen attached to our head office and I used to chat to the two chefs who worked there on a daily basis. They'd see me and say - 'What are you doing here? Get out there and do what you want to do'.

I'd always been obsessed with cooking. I had no interest in my job, but I knew that it was only a matter of time before I moved on. I knew I'd have to move home to Dublin with Mum and Dad. I had to start from scratch.

When it comes to food and cooking, I am entirely self-taught. I was just influenced by my Mam. She was a chef for a very short period of her life, but that had nothing to do with steering me towards this direction. She is a wonderful cook. She produced amazing food and thanks to her, I developed great taste buds. It was mainly a vegetarian diet and a lot of Vietnamese food. Both my parents are from Belfast and when Chinatown opened in the North, they used to go to restaurants there.

When I came back to live in Dublin, I walked into Staple Foods one day. I got talking to the owner, Kevin Mulvany. He could see that I was passionate about food and he offered me a job on the spot. I was all signed up to do a cookery course at Ballymaloe and even had the bank loan arranged, but weeks away from it, Kevin asked me to become head chef and so I cancelled the course.

When I get into work at 3pm, we are working on getting everything ready for dinner. That's from 5pm onwards. In the summer, we do a lot of warm salads and we've kept our best-seller - sticky pork, a Chinese-style dish. My mum used to feed me this as a kid and then, when she saw it on the menu, I told her that it was a new, improved version of her dish.

We do a lot of salads and our food on a plate tends to be multi-coloured. We try to make it as pretty as possible. The rugby player Gordon D'Arcy is one of our regular customers. When I first saw him, I didn't know who he was. Even though we serve meat and chicken, we do a lot of vegan food too, and that has proved very popular. I use my brother as a guinea pig for the vegan dishes. He is a big meat-head, and if he approves of it, then we're winning.

Working in the kitchen is massively intense and it takes a lot out of us. We're all bruised and burned by the end of it. There are only two people in the kitchen at any one time. I don't stop to eat, but instead I graze. After we close, there is a lot of prep work for the next day. Everything in the kitchen is home-made. We don't buy in anything. I make all the sauces and ketchups.

Usually I get the Dart home and then I go for a run. I think it's great to do cardio in the evenings. It just sorts you out and regulates your sleeping patterns. Then I make myself something to eat. Even after work, I still love cooking. It is my passion.

The restaurant is open seven days a week. I spend most of my time there. I work really hard and then I take a break every few weeks. My boyfriend, Andrew, lives in Germany. He is in the US Air Force. He works in the IT section. I met him in Dublin. We both have insanely busy schedules, so we work every day until we see one another. For the time being, we can manage it. We are pretty madly in love, so it's worth it.

In conversation with Ciara Dwyer

Staple Foods, Curved Street, Temple Bar, D2, see facebook.com/staplefoodsdublin

Sunday Independent