Ciara Brennan: Being a plant-based food stall holder in Ireland

By Katia Valadeau
8th September 2019

You’ll find Ciara Brennan behind her stall at food markets and festivals around the country. She is a dedicated vegan and is clearly passionate about her cause.

As a meat eater myself, I still think that giving up on unnecessary flights will have a much larger impact on the environment. I also try to remember that the luxury of eating local and seasonal is not currently affordable to an awful lot of people in Ireland.

I will also add that I believe that there is a difficulty around life work balance for every woman who works, regardless of whether they are a mother or not.

The one thing I absolutely agree with Ciara on is that vegan food can be absolutely gorgeous, exciting and utterly delicious. There are a lot of vegetarians around me, and I love nothing more than to cook for them. It forces me to to think of food in a different way and getting the nod from them is a big deal.

I’m a big fan of personal challenges like Meat Free Monday and Veganuary. It’s only when you try that you realise how much you can do with a few vegs and I hope an increase consumption of vegetables will be the way things go.

The Simpsons were wrong, you can make friends with salad and Ciara’s salad look absolutely stunning!

Ciara Brennan - Properfood.ie (1)

I’m talking to women the food industry. How did your career path bring you here?

I have always cooked – ever since I was a young girl.  I cooked with my mum in the kitchen at the age of 4 and as soon as I could stand on a stool or sit on a counter Mum would give me jobs to do in the kitchen.  I would roll meatballs for her curry and mash potatoes.  I loved being in the kitchen.

I studied a wide range of subjects at the Shannon College of Hotel Management, not to train as a chef exclusively so I would have a wider range of learning.

This opened up opportunities to work overseas under talented head chefs and I have led kitchens in Sydney and London.  However, having been vegetarian since a young child (when a dead pheasant on the kitchen table put me off meat!) I struggled with cooking meat and this took the joy out of being a chef.

I made the decision to move into HR and training and development in the hospitality industry but indulged my love of cooking at home for my family and friends.

In 2016 my daughter and I embarked on a journey to transition from vegetarian to adopting a vegan lifestyle. That same year I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I felt my decision to eat a plant based diet helped me through treatment to come out the other end.

I founded “Happy Food at Home”  also in 2016, to provide a catering service devoted to offering plant based dishes.

It started with parties in customers’ homes to offering pre-packed lunches and dinners and now I have a regular stall at various markets in Co Clare, Limerick and Dublin, to include the iconic Limerick Milk Market every Saturday.

I also work a lot of Festivals…. The River-fest, the Galway Food Festival, the annual pig and porter to mention but a few.

Happy Food at Home has grown organically and I am often invited to take a pitch at special events and festivals so that visitors can enjoy a meat free healthy alternative to the usual offering.

In addition to plant based catering, I host group and one on one workshops for people who have received a diagnosis that necessitates a change in diet.

There is a consultancy element to my business where I work with chefs in hotels and restaurants to ensure their menus have appetising vegan friendly options which can be created with minimal disruption to the kitchen.

How does your career fulfil you?   

I firmly believe that I am doing what I was destined to do, which is creating delicious dishes with great flavour combinations using locally sourced, seasonal, ingredients as much as possible.

I love to see my customers enjoy my food and come back for more.  I wake up in the morning with a spring in my step because I know I will enjoy the day ahead and although it is hard work and long hours, it is worth it.

What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Ciara Brennan?

My future plans involve hosting a series of cooking demonstrations, to teach people how easy it is to combine good flavours and how versatile plant based food actually is. In December 2017 I published a cookbook “Happy Vegan Christmas” and I would like to write another book.

I am committed to developing a suite of collaborative projects which will involve many of my suppliers such as the full time mum/vegetable grower who grows to feed her family and sells her excess to me to the gluten free raw dessert maker whose business started as a result of catering for her child’s special dietary requirements.

My latest project is the Vegan Viking Experience which will be launched later this year to coincide with the Failte Ireland Taste the Island initiative.

In your opinion, what challenges women face in the food industry in Ireland?

Every working mum outside the home,  faces a work/life balance challenge.  When you are self employed, there are no set hours to the day and this has its pros and cons.

It’s important to stop and check in with your mental health regularly and to remember to say no when it is necessary and to acknowledge that it is okay to say no.

Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistently inspires you and why?

Myrtle Allen!  I admire the way that she started her business to make extra money and to ensure food would not go to waste.

Her philosophy to serve simple good food from local producers is something I agree strongly with.  When I visit Ballymaloe, I am in awe of its inspirational self sufficiency which Mrs Allen initiated.

What can be done to raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?

When women in the food industry collaborate with one another, share ideas, offer support and promote each other, this has a great effect on raising the profile of their business.  When women help women, there is nothing like it.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far? 

My proudest moments are when I see my regular customers with a smile on their face full of anticipation looking forward to what I am going to put into their salad box!

A customer told me that I should be really proud of what I am doing as I changed her son’s eating habits and increased his vegetable intake.

Another customer’s daughter refuses to eat all vegetables, but she loves the pesto I make especially for her every week – it could be a combination of kale and spinach or sugar snap or pea and parsley.  She loves all of them!

It’s moments like this when you know you have made a difference and had a positive impact on a child’s diet which makes me proud.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Observe everything. There are no mistakes just opportunities to learn from. Never stop being creative or curious.

What are the top skills required to do your job and why?

In addition to the obvious culinary skills, I believe interpersonal skills are critical when dealing with the public.  Not only are they incredibly importance when selling but also when receiving feedback (good and bad!) which helps me to ensure I am aware of what customers like most and creating it for them.

Why do you think plant based food is gaining such a momentum in a country that was very much a meat-and-two-veg haven?

Society today is more conscious about how their daily diet impacts not only on their health but also the environment.

There is an increased desire to know more about food provenance and farming practices.  When people acquire this knowledge, they are educated to make better choices which may have a positive effect on their well-being and the planet we live on.

I think more people are adopting a plant based diet because they know they are contributing to a better world.  Whether they are eating plant based one day a week or seven, they are helping to make a change.

*Not all plant-based diets are better for the environment

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