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Image / Living / Food & Drink

Chef and DANU co-founder Roann Byrne on her life in food


By Sarah Gill
02nd Apr 2024

Susan O’Toole

Chef and DANU co-founder Roann Byrne on her life in food

“Food is the only universality every human on earth shares every day. It brings connection, enhances special occasions.”

A Drogheda chef with three food-focused degrees under her belt already, Roann Byrne was named as one of Fáilte Ireland’s Taste the Atlantic young chef ambassadors and co-founded DANU with her partner, Seán.

Bringing a wealth of culinary experience and an intimate understanding of Ireland’s food history to the agency, Roann’s passion for food and flavour was unlocked at an early age, and she’s fast becoming one of Ireland’s most exciting young chefs. Here, she shares her life in food…

Roann Byrne

What are your earliest memories of food?

I distinctly remember always hating sandwiches. I think I based my personality off that trait for the first twenty years of my life, like god almighty I really hated them. My earliest memories though, are probably my granny Polly’s ‘baby bowl’ (just a roast in a bowl) and my dad’s pancakes on any special occasion.

How would you describe your relationship with food?

This is such an interesting and personal topic to me. Personally, growing up I was quite picky, and uninterested in food, but adored baking. It was only when I started working under Micheal Sweeney (my old head chef) that I began to fall in love with food and all it could be. I really think education is the key to a good food relationship. When people see who grows their food, where it comes from farm to fork, then they can really understand it, and grow more comfortable.

Working as a chef both healed and damaged my relationship with food and eating. The hours and style of work made it difficult to have any positive interactions with it. I think seeing food as a medium is vital, it’s fuel in an engine. If there’s too much discourse around what you should and shouldn’t do, before someone’s established a healthy relationship with it, you’ve lost your chance.

What was the first meal you learned to cook?

Pasta. Pasta and tuna, or pasta and rashers. Can’t beat it. Oh, and pasta and hotdogs (the fine dining version of pasta, for when you’re 10 and feeling fancy).

How did food become a part of your career?

Since I was a kid, I knew I wanted to be a baker. At 15 I started ‘Batch from Scratch’, selling cookies, muffins, the lot, in school at lunchtime. Quickly, people started making orders and I had a queue down the hallway to the classroom. I remember my name being called to the office one time and everyone looked at me, all convinced my little business was found out. I studied Baking and Pastry Arts in TU Dublin, a lifelong dream. Having a class literally called “Sugar” was heaven. I started working in a restaurant and was very lucky to be trained so well by Sweeney. I fell in love with the craft and had learned enough to go straight to fourth year of Culinary Arts. I found a great footing in food, and it offered such a broader world than baking.

Getting chosen as a Taste the Atlantic Young Chef Ambassador really propelled everything. I was so in love with meeting producers all over the country. I just finished my MA in Gastronomy and Food Studies, which covers things like food writing, tourism, and Irish food history. Between that and meeting my partner Seán — who has a background in Tech and Social Enterprise — Danu was born. It brings together all these elements, a new approach to how we see food, technology, innovation, the love of small businesses; it’s all of that, to change the face of Irish food.

What’s your go-to breakfast?

A bowl of cereal, some orange juice, a lemon curd Killowen yoghurt and maybe some nice berry pancakes.

If you’re impressing friends and family at a dinner party, what are you serving up?

I love commensal or communal styles of dining, proper family-style shared dishes and small plates. I’d probably go for a whole roast turbot, with clams, mussels, fennel, sea beet, baby potatoes and rock samphire to garnish. For sides, I’d do anything from padrón peppers (you’ll get the best in A Fianco) to sherry chorizo barbecue beans, Kelly’s oysters with bloody Mary gel, and bravas.

Who is your culinary inspiration?

Myrtle Allen, JP McMahon, and my dad. I’ve never really had favourite chefs I idolised, more so writers or people with big food ideas. I’m a big fan of people who just love food and want to help others share that, like Mark Anderson and the Gastro Gays.

What would your last meal on earth be?

Probably Polly’s dinner, the ‘baby bowl’ I mentioned earlier. Through everything, that was consistent, it was a familiar comfort in new waters. I miss her a lot.

What’s your go-to comfort food?

Real Irish food. Mashed potatoes with fresh butter, honey-glazed ham, broccoli, carrots, and gravy. Simply fabbbb.

What’s the go-to quick meal you cook when you’re tired and hungry?

The minute I’m tired and hungry it’s game over. So, anything that can give me quick energy. I do love pasta soup though, namely my grandad Matthew’s.

What is one food or flavour you cannot stand?

There’s not much really. I couldn’t eat anything with insects, or offal, but I wish I could because it’s great for you. I really can’t eat blue cheese though, just the thought of mould makes my body say no thank you’.

Hangover cure?

I rarely drink – having ADHD it’s not good to mix with the medication – but after a long night, a Berroca Boost, a chicken roll with lettuce and a pack of green Hunky Dorys will cure most ailments.

Sweet or savoury?

Ahhhh, both. Can I say both? I’m saying both.

Fine dining or pub grub?

Probably fine dining.

Favourite restaurant in Ireland?

My partner and I went to Variety Jones the day we met. It’s a bit of a crazy story, but that place is magic. Keelan Higgs is a genius.

Roann Byrne

Go-to beverage accompaniment?

I love wine pairings lately. Big fan.

What are your thoughts on the Irish foodie scene?

It’s evolving at such a rapid pace with the level of talent combined with the produce we have here. It’s finally gaining worldwide recognition, but I think sometimes only to those already interested in food. It’s a shame many people don’t know the wonderful local foods just around the corner from them, though they want to.

What’s your favourite thing about cooking?

The learning. Every time I cook, I learn about myself, the food, how I handle it, where it came from, how that affects it.

What does food — sitting down to a meal with friends, mindfully preparing a meal, nourishment, etc — mean to you?

It’s the sharing. Food is the only universality every human on earth shares every day. It brings connection, enhances special occasions. That doesn’t mean to say food is always positive, by any means. It’s just a medium for what comes around it.

Food for thought — Is there room for improvement within the Irish food/restaurant/hospitality scene?

Development is the best term I like to use for it. Irish food history is fascinating and can reveal so much about our stories and cultural heritage. I spent this year doing my dissertation on ‘The Food of the Home’, where I explored and researched the everyday food engagement of women in Dublin City, from 1950 to 2000. There’s so much focus on restaurants and chefs, between academia and general media, yet the wider, more common food engagement happens at home. And women’s roles in that went largely undocumented. As part of that work, I wanted to start an online digitised archive that would be publicly available, of women’s recipes. It’s named ‘mynameispolly’ and aims to personify the legacies of women before us (and now).

I think innovation and technology need to start being integrated into the industry. With changing attitudes, young people need a living wage, but also to be in a career that’s developing, not repeating the past. It’s just about approaching that in an accessible way that doesn’t sound disrespectful to very talented food producers.

Chef’s kiss — Tell us about one standout foodie experience you’ve had recently.

I ate my first native Irish oyster standing in the sea in Galway Bay. Diarmuid Kelly picked it straight from the seabed, and shucked it. It was one of my coolest food moments. I felt part of something bigger than myself.

Compliments to the chef — Now’s your chance to sing the praises of a talented chef, beloved restaurant, or particularly talented foodie family member.

I really have never experienced anything like a night at Lignum. Their tasting menu literally blew my mind. They combine elements of texture in touch, taste, smell. It’s so immersive, I tell everyone about it. Danny Africano and Molly Keane have created something special. The service was, just, I didn’t know it could reach that level. Danny explained their soufflé, a wild strawberry taste of literal heaven. After he described that’s how it’s supposed to be traditionally, I became very passionate about my soufflés.

Secret ingredient — What, in your estimation, makes the perfect dining experience?

Good cutlery. It gets overlooked but impacts how you interact with your food at the last stage. A brilliant well-presented dish is nothing beside a dirty knife and fork.

Photography by Susan O’Toole.

This article was originally published in September 2023.