Domini Kemp on High Fat Diets and Lean Business
Domini Kemp has a confession. “I adore carbs. I would eat carbs three, five times a day if I could, preferably slathered with protein and fat, throw it all in there,” she says while sitting in Alchemy Juice Co, the very cafe whose menu she designed to reflect her low carb-high fat diet. “But it just doesn’t suit me.”
Chef, food writer and owner of a number of food brands, from the Itsa bagel chain to Table Restaurant in Brown Thomas Cork, Domini says it’s at Alchemy that she can push the boundaries and share her passion for eating for optimal health, something she fully embraced when undergoing treatment for cancer.
“It’s a different customer base, they will trust because they trust the brand and they know that we are not going to skimp on the ingredients, and that although the food is really healthy that it’s really tasty as well.”
Taste is paramount to Domini, who admits she owes her palate to both her training at Leith’s Cookery School in London, and her ex-partner, the controversial Donegal chef Conrad Gallagher.
“Whatever I will say about his business acumen, Conrad had an exceptional ability to cook really well, and I certainly learnt a huge learnt amount during that three year period.”
“I was still working in restaurants in London when I came back home for a weekend and that’s when I met my ex, Conrad. We clicked straight away and I just ended up coming up here.” Domini threw herself into work at Conrad’s Michelin-starred restaurant Peacock Alley; working in the kitchen, out front, and managing Conrad from a media perspective.
Now well established as a food writer, her writing career began as Conrad’s ghost writer, writing his New Irish Cooking cookbook and regular newspaper columns under his name. “Getting chefs to sit down and write anything is impossible,” she laughs.
In 1997 their daughter Lauren was born, a year later the couple split up. “I was so young and it was such a whirlwind, you didn’t really stop to weigh up things you just did them.”
It was at that stage that her life became intertwined with her sister Peaches. “I was burnt out from working mad hours and I knew I wanted to set up a day time business, and Peaches had just got divorced so it was kind of ideal timing. We had always wanted to open up something together and the timing was right to start Itsa.”
“Starting a business from scratch people were saying I was nuts, but I didn’t care, whether it was pride or bruised ego, whatever it was that was driving it I just had to do it.”
Striving for independence and with something to prove Domini sold the house she had shared with Conrad in Wicklow and put every penny in starting itsa.
“Back then sandwiches were all pre-made, on white sliced pan; coleslaw was considered vaguely exotic; you couldn’t even get takeaway cups; people didn’t know what bagels were,” says Domini of the risk she took. What started out as one cafe selling bagels on Abbey Street has grown into family of brands spread over 15 locations, including Hatch & Sons Irish Kitchen, Alchemy, and speciality coffee outlet Joe’s, plus a catering business, Feast.
In a bid to survive the recession, when cash flow became king, Domini says they were forced to expand even more; now that things have settled they are focused on leaning out the business. “Once things started to ease we were able to close places that weren’t performed as well. The last two years has been about untangling a lot of the structures that we put in place as safety measures. Last year was the first year we stripped away a layer of senior management, giving more control back to the managers.”
As well as streamlining the business, they adapted their offer to suit a post Celtic tiger Ireland, though this wasn’t the only catalyst behind the changes. In 2013, in the same week that her mother passed away from Parkinson’s, Domini found a lump in her breast. A triple assessment confirmed what Domini’s gut had already told her; she had breast cancer.
“I had already had malignant melanoma in my twenties when pregnant with Lauren, which they chalked that up to growing up in the Bahamas with Celtic skin, that and a pregnancy can affect your immune system.”
Then and in 2013, during her treatment and recovery Domini took control in the only way she could; through food. “I started to read some books on all the different diets around the world, and the impact of food on different races and communities, who did the best and on what diet.”
“I filtered through the diets that ranged from ‘crazy’ to ‘not so crazy’, and focused on the research papers, and there was strong evidence on the impact of carbohydrates turning into glucose, and the impact of that on cancer.”
Domini decided “to go low-carb”, instead bolstering her diet with as many cancer fighting, nutritional powerhouses as she could; turmeric, garlic, ginger, antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables, dark green leafy ones in particular. After finishing chemo Domini went to see nutritional therapist Patricia Daly, who too had recovered from cancer twice.
“I had grown up with the rationale that fat is bad and there is nothing wrong with carbohydrates,” says Domini. “She really drilled home that if I was going low carb I could eat more fat.”
Going against conventional dietary advice Domini embraced healthy fats, and her new enthusiasm for the healing power of food led her to open Alchemy in 2014, serving fresh, raw, unpasteurised juices and food designed to appeal to many of the modern day food tribes; veggie, vegan, celioac, ketogenic, dairy free, sugar-free, Paleo, and low-carb.
At the same time, Domini and Patricia agreed to write the kind of book they wished they had when they had cancer. “She had five years of being on a keto diet, she never recommended that I went on a ketogenic diet, what I was doing was good enough for me, so we kind of thought why don’t we do both?”
The Ketogenic Kitchen shares what they learned and ate from illness through to wellness as well as their personal stories as survivors. Split into two parts, in the first half Domini gives low carb recipes, for those looking to curb their carb addiction and eat for optimal health, and in the second half Patricia enables those seeking to use food as a healing balm against chronic illness with keotgenic recipes and a full meal plan.
Touted as a unique and pioneering contribution to a vital field of importance, the book was welcomed by patients and clinicians alike who until its publication had been frustrated by the lack of ketogenic diet resources.
Far from just another trendy diet book, Domini and Patricia added to a growing body of research demonstrating the likely benefits of a ketogenic diet in the fight against cancer, but the book received a backlash nevertheless. “Anyone calling a ketogenic diet a fad diet looked very foolish because it’s a diet that has been used medically for 100 years to treat epilepsy,” says Domini.
“I think we are owed an apology from one or two people. We are always saying things should be challenged, but it needs to be done in a professional way, and people need to be conscious of that and they’ve underestimated the amount of information in the book and judged before they opened it.”
“We were extremely cautious in everything we have said in the book, there are no silly claims, it’s not like we concocted this sitting around the fireplace, there are researchers, oncologists, professors working on this.”
The Ketogenic Kitchen has come at the beginning of a nutritional U-turn with recent reports from across the globe now suggesting a shift from the long recommended low-fat diet, which is failing to address the obesity epidemic, to one that cut back on carbohydrates instead. Domini agrees there is a need for a major overhaul of current dietary guidelines.
“I looked at the leaflets available on cancer and diet and the food pyramid with its 6 servings of carbohydrates and I was shocked. I hadn’t paid too much attention to the food pyramid before that, but when I looked at it I though this is weird; there are so many branded, processed products at the bottom of the food pyramid. It was more like an advertisement rather than a dietary recommendation. It’s great to see the controversy surrounding the food pyramid, and see people challenging how these statistics are being made.”
She asserts that food pyramid is a tug of war between the government, food companies, and a panel of experts. “The point has always been made why do food companies have any say? Maybe they would be better off saying here are a number of diets, there is no one perfect diet, but we certainly shouldn’t be recommending that people eat six portions of carbohydrates.”
“There is a good line that if you cut the top off the food pyramid, which is the treats bit, and flip it upside down that’s what we should be recommending. It really is turning current nutritional advice on its head and some people don’t like that.”
“It’s really easy to eat low carb once you get your head around it’s okay to introduce more fat. Honestly it took me about a year to be okay with it, because we are just so conditioned not to eat butter, and not to eat eggs,” says Domini. “I find it really easy to eat this way now, and it really suits me. I just don’t do well on a high carb diet I get grumpy and I’m always thinking about the next meal.”
Far from being extreme, she takes a balanced approach to healthy eating, and cites a line by Patricia in The Ketogenic Kitchen: “if you are getting stressed out by a diet plan or lifestyle changes, you will definitely cancel out the effects of good nutrition.” “There are definitely issues around glucose, carbohydrates, cancer and diabetes, and that’s well established. So I think it makes a lot of sense to be more low carb, but it isn’t for everyone. Every diet you can find holes in, it’s up to the individual.”
She accepts some days her job will require her to sample ten types of bread, and that her youngest daughter Maeve might have a sandwich for lunch, but when possible she will cook from scratch at home for her daughters and husband Garvan crowding their plates with wholefoods; lots of grilled fish, vegetables, eggs, and perhaps some sweet potato or lentils.
Ironically, the queen of bagels would try to avoid the last two, but although she has lost her go-to baked goods, she has gained a life long friend in Patricia, a best-selling book, a new business, and the confidence that she is doing everything in her power to live life to the full.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.