Journeys in Taste Interview with Jeeny Maltese

It’s a long way from the Caribbean island of Margarita (which, let’s be honest, is as good a name for an island in the sun as you can get) to Ireland, but chef/television personality Jeeny Maltese has been there and back a few times in her life. What was once a frantic time in her life, however, has – Covid-19 notwithstanding – settled down somewhat. In terms of her recognised presence in Ireland, it all started for Jeeny in December 2013 when she and Tom Colemen co-founded My Nutrition Ireland. 

A body/mind health-conscious enterprise, My Nutrition Ireland mixes acute knowledge of health science with healthy (but by no means dull) food. It came about, says Jeeny – who has more bubbles in her personality than a Melchisedech of champagne – through a combination of factors. “People we knew became ill, some died, and we thought we could help our friends and family with suggesting healthy food and healthy cooking. From that, the combined knowledge fused to become a company.”

Almost ten years ago, says Jeeny, there weren’t many companies that operated along similar lines to My Nutrition Ireland. Jumping into such a venture from the start of 2014 was, she admits, “as challenging as it was exciting. A lot of people thought we were crazy. Health science and cooking was viewed by some as just being trendy, that it wouldn’t last, but we were doing all we could to make a difference by promoting healthy eating. We did cookery demonstrations, visited schools and undertook classes for pupils, teachers and parents.”

It was, recalls Jeeny, a large commitment to try to convince people to look after their health with something as fundamentally necessary as eating. We are creatures of habit, after all, and if a person wants to hold on to their eating/food habits, good or bad, then that is exactly what they’ll do. In order to bring people into her picture, so to speak, her thinking was to filter the educational aspects of it, the science, with some fun. “I would cook delicious food full of healthy ingredients but explain in my own way why I would be using certain foods, herbs or spices, and why they would be good for the body. My approach was not to weigh in too strong on the health aspects because some people can firmly resist that. They want to hold on to their bacon and butter, but it was up to me to try to explain as best I could about better food options.”

This is where Jeeny’s cultural and personal background kicked in. Margarita Island lays off the northeastern coast of Venezuela, and Jeeny’s half-South American/half-Italian heritage presented a multitude of folkloric and historic knowledge about the medicinal benefits of various foods, herbs, vegetables and plants. Generically referred to as ‘old wives’ tales’ (the holistic advantages of which are slowly but surely disappearing from the public consciousness), Jeeny may not have been aware of the science behind such produce but she certainly knew about the application.

“All of the women in my life knew of the benefits of food with regard to the combination of health and beauty,” she says. “They know that celery is good for draining liquids out of the body and is good for the skin. They know that parsley is good for the liver and for cleansing the blood, which in turn makes your skin glows better. And so on. All of this knowledge came to me whilst growing up listening to the women in my family, female friends of the family, and it had a huge impact on me. When it came to preparing food and cooking, it came naturally to add the likes of parsley or turmeric or whatever else to the food I was cooking, and to impart this knowledge to people. When you know that if you eat certain foods they will benefit you, then it’s a very practical way to stay healthy. That’s what I brought to the table, literally, with my heritage and all of the things I learned from my family. From the very start, the reaction to it has been very positive.”

Does Jeeny think some people can feel guilty about eating certain foods on a regular basis “We are all human,” she laughs. “As a chef, I love fine dining where I don’t even think about the butter and the cream. We have to understand that life is about pleasure as well as health, and we can’t restrict ourselves forever! The key is to know that you can look after yourself yet still have treats to really enjoy, be it on holiday, at a wedding or some other joyous occasion.” Jeeny’s philosophical approach to food is that we can enjoy the likes of butter, cream, chocolate, wine, and so on, “but just don’t forget to look after your body, as well, by having some greens here and some berries there. Once you know you can tweak ingredients then, of course, enjoy the things you love the most.” Are there any secrets to healthy eating, I ask, or do people simply have to be smarter about their food choices? There is a level to achieve, notes Jeeny, and it is this: “balance the good with the naughty. Why should anyone be guilty about what they eat? That’s when it becomes unhealthy.”

Of course, Jeeny is fully aware that a person’s view of health in food is an individual journey, but is equally aware that we need to be open to research, to educate ourselves. “There is so much information these days. Some of it can be confusing but I think we all have enough common sense to know that if we eat more greens and more berries, more legumes, then they’re all great for you. Really, it’s about balance for me – 80% good and 20% naughty. That is my motto!”

As mottos go, you have to agree it’s a good one. But even good mottos can get lost in a pandemic and, like the rest of us, Jeeny and My Nutrition Ireland have, just about, muddled their way through it. The nature of My Nutrition Ireland under the constraints of Covid-19, she admits, was something of a perfect fit because the business and Jeeny herself were already online. With strong Instagram follower figures (Jeeny almost 19k, business almost 13k), the online framework has been quickly adopted, so “it thrived incredibly well. During Covid, health became a crucial topic for people and we were very much able to share the knowledge of that with thousands of people.”

Of course, a live audience, meeting people face to face, talking with them – all of these have been sorely missed, especially with Jeeny’s television presentations “because you could mingle with the guests before the show.” As for life itself, it goes on, despite the ups and downs. With definite signs of brighter lights at the end of a very long tunnel, Jeeny says that the experience of Covid has put life into perspective for everybody. “It has shown us how fragile and short life can be. If we are able to see what our priorities are, as I did myself, then we can self-grow and self-develop. We can move forward in a positive manner with goodness and kindness, sharing and multiplying joy, for me and for others, with the hope that life will be better for all.”

Amen to that.

WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA

Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland

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