Niamh Condon learned how to make sausages when she was 12 or 13. Her uncle was a butcher who insisted he was teaching her life skills and told her that as long as she could cook, she'd have a job. Young Niamh didn’t want to be a chef, she told him. But when she went to college, she told Ryan Tubridy, she studied Food Process Engineering. What does that mean, Ryan wanted to know. It’s a combination, Niamh explained, of food science and an engineering degree. It’s the sort of degree that someone like Niamh studies for. Someone with an interest in a very wide range of topics.
"We were studying everything from Zoology to Mathematics, to Physics. Everything you could think of. And then we did AutoCAD Drawing. I was intrigued with that."
That’s Computer-Aided Design and it’s, em, auto. Ahem. For her Leaving Cert, Niamh had done Construction Studies because she had a deep interest in the building side of things as well as the food side of things. That interest is probably due to the fact that her Dad was a plumber and she used to go out with him on jobs.
"The building side and the AutoCAD Drawing always stuck with me. So, design and features and how things run, which as well, is part of Process Engineering because Process Engineers will design a plant, a production plant – it could be food production or it could be pharmaceutical – and they will design from the raw materials coming to the finished product going out and what process it has to go through to get to the end result."
In 2014, Niamh started a new job as head chef in a nursing home and at first, she thought it was a pretty run-of-the-mill position that would be fairly straightforward. But that’s not how it turned out:
"So the owner there, Seán Collins, called me and he said, 'Look Niamh, I have a role here and it would suit you down to the ground. You’d have a lifestyle that you’ve never had before where you work 9 to 5, and the cooking is easy. You’ll do that in your sleep.’ I said, ‘Ok, 9 to 5, that’s great.’ No chef has ever had that type of a job, so off I went."
While the owner painted a picture of a routine 9 to 5 job, the director of nursing painted a more complex picture for the new head chef. There were 50 residents, she said and about half of them have a swallowing difficulty. And that wasn’t all:
"‘We also have people with diabetes, we need low-sodium diets, we’ve renal diets.’ I nearly cried."
Although it wasn’t possible to provide 50 individual meals every day, Niamh worked off a daily menu with modifications where needed. So, if roast beef was on the menu, anyone who could take it as is, got it that way. Others would need it cut up and then others again would need it minced. The various requirements of the residents led Niamh to discovering a condition she’d never heard of before – dysphasia:
"What it means is people have a difficulty from getting the food into their mouths, holding it in their mouths. They could have a difficulty in chewing it, moving it from the front of their mouth into their stomach. So there’s a range of difficulties that these people have."
It took a lot of trial and error, but Niamh wanted to be able to serve the nursing home residents the sort of meal she felt they deserved and the sort of food she’d be happy eating herself. And that meant that putting a plate of food into a blender and serving it up was not an acceptable option. She consulted a dietician, Gráinne Kent, and together they decided to eat a dysphagia diet for three days. Niamh kept the foods in a given meal separate and piped them onto a plate. Part of the challenge was presentation – the food had to look appealing. Not easy when it comes out of a pipe. But Niamh, it turns out, is something of a food piping artist:
"If it was a carrot, I’d pipe the food to look like a carrot. Potatoes are potatoes, so they don’t have to be any particular shape, but meat slices and sausages..."
The food is piped, as Ryan describes it, like a sculptor might depict food. It’s pureed food designed to look like unpureed food. And it worked. The plates came back to the kitchen empty and the care assistants started saying how much easier it was to help the residents with their meals because they want to eat them.
You can hear Ryan’s full conversation with Niamh Condon – including how many spoons of (not really) sugar she had to put in her coffee – by going here.