DUN LAOGHAIRE, Ireland — This year marks the centenary of the Easter Rising, when Irish revolutionaries struck a blow for Ireland's freedom.
In a small cafe, less than 10 miles south of where the rebels took over the General Post Office in Dublin, a chef named Jessica Cusack is engaged in a culinary form of subversion. She is trying to convince Irish people that good food can taste good, that the healthiest of substance is substantially better than much of what they eat.
To that end, in this land of meat and potatoes, there are no meat and potatoes anywhere on the menu at the Maritime Cafe, located in the National Maritime Museum of Ireland. No chips. No spuds. No nothing.
The absence of potatoes is especially striking. Even at high-end ethnic restaurants in Ireland, the menu invariably lists the old standby of chips.
At the Maritime Cafe, the menu consists of raw foods, super foods, hearty salads. The raw food is not entirely by choice. There's no room for cooking facilities. It's all vegetarian, mainly vegan. Haute cuisine in Ireland has grown leaps and bounds in the last 20 years, especially as Irish chefs trained on the continent returned to use Irish-grown produce, meat, and fish. But Cusack says there is a massive shortage of restaurants serving Irish food at its most basic source.
"That's why I'm doing it. There's nothing like this in Dun Laoghaire," Cusack says of the seaside suburb where her cafe opened in November. "Actually, there's nothing like this in Ireland."
Cusack's interest in healthy food is very personal.
"Honestly, the main reason is mum and dad," she said.
Her father, a journalist, and her mother, a photographer, grew up in Belfast but now live on County Dublin's south coast. Like most Irish people they were raised not just on songs and stories but on fried food, especially fried breakfasts, with bacon, eggs, and blood puddings. Now her parents help at the cafe and have healthy diets.
"The business idea is a focus on health food, all for personal health and moral reasons, plus there is a major shortage of vegan food in Ireland," Cusack says. "I had a really bad episode in my late teens where I was very sick, so I took it upon myself to better my ways through natural medicine: good food and exercise. Since then, I've taken this pretty seriously."
She cooked at a very successful restaurant in Temple Bar, Dublin's main tourist section, but it was meat-heavy and she wanted to go out on her own, with a limited, vegan and vegetarian menu.
The cafe sits on the ground floor of the museum, which used to be the Mariners Church. In the 19th century, sailors in this old harbor town stopped by to pray for a safe return. Now curious diners enter and Cusack prays they won't ask for chips. It's not that she doesn't like a potato now and then.
"It would be sacrilege to serve up a raw spud," she allows.
Like its menu, the cafe is Spartan in creature comforts, sitting just 22. The space is dominated by two dramatic stained glass windows. One depicts Ard Ri Laoghaire, the high king of Tara for whom Dun Laoghaire is named. The other depicts the sinking of the Leinster in 1918 by a German U-boat that left more than 500 people dead.
Below the Leinster on the glass is a depiction of the Essex, a convict ship that took prisoners to Australia.
If the space reeks of history, the cafe itself is rooted firmly in Ireland's present-day growing infatuation with healthy food.
On this day, the sweet corn chowder is rich and filling; the goat cheese, pickled pepper, and onion sandwich shows off just how good Irish goat cheese is.
Cusack adds seasonal touches. January is a month when many Irish detox after a long holiday season of imbibing and eating too much, so she added an alkaline salad with kombucha dressing. In February, she prepared a smoothie bowl of carrot, ginger, and pineapple. Superfood smoothies are daily staples.
The day I was there, Cusack was preparing a lemon thyme, poppy, and beetroot fudge cake. Vegan cakes are bursting with flavors.
"Vegan and healthy food in general have an undeserved reputation for being flavorless, or at least flavor-challenged," Cusack said. "That's a misconception that I wanted to take head on."
In just a few months, the cafe has caught on, through word of mouth, Facebook, and other social media. Takeout (the Irish call it takeaway) accounts for 40 percent of her business, as nearby office and shop workers look for healthier lunches than pub grub.
"To be honest, anyone in marketing would think it foolish of me not to do this, but I really don't highlight enough, or at all even, that we are a health-food cafe," Cusack says. "I don't like the idea of advertising as a 'health-food cafe.' I have my limitations with the space and the [term] 'health food,' as it can be off-putting to some. I wanted the atmosphere and the general feel of the cafe to be the main attraction. After all, we are just a museum cafe. I will market it as such, however, when the time is right and things are as close to perfect."
For now, she's content to grow the business while some of her regulars grow some of the produce she uses, donating items from their own gardens.
"I'm so grateful that I have such nice customers," she says.
So far, nobody's showed up with a potato.
The Maritime Cafe, 1 Haigh Terrace, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.