Julie Lyons, line manager in the catering section, shows us around the Leinster House kitchen and talks vegetarians, healthier eating and abandoned dinners.
The second chef opens the kitchen early. Deliveries come in and the breakfast staff get cooking.
I'll come in later, and from the minute I arrive at work, it’s go go go. Wednesday is the longest sitting day for the Dáil and Seanad, and the kitchen will serve up more than 1,000 meals to Members, staff, journalists and visitors.
The restaurants open and there’s always a queue when the door opens. We do the traditional fry but they love their porridge too. In the old days we might sell four bowls of porridge; now we’d do 100. They take it away to their offices, they put the chia seeds on it, the sultanas, the cinnamon and the honey.
Our pastry chef makes 200 scones – all different types - on a typical Wednesday morning. They’ll be served up in the dining room, the self-service restaurant, the bar and the coffee shop, and it all comes from the one kitchen.
The coffee shop in LH2000 is busier than ever because there are more Oireachtas Committees. I check the schedule of the day’s business so we know how many Committees are sitting. That way I know how many sandwiches to send over.
Breakfast is over, and it’s time to get ready for the lunch service. We serve fresh, Irish food, and we’re lucky we have the facility to do that. We make our own stocks and soups every day. The kitchen is full of people. We have 32 staff, some full-time and some part-time, but everybody is here on Wednesdays.
The lunch service begins, and again there’s a queue in the self-service restaurant. Nobody minds. Everybody chats and catches up on news from people they otherwise might not see. I’m working here since 1991, and some things have changed. In the old days the politicians used to like to be served in the Members’ restaurant, but now most people prefer the self-service. It’s less formal. They can pick and choose from the salad bar. We’re a home away from home for some of them. Some people are here from Tuesday morning until Thursday night and they can’t really get out of the place. Some people sit in the same chairs every time they come in.
There’s a bigger variety of people in the Dáil and Seanad now than before. There’s more demand for healthier food like salads and for the grab-and-go option. I remember when we had only one vegetarian in Leinster House. Now we’ve seen a big surge in demand for vegetarian meals, especially on Mondays. Some people have told me they’re doing meat-free Monday. So even though we cook in the traditional way, with everything fresh, we have changed with the times.
The Dáil and Seanad usually take a break in the middle of the day. That’s called the SOS (suspension of sitting) and it’s manic in here. We know the schedule in advance so we can be ready. People might have only 40 minutes before they have to go back into the Houses. I’ll get my own lunch break at 2 p.m. if I can. The lunch service staff work through to 4 p.m.
The main lunch rush is over and it’s time to get ready for the evening service. On Wednesday we get a lot of visitors to the Members’ restaurant. Some of them might be coming to Leinster House for the first time and there’s a sense of ceremony. They often linger over dinner to people watch and maybe meet their own local TDs. The Ceann Comhairle has his usual table near the door. He’s a great supporter of the traditional way we do things in the kitchen and the way we showcase Irish food.
One thing that a normal kitchen doesn’t have to cope with is when the division bells ring unexpectedly. TDs or Senators who were just sitting down for dinner have to abandon their plates and rush to the Dáil or Seanad to vote. And we have to put their dinners under hot lamps until they return.
We stay open to provide food for Members and staff up until the Dáil and Seanad are both adjourned. That’s usually 10 p.m. on a Wednesday, but it can change. If I’m lucky, I get out at 10.30 p.m. but it could be 11 p.m.