From culinary training in France, to running a chocolate shop in Dublin and now working to promote the thriving food culture in Galway; Sheena Dignam of Galway Food Tours shares her story and the stories of others on her food tours.
Dignam started Galway Food Tours when her passion for food brought her to Galway. She saw how Ireland’s food scene was developing when the rest of the world wasn’t taking notice.
“A lot of people taking the mick out of us for our food scene in Ireland,” Dignam said. “Saying that, ‘you got nothing good in Ireland, it’s only fish and potatoes and more potatoes.’ And I said, ‘no lads, I’ll show you what we have.’”
Dignam works with restaurants and producers who offer a unique perspective on food. She likes working with newer restaurants who have learned how to work with local ingredients, often by traveling to other countries to develop their craft.
A strong sense of ethos is what draws Dignam to the establishments she works with. She cites ethos as the key to a successful tour and meaningful connections. The goal of her tours is to give meaning and culture to the Galway food scene.
“It’s a super energizing time to be in food in Ireland and that’s what I want to showcase to people,” Dignam said.
Part of that ethos also comes with the sustainability and food awareness displayed by these restaurants. Dignam chooses to work with restaurants that share the same values when it comes to sustainability.
Sustainable practices for these restaurants means using quality ingredients and practices and keeping dishes within season. Dignam recalled a time an establishment she no longer works with, offered her goats cheese in May, out of season. To combat this, she works with the chefs and shops to plan the food sampled around the seasons.
“We’re just conscious,” Dignam said. “Just us a company and being careful that you don’t want to be working with places that don’t have that same values that we would have.”
This consciousness has come from trial-and-error and developing the tours over the years to be as sustainable as possible. When the tours first began, food waste would occur as a result of dietary restrictions. Dignam took notice of this and adjusted the booking process; now, all customers are required to disclose dietary restrictions while booking.
Dignam has noticed positive change and more general awareness when it comes to food waste and other waste in Galway. She points out the recent small-scale positive improvement.
“I think everybody is so much more conscious now than it was maybe 10 years ago and I think that’s the whole world,” Dignam said.
When Dignam noticed that plastic water bottles given out in goodie bags from her tours were going to waste, she looked into reusable cans of water. These adjustments have allowed her to promote sustainable food and waste practices on her tours.
“We just hate waste in a general sense,” Dignam said. “If I see plates that aren’t empty, ya know, it kind of upsets me a bit, to be honest with you. So we are very conscious about that.”
Galway Food Tours only works with producers within a 50km radius. Working with locals further promotes sustainability and allows Dignam and her colleagues to visit these producers. She works closely with producers and chefs in order to get to know them and their product.
“We sit down with them, we talk to them,” Dignam said. “‘What are you about? What’s your history? What’s your staple dish? What do you like doing? What can I relate? All this information just give it to me as much as you can.’ I’m gonna be the one telling those stories, I need to make sure I’ve got everything”
Dignam believes these stories are an essential part of the tours’ ethos and making connections with the customers. It’s important to her that there’s stories behind Ireland’s food scene and that the producers feel valued.
“I think once they see how passionate we are about relaying their stories, they are happy to [let] us be and do the introductions,” Dignam said.
In addition to knowing their stories, Dignam makes sure to take her clientele to places she supports herself, outside of the tours. She and the company make sure they know what they are supporting and promoting.
“We know that they’re using the best of ingredients and they’re using them in the best way possible in their kitchens,” Dignam said.
Dignam is now working to expand Galway Food Tours to other cities in Ireland. She hopes that this will allow the tours to reach a greater audience and promote the food culture of other cities. She gives workshops to aspiring tour guides to teach them how to resonate with their audiences.
“I know it sounds like I might be doing myself out of business, ya know or creating more competition,” Dignam said. “But I think it’s good, I’m looking at Ireland as more of a general platform of showcasing what they’re doing.”
For Sheena Dignam and Galway Food Tours, sustainability is a big part of promoting a healthy food culture. She cites ethos as the key to a successful tour and meaningful connections. Dignam’s efforts to define Galway’s food scene comes from her passions of culinary arts and humanity. She wants customers to feel the effort that goes into making the food.