Following vegan cafe dream to the end of the Earth after leukaemia battle

One of Cork’s newest eateries, Earth Cafe is aimed at making vegan food convenient, familiar and accessible. Emma Connolly talks to the owner Carmel O’Sullivan about what inspired her to give up meat, her decision to open a cafe and her battle with leukaemia
Following vegan cafe dream to the end of the Earth after leukaemia battle
Carmel O’Sullivan of the vegan cafe Earth, on South Mall, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

THE owner of Cork city centre’s new vegan café on South Mall credits her plant-based diet with her full recovery from leukaemia and a bone marrow transplant.

And she says veganism has never been easier, with no sacrifice involved and the chance to gain more than you give up.

Carmel O’Sullivan, a vegetarian since her early teens and a vegan for the past four years, says her approach at the newly opened Earth Cafe is simple — to make vegan food convenient, familiar and accessible.

Originally from North Cork and living in the city centre, this is the mum of three’s first foray into the food business — and she’s loving it. Previously working in property and a family car business, Carmel says that veganism opened up a whole new world for her which she felt compelled to share.

“I became vegan literally overnight because I learned exactly how dairy is produced and immediately I felt I could not contribute to the suffering of the animals. Once I became vegan I actually couldn’t believe that I hadn’t done it sooner, if you have a little knowledge, it is not difficult at all.

“Everything I loved to eat, I still could — just the vegan version, YouTube was my best friend for the start as you can literally find every recipe you want on it. People always assume that veganism is too extreme — on the contrary, it is about love, compassion and respect, there is nothing extreme about any of those traits.”

Diagnosed with leukaemia in 2014, Carmel underwent a gruelling treatment regime which involved staying in CUH for 40 days; home for a week and then back again for 40 more days — repeated for three cycles.

“After that, doctors said I had genetic markers which indicated it would come back in two years, so I literally had to wipe the slate clean, remove all traces of my DNA, and have a bone marrow transplant,” Carmel said.

Her courageous brother Niall proved a match and the transplant and follow up treatment meant a three month stint in St James’ in Dublin. However, even at her most ill, she remained a staunch vegan.

“You’re tube-fed during the treatment but I insisted the liquid feed had to be vegan — there were fish oils in the regular feed — it was the one thing I wasn’t going to compromise on,” she said.

“I fully credit veganism with my recovery — a lot of people went through what I did and didn’t make it out the other side; statistically, 10-15% of people don’t make it through a bone marrow transplant. I’ve no doubt about it and even doctors admit they were flabbergasted at my recovery.”

Carmel didn’t want to return to property after her recovery and was keen to find a way to make an impact through veganism. She submitted a proposal to the city council having seen the vacant kiosk on South Mall: “When I got the phone call to say I was successful I was absolutely terrified — for around 10 minutes, then I realised how brilliant it was.”

Carmel O’Sullivan of the vegan cafe Earth, on South Mall, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Carmel O’Sullivan of the vegan cafe Earth, on South Mall, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

Earth is now open seven days a week, with a staff of around five, including her son, and Carmel as chief cook and bottle washer!

She feels strongly about playing her role in problems associated with climate change. And the best thing each of us could do for the future of planet earth is to stop buying meat, she feels.

“This is the main reason I opened Earth Cafe, I believe everyone wants to do the right thing but our busy modern lives prevent us from doing just that. So I felt vegan food needed to be firstly convenient and also familiar. I decided to focus on comfort food and provide the classics people love like scones, pastries, burgers, hot dogs, cakes, etc — all 100% plant based. I recently introduced jackfruit to the menu and I serve that in wraps and in buns. It has proved a great hit with the people of Cork. It has been described as the vegan pulled pork.”

Her customers are a mix of vegan and non-vegan and she’s keen to show it’s a lifestyle that’s never been easier to follow.

“If in doubt, pick five of your favourite meals and look online how to veganise them — you’ll get hundreds of recipes. A simple example is spaghetti bolognaise where the meat is substituted with lentils.”

Among her own children, one is vegan and one is a vegetarian and her partner is vegan: “Veganism is no longer a fringe movement, it is now described as a social movement. People are aware that our planet is in a state of distress and they want to do something about it. I believe this is one of the main reasons for veganism growing at such a fast rate.

“41% of Irish women and 30% of Irish men are now avoiding or limiting dairy consumption. As awareness grows, people’s purchasing habits change and thus affecting the market, so buying vegan/plant foods has a huge positive effect for reducing damage to the planet.

“People are also switching for health reasons. As processed meat is now categorised as a number one carcinogen by the World Health Organisation in the same category as tobacco and alcohol, it is hard to ignore the facts.”

Since she’s opened, Carmel has been inundated daily with well-wishers.

“For the first time ever, I can honestly say I love my job and I am looking forward to continuing and growing the business over the next few years.”

See her Facebook page: Earth Cafe Cork and find her on instagram: @earth_cork

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