Friday 30 September 2016

Six is the magic number for LA based Irish chef Stuart O'Keefe

Irish chef in LA Stuart O'Keeffe tells Katy McGuinness about the formula behind his new no-fuss cookbook

Katy McGuinness

Published 10/04/2016 | 02:30

No-fuss cook: Stuart O'Keeffe
No-fuss cook: Stuart O'Keeffe
Stuart O'Keeffe says complicated cook books leave people deflated before they even start.

'I look at Jamie Oliver's 15 or 30-minute recipes and there's not a hope in hell of doing those recipes in the time that it says they will take. I can't even do them in 15 or 30 minutes and I'm a professional chef; that annoys me," says Stuart O'Keeffe. "When I set out to do this I had to be sure the recipes would work in the time that I said, otherwise I'd be a hypocrite. Jamie's recipes aren't easy. I'm getting angry just talking to you about it…"

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Fans of O'Keeffe will be pleased to hear he has just launched his first cookbook, The Quick Six Fix. And the Nenagh man will be back in Ireland for Taste of Dublin in June to demonstrate the "straightforward" recipes from the book.

O'Keeffe (34) - who was on our screens a couple of years back in Stuart's Kitchen on TV3 - doesn't spend much time in Ireland these days. So the Iveagh Gardens outing will be a rare opportunity for his many admirers to catch an in-the-flesh glimpse of the celebrity chef who has carved out a lucrative career for himself in the US, appearing in shows such as Food Network's Private Chefs of Beverly Hills.

On the phone from his home in Hollywood, O'Keeffe, who sounds more American than Irish these days, directs me to his Wikipedia page --"I wrote it myself!" - for a speedy run through of his career to date, which started with a degree in Culinary Arts at DIT.

"They were the best years of my life," he says. "John Clancy and Mairtin Mac Con Iomaire were uplifting and motivating teachers." After DIT, O'Keeffe headed first for France and then for California's Napa Valley, where he worked in a hotel kitchen. After a couple of years, he moved on to LA.

"I got tired of Ireland," he says. "I needed to get away and LA was always my dream. I started doing dinner parties and met my manager, Jason, at a restaurant I was working in. I got to know him and he said: 'You're cute and you're Irish. I can do things with you!'"

O'Keeffe is certainly - as other writers including the always-entertaining Gastro Gays have pointed out - easy on the eye, and not backward in coming forward when it comes to posing on the beach in a blinding pair of swimming shorts or with his two photogenic Westies for his Facebook page.

It was only a matter of time before Jason had secured him a gig as the ambassador in North America for Tupperware, a role that Stuart performed from 2008 to 2011 and which involved him travelling around the country promoting the brand. Then came Private Chefs of Beverly Hills. The show follows six private chefs, including O'Keeffe, as they work for a premier private chef placement agency called Big City Chefs.

"On call 24/7," says the Wikipedia entry, "the chefs cater eccentric and specialty events for celebrity and high profile clients such as a Botox party and an event for a luxury doggy daycare. O'Keeffe is the only non-American chef featured. The show has aired for two seasons and 16 episodes."

His page goes on to name-check the Kardashians, Hilary Swank and Joan Collins as some of the celebrities with whom he has appeared or for whom he has cooked, and he says he still does some private dinner party work - "for a week here and a week there" - but is not at liberty to name any of his clients "because I want to keep the job".

The Quick Six Fix is O'Keeffe's first cookbook. He says it is aimed squarely at the home chef and is designed to be a book people actually want to cook from and will cook from, rather than one from which they aspire to cook. The schtick is that each of the 100 recipes in the book involves six ingredients, six minutes of prep and six minutes of clean-up. "Too many cookbooks leave people feeling defeated before they even start, because either the ingredients are too hard to find or it's too complicated," O'Keeffe says. "It's hard enough to get someone into the kitchen in the first place, so I wanted to offer something with minimal preparation and minimal clean-up, that people will think is easy and straightforward.

"Of course I cook more complicated food when I'm doing a dinner party or whatever, but that's no good for people at home, so it's a back to basics kind of approach. If I do more books in the future, they'll be along the same lines. We shifted 10,000 copies in seven minutes on QVC the other day. Americans love numbers - you just have to look at the book titles here: 10lbs in 5 Weeks, or Lean in 15. I wanted a book with a hook like that, with recipes that actually work. My book is for anyone who wants to start cooking and also for anyone who's already good but wants a repertoire of simple dishes in an easy format that they don't have to think about too much. Who is going to buy a book called 'Stuart's Favourite Recipes'? It's just too boring."

Stuart canvassed his friends when he was honing the concept for the book, as to the kind of recipes they'd like to see.

"They all said the most annoying thing about cooking is the prep and the clean-up, so I set out to produce a book of recipes with an absolute minimum of both. Chopping onions is exhausting, it takes all the fun out of it. I love the cooking itself but I hate the prep and for the clean-up, I'd rather have a maid here behind me dealing with that."

Stuart says he would love to do another show for Irish television, but hasn't yet been able to agree on a format with an Irish broadcaster.

"Stand-up-and-stir shows are very hard to sell in the US - you have to have a lifestyle element so we are actively pitching shows here at the moment. It's tricky at home because there just isn't the money.

"I find it disheartening that Irish television doesn't seem to want to support you once they've built you up. There are millions of people watching me on television here in the US, but at home the begrudgery towards people who leave is odd - they just don't seem to want to know or to spend the money."

Because O'Keeffe doesn't spend much time in Ireland these days - his last visit was a quick four-day trip at Christmas - he is not up to speed with the new generation of chefs and restaurants. But he is nostalgic for home in terms of the produce available.

"I love the freshness of the food in Ireland and that it's so local - you miss that with the food in the US. They are getting away with s*** here, so you really have to seek out good food. Some 85pc of the chickens here have arsenic in them, so you have to seek out grass-fed and organic meat and poultry. I like the simplicity of Irish food, but it gets a bad rap in the US. I'm always trying to promote it because I think we have some of the best food in the world and the climate is fantastic for livestock and for growing vegetables."

Despite being open to offers of work in Ireland, for now O'Keeffe sees his future in LA.

"I live in Hollywood, which everyone thinks is very glamorous, but the streets are dirty here too! I love living here for the weather and there is a simplicity to living in the US because everything is readily available and I can make a lot of money. LA is a special case, it's not like the rest of the US - there is such a lot of money here."

And it seems as if Stuart fits right in with the healthy LA lifestyle.

"I work out, go to the gym three or four times a week and do spinning and weights. I have to and it makes me feel good. I'm lucky I guess in that I come from a family where we all have a fast metabolism, and we're a tennis-playing family and I've played tennis all my life.

"I don't tend to cook particularly fattening food either. There's nothing deep-fried in the book which is weird seeing as I've been living in the US all this time - they are just normal regular meals.

"Cooking at home is always going to be healthier than eating out. I like to cook for friends but it's not very enjoyable just to cook for myself. So two or three times a week I might try out a new recipe and I'll invite some of the lads over to try what I've cooked. If you're spending $30 or $40 on food, then it's a waste unless you invite people over to share it."

Stuart O'Keeffe will be among the 'homecoming' chefs at Taste of Dublin this June 16-19. Tickets from €15, see tasteofdublin.ie

Stuart's quick six fix philosophy

Fresh is best

When shopping for groceries, keep in mind that fresh is best, whether you're buying fish, pasta, vegetables, or even herbs. Freshness makes all the difference in terms of flavour.

Don't sweat the prep

Before starting a recipe, read the recipe through several times! Three times should be the charm so that you have a good understanding of what's needed, what's going to happen, and how you can best manage your time. Once you have a grasp of what's to happen, there will be no surprises and you'll breeze through the prep.

The secret to clean-up success

I use something called a Reverse Traffic Light Theory for efficient clean-up. This is cribbed from a trick I learned in culinary school. Once you've put a casserole dish in the oven or left a pan on simmer or are waiting for pasta to boil STOP! Take just a few minutes to YIELD to any mess you've made. This is the time to wipe the cutting board, soak a pan, stick the bowls in the dishwasher, and use your time efficiently before you GO back to cooking. When you have your feet up instead of lingering in the kitchen with the dirty dishes, you will thank me! The methods in my recipes are also designed for quicker clean-up. Tricks like lining a baking pan with foil, using a Ziploc bag for marinades, and cooking one-pot meals are all huge time-savers.

Irish Independent

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