THE SMALL INTERVIEW: Donal Skehan keeps it simple
Donal Skehan is anything but intimidating in the kitchen, finds Andrea Byrne
His first book Good Mood Food was an Irish Book Award winner and bestseller. His follow-up cookbook Kitchen Hero has just been published with an accompanying TV show on RTE. Next weekend, Donal Skehan will take part in the Taste of Dublin Festival alongside some of our best chefs, including Rachel Allen, Neven Maguire and Ross Lewis. Not bad for someone who only turned 25 a few days ago, and who, two years ago, was pursuing a different career.
From an early age, Donal wanted to be a pop star and tried everything to become one. First, there was Streetwize, a boyband, that didn't really last kissing time. Then in 2008, he tried unsuccessfully to represent Ireland in the Eurovision (he lost out to Dustin the Turkey). Following that, he was a member of Industry, an Irish band that enjoyed some success, albeit short-lived. He also did a presenting stint on Bubble Hits.
The Howth-born cook laughs in an almost embarrassed way when I mention his pop career, but is quick to assure me he doesn't want to erase it from his memory altogether, acknowledging that he wouldn't be where he is today without having done it. "I don't cringe," he says. "I wouldn't change it. Never regret anything." He smiles warmly when we meet at the Westbury hotel, Dublin, where he has devised the afternoon tea menu.
It's only now that he has found something he is good at, that people are being honest about his ability, or lack thereof as a singer. "My Mum and Dad only told me recently that when I went for Eurovision, I was singing around the house and my Mum said to my Dad, 'Oh Jesus, what has he let himself in for'."
But how does one go from pop star to high-profile cook that quickly? The truth is, food formed a big part of Donal's upbringing. His parents owned a fruit and vegetable distribution company, and his aunt Erica Ryan is a well-known food stylist. From an early age, he and his younger brother were encouraged by their mother to experiment in the kitchen. Obviously, Donal showed a natural flair for it.
It was while he was a member of Industry that he began writing a food blog -- the Good Mood Food. Within six months he was approached by an Irish publishing house to write a cookbook. "A lot of people have put their faith in me," he admits, "I haven't come the traditional route. I am not a trained chef. I am not in my 30s or 40s. I haven't had a backdated career of fantastic things. They took a big chance on me."
With his boyish good looks and his sweet, friendly, non-threatening nature (he never stops smiling), he was always going to be a hit. His appeal is bolstered further by the fact he champions uncomplicated recipes that even the most inept cooks could master. "There is so much of what I call intimidating cooking on the telly these days, where everything is competitive," he says. "That's not what food is about for me. What I have tried to do is keep it non-intimidating, something that people will be inspired and encouraged to get into the kitchen with. When I wrote the cookbook, I wanted every single recipe to be something that would become part of people's repertoire -- something that they would cook on a daily basis; something that would be easy for them to throw together when they come home from work."
The Kitchen Hero TV show, which is now broadcast on Mondays on RTE One, was filmed in his house in Howth, where he lives with his girlfriend of five years Sofie. "God, that feels like a long time when I say it," he laughs referring to the time they've been together. Sofie, who is Swedish, now works full-time with Donal. And while working and living together can be "hard enough", he's very much enjoying it.
The couple met when she was visiting a friend in Ireland. "She came over again, we had a lovely romantic weekend," he recalls fondly. "I flew over to Sweden, stayed there for three months, that was my romantic gesture, and then she came back here."
Asked who are his own kitchen heroes, he says: "I want to keep the Mammy happy and say her, and honestly, she did teach me how to cook. But on a high-profile level, I have a long list. I love reading Nigel Slater, I love watching Jamie Oliver -- he is really inspirational. Nigella, I have a bit of a crush on her. And then a Swedish girl called Leila Lindholm."
For the most part, the celebrity chefs he has encountered have been very encouraging, but he has heard of one or two who are less than impressed with his success, given his lack of cooking qualifications. Donal, who refuses to be fazed, says: "You kinda think, well why should it be like that? It says more about the person if they're negative towards you." And as he says himself, why should he apologise, when all he is doing is something "he enjoys more than anything else".
Donal Skehan will be taking part in this year's Taste of Dublin Festival, which runs in the Iveagh Gardens in Dublin from Thursday to June 12; for more details, visit www.tasteofdublin.ie
The Kitchen Hero's Tasty Tea is available in The Gallery of The Westbury Hotel from €40 per person and includes a signed copy of Donal's new book Kitchen Hero.
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