Simon Delaney: The kitchen is my happy place
He's famed for his quick wit and laid-back characters, but behind the scenes control, preparation and "lots of lists" are the keys to Simon Delaney's success - both in the acting world and, now, as a cookbook author, as he tells our reporter
Simon Delaney is late. He hates being late. It is, with the exception of stupidity and bad customer service, top of his list of pet gripes. He is en route to Cork for a book signing and an appearance on RTÉ's The Today Show with Dáithí and Maura but had to go back for more books and squeeze in a haircut, he tells me, trailing a cloud of apologies about bad drivers and school runs.
He is evidently stressed by his own lack of punctuality, which seems surprising, given he has built a career on laddish laid-back Irish charm and laconic wit. The old adage of a duck - calm on the surface, but paddling like hell underneath - springs to mind.
"That's me," he quips. "But that's being on TV." Contrary to the easy-going onscreen Delaney, I'm guessing he likes to be in control? "God, yes," he practically shouts. "I am a typical Virgo: I like to be organised. My wife, Lisa, is the calm one; I'm usually panicking behind her. I need lists, lots of lists. Good preparation is key for me."
I empathise. Life with four boys under 12 (Cameron, 11; Elliot, nine; Isaac, five, and Lewis, 17 months) and a career that spans the gamut of media genres, from presenting to acting, directing, producing, writing, musical theatre and now cookbook author, must be hard to juggle effectively without something suffering. "I have to schedule in toilet visits," he laughs in that trademark barman's cackle before explaining, more seriously, that four kids and a mortgage is a great motivator. "If I had to rely on theatre earnings alone, I'd be living under a bridge somewhere. Ireland is a small country and you have to be able to diversify."
Self-deprecation aside, Delaney (47) isn't the type to sit around waiting for the phone to ring. He doesn't just face down the challenges but chases after them, successfully. His decision to go to LA two years ago resulted in roles in huge shows like Touch and The Good Wife and landing the part of Vince Vaughn's brother in the hit comedy Delivery Man. "I took a big risk. I had a one-way ticket to LA and I wasn't coming back until I had work. I rang home [on Skype] the night I arrived to speak to my wife, Lisa, and the boys, and she told me I'd forgotten something and then proceeded to hold up a pregnancy test, which was to be our fourth child, Lewis. If that wasn't motivation to get work and get home, I don't know what was."
Delaney considers the US to be his spiritual home, in particular New York: it's where he and Lisa got engaged, where he spent many Christmases and holidays, and where he likes to indulge in one of his favourite pastimes - eating in diners. He talks in wonderment about the first time he saw the Woody Allen film Broadway Danny Rose, how the camera moves through the famous Carnegie Deli in New York in the opening scene, past waiters, trays of food, businessmen, truck drivers and how, by the time the camera settles at a table, you can almost taste the cheeseburgers.
Delaney doesn't just love food - the very mention of it and he's off on a passionate speech. Cooking and eating are the sidebars to his adventures, the grace notes to his achievements and the glue that binds relationships. His 'happy place' is in the kitchen. His favourite smell is onions cooking. His death-row meal is a veritable buffet of American-style deli options: corned beef hash with home fries and eggs - sunny side up - for breakfast, the Reuben sandwich followed by braised lamb shanks and dauphinoise potatoes, and key lime pie for dessert. "I'd be a happy dead man walking with that in my belly," he laughs. It's no surprise, then, that the premise of his debut cookbook, Simply Simon's, is diner food.
Growing up, Delaney wasn't exactly a big help in the kitchen. "I was never one to pull up a chair and help my mam chop vegetables - I was the one to pull up a chair and start eating." But losing both his parents at a young age meant he had to learn. He was 19 when his mum, Margaret, died of pancreatic cancer, and his brokenhearted father, Billy, passed away from a heart attack seven years later.
"My mam was a good cook - not adventurous - but who was in those days? She cooked good, solid, classic dishes. My dad, God bless him, could just about boil an egg. It wasn't until I met Lisa that I became more adventurous in my cooking, but I still love getting my casserole pot out and cooking a hearty stew for the family."
After years of being asked to take part in Celebrity MasterChef, Delaney finally joined the TV3 show earlier this year, cooking his way into the final. "I approached it like I do every job: 'I'm going to enjoy it, I'm going to take it seriously, do the best I can and try not to embarrass my family.' I had no idea it would be as hard as it was. It was the most joyful, fulfilling yet terrifying experience of my TV life," he says with sincerity.
In the semi-final he was sent to the one-Michelin-star restaurant Pied à Terre in London, where he was put at the busiest section and confidently worked his way through service. "Considering I had one hour's sleep and about 45 pints the night before, I wasn't too bad." So, that's the answer, I offer. "Yes, go out the night before a big competition semi-final, get loaded and then pick up a sharp knife," he jokes, before recalling with great enthusiasm the feeling of exhilaration when he finished, akin to his debut on the West End stage.
Ultimately, it was singer Niamh Kavanagh who won the competition, but Delaney was lucky to have got past the first episode - never mind into the final - after he undercooked his lamb. In typical Delaney fashion, his faux pas became a moment of humour, with the lamb screaming to be put back in the oven because it was freezing. This, along with his stellar mash potato, won him a place in the next round. But didn't you cook ostrich, I ask, in an attempt to navigate the modesty. He scoffs, "I thought it was beef!"
Simply Simon's: The Diner Cookbook - a nod to his love of diner food - was a seed in his head for some time but until he had completed MasterChef, he didn't have the confidence or, rather - as he's in the business of putting himself out there to be slapped - wanted some culinary weight behind it. The result is a collection of truly mouthwatering American-style deli dishes with a home-cooking bent.
In an industry saturated with cookbooks, Delaney's stands a good chance of being seen: it's peppered with that trademark Delaney wit - stories, jokes, funny quotes - it's personal and the recipes accessible. "A gourmet who thinks of calories is like a tart that looks at her watch," he says with a raucous laugh. Just one of the many food-related quotes dotted throughout the book.
"It's basically a funny book with recipes in it," he muses. "I don't claim to be a chef so I wrote it the way I cook. The dishes are simple and easy to follow and it had to have my voice and reflect who I am. I wrote all 70,000 words," he sighs, recalling the hours spent on the tome. So, there's no marinating beef for five days, or chia seed puddings in there? "No essence of pomegranate or things laced with saffron. I know people will be looking at the front cover and thinking, 'Will ye look at yer man horsing into that burger.' It's not a healthy cookbook but healthy food to me is organic, unprocessed real food. Diner food gets a bad rap sometimes because a lot of it is deep-fried but the recipes in the book are just home cooking done well and at a faster pace."
Most nights he'll cook about four different dinners to satisfy the various taste buds of his family - always homemade, hearty dinners with the exception of the odd evening when he will indulge in his food guilty pleasure, a crisp sandwich. "Batch bread, loads of butter, packet of crisps and an Easi Single slice. Heaven. That's what I'll have when I get home from Cork tonight at 10pm." Would he consider a bit of brown sauce in there? "That's a deal breaker. No way. But sardine paste on the other hand… " I'm not convinced.
With only weeks to Christmas, he is already gearing up in the kitchen. "My mam was a great fan of Christmas so I'll be doing the traditional turkey and ham, and my own sausage stuffing like she used to make, with Sinatra on a loop. I try to vary the starter and the dessert every year and I start prepping a few weeks out."
With four kids, a production company, a weekend presenting job on TV3's Ireland AM and various other scripts and roles on the boil, it's no surprise that Delaney's personal motto is that old Roy Keane mantra: 'Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.' "The kitchen is my happy place but it's also stressful and I need to be organised."
Admittedly he's the kind of person that will take the plate off you while you're eating so he can wash it. "I'll cook you a lovely dinner but you'll have about eight minutes to eat it," he jokes. "But I do treat all my work like my cooking: don't be caught out without an ingredient. Do the prep and make sure you've everything ready to go. Jesus, I sound like a dream," he laughs. On the passenger seat beside him is a laptop and five notebooks, one for every task he has on the boil at the moment, full of ideas and lists. "If you're thinking of what to get me for Christmas, I love a good notebook."
Delaney humour is never far away. Most of us know him as the "fat funny bloke" (his words), his back catalogue full of those comedic roles. But while his onscreen persona has been anchored by humour (Bachelors Walk, Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie, Moone Boy, the award-winning children's animation ROY), he has shown remarkable range in his career, with his stage performances leaning on the more serious side (Glengarry Glen Ross, Stones in His Pockets, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and more recently he ventured into unfamiliar territory with a role in horror flick The Conjuring 2. "I hate horror movies so The Conjuring 2 was the first one I've ever seen in my life. I'm in it, I know what happens but I still watched it through my hands, terrified." He'll happily act in more - but he just won't watch them.
Delaney is nothing if not versatile but admits to "coming to it late", cutting his chops in musical theatre in his 20s. He joined musical societies around Dublin, where the training consisted of building and painting sets and hanging lights. Shortly after he stepped in for his cousin on short film Vicious Circle, his agent Lorraine happened to see him in it and asked if he wanted to try his hand at acting for a year. "I was a sales rep at the time and thought I'd see how it went. I could always go back to it if the acting didn't work out." Three months later, he was on a movie set with Sally Field and Michael Richards (Seinfield). "I remember thinking, 'Jesus, I've made it.' I didn't work for three months after that," he laughs, "and quickly started to realise how difficult and inconsistent being an actor actually was." Bachelors Walk, where he played would-be barrister Michael, was his meal ticket and, in his opinion, a character everyone could relate to. "My sister used to joke that they just pointed a camera at me - there was no acting at all. I won't lie: it was seriously good fun."
There is an 'I still can't believe it' aura that suffuses Delaney. Much like his on-screen personas, there is nothing about him that reeks of actor imperialism. Would it be fair to say, a bit of 'Michael' still remains? "Maybe, although the Simon back then was basically chancing his way through things, but what that show did was develop a serious work ethic that I still have to this day."
So what might he say to his twentysomething self should he have the chance? He laughs out loud. "Stop smoking, you eejit." This brings us to the subject of important life lessons. Delaney's one regret is that his parents never saw him on TV or on stage. He is, rather touchingly, extraordinarily proud of his wife, Lisa, who, he claims, is his biggest supporter. "No matter how stupid my ideas, she always tells me to give it a go." But it's the words of his late father that have stuck with him. "He told me to always have a chat with the doorman on the way up in the lift because he'll be there on your way down."
There's no danger of any doors closing for Delaney right now. The lift is still on the way up, and with it there may be moonlight, music, love and romance and even, most likely, the odd joke and a crisp sandwich.