Sunday 17 November 2019

'I collapsed in a street market, I had burnt out' - Donal Skehan

John Meagher talks to new Weekend food writer Donal Skehan about burning out in his twenties, his first US TV show being canned and why it makes sense to start thinking about coming home

Noah, Donal and Sofie. Photo: Victoria Wall Harris
Noah, Donal and Sofie. Photo: Victoria Wall Harris
Chef Donal Skehan. Photo: Victoria Wall Harris
Donal and Sofie moved to LA three years ago, and it was there that Noah was born. Photo: Victoria Wall Harris
Donal and Sofie are excited about their impending arrival. Photo: Victoria Wall Harris
Doting dad: Donal with son Noah. Photo: Victoria Wall Harris
Super Food in Minutes by Donal Skehan

The seating area outside the studios at RTÉ's Radio Centre is not the most glamorous of environments, but it was there that this writer first met Donal Skehan more than a decade ago.

Both of us were booked to go on John Murray's morning show and he had brought a large Tupperware container filled with chocolate brownies. He offered me one - and it was delicious. I had never heard of him before that, but his food blog had been getting attention and it turned out he was something of a natural-born broadcaster.

Skehan laughs heartily when reminded of those early days, when he would bring along some home-made goodies to ensure producers, researchers and anyone in the vicinity of a radio or TV studio didn't forget his name.

"I've always had big dreams about what this could become," the Dubliner says, chatting to Weekend on video call from his Los Angeles home, "but the weird thing about a career path is it unfolds in ways you just never anticipate."

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Noah, Donal and Sofie. Photo: Victoria Wall Harris
Noah, Donal and Sofie. Photo: Victoria Wall Harris

In the late 2000s, it was easy to imagine that Skehan was just another flash in the pan, a 'content creator' and influencer who might get to publish one book but would soon be forgotten. It turned out the former boyband hopeful - a member of the barely-remembered Streetwise - was made of much tougher stuff. Now, at 33, he has a quite extraordinary career behind him, with the promise of so much more to come.

"When you step back from it, I cannot believe I have nine cookbooks under my belt," he says, and he can be seen beaming proudly on the cover of his latest, Super Food in Minutes. "And I cannot believe I've done something like 20 television projects. These are phenomenal things and often I don't feel like we celebrate our successes enough. I think that goes for everybody."

Skehan also has close to a million subscribers to his YouTube food channel and the week after we speak he is set to cook to millions on America's evergreen Today Show.

From next Saturday, his new food column will appear in this magazine and he says he is excited about his recipes reaching those who may have been scared of the kitchen up to now.

"For me, it's always been about helping the home cook make simple, delicious and healthy meals."

If that sounds like a neat little spiel, Skehan insists it's not. "My mantra - if that's the word - is to make cooking as fun and as accessible as possible. That's what it was about at the start and it's still what it's about." One of the reasons why Skehan went from bright-eyed boy in his early twenties to, well, bright-eyed man with quite a few grey hairs in his early thirties and with a veritable food empire around him, is due to hard work. His life might look like a picture postcard, but the Howth native toils relentlessly to make sure he can be the best he can be. And sometimes, there's a price to be paid.

Donal and Sofie moved to LA three years ago, and it was there that Noah was born. Photo: Victoria Wall Harris
Donal and Sofie moved to LA three years ago, and it was there that Noah was born. Photo: Victoria Wall Harris

"I had real burnout at the end of my twenties," he recalls, the ever-present smile disappearing. "I had thrown myself into it all so deeply I said 'yes' to everything. I didn't stop. Now, I know when to say 'no', but back then I had a feeling that if I turned anything down, I'd pay for it in the long-term."

Skehan says he suffered bouts of exhaustion where his health took a big hit and while the cynic might scoff at such a thought, anybody who would have seen his schedule five years ago would have understood.

"It was relentless," he says. "I was so competitive in my twenties and I simply didn't take the sort of downtime that I should have done."

It all came to a head when filming in Vietnam. "It was a programme for the [US-based] Food Network and I was ill going out there and I knew that as soon as the work was done, I had a full nationwide tour across Ireland doing cooking in theatre venues. I hoped I'd get through it, but I literally collapsed in a fricking street food market. And, you know, there was no time in the schedule to get sick. You've cameramen getting paid, producers getting paid and the Food Network are expecting a show and you have to keep going."

As soon as the Irish tour was over, he took two months out. "I was still working, but not nearly to the extent that I was. And ever since then, it's something I've been able to recognise - that need to just slow down."

Parenthood has changed him, too. He and Swedish wife Sofie Larsson had a baby boy, Noah, at the beginning of last year and the couple - who first met in Dublin - will be welcoming a second child in just a few weeks. They know the gender but are keeping it under wraps.

Donal and Sofie are excited about their impending arrival. Photo: Victoria Wall Harris
Donal and Sofie are excited about their impending arrival. Photo: Victoria Wall Harris

"I love being a dad," he says, "and it forces you to see what's really important in life. It impacts your work - but that's good, because it means you're selective about what you do and it forces you to work in a different way. Previously, I might take six weeks at a time to make TV, but now I'd break that up."

Skehan and Sofie moved to LA three years ago and it was there that Noah was born.

"We didn't think about it at the time, but it was a bit mad," he says. "Here we were, 6,000 miles from home, and having a baby in a strange hospital in a completely different [health] system and bringing him up away from family and friends. At the time you just throw yourself into it. We didn't stop to think about how daunting it might be. Only now, we're thinking, 'Holy crap!'"

Sofie's mother will come out in the next couple of weeks for the birth of their new baby and Skehan's mother will "be handed the baton" after that. Liz Skehan will stay to help until Christmas. "My dad and brother are coming out for Christmas, too," he says.

Skehan says they moved to California in order to give his career the best shot it could get. It all came about when he was speaking at a panel at a television-industry conference and was approached by one of America's leading TV executives, Kathleen Finch. She told him she was determined to make his star power go far.

"Within months of that meeting, I was hosting a Food Network show. It was real dream stuff, a pinch-me moment - but then, six episodes in, it got canned."

Doting dad: Donal with son Noah. Photo: Victoria Wall Harris
Doting dad: Donal with son Noah. Photo: Victoria Wall Harris

The younger Donal might have been horrified by that turn of events, but he says he was old enough to take it in his stride. "There are ups and downs," he says, matter-of-factly. "As much as that sounds catastrophic, I feel those sort of opportunities will come around again. If you understand the industry, you know things come in waves. We've just finished pitching a show out here for next year, so we'll see what comes of that."

Skehan says he loves the lifestyle of LA. The morning sun beaming through his window is in stark contrast to the overcast evening in Ireland and his at-home uniform of shorts and t-shirt can be worn all year round. "It's still a novelty to be out in October watching the sun set and being in your shirt sleeves," he says, grinning.

Having lived in touristy areas of the City of Angels, the Skehans now call the Eagle Rock district home. "It's between Pasadena and Glendale. It's a sleepy town and very family-friendly. Everyone who comes out to LA as a tourist goes to Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive… but I'd urge them to explore places like this."

He loves the food scene although he quips that there are restaurants that are "peak LA", including one in which "you tell them what you are grateful for that day before you can order any food".

But not everything about their new life is rosy. Skehan says he is often homesick and he was especially aware of the distance to his family and friends during Noah's early months.

"I always use the swimming analogy," he says. "When you get home, you're always able to reach the edge of the pool and hang on. You've got that support. Out here, it's like paddling the whole time, like being a gerbil on a hamster wheel."

He says he really appreciated how life could be much easier if they returned to Ireland, when they were back home in Dublin during the summer. "Noah went down for his nap and Sofie and I went out for a walk the way we normally did in Howth. My mom and dad were looking after him and" - he breathes deeply - "it just felt really chilled. For the first time we were actively thinking 'Will we move home and when will we move home?'"

With baby number two soon to join the household, those questions will get louder and louder. "We know we're not in LA for good," he says. "We will go back, we're just not sure how soon."

Skehan has business interests in Ireland having established a production company here.

"It's called Appetite Media and we're now doing TV shows for other people, not just myself."

He is especially proud of the Beyond the Menu series which features rising chef Mark Moriarty. "So it does make sense to be thinking about coming back."

But it's a decision that he will have to wrestle with. Skehan is arguably more popular now in the US than he ever was. "Am I selfish enough to choose my career over what might be best for my family?" he muses.

Ever restless, he says he has spent much of the past month thinking about how to present his cooking demonstrations on his YouTube channel. Right now, they're slick, high-production jobs typical of big name TV foodies like Jamie Oliver. Skehan thinks the time is ripe to shake that up a little.

"We're actively experimenting with a more free and easy type of filming," he says. "I think there's an evolution coming that makes it a bit more natural and authentic, so less about having everything laid out and ready to go like you see on so many cookery shows and more of the pulling stuff from the press kind of thing. I like the idea of the camera taking a look at what you're doing over your shoulder."

He says it is fascinating to keep track of food trends but says he is not keen on bandwagon-jumping.

"I think vegan food is having its biggest moment right now but I wouldn't write a vegan cookbook because even though I cook a lot of vegan food, it's just not me. And it's the same with baking. I think that phase has passed a bit."

He says he has little interest in faddy food and although he is not adverse to eating so-called superfoods like açai, he loves to put his own spin on the classics. And Super Foods in Minutes is full of them.

"The message from me is still the same - it's about making anybody see that they can cook great food too. None of what I do is 'cheffy'. For me, it's about 10 ingredients or less and that's the case on a personal level more than ever. As a dad, I simply don't have the time to spend hours pottering around the kitchen making complicated dishes."

Skehan has never shied from including details of family life in his books and TV appearances and he says there is a "balancing act" between coming across as a relatable family man and over-sharing.

"From a family point of view you've to be careful of what you put up," he says. "There are no shots of Noah on the loo, nothing compromising or embarrassing. Since we've had Noah, you do get the mommy police - those people who throw up comments. I can't sit here and say that sort of stuff doesn't sometimes weigh on you, but the weight it carries now is far less than it would have done when I was in my twenties."

Like most people in the public eye, he has had his fair share of online trolling but he seems to be philosophical about it.

"Those people who post negative comments online… it's invariably a representation about how that person feels, what they're struggling with themselves. If you pile-on and bully someone that's a reflection of you, not the person you're trying to attack."

And, he reasons, in the scheme of things the odd nasty comment can do little to diminish a life that's content both personally and professionally.

"I've been lucky," he says. "I would have been so thrilled to feel I'd be doing what I'm doing now if you were to hand me a crystal ball that time I met you in RTÉ with the brownies.

"And the beauty of life is you just don't know where it's going to take you next."

Super Food in Minutes by Donal Skehan

Donal's first column for Weekend Magazine will appear next Saturday

'Super Food in Minutes' is out now, and Donal's new RTÉ1 show airs this Wednesday at 8.30pm

Photography by Victoria Wall Harris

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