Monday 19 November 2018

'The homesickness has become more intense since we had Noah' - Donal Skehan

Moving to LA and becoming a father have caused Donal Skehan to reassess his approach to cooking. Here, he tells Katy McGuinness how his latest book, Meals in Minutes, is full of easy, speedy, affordable recipes that give him time to get out of the kitchen and explore the city with his family.

Donal Skehan. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
Donal Skehan. Photo: Naomi Gaffey

Katy McGuinness

Donal Skehan may not look like anyone's idea of a home economics teacher, but his new book, Meals in Minutes, is full of the kind of sage, practical advice about meal planning, smart shopping and store-cupboard ingredients that many of us vaguely remember from school, but have ditched along the way, because it doesn't quite chime with the idea that we think of ourselves as spontaneous, creative cooks.

But dishes such as Soy & Butter Pasta (which Donal reckons is going to be the most popular in the book - you can find the recipe overleaf), Ching's 3-cup Chicken and Saltimbocca alla Romana don't sound like anything we learned back in the day. "All my books are about accessible food for home-cooks," he says, "rather than cheffy, restaurant food, but this is my most user-friendly yet."

Donal and his wife, Sofie - the couple married in 2015 - have been living in LA for the past two-and-a-half years, and eight months ago were joined by baby Noah, to whom the book is dedicated. "A whole slew of different factors over the past few years forced me to re-evaluate and change the way that I cook," says Donal, who's staying at his parents' house in Dublin while filming the second leg of the series to go with the new book, which will be broadcast on RTÉ in the autumn (if you missed part one earlier this summer, it's currently showing on the Food Channel and available on the RTÉ player). There are views from the sitting room at the front of the house across the treetops towards Lambay Island and Ireland's Eye, and the dog, Jake, dozes quietly - except when driven to distraction by the buzzing of a fly that he's determined to annihilate.

"The first thing that happened was that the cottage that we had been living in in Howth, where we also filmed, was going to be sold. I suppose we could have looked for somewhere else to live in the area, but after Jamie Oliver invited me to be one of the members of his FoodTube team, I'd gone to the VidCon conference that the YouTubers go to and it really opened my eyes to all the possibilities that were there waiting for us in the US. LA is a base for a lot of YouTubers, as the corporation's headquarters is there, so it was the obvious place to go.

Donal Skehan. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
Donal Skehan. Photo: Naomi Gaffey

"Alongside that, we'd been talking to Food Network about me becoming a judge on their Star Kids show with [former Sister, Sister star] Tia Mowry. Once you're in the Food Network fold you're invited on to all the shows - Chopped, Food Network Star, and lots of others. So, after an amount of soul-searching, we decided that the time was right to make the move and explore the opportunities that were presenting themselves to us in LA. In a way, the cottage being put up for sale was the catalyst for the move, like a bandage being ripped off a wound."

The couple packed up all their belongings ("we were terrible hoarders, you should have seen the amount of stuff that we had accumulated!") and headed west. "Looking back," says Donal, "we should have done a big, proper move with a container, but we did it in suitcases. We had to start over from scratch in all aspects of our lives. We had nothing. The only way that I was able to get a car lease, because I had no credit history in the US, was because I was able to show the woman from the leasing company a photo on my phone of me with Bobby Flay and Giada de Laurentiis - the two biggest stars on Food Network. Then she believed what I had told her that I did for a living!

"When we arrived, we had a few friends, people we'd met from the YouTube community. But how well do you know people after meeting them for one or two dinners? That was the hardest thing when we first arrived, literally establishing a friend group. You're busy with work all week and then when the weekend comes, what are you going to do, who are you going to see?"

In the early days, Donal and Sofie rented Airbnbs for a couple of months at a time, using it as a way to research and get to know their new city. "As a tourist in LA, you arrive expecting to find a centre, but it's not like that, it's more a succession of different neighbourhoods, with a population of 14 million. We started out living in Venice by the beach but every weekend we would go and explore, and we've ended up living in East LA, where the food scene is fantastic. It's definitely being gentrified, but there's still the contrast between the authentic old taco places and the hip barber shops with cocktails at the back; the Beverly Hills crowd don't make it out this far. Tourists don't really get a sense of LA as a food destination, but when you live here you get to do a deep dive in."

Donal Skehan. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
Donal Skehan. Photo: Naomi Gaffey

Once Donal and Sofie had decided on East LA, the big challenge was finding a house with a kitchen suitable for filming. "Many of the places we saw might not have been updated since the 1970s, but as we need to shoot content at home we had to find somewhere with a great kitchen. The little house we found eventually is perfect, with a garage that I can use as an office and a tiny photo studio."

Having left all their cooking equipment in storage back in Ireland, the kitchen was another thing that Donal and Sofie had to start from scratch. And whereas back home they had boxes and boxes of "stuff", their new approach - which informs Meals in Minutes - was to keep purchases to a minimum, asking themselves, 'Do we really need this?' ahead of each acquisition. As well as a more streamlined approach to kitchen gadgets, Donal says that his cooking style has changed too - out of necessity. He makes meal plans and shopping lists (having checked the store cupboard), and prepares some ingredients ahead, just the way he was taught in home economics in school.

"It's the truth!" he says. "In school, it would have been drilled into us, but I ignored the advice for years. Now it makes complete sense - and I don't have the time for it to be any other way. Whereas before Noah arrived I might have finished work around 5pm and dreamily pottered around the kitchen for a couple of hours making dinner, now I need to get something on the table in half an hour. In fact, when Sofie was pregnant, it was training for Noah's arrival because I learned early on that if a pregnant woman needs food she needs it right now! Sofie definitely suffered from 'hangriness', so I was already in 'meals in minutes' mode before Noah came on the scene. In a way, the book was born out of chaos, and offers a solution to chaos; it has certainly has changed my way of cooking."

California, with its near-perfect growing conditions, is an eye-opener for anyone interested in food. "I'm a cheapskate," says Donal. "I don't shop at Wholefoods, because everything starts at $5, but there's a 'Lidl' version of Wholefoods called Wholefoods 365 and I shop there; the produce section is fantastic. I love Trader Joe's too; it's very pantry-driven, with lots of store cupboard ingredients. In Howth, we didn't really have an amazing farmers' market, so I wasn't used to shopping at one, but the Hollywood Farmers' Market is the place to be on Sunday morning, with all the hippies and foodies - I saw Alicia Silverstone there one day. I'm obsessed with these Ojai pixie oranges, that are a cross between a mandarin and a clementine, and all sorts of things that I would never have come across before.

"If we're too tired to cook there are lots of options for good fast food in LA, and there's a wonderful vegan place down the road from the house so we head there for early dinner sometimes. Noah sits and eats his broccoli, and we're gone by 6.30pm so we're not disturbing anyone's lovely date night! We find that even the meanest server melts when they see him, so we haven't had any disasters yet."

Donal and Sofie are working on baby-led weaning with Noah and even though it's a messy business, Donal says that it will be worth it if they end up without a picky eater on their hands. "I'm very intrigued by it," he says. "We're lucky in that Noah seems to have taken to food straight off, and he wants whatever we're eating. He is having none of it with purées etc, unless he is holding the spoon. But he is up for soba noodles, sweet potatoes, broccoli fritters, steamed vegetables, Bolognese… I'm hoping it won't change!"

Donal's working day starts early; he's up at 5am or 6am to return calls and emails before the day in Ireland finishes. He has recently set up his own production company, Appetite, with long-time collaborators, Robin Murray and Mark Dillon, director and cameraman respectively. They've drafted in producer Faye McCarthy (with credits including This Morning and Gogglebox), who was responsible for giving Donal his first television cooking break when she put him on Market Kitchen, to join the team. The company will produce Donal's own shows but is also keen to develop new talent.

"For the Meals in Minutes TV series we have a custom-built kitchen and set in Dún Laoghaire, and everything is running smoothly. It's a joy to go to work. All the hard lessons we've learned together over the years have allowed us to streamline the process - we're not being whooshed out of someone's kitchen at 4.30pm because they need to cook their own dinner and we have the edit suite right next door…"

After a summer break, Donal will be back on Saturday Kitchen on the BBC in the autumn, and in LA, his current focus is on reinvigorating his YouTube channel. "The audience is generational, so it changes all the time," he explains. "You have to keep coming up with new concepts. We are doing more 'out and about' filming around LA, which gives me an opportunity to be more creative than just being in a kitchen filming recipes. It's just me and another guy with a camera on a tripod and a microphone on top, self-shooting. You have to be a chameleon in this world to maintain a career. I'm always looking ahead. I spent a long time behind a counter cooking, so I am loving this. We film most weeks, at the moment we're working on a series about different food categories - pizzas, tacos, ice-cream, noodles, fried chicken, barbecue, restaurants that specialise in kimchi… it's endless. I'd love to tell you that I have a researcher, but I do it all myself!"

It's clear that Donal's determined not to allow himself to be pigeon-holed as an Irish food celebrity in the US. "I grew up with traditional Irish food and there's a place for that, of course, but I have travelled the world seeking out new flavours and ingredients and that's where my interests lie. When I go on the Today show on NBC it's very much the Meals in Minutes-type recipes that I'm cooking rather than anything specifically Irish. You can play the Irish card, but I see broader opportunities for me in cooking the food I'm passionate about."

While everything is going well for Donal and his young family in LA, the pull of home remains strong and he's very much looking forward to a holiday in Puglia to celebrate his mum's birthday. "I did the cliff walk in Howth this morning and it was so gorgeous; it's lovely to be home and have the security blanket of family and old friends. Coming back, there are huge pangs of homesickness and if anything, those have become more intense since we had Noah, as we're so aware of all the stages that our parents are missing out on. We're determined to keep up the connections with home with regular visits and, while we'll stay in the US for a while longer, we would both like our children - if we have more - to grow up closer to Sofie's family in Sweden and mine here."

Photography by Naomi Gaffey

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