Thursday 18 July 2019

'Us Irish might roll our eyes at it but I lean into hot yoga and meditation' - Donal Skehan on minding his mental health

While food writer and cook Donal Skehan has embraced many elements of the text book LA lifestyle, the Howth lad never stops missing certain key elements of his Irish life, including the quality Irish seafood, writes Geraldine Gittens

donal
donal
Donal, Sofie and Noah
Donal Skehan
Donal Skehan
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Donal and Sofia
Noah
Donal's Meals in Minutes
Noah Skehan

'It's probably been one of the busiest years we've ever had."

Donal Skehan and his wife Sofie have just landed home in Ireland with their one-year-old son Noah for a one-and-a-half week Christmas holiday. It's been a mad year for the pair, juggling parenthood with finishing Donal's current cookbook Meals in Minutes and its corresponding RTE show, and developing a range of Dine with Donal meals to be served on Virgin Atlantic flights and in the airline's airport lounges.

It's been a year of nappies, meetings, transatlantic flights, writing and filming, and the pair are home now to "regroup", Donal explains.

"I'm looking forward to taking Christmas off. We've a little family Christmas gathering happening and I'm hoping my mam will bring a few things like smoked salmon."

Smoked salmon is one of the few foods that the chef, who first burst onto the Irish cooking scene with his first book Good Mood Food nine years ago, can't find anywhere in his current home of LA.

"We get good Irish butter in America," he muses. "One of the biggest things I miss is Irish cheese - we have the most incredible cheese in Ireland, and really good Irish smoked salmon."

"My weekly habit now in LA is to bake Irish soda bread, but I can't find smoked salmon, and because I grew up in Howth, I've always been around good seafood."

Added to the list of most-missed Irish confectioneries are: "A packet of Tayto. Lots of things you grow up with. Mikado. I love them. All those things."

Talking to Donal though, you'd imagine that there's very little time for homesickness. His brand, which now has over one million followers across social media channels and YouTube, is run by a mere two-person team - himself and Sofie. Because little Noah commands more of their time as he begins to walk and explore the world, are they having to scale back or become a little more choosy about the projects they take on?

"It's a really difficult dilemma. We're very busy. People think we have a whole team, but we work for ourselves, it's our own business and generally speaking, it's myself and my wife Sofie, and from that perspective, you have to always take work when it comes. But I'm trying to do a little bit less travel.

"At one stage, I was literally once a month on a plane back to Europe, and by the time you readjust to the time zone and deal with jetlag, you're exhausted. So I try not to travel as much."

It wasn't long ago that the chef learned a tough lesson on how exhaustion takes its toll on the body. In 2015, he was forced to take time out after he was hospitalised for exhaustion in Vietnam. Since then, he says, he's more careful to stay on top of his health. Just recently, he shared with his Instagram followers how there's been "a lot of deep breathing" and "low points" along with his success.

He wrote: "Stress can be a good thing, it pushes us to meet deadlines and do things we thought we couldn't, but with it you have to take time out for recovery. Taking time to exercise, eat well and do things that make you feel good are essential to keep the show on the road."

So how does he stay on top of his mental health now?

Meditation and hot yoga, he tells the Herald. It all sounds quite LA, but noticeably there's no new-age jargon when Donal frankly puts it that they are the things that suit him.

"Exercise is key, and the one thing that always falls away when everything is busy, is exercise. I can't do crossfit, I can't do the gym. My thing is hot yoga, I've never felt terrible coming out of a yoga class. It's all about the ground work. You get your body before it's screaming at you."

"Meditation is one thing that people roll their eyes about, but if you can do it and it serves you, and it allows you to take a minute for yourself... Those are things I lean into.

"Last year, I meditated 365 days as a little challenge to myself and now, I'm not as regular, but [I do it] at least two or three times a week. I do it when I'm doing yoga, it's how I finish up a yoga session. It's a good practice to have. There's only benefits to be had from it, as much as us Irish might roll our eyes at it, it's definitely a benefit."

He adds: "[Admitting to exhaustion] came a few years ago. I wrote one of the books around it, I had reached exhaustion, normally it's about putting a smile on your face and keeping going, but the biggest lesson is that that's not sustainable and it doesn't serve you in the long run.

"There is a reality to it, and as much as there's great success, there's long hours and days you don't spend with your family. When I have time off, I have specific things I do to refocus and get my head back in the game."

So is life in LA all celebrities and Beverly Hills?

No, he says, but he has spotted Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and he's been spotted himself by fans of his shows.

"I saw Nicole Kidman and her husband having lunch together in the same restaurant we were in. That was the biggest one. You think you're anonymous out there, but we were in a restaurant the other day and a whole load of lovely dishes came out and the chef said she was a big fan of our YouTube shows… And Sofie was in a car park the other day and someone came up to say they love the YouTube channel and Insta stories."

"As much as we miss home, LA is a great place as a leap pad for career opportunities."

Noah, the family's dog Max, and Sofie are as big a feature on Donal's Instagram account as the food. Followers are invited into their cosy world of baby milestones and simple family fun, like the joy of seeing Noah help put the bins out for the first time.

Deciding to share family photographs online is something Donal admits that has to be done with a responsible head.

"We've always shared that side of things on Instagram - the dog, probably, was the most popular for years, he was what people reacted to most, and then the baby came along. It's something we're very conscious of, we're conscious not to share things that might embarrass him in the future. You have to be aware that in the long run, he'll have these photos to look at in years' time."

He adds: "My life is somewhat public and you have to be aware that it affects your family, not just Sofie and Noah, but our parents, my brothers, everyone who knows you; you do have a responsibility for what you share online."

He adds: "I think I've always shied away sharing the tougher things, but as time moves on, you see that there is a responsibility to share those things you go through because we do have a very active community [on social media]."

Meals in Minutes is currently the bestselling cookbook in Ireland. LA has been a big inspiration for his cooking, but so has fatherhood and the attendant dearth of free time.

"The inspiration is definitely different in LA… and I would challenge anyone to show me a city with more cuisines and different cultures coming together as one. One day we're eating Japanese food and then the next we're eating Ethiopian."

"The core of my stuff, there's definitely world flavours in there. But it's all about simplifying recipes, meals in minutes."

"This year when we had Noah I got to that place where I can't roast a chicken and do a full meal, I need a recipe for a really great salad that you can throw together in a few minutes. That's something that everyone suffers from."

"We're still at the start of things out there. But Ireland is such a big part of our business, we'll always be here, we get such love and support from people here."

"This year has taught me to step back a bit and go, 'What do we want to do?' And have a look at where we want to get to in 2019."

"LA is everything that everyone says - when I first went out there, I was 23 and at the time I took, no joke, 30 or 40 meetings and only one person came back and then that never led to anything. One thing I've learned is to just keep the head down and work hard and then good things will come."

Donal's Meals in Minutes by Donal Skehan is published by Hodder & Stoughton, €23.99

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