Sunday 19 January 2020

Neven Maguire: 'I would love to lose a little bit of weight and I need to'

Chef Neven Maguire tells our reporter how his four-year-old twins inspired his new family cookbook, and why winning a Michelin star would be bad for his business

Chef Neven Maguire: 'I love my job, I love my life, I'm very lucky'. Photo: Fran Veale
Chef Neven Maguire: 'I love my job, I love my life, I'm very lucky'. Photo: Fran Veale
Ireland's most popular chef, Neven Maguire. Photo: Fran Veale
Family man: Neven and his wife Amelda (right) with their twins, Lucia and Connor. Photo: Paul Sherwood
Neven, pictured with his wife Amelda with their twins, Lucia and Connor, believes you should involve children in cooking as early as possible. Photo: Paul Sherwood

Maggie Armstrong

As a young boy, Neven Maguire went to bed with cookery books. “How sad am I?” the chef wonders aloud. He’s not sad at all. With 13 cookery books, 120 cookery programmes and a booming restaurant business under his belt, Neven is unquestionably the most popular chef in Ireland.

Shy of his 43rd birthday, he is the number one darling of food, whose adoring personality never lets us down. He would be a culinary Daniel O’Donnell if it weren’t for his rigour as a chef, which lies beneath the surface. He has worked in world-class kitchens (Arzac in San Sebastian comes to mind) and the detailed and inventive fare in his restaurant, MacNean’s, has awed the most jaded of food critics.

Today he is promoting the latest in his blizzarding output, Neven Maguire’s Complete Family Cookbook. His fattest tome yet, its 400 pages of recipes are aimed at “super-busy parents” who want to cook healthy food.  

He is half an hour late, which I’m told is out of character for the celeb who zips from media appearance to cookery school to restaurant kitchen, home to his wife, Amelda, and two small children — sometimes all in one day.

Family man: Neven and his wife Amelda (right) with their twins, Lucia and Connor. Photo: Paul Sherwood
Family man: Neven and his wife Amelda (right) with their twins, Lucia and Connor. Photo: Paul Sherwood

Quickly he makes up for lost time. Short in stature but towering in spirit, he powers into our meeting place dispensing greetings and compliments and cookbooks. (The boot of his car, you’re left to imagine, is stashed with his merchandise.) Not caring to stop for breath, he lets his conversation swoon off in multiple directions.

Interviewing him, you get hints as to the root of his success with people. “That’s a very good question,” he tells me several times, stroking his brow, or pointing an index finger: “Like the way you put that — like the way you put that.” The preternaturally nice Neven makes you feel nice, and more intelligent than you are.

The other touching thing is he is an emotional heap, with faraway green eyes that frequently fill up with tears. (It’s not polite to count, but he almost cried five times in the hour we talked.)  

This book, though, is a happy occasion. “It’s a family cookbook that you can enjoy, a way to celebrate good food that’s not going to cost you the earth. We’ve come through probably one of the toughest recessions,” he says balefully. “People struggle to put food on the table.”

The book urges us to buy locally and seasonally, to batch cook, and not to waste food. Its strongest message is to get children involved as young as possible, because, he reminds me, “we all have to eat”. Neven’s twins, Lucia and Connor, are four-and-a-half and they are “great little foodies”. 

“For me as a parent, the greatest gift I can give to my children is for them to eat healthily, and enjoy food, and eat together. Get them involved in the shopping process and the preparation process, and everyone wins. I’ve never, ever, hand on my heart, cooked anything separate for them.”

Ireland's most popular chef, Neven Maguire. Photo: Fran Veale
Ireland's most popular chef, Neven Maguire. Photo: Fran Veale

They don’t have a children’s menu in the restaurant: “There’s no chicken nuggets or anything like that. Children can get half portions of everything.” His kids have never tasted Coke: “I’m proud of that.”

His book advises you long-suffering feeders to “avoid cajoling, forcing or bribing” if a child won’t finish what’s on their plate; and if they start playing with it, remove it without comment. “We beat ourselves up as parents,” he sighs. Does he beat himself up? “No,” he says, quick-smart. It is difficult to get Neven Maguire to say anything negative. He labours the point: “Sitting together as a family is so important, even if it’s just for 10 minutes at breakfast.”

It might seem rich from a chef who eats Weetabix when he comes home at midnight; or if he is on the road, a burger and chips. “You’d be starvin’. You’ve a craving after an event, oh it’s terrible.”

If he was cooking for himself, he would make a chicken salad, a rib-eye steak or a piece of fish. “My diet is very inconsistent. It can be frustrating sometimes. I would love to lose a little bit of weight and I need to.” Not one to laze about, however, he does boxing, core training, and runs 3 kilometres three/four times a week with his personal trainer. “I’ve my own wee gym at home. It’s my little hour, no mobile phone, that can wait.”

But the idea of sharing food and mealtimes is very important to him. “Once they see what you’re eating they feel part of it, too. Now the twins are into baking and a bit of preparation, they might make their own wee smoothie. We have a tiny little greenhouse just behind my house. So they go out and pick strawberries and different herbs and salad leaves.”

All these good attitudes grew out of the happy culinary atmosphere of his own childhood. “I knew from the age of 12 I wanted to be a chef. I used to live and breathe food.” His parents opened MacNean Bistro and its guesthouse in their own home on the border town of Blacklion, Co Cavan in 1965. Neven now runs it as MacNean House and Restaurant. It’s his HQ, a B&B and rare pocket of fine dining in that part of the world, with a cookery school next door. The only problem is you can’t eat there: weekends are booked out at the 45-seater for the next two years.

Neven, pictured with his wife Amelda with their twins, Lucia and Connor, believes you should involve children in cooking as early as possible. Photo: Paul Sherwood
Neven, pictured with his wife Amelda with their twins, Lucia and Connor, believes you should involve children in cooking as early as possible. Photo: Paul Sherwood

Neven started making desserts in the restaurant kitchen when he was still a tween — “brown bread ice-cream parfait with a passion fruit coulis, and little floatin’ meringues…” he twiddles his fingers excitedly.   

His dad, Joe, who worked front of house, was his “guinea pig,” running to the shops to buy star anise, vanilla and cooking chocolate when the boy was trying out a new dish. “He knew how passionate I was. Ah, he was a good man.”

Joe was killed 16 years ago in a road accident outside Sligo, when a driver fell asleep at the wheel. “That really shook the family,” says Neven. The nine children he left are now “very close”, meeting up every five weeks to eat together. 

Neven was the first boy in his school to take Home Economics. Does that mean he was slagged? “Oh I got slagged. I wouldn’t say picked on, because I’d lots of friends. It ran off me like water off a duck’s back.” He adds, like a boy caught stealing apples, “I loved being with all the girls.”

Eight out of the 15 chefs in his kitchen are women. “I think women are so vital in the kitchen, because they bring a calmness. I really mean that, they’re brilliant.” “That’s not a sexist thing,” he adds hastily.

His mother, Vera, seems to have been a mighty influence in the making of Neven Maguire. She was head chef at MacNean’s through hard times, not to mention providing for her children: “To cook for nine, not easy now.” The restaurant had to close in 1973 after the police station across the border was bombed, hitting their home and shattering the front of the restaurant. 

“We struggled for years,” he says. “Mum was such a hard-working woman, she was just amazing. She was so artistic. I never fell out with my mum. We worked together, my God, for 20-odd years.”

They re-opened in 1989 and he learnt “the basics” from his mother. “I learnt a lot not only about the food, but how good she was to people, and the staff. She was a very caring, thoughtful woman, she’d a good heart. My wife and her, they got on like Amelda was one of her daughters.”

At different times, both women were struck and injured by cars. They both had traumatic twin births. Neven is a twin to David, a schoolteacher. But his mother didn’t know she was having twins.  And four years ago, Amelda almost suffered heart failure days after giving birth to their twins. Neven wells up. “That was a very upsetting time, worrying time. You know, you’ve your beautiful new family, a boy and a girl, life is good, and….” Doctors advised them not to have any more children. But, he says joyfully, “We’re blessed, a boy and a girl!”

Then three years ago his mother, a smoker, died of lung cancer. “Mum was never afraid of dying. She had amazing faith. She said she was looking forward to going to heaven to Dad. Every family goes through different tragic circumstances, I think life is a roller coaster, you’ve got to enjoy and make the most of it.”

Does Neven believe in an afterlife? He nods. “I believe in… I’m proud of my faith. I think you need something in your life. I’m proud of my religion, proud I’m a Catholic. I go to mass once, twice a month.” As if he is being judged by the almighty, he continues, “I don’t go every week — I wish I could tell you I did, I’m not going to lie.” He prays every night and when he’s driving.

He is an ambassador for Target Lung Cancer. “It’s to create awareness — if you think there’s anything wrong with your chest, even if you don’t smoke, go and get it detected early.” Charity and good deeds feature large in his life. “For me it’s about giving back.” 

He weeps talking about visually-impaired children from the National Council for the Blind who came to his cookery school to make “salmon parcels, their own little pizza and chocolate mousse, all the recipes in Braille. It’s heart-wrenching to be honest with you, I’d a lump in my throat… Your health is your wealth.”

He weeps talking about a time he went to the house of a young woman with Motor Neurone disease to cook special dishes for her and her family. 

He weeps most of all when talking about Amelda, who “probably doesn’t realise how good she is”. They met 15 years ago in a nightclub in Enniskillen. A former Credit Union clerk, she is now central to the business they run. 

“She’s my best friend, she’s a great woman. And you know, she’s such a big part of the success of the business. She doesn’t get enough praise, because everyone just sees me.”

He cannot extol Amelda enough. “She’s a very smart woman. She’s my biggest critic.” She influences all his decisions. “She’ll always ask, ‘Is it in your best interests Neven, and what’s it going to do for you?’” He has learnt, “If she’s not happy with it — the woman is always right.” Which is not being sexist, he adds again.

The cookery school, the fine restaurant, his RTÉ programmes, being the new face and chef for Dunnes Stores Simply Better, releasing this cookbook — how does one man oversee all these things while keeping up a high standard?

“Two answers,” he says, “Amelda and Andrea” — the latter his PA and “guardian angel”, who manages his diary with his wife. If he didn’t have these two women rallying next to him, he’d say yes to everyone, he says, indicating the reason he’s off to make prawn bisque and floating islands at a demo in Ballinasloe tonight instead of going home to his family. “There’s no such thing as no with me. I’ve such a positive outlook. I love my life. I feel bad saying no. So I surround myself with people I love and trust. It’s very much a team effort — it’s not a one-man show.”

It’s a team you would want to be picked for if you moved in the food world. Every year the staff at MacNean’s pool their tips and go abroad to five-star restaurants and the best food markets, to taste and learn new things. Last month, he took his chefs to The Greenhouse in Dublin, just because. His other favourite restaurants in the capital — for date nights with Amelda — are Chapter One and Super Miss Sue, and he laments the news that Kevin Thornton is closing his restaurant, calling him a “genius and a gentleman and one of the most gifted chefs we’ve ever had”.

He has “no ambition” to win a Michelin star. “A Michelin wouldn’t help our business, it might be a double-edged sword. It would affect the way people perceive our restaurant. Would they think they have to dress up, that it’s going to be very formal?”

This common touch seems to be what draws so many people to him. One food producer from Cavan told me of Neven, “He’s always got time for people. He’ll always spot that person in the background and make sure to talk to them.

“There is no arrogance about him. He’s able to do the food thing but he talks in a country language. He’ll never talk about it in a complex way.” This food producer marvelled at how a room goes “wild” when he arrives for an event: “I don’t know how he does it, it’s just magic.”

Neven has got to this point without causing a shred of meaningful controversy. Unlike some other celebrity chefs on this island there are no bedroom scandals, no tricky court appearances, not even a temper tantrum to his public record. “Chefs are seen as being grumpy and temperamental. I’ve never lost my temper once in my life,” he claims.

Why does he think he’s so popular? He is misty-eyed at this. “I’m very touched,” he sighs. “I think it’s how you’re brought up, and how you treat people.”

He shrugs away any suggestion that he is a wealthy man by now. “How do you judge wealth? I judge wealth with the quality of life and business. We always re-invest in our business. Our business is doing really well, we pay all our suppliers on the month, all our staff, they feel  they are very well treated.

“It’s about being kind to people. There’s people a lot worse off… So that’s how I judge wealth, it’s the quality of my life. I love my job, I love my life, I’m very lucky.”

He gets just a tiny bit carried away when asked how his friends would describe him. “Loyal. Fun. Respectful. Caring. Kind. Generous — definitely, for a Cavan man! I hope hard working. I get my energy from people. I love when I’m shopping and someone comes up with a butternut squash or a kohlrabi or a celeriac and asks: ‘What’ll I do with this?’ Or they’re looking in your basket asking: ‘What have you got?’ I love that. People are infectious.”

When his wife was in hospital after the twins’ birth, a woman Neven had never met drove to Knock and prayed for her every day. “Sorry now, I’m getting emotional…”

As a lachrymose hour draws to a close, he gets particularly emotional talking about his twins, who started school this September. “It broke my heart. I cried when I left them in. I’ll show you a picture….”

He’s been so packed with this magimix of chat he forgot to eat the piece of lemon cake on the napkin in front of him and his coffee has gone cold. The photographer arrives. Jumping to action, Neven pulls out yet more stops — from two Ted Baker bags he lays out four brand new shirts to choose from, and a make-up compact, brushes and creams, in case he “gets a shine”. But nothing, surely, could take away that shine.

‘Neven Maguire’s Complete Family Cookbook’ is published by Gill books, €29.99

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