Tuesday 23 January 2018

"Normality is waking up with someone you love beside you", says Donal Skehan

After a year of exhaustive globe trotting and non-stop work, Weekend columnist Donal Skehan was burnt out and feeling low. Here, he tells how a change of lifestyle and the support of his new wife gave him back his joie de vivre - and inspired his new healthy cookbook

On his fifth cookery book: Donal Skehan and Max, by Sofie Larsson-Skehan
On his fifth cookery book: Donal Skehan and Max, by Sofie Larsson-Skehan
Donal and Sofie on their big day in Dublin last June: "We had the most beautiful wedding". Photo by tentwentyone.
Recharged: Donal Skehan. Photo: Sofie Larsson-Skehan
Fresh, by Donal Skehan

Chrissie Russell

I can't help it. I have to tell Donal Skehan I like his balls. As I blurt out the statement I can sense one or two heads turning enquiringly, and the clatter of coffee cups seems to lull slightly in the bustling House restaurant, in Donal's native Howth where we meet on one of the rare weekday mornings he has free.

"Ah, you checked out my balls," The Weekend columnist says grinning mischievously. "Excellent, what did you think?"

Surprisingly delicious, is my honest reply. I hadn't high expectations. As a lady who likes her sweet treats laden with butter and ideally rolled in sugar I wasn't sure when whipped up a batch of his Energy Balls, a healthy snack recipe taken from Donal's latest cookbook, Fresh. Yet, lo and behold the date, cacao and almond butter packed snack is a revelation, a tasty, guilt-free triumph.

There really should never have been any doubt in my mind that they'd be a success because the 29-year-old has the Midas touch. From starting as a self-taught food blogger in 2007, he's become a regular on RTÉ.

In the last year he's done more TV work than ever before, travelling to Sweden once every two months to film his show there and signing a new two-year contract with the Food Network UK. The latter has involved touring 10 European cities for press and will involve a trip to Russia in the New Year.

"These are the first two days I've had back home since the start of August," reveals Donal. "I've been in a different country every week since then."

Already this year he estimates he's taken around 100 flights and, he says with pride, he's never missed one…even after a night out drinking whiskey sours (his cocktail of choice) to celebrate the end of a project. Next week he'll be in Spain and the following week there's another trip to London. Then - finally - things should settle down a little.

"It's been pretty busy," he says, without even a hint of sarcasm. "In the last two weeks I've also been coasteering, rockclimbing, mountain biking, boot-camping and climbed Carrauntoohil." His sudden enthusiasm for adventure sports was part of filming for his new RTÉ series, which focuses on healthy lifestyle and is linked in with the launch of Fresh.

It's his fifth cookbook and the one which he says has the biggest sense of personal purpose for him. Because, despite the fame and success and his permanently sunny TV personality, a year-and-a-half ago Donal Skehan wasn't happy.

His schedule was pushing him to breaking point and he fell ill in Vietnam, ending up in hospital on antibiotics. No sooner had he returned to Ireland, than he embarked on a 20-date tour across Ireland.

"There was no punctuation to it. I was exhausted, I wasn't eating the right foods, wasn't getting the chance to exercise," he says. "It got to the point where I was like, 'something's got to give, something's not right here'. I felt down. And the thing is, you're doing 20 dates across Ireland and you have to put a smile on your face. It wasn't that I was being fake…" he trails off.

It wasn't depression, he says but he thinks that "if it was the start of something like that" then it's important to talk about, citing The Voice star Bressie, as a refreshing voice on the subject of mental health.

"I was certainly down [and] I would have said to Sofie 'this has got to a point where I'm not enjoying what I'm doing'," he continues. "But I had it within my skill set to fix it. I'm a problem solver."

Part of that problem solving involved taking time out for himself. He now gets up an hour-and-a-half earlier than he needs to every day. He uses the mental health app Headspace for meditation and deep breathing. He goes for morning walks and runs, has been doing a Harvard course on positive psychology and listens to motivational 'School of Greatness' podcasts. He prepares healthy meals in advance and checks out that the hotels he stays at offer nutritious food he wants to eat. Fresh is testament to this new, healthier lifestyle.

"I'm in a completely different place to where I was a year-and-a-half ago," he smiles. "I can feel it's good for me."

If anything, this revelation that all was not perfect in Donal Skehan's world, makes him even more relatable. He has, what Louis Walsh would dub 'the likeability factor'. He actually knows Louis well from his pre-cooking life, when he was a member of the boyband Industry, touring with the Pussycat Dolls and producing two Irish number ones.

He's also willing to admit that he doesn't always get it right in the kitchen. Last Christmas he ruined the Christmas ham after miscalculating the weight and boiling it to a shredded mess. His dog, Max, ate his leg of lamb leftovers.

But one area of his life does seem pretty picture perfect. In June he married his long term Swedish girlfriend, Sofie Larsson. The couple, who rent a home in Howth and have been dating since 2006, tied the knot at Dublin's city hall before enjoying a sumptuous reception with 120 guests at Lisnavagh House in Co Carlow.

"We had the most beautiful wedding," says Donal, clearly unable to stop himself from beaming at the memory. "It was a total credit to Sofie's organisational skills and her love and passion for making sure things are done right." In the four weeks before the wedding, Donal was travelling. "I was in Amsterdam, Budapest, Lisbon, San Sebastian and somewhere else," he says reeling off capitals as it they were stops on the DART. "I was up at 6am and not finished until 10pm so the gap to talk to Sofie was so limited but rather than crumbling under the pressure she rose to it."

There's something genuinely touching about the way he so obviously fills with pride when he talks about his new wife and in things he singles out as being his favourite points in the day: the moment waiting for her to walk down the aisle, "she just looked stunning", the moment just the two of them got to see the venue done up and a moment when they shared a cup of tea, away from everyone else. "Just before the food, in the middle of the madness of the day a guy from Lisnavagh House took us to this little library. We both looked at each other as if to say 'we can't believe we've done it!' It was fantastic.

The food, catered by Jenny Glasgow at Eastern Seaboard, was as one might expect, delicious. A feast of hanger steak, chargrilled outside and served with an Asian dressing and garlic scapes, spatchcock chicken with mango salsa, beetroot, purple potatoes and loads of greens.

The starters were pork belly cups and wafers piled with crab mousse and asparagus spears , salmon roe and strips of nori seaweed made to look like ice cream cones. The wedding cake was a "meringue dreamscape".

Unlike many couples who barely taste the food at the wedding breakfast, Sofie and Donal were determined to enjoy it. "We put a lot of time into it and there was no way I wasn't going to eat that food!" he laughs. "We wanted something hearty, something that was more about sharing and talking about the food than having a smear of something on a plate."

As with the wedding, in their every day life it's Sofie who is the organised one. "I'm the ideas person," says Donal. "Sofie tends to be the one who makes sure it happens. I wouldn't be able to do what I do without Sofie."

They have worked together from the beginning, but as a food stylist, Sofie, also has other projects. When I meet Donal, she is doing props at a cookery book shoot for chef, Sharon Hearne Smith. Donal's travels over the last six weeks have been conducted solo but he reckons doing separate projects helps them from talking shop all the time. "We keep a balance, but it is tough," he says, and yes there are fights. "Mainly over work and little things that need to be organised," he reveals. "We fight, but we fight in the most healthy way. You have to be able to discuss any issues."

Just recently there was a set-to over packing the car - a barney that was diffused when they realised the dog had had left the car. "He was standing across the road just looking at us as if to say, can you two please stop? We both burst out laughing."

Their honeymoon in Ravello, Italy was all too brief, just five or six days, the first two of which were spent sleeping and eating. No work talk was allowed and he was, he says, under "strict instructions" to leave his phone alone. "That's the next thing I need to conquer: my phone addiction," he says.

It's understandable that the mobile is never far from his reach given that he has a thriving online presence to maintain. Some 108,000 follow his posts on Instagram, he has 250,000 subscribers on his Jamie Oliver backed YouTube channel and nearly 50,000 fans on Twitter.

It was his online success that garnered Jamie Oliver's attention but other celebrity fans have followed including Nigel Slater, Nigella Lawson and John Torode.

But he is resolutely un-showbizzy. On one of those 100-odd flights this year he was pulled over by security in Gatwick and had to wait half an hour for his bag to be checked, but he's genuinely aghast when I ask did he not try and pull the 'don't you know who I am?' card.

"I did not! Jesus Christ… Never! I'm not that person and I never will be. If I ever became that, I've enough friends and family that would give me a box round the ears."

The friends he has around him are those he grew up with at school and he's very close to his parents who he, Sofie and Max moved back in with, last Christmas when things were tough.

"They are my core," he explains. "It can be a strange world, travelling on your own, and you have to come back to something that's normal. When I was in the band I saw the crazy side of it and that's not normal. Normality is waking up with someone you love beside you."

The recipes in Fresh are ones he uses all the time at home. Along with the Energy Balls, there are chickpea and beetroot burgers, Za'atar Quinoa poached eggs and Super Power Veggie Summer Rolls.

He's passionate about the link between what we eat and how we feel, but I can't help asking if he ever succumbs to a dirty big burger or a portion of chipper chips.

"If I was somewhere that had amazing burgers, of course I'd have a burger," he says. "Or I was in Cannes recently and it was truffle season and the people I was there with took me to this restaurant where there was a huge plate of pasta with cheese and truffles and I tucked into that. You have to enjoy life."

I point out that truffle season isn't exactly the 'burger from a van of doom' guilty pleasure I was talking about.

"Ah no, a van of doom doesn't appeal," he admits. "After how many drinks, I would still be steering clear of greasy food like that. As a kid I loved crisps and sweets, but it's not something that's part of my daily life any more. The decisions I've made over the past year don't fit with that style of eating."

Donal's healthy regimen will be something that stands him in good stead when he embarks on his next venture, a move to LA in February, a decision fuelled by his internet success.

He just recently returned from the West coast where he was shooting a documentary for RTÉ's Reality Bites series looking at the success of YouTube stars. The hope is that being Stateside will boost his US profile. "We realised you need to be there for a longer time if you want to make inroads," he explains. The couple will spend three months in LA, then come back to Ireland for the Irish series and Food Network show then back to LA for another three months.

With such a hectic schedule I say I can see why he's said in previous interviews that kids might not be on the horizon for a while. "I know," he laughs, although interestingly he adds: "Sofie says that shouldn't stop things. We both said we would never have time for a dog but we make time."

He is a little worried though that he may already started sounding a little 'too LA', what with the healthy eating and his new found emphasis on having 'flow ' in his life. "I'm glad you pulled me up on that," he says when I raise an eyebrow at his decision to refer to himself as a 'food communicator'.

"I'm just not a chef," he explains. "My aim is to inspire others to cook. When I started out, I used to get all the trolls online throwing their stones. People didn't really understand, they thought I was looking for a fast track to a Michelin star."

He goes on: "And when you start out, you're insecure. I was 23, I didn't know who I was, just that I was doing something I loved. It's only in the last four years that I've grown in the confidence to go 'this is what I do'. I'm not trying to be anyone else. I do it to the best of my ability and if you want to give me stick, do it, because I 'll continue. I know who I am."

And if his success continues its meteoric trajectory, it won't be long before LA knows who he is too.

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