Friday 18 October 2019

TV chef Donal Skehan's recipe for love

Sofie Larsson came to Ireland to visit her best friend but also met food guru and former pop star Donal Skehan

Donal and Sofie have been together since 2006
Donal and Sofie have been together since 2006

Andrea Smith

SHE had only come to Dublin for the weekend to catch up with her best friend, so Sofie Larsson wasn't expecting to find love, particularly not on the very day she arrived in 2006. However, she met Donal Skehan, and they are still going strong seven years later.

He got in fast, we tease, asking him if his radar cranked into action when it detected the gorgeous blonde in the vicinity? "Yeah, I was standing at the airport with a sign saying, 'Any Swedish girls?,'" he jokes.

Donal and Sofie, who are enormous fun, have now been working together since 2009. This coincided with the explosion of 27-year-old Donal's food career. From his RTE series Kitchen Hero, and cooking with Jamie Oliver to his role on the successful BBC Junior MasterChef, the Dubliner is taking the world by storm. He recently travelled across Italy recording a cookery series, Grandma's Boy, for the Fox network, and was invited onto The Today Show on NBC. He won Best Irish Food Blog in 2010 and his book, Good Mood Food, won the best Irish-published book category at the Irish Book Awards.

Sofie, 26, is from Gothenburg in Sweden, and she studied event management and business in Martin College on Australia's Gold Coast. Not the most study-friendly place, she confesses. When she returned home, she decided to visit her best friend, who was spending the summer at her grandmother's house in Howth. At that time, Donal lived two doors away, and Sofie and her friend joined his gang of pals when they went out for dinner that first night.

"Donal had a friend in Sweden, and he started speaking some Swedish to me, which really impressed me," she says. "Swedes can be a bit more stand-offish, but Donal was so attentive and charismatic, and he was so interested in what I had to say."

After the dinner, the gang dressed up to attend a Back to School party at a nightclub. So what was it that attracted Donal to Sofie?

"The blonde Swede with pigtails dressed as Britney Spears?" he says with a laugh. "You're painting a terrible picture of me! We really clicked instantly, and chatted for the night. I thought she was gorgeous as well, and I loved her blue eyes. I think we found a real friend in each another, and met at a really early turning point in our lives. It was lovely to have a shoulder to lean on in Sofie as things developed for me."

Donal's parents, Liz and Dermot, own a food business, Fresh Cut Food Services, which supplies prepared vegetables, fruit and deli salads, and hand-made pies and quiches. While he adored cooking growing up, and was encouraged by his mum, Donal never thought of it as a career. After school, he embarked on a media studies course at Dublin Business School. Then, to his mum's dismay, he auditioned in London and joined the boyband, Streetwize, for a couple of years. "Think white suits and cheesy ballads," he says, adding that he had some fun and some great experiences. When the band came to an end, he did the Bil Keating course in TV presenting, around the time that he met Sofie.

He and Sofie then worked together in a restaurant on an island off Gothenburg for a few months, and then Donal came home to a job as a writer and producer with the now-defunct TV channel Bubble Hits, where he worked on a show presented by Glenda Gilson. He did that for two years while Sofie worked in an office, and he then joined the band Industry, with Michele McGrath, Morgan Deane and Lee Hutton. They had a couple of number one hits and supported The Pussycat Dolls and JLS.

When they decided to call time on the band, Donal's food career was taking off. He had been food blogging through this time, and an impressed publisher contacted him about doing a cook book. While promoting it, he was spotted by David Hare, who had produced TV programmes for Rachel Allen and Neven Maguire. The rest is history.

Donal and Sofie now work together full-time and love it. He's the chaos and she's the organiser, they say. While she loves Dublin, Sofie, of course, misses her parents, Ebba and Bengt, and brother Johan. Her parents divorced when she was 12, and it was all very amicable, with Sofie spending two weeks at a time in each parent's house. "I loved having two bedrooms to decorate," she says. The amazing thing about her is that she hasn't a hint of a Swedish accent and you would swear she has lived here all of her life.

While she says that she's more of a worrier than Donal, she has learned to go with the flow, and he says that he couldn't do it without her support and help. They have both worked together on his fabulous new 100-recipe cookbook, HomeCooked, and will be embarking on a live HomeCooked Tour across Ireland next month. Donal will cook delicious HomeCooked meals live on stage, with lots of fun, and will demonstrate a selection of recipes at each venue.

"The most rewarding thing is being able to sit back and realise that Sofie and I have achieved this together," he says, adding that they see a future together and a proposal is definitely on the cards. "And being able to travel with your partner is lovely. Obviously, like any partnership, we can do each other's head in at times, but we're a really good team, and when we achieve something together, it's an amazing feeling."

Donal Skehan, Kitchen Hero, The HomeCooked Tour, November 1-27. Tickets cost €20, and a full list of dates and venues is available on www. donalskehan.com The new series of Kitchen Hero will return to RTE One on November 6, and the new book, HomeCooked, is out now, HarperCollins, €16.99.

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