Donal Skehan, kitchen hero? We’ll soon see about that
Video: To mark the first day of The Irish Times Food Month we set Donal Skehan, the likeable 27-year-old television chef a test – can he pass on his expertise to a surly journalist with crumbs in his beard?
Donal Skehan and his Swedish girlfriend, Sofie, are shelling nuts in the kitchen of their Howth home. Skehan is wearing a blue-and-white- striped apron. Jazz is playing on the stereo. Their dog, Max, an energetic rescue pet, is standing by with a Frisbee in his mouth. In walks a large, surly journalist (me) with crumbs in his beard.
“I’m here to learn to bake,” I grunt. The dog puts its paws over its eyes in a comic fashion (this bit might not have happened).
I have been sent by an editor who finds my culinary ineptitude hilarious and thinks having Donal Skehan teach me to bake will be “funny”. Skehan is the likeable, self-deprecating 27-year-old star of RTÉ’s Kitchen Hero. He’s just back from Italy, where he has been filming a series for Fox International, Grandma’s Boy, in which he cooked with an array of Italian grannies. He’s about to embark on a cookery tour of theatres across the country.
It won’t be his first time on a stage. He has, he says, a “tragic boyband past”. He tells me about Streetwize and their optimistic meetings with the “sleazy”, now jailed N-Sync impresario Lou Pearlman. Skehan later had Irish hits with the pop combo Industry, by which time he had already embarked on the food blogging that lead to his current career. “There’s no heart behind it,” he says of the pop world.
The food obsession didn’t come from nowhere. His parents are in the food wholesale business and all of his family are aficionados. “But my friends thought it was the weirdest thing, cooking, when you could be out playing football. Jamie Oliver changed all that. It was suddenly cool for young guys to cook.”
The Oliver connection
Oliver is a hero of his. In 2009, after the publication of his first book, he met with Fresh One, Oliver’s production company, “armed with my first cook book, which mortifyingly said ‘Ireland’s answer to Jamie Oliver’ on the cover”.
Four years later they got in touch to ask him to contribute webisodes to Food Tube, Oliver’s YouTube channel. He was never as nervous, he says, as he was the first time he cooked with Oliver.
It must help him understand how the children feel when he oversees their work as a judge on BBC’s Junior Masterchef. “You watch these reality shows and go: for God’s sake, why’s she crying?” he says. “But then I was in the situation where I had to send a child home, and I got so emotional. I couldn’t sleep.”
He’s thoughtful about the artifice of television production. “I had a whole lot of meetings in America where they can’t just make a plain cooking show any more. There always has to be a twist. But those aren’t the shows I want to watch. I want to see Ina Garten, Jamie Oliver or Nigel Slater cooking. I don’t want to see Ina Garten parachuting off a cliff.”
The culinary tour brings things back to basics. He’s not sure what it will be like, but when he’s done food demonstrations in the past it’s been a very mixed crowd. Although there are some “screaming teenage girls. Maybe it’s the fact I haven’t cut my boyband hair yet.”
Donal Skehan’s countrywide Home Cooked Tour begins today. Details on donalskehan.com