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
Soup with that? Skehan’s ultimate culinary challenge
Skehan wants to gauge how much I know about food. I tell him how I cook: I stir-fry everything I can find, then dump soup on top of it. He looks at me incredulously. “You. Dump. Soup. On. Everything.” He shakes his head. “I’m not sure you understand the word ‘stir-fry’.”
He’s worried we might be starting with something too sophisticated: orange polenta cake. He asks me to line the cake tin. I think this sounds a bit fussy. “Do you really have to bother lining the tin?” I ask.
“Not preparing is the one mistake people make when baking,” he says. “You have to line the cake tin!” He shows me how to cut a dainty little, cake-tin shaped circle of parchment paper. “It looks like a paper aeroplane,” I say. He can see I’m getting distracted.
Five minutes in and I’m already feeling restricted by Skehan’s crazed “rules”. For example: “Preheat the oven.” I didn’t get where I am in life without taking short cuts on things like that, I think. He must be psychic. “When you’re doing this at home, will you preheat the oven before you start?” he asks.
“Probably not,” I say. “YOU HAVE TO PREHEAT THE OVEN,” he says.
There are bowls containing ground almonds, polenta, eggs, baking powder, pistachios and oranges. There’s a big whisk. He shows me a technique for cracking – but not smashing – eggs. I take the delicate egg in my huge man-paw. Egg juice runs down my hands. “Have you ever read Of Mice and Men?” I ask.
But I find that I quite enjoy breaking food. Smashing eggs. Gouging oranges. Later, as I grind cardamom with a mortar and pestle I ask whether chefs ever need goonish henchmen. He confirms that these are called sous chefs.
He is perplexed by me, and he keeps trying to get to the root of my educational difficulties. “Did your parents cook?” “Did you lose a cookery competition at a young age?” “Did you ever have a bizarre baking accident?” “Do you feel like adding soup to this cake?”
Sometimes I do well. I level off a teaspoon of baking powder with my finger. “Very dainty of you,” he says approvingly. “You could be Ireland’s answer to Mary Berry. ”
Later we bond while grating some orange zest. “My zest looks different from your zest,” I say, sounding disappointed. “My zester was bigger,” he says modestly.
Then I scoop the cake mixture into the cake tin from the bowl, studiously ignoring a technique he shows me. “It’s heavy,” I whine.
“Why do you have to fight me?” says Skehan.
“If this was a Hollywood movie I’d eventually become your best student,” I say. “You’d say: I thought he was trouble but he was a maverick who played by his own rules.”
“He’s really come on, that Patrick,” says Skehan, getting into the spirit of things while looking dramatically into the distance. But a little later he says: “I didn’t think you’d be as moany as this.”
While the cake is baking (it takes aaages), he shows me how to make a syrup with orange juice, Irish honey he collected himself and some rosewater. “It kind of smells like your granny’s knicker drawer,” he says of the rosewater.
What a strange thing to say, I think, and stare at him judgmentally. “It’s a really, old-fashioned sweet smell,” he says defensively.
Forty minutes later I’m staring at the cooling cake like a hobo. “You have to wait just a little longer,” says Skehan.
“Food doesn’t really last long in the open where I’m from,” I explain.
Syrup, zest and pistachio nuts are added, and then it’s eating time. I cram cake in my maw.
Skehan is appalled. “You’re not tasting the flavours!” he says. I gobble more slowly.
Earlier I had asked: “You know how sometimes in the [television] show you have a group of cool friends who hang out and eat the food?” He says that that only really happened in the first series.
“Well if you do it in the next series, can I be one of them?”
Now, I can’t hear him say yes on the dictaphone recording, but I’m sure I remember him saying it. He must have said it very quietly because he was so moved.
Recipe for Donal Skehan's Polenta Cake
Butter, for greasing
8 green cardamom pods
225g ground almonds
1 heaped tsp baking powder
225g caster sugar
225g butter, softened
3 large eggs
Grated zest of 3 large oranges
1tsp vanilla extract
50g pistachio nuts, roughly chopped
Créme fraïche, to serve
For the syrup
Juice of 2 large oranges
3 tbsp honey
2 tsp rosewater
Preheat the oven to 180C (350F), Gas Mark 4, grease a 20cm diameter springform tin and line the base with baking parchment.
Bash the cardamom pods in a pestle and mortar and extract the seeds. Next bash the seeds to a fine powder and add to a bowl together with the ground almonds, polenta and baking powder.
Beat the sugar and butter in a bowl until the mixture is light and pale. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Tip the bowl of dry ingredients into this mixture and fold with a spatula until just combined. Add two-thirds of the orange zest together with the vanilla extract, and fold through.
Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and place it on the middle shelf of the oven to bake for about 40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and the tin and allow to cool on a wire rack.
Prepare the syrup by placing all the ingredients in a small saucepan over a medium heat and bringing to a steady simmer.
Pierce holes all over the cake with a wooden skewer while it is cooling and pour over half the syrup, a little at a time, until the cake has soaked it up. Sprinkle with the pistachio nuts, drizzle with the remaining syrup and sprinkle with remaining orange zest to decorate.
Serve in slices with a dollop of crème fraïche.