Donal Skehan: Cooking all over the world

Food writer Donal Skehan will soon take ‘Irish Times’ readers on a global food journey from his new base in Los Angeles. But before heading west, he talks about his plans

'What's he like? Is he really such a nice guy or is it all an act?" Long before The Mario Rosenstock Show's send-up of TV presenter and food writer Donal Skehan as a foul-mouthed, big-haired, bad-tempered diva, people have been asking me that question, and I've been able to answer, honestly, that he really is that nice: genuine, good-natured and charming.

"I was away on holiday when the show came out, and I was terrified," Skehan says about the acutely observed parody sketch in which he is portrayed in less than flattering terms. He learned about it through a Google alert – he may play to the happy-chappy, boy-next-door image, but he's savvy enough to have the search engine tip him off when his name comes up in the media.

“I thought Mario did a very good job – and he managed to perfect the hair!” Skehan says. “I’ve often thought that perhaps my director let some behind the scenes footage out, because I do have a foul mouth when I’m off-camera.

“It was all very close to the bone, maybe not with the aggression, but it was definitely fun.”

In Saturday's Magazine, we meet some of the latest recruits to the Irish Times kitchen, including Skehan, who will be bringing readers on a global food journey from his new base in Los Angeles.

Last month, he and his wife and collaborator, Sofie Skehan Larsson, and their dog, Max, shut the door on their cottage in Howth for the last time and traded cliff walks in blustery rain for the sun-soaked beaches of southern California.

An Airbnb rental in Venice, near the beach, has been their home for the past four weeks. They plan to stay in LA for at least a year, maybe longer, with a brief trip back to Ireland this month to finalise their visas. "It's like ripping off a bandage – you just have to go for it and get out before you get too upset," Skehan says as we sit amid piles of packing cases and bubble wrap in the livingroom and kitchen of the Howth cottage he has shared with Larsson for the past six years.

The cottage, with its apple trees by the front door and lovingly planted kitchen garden at the back, will now be offered for sale by its owner, from whom they have been renting it.

China bowls, wooden utensils and vintage kitchen paraphernalia are stacked all around, being packed up to go into storage. As if to emphasise the point, there's a giant animal travel crate in the corner, which will be transporting Max to LA.

“He’s been in it a few times to get acclimatised. We fed him steak in it so he’d have good memories.”

Skehan is impatient to get on with the next stage in his career. “I’ve been back and forward to the US for the past five years, having meetings,” he says. “We had a first round of meetings in New York and LA, where I met 30 of the top people, NBC, ABC, all the dream places you’d like to be sitting down with . . . And everyone likes you and loves what you do, and they’d love to work with you . . . And then you come home and there’s no return phone calls.”

But now, on the back of solid performances for Fox International (Grandma's Boy), the BBC (Junior MasterChef) and Food Network UK (Follow Donal), as well as RTÉ, doors are opening in the US and he has just been signed as a presenter with Food Network.

“It’s lovely to be going over with work. And I’m ready,” he says emphatically.

With a calmer, more mature personality than he brings to his TV presenting – to go with the salt-and-pepper sprinkles of grey (which I’m not supposed to talk about) in his famously coiffed hair – the almost 30-year-old is indeed ready to move on.

As well as being front of camera, the former pop-band singer – he gets a tad weary when that’s mentioned – is a media mogul in the making. Six months ago he “stepped away, very amicably” from Jamie Oliver’s Food Tube channel in the UK, and began developing his own channel, which now has 300,000 subscribers.

"You don't know where it's going with YouTube, and that's why it's exciting," Skehan says. "It's this juggernaut of people really interacting with your content, far more than they can ever interact with television."

He will also be working with Tastemade, "a video network built for the mobile generation where tastemakers come together to discover and share their passion for great food and travel" – their words, not his – one day a week at a former MTV studio in Santa Monica.

"It's a huge warehouse with five different kitchen sets . . . We'll be shooting one day a week there, doing two to three recipes for Tastemade and two or three for our channel. The videos I will be doing for The Irish Times will be shot there," he says.

The constant stream of work will reassure Skehan’s dad, Dermot, and mother, Liz, who also live in Howth and run a wholesale fruit and veg business.

“My parents are supportive of the move,” he says. “But my dad’s biggest question is: ‘Can you cover your living expenses? Can you afford to move?’”

It looks like the bills will be paid but, contrary to what people might think, Skehan isn’t raking it in and so far hasn’t needed the services of his younger brother John, who works in wealth management.

“This is the misconception . . . that you’re making an absolute fortune – but it’s not true,” he says. “I am not saying I don’t live comfortably, but you have to work at it.”

Los Angeles is not a random choice for Skehan’s relocation – he says his YouTube channel’s analytics show that 80 per cent of his subscribers are in the US, the majority of them in California. LA is also a food hub and a melting pot of culinary activity.

“It’s diverse, to say the least,” he says. “As is to be expected from SoCal, there is a big push towards healthy eating, with juice bars like Kreation doing great work, and I’ve also enjoyed a delicious vegan meal at hippie haunt Cafe Gratitude, where in order to request a dish you have to first tell the waiter what you are grateful for.”

Skehan has lots to be grateful for, having come through a challenging time at the end of 2014 when his packed schedule and relentless travelling took its toll.

“I came to a point of a point of absolute exhaustion,” he says. “I was doing amazing things, but just not enjoying it. It was a point where we had to reassess.”

That recalibration coincided with his participation in the Irish Times/Potentialife Be Your Best programme, a project aimed at helping a diverse group be their best selves, personally and professionally.

“It has had a lasting effect,” he says. “I do yoga most mornings, I do gratitude. I feel LA is potentially the best place for me right now, because I’ve crossed over into Oprah land,” he says. “You have to have a bit of a sense of humour about it. It has also had a lasting effect in terms of chasing work that suits me best.”

A major part in keeping Donal Skehan Inc on the road is played by his wife of nine months, whom he met in Howth in 2006 and who is now chief executive and finance manager of their company.

“I’m the boss on the day-to-day side of things, but Donal has a very clear view of where he wants our business and his career to go, and I enjoy doing my best to make the journey as smooth as possible,” she says.

The couple met when Larsson, who is Swedish, was visiting friends in Howth. “We went for a meal on my first night in Ireland, and kept talking every day after that,” she says.

They married in June, at City Hall in Dublin, with a reception at Lisnavagh House in Carlow, where a family-style feast was catered by their friends Jeni Glasgow and Reuven Diaz of Eastern Seaboard in Drogheda. "It sounds such a cliche, but it really was the best day of my life," Larsson says.

They are both looking forward to exploring LA’s food scene.

“Downtown is a seriously exciting spot right now and one which most tourists miss,” Skehan says. “The Grand Central Market is where all of the city’s cuisines come under one roof and you can cruise from Mexican tacos to baked cheesecakes, or queue around the corner for its hottest new addition, Egg Slut, a counter-style restaurant that specialises in calorific-oozing egg sandwiches.”

The couple acknowledge that what they’re doing is “a gamble” and that they’re nervous. “But I would hate to be in the position at 40 where you look back and think, I had the opportunity to go to the States and develop opportunities and take chances . . . I would be upset with myself if I hadn’t challenged myself to try something different,” Skehan says.

The recipe pages of The Irish Times have been home over the years to a host of talented communicators, from the authoritative Theodora Fitzgibbon to the entertaining Paul Flynn, and many distinct voices in between. Most recently, Domini Kemp has brought her down-to-earth approach to healthy eating to the Magazine's pages.

Skehan says he is “slightly terrified” about stepping into those illustrious shoes, but that it is a challenge he is relishing.

"Coming to 30, it feels like not only have I found my voice, but I am comfortable with it," he says. Read Donal's new column in Saturday's magazine

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