Getting back to basics with Donal Skehan

As he launches his latest cookbook, Donal Skehan talks to Clodagh Finn about juggling his career and family, and why a heavy workload has left him with a few grey hairs.

Getting back to basics with Donal Skehan

As he launches his latest cookbook, Donal Skehan talks to Clodagh Finn about juggling his career and family, and why a heavy workload has left him with a few grey hairs.

“Do you want to know the truth?” asks best-selling food writer and TV host Donal Skehan, leaning in to whisper. “I’ve been dyeing out the grey in my hair since I was about 23.”

Feelgood had brazenly suggested that the soon-to-be father of two was starting to look, well, a little older.

At 33, his face is as youthful as ever, but it is now framed by “distinguished” (we might be rude, but we’re diplomatic too) flecks of grey.

Donal Skehan, however, is not in the least bit put out. He’s already made fun of the “man make-up” he’s dabbed on during the video shoot.

As for the grey hair: “I’m just going to embrace it. I’m going to go the full Marty Whelan!”

Then he laughs and does a really good impression of the American make-up artist who was shocked by his decision.

“No honey, no,” he mimics. “This is not good for you. You need to get your hair to match your eyebrows … but (switching back to himself) I think I need to stop listening to Hollywood.”

There is certainly nothing of the fakery or artifice of the American film industry at Donal Skehan’s production company Appetite Media in south Dublin where he is joined on the custom-built kitchen set by Pippa O’Connor to showcase his latest joint food venture — Cali, Cali, a range of healthy sauces and crisps.

The banter — and the back-chat — is distinctly Irish. The welcome is too.

When Feelgood arrives mid-shoot, Donal Skehan offers tea, coffee, something to eat, all while holding a half-eaten sandwich.

He never gets to finish it as he is off around the set checking the details, the shot in the frame, the light (“What f-stop is that?”) before settling back behind the hob as the camera rolls again.

On the triple

Donal Skehan is not just a talented and genial cook who has struck a chord with people who want good food, fast.

He is also, to quote his business associate Niall McGrath, “a triple threat”.

“He is a TV presenter, a TV producer and an author who knows his own brands. I have never worked with talent like him.”

Niall McGrath and Tom Gannon, the food entrepreneurs behind Fulfil protein bars, travelled to Los Angeles to meet Skehan last summer and together they have produced a new guilt-free brand of crisps and sauces called Cali, Cali.

The first ‘Cali’ echoes the inspiration gleaned from Californian street food flavours while the second underlines the fact that the snacks and sauces are low-calorie.

The brand was officially launched last Saturday, the day after Donal Skehan and co. were sequestered away at Appetite Media in an unassuming business park in Sandycove, Co Dublin.

The production company was initially set up to look after Skehan’s TV shows, but now it is also working with others.

It produced the well-received Beyond the Menu, presented by award-winning chef Mark Moriarty.

Today, though, the focus is on Cali Cali products which, it has to be said, are being served up with a large dollop of fun.

It never fails to impress how quietness can descend so rapidly on a busy, chattering set once the cameras roll.

Then, the man who appears effortless and eternally cheery on a dizzying number of TV shows kicks into action with impressive ease.

He begins by questioning blogger and businesswoman Pippa O’Connor’s choice of kitchen wear: a delicate wool jumper with pale blue, pink and yellow stripes.

She gives as good as she gets and by the time the rib-eye beef hits the pan to make chilli con carne, a few things are apparent.

Every fibre of Donal Skehan’s being seems committed to bringing good-quality, easy-to-prepare food to your dinner table.

It is also crystal clear that Pippa O’Connor not only posts pictures of her food larder on Instagram, she is also pretty food savvy.

Mind you, she’s also keen to pick up any tips that will help get more veg into her sons, Louis (three) and Ollie (six).

Toss some balls of frozen spinach into the mix, Skehan suggests. The kids won’t even notice that they are eating their greens.

Family values

Father of 18-month-old Noah, he knows all about the vagaries of trying to satisfy the demands of a hungry little person.

He and wife Sofie are woken around 6am by happy babbling coming from the cot. There’s a few moments of calm before Noah “turns into an incoherent dictator demanding breakfast”.

The pot of porridge goes on (breakfast in the Skehan household is nearly always porridge) and is served to the “Chairman” in his high chair. Calm is briefly restored until the next meal.

“Everybody is under pressure,” says the food writer who has made it his business to show people that you really can make spectacular meals at the drop of a hat.

His new book Super Food in Minutes continues on that theme but this time the emphasis is on nourishing, “veg-forward”, as he puts it, family food.

“It’s also important to say that it’s my take on superfoods. It’s not about chia seeds or quinoa or the ingredients that go in and out of fashion.

For me, it’s always been about lots of good-quality veg, good-quality meats —but a little less of them — and good fats (I still use butter and cream). And good wholegrains.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, it’s about trying to find balance.

“I think there is always room for manoeuvre. Don’t beat yourself up about having pasta on a Thursday.

"Add some kale and other veg and use up what you might have in the house that’s nutritious. We are not jumping on any bandwagons here.

"It’s about returning to the basics of good food.”

Back on set, the Donal and Pippa Show — they should consider making one — continues.

When Feelgood suggests they would make a good two-hander, they take it literally and pin one hand behind their backs.

There is fun and verbal sparring and lots of good food tips (to get the most from a lime, roll it on your countertop before juicing) but what emerges most clearly is the joy of food that Donal Skehan says he learned from his parents, Liz and Dermot, from an early age (he was flipping pancakes at four).

Pippa finds it so infectious that she feels like going home and cooking for 10. On reflection, she thinks maybe she’ll throw a dinner party for 10 and invite Donal so he can cook.

And the dream dinner-party guest list? Oprah, Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds, Graham Norton and Bono for starters.

It’s a question Donal Skehan hates. He usually mentions Oprah and then “cops out” by saying he would complete the invite list with family and friends.

It’s not a cop-out, though, because family and friends are supremely important and he says it’s always such a wrench when he has to leave Ireland to return to his home in LA.

Last summer was particularly hard as Noah was having such good fun with his Irish and Swedish grandparents.

Even talking about it makes him well up.

“I don’t think I cried very much in my 20s but my goodness when Noah arrived … the emotion that comes with it is unbelievable.

"I’m on the edge of tears whenever you talk about missing him. I have to say it’s pretty tough travelling for work.”

Highs and lows

He will also admit that he is absolutely exhausted.

“I’m dead behind the eyes and am keeping the smile pasted to my face,” he says after the camera stops rolling.

He has a gruelling schedule that includes media engagements, photo-shoots and a slot on the Late Late Show to mention just some of them.

The only thing that keeps him going is that he knows it’s short-term, and he’s insisted on taking Sunday off.

He’s planning a cliff walk in his native Howth before sitting down to one of his mother’s home-cooked meals.

Donal Skehan is now a global name and while that has many highs, it also takes its toll. On the plus side, the TV star says he was blown away when fans welcomed him at the airport in Singapore.

He found that “pretty cool” but ask him about fame in general and he says it’s very hard to understand what that means.

“I don’t think about it. I get the odd Instagram message when people are watching me in Singapore or New Zealand or wherever and that is always cool, but I can’t feel and touch that.”

He does, however, know the downside only too well and takes measures to stave off the sheer exhaustion that hit when he was filming a TV series in Vietnam four years ago.

He had a bad flu which he couldn’t shake and found he wasn’t able to stand up while filming in a street market.

He had to go to hospital and resort to antibiotics, something he rarely has to do.

“My biggest takeaway from that was finding time for recovery and restoration. The job comes with highs and lows and I definitely have my lows as my wife will tell you all about. My issue is that I try to take on too much.”

When he returns to LA next week, he and Sofie will go on a sort of babymoon for three nights.

No phones and no Instagram. Even on the days you have off, there is a pressure to put up a post. I love what I do but it’s up to you to be mindful too.

He is mindful in the most traditional sense as he regularly takes time to meditate. He practices yoga and is a great fan of Kundalini yoga and often repeats its Om mantra.

“I hope that is not too deep for the Irish public, but I think there has been a huge change.”

Looking ahead, there’s huge change on the cards for the Skehan family. Baby number two is due in a few months and with that the emotional drive to move home will ratchet up a notch.

That move might come sooner rather than later, Donal says but, for now, he’s being mindful and staying in the moment.

Super Food in Minutes, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now

Focused shopping, prepping key to quick meals

Donal Skehan would love to tell you that family meals are whisked up after a leisurely stroll picking up the ingredients at a farmer’s market.

But they are not. The key to spending less time in the kitchen is to spend a lot more time organising, planning and preparing.

“It might not sound too exciting, but those three key elements are what prevent baby meltdown and general parent hanger,” he says.

He says he and his wife Sofie learned quickly to implement all they had learned about batch-cooking and meal planning when their first son, Noah, came along a year and a half ago.

Now, with a second child due in November, quick cooking will be more important than ever.

At first, he wanted to cook different breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks every day.

“I was doing everything — it was ridiculously over the top and highly unachievable.

"If I can have the ingredients for five dinners during the week, that for me is a win.”

Focused shopping will also save time, he says.

He makes a shopping list with the sections of the supermarket in mind to save him darting across the aisles.

When he gets home, he starts prepping food as he unpacks.

He washes veg and salad before he puts them away, whisks up salad dressings, puts veg on a tray ready to roast or peels carrots and stores them in cold water.

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