Settling into busy Los Angeles has reemphasised for Donal Skehan the value of easy to do, one-pot meals, says Carolyn Moore
DONAL Skehan has been a household name for most of this decade, encouraging Irish people to embrace his love of food, sharing, as he says, “quick, easy recipes” from his own life. That is the food he grew up with; the food he cooked for himself as a newly independent young adult; and the food he has discovered travelling the world and building a home with his wife, Sofie.
Donal and Sofie — with their beloved dog, Max — are embarking on a new chapter in LA, and the one-time food blogger now juggles a host of international TV gigs and publishing deals, while running his own production company and presiding over a vast digital empire, including a YouTube channel with 500,000 subscribers.
While it would be easy to assume that success has distanced Skehan from day-to-day cooking, his new TV series, Donal’s Meals in Minutes, is inspired by the way he cooks and the recipes he loves. Sponsored by Spar, it’s an ode to the convenience of the “one-pot wonder”, which has become the couple’s dinner-time staple as they’ve settled into their new life in LA, a city he says is a “melting pot of food influences”.
“Because of the moving process, the cooking we’re doing over here has completely changed,” he says. “We spent last year living out of Airbnbs all over LA, before we found a place here in January. I was in kitchens that didn’t have the array of equipment I was used to; the store cupboard ingredients weren’t there, so I was left with a pot, a pan, and 15 minutes to pick up ingredients for dinner.
“Six-ingredient suppers, or one-pot dinners, became my go-to recipes. I realised I’m not the only one who’s faced this challenge, and that was the catalyst for the TV show. As much as I like to spend time in the kitchen and make a white sauce from scratch, I’m not doing that when I come home after a long day at work, and a lot of people can relate to that.”
Relatability is intrinsic to the Skehan brand, and his digital platforms reflect his desire to connect with his audience. From live Q&As at his kitchen table to an emotional reunion with Max, who joined the couple in LA in January, over the years fans have enjoyed behind-the-scenes glimpses at Donal and Sofie’s life, as the pair have built an empire.
While many celebrities become protective of their privacy, Skehan understands the interest in his personal life. “I started out as a fan of food writers and food personalities, and I always loved seeing the other side of their lives, too,” he says.
“You reach a point where you’re secure in who you are, you’re happy with what you do, and you feel comfortable just sharing a moment that you’re in,” he adds. “We are essentially promoting some element of a lifestyle, so sharing elements of our life sits quite naturally alongside that, and that’s why people respond to it.”
The stats don’t lie: 190,000 people on Instagram and 550,000 on YouTube have been following Skehan’s journey, and it was through YouTube he discovered he could market his warm, affable enthusiasm to an international audience.
Far from abandoning his digital presence when TV and publishing stardom came calling, Skehan was savvy enough to realise the pathway to that international audience lay online. “Digital has always been part of what I do,” he says. “It’s where I started, but I never thought it could be such a dynamic force.”
WHEN his boyhood hero, Jamie Oliver, invited him to host some slots on his Food Tube channel — a “pinch yourself moment,” he recalls — Skehan was “catapulted into the American market. I remember I had no idea what YouTube was all about. I had a few videos up on mine, but I didn’t realise you could operate like a TV network. That’s how people see YouTube channels — you tune in at a specific time each week and watch your favourite show.
“We shot a documentary for RTÉ 2 about the whole YouTube world, and my mind was just blown by what we learned,” he says.
“As a content creator, YouTube gives you so much control; it’s so different to what you would do from a traditional TV point of view. That was very appealing to us.
“We were lucky with the timing of it,” he says. “YouTube was still kind of blowing up, so there was an opportunity there to create your own audience.”
Just as Jamie Oliver once extended the ladder to him, Skehan is keen to help, and to showcase, emerging food talents.
While too modest to hear them referred to as ‘aspiring Donal Skehans’, his advice to wannabe food bloggers is simple: “Row your own boat,” he says. “That’s the only way forward. Come up with something new to make your voice stand out.
“In this business, you have to constantly be looking at where the next thing is, but, at the core of it, you have to know what you’re trying to put out there, and, for us, that’s always been easy: doable recipes. If you can manage to translate that across a few different platforms, that’s where you’ll find success.”
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