Pop idol Skehan a hit in the kitchen

Donal Skehan didn't start cooking until he was in his teens and had no intention of following a career in the food industry when he left school.

TWENTY-FIVE-year-old food writer and television presenter Donal Skehan has fast become a household name in Ireland.

His prime time TV series Kitchen Hero is back on our screens, his fourth cook book has just been released, he’s filmed a new series for the giant Fox network, and now he’ll be joining John Torode as a judge on the hugely popular Junior MasterChef on BBC One. And then there was that Mario Rosenstock skit on him.

It’s easy to forget that only four years ago Donal was a failed boy-band member who’d just started a food blog. How does this Howth native find the time to fit in a nationwide ‘HomeCooked’ tour?

“I’m not the most organised person in the world, or the most disciplined when it comes to time keeping,” Donal admits breathlessly as he chats to me between cookery demonstrations on his tour, apologising for having kept me waiting. “Luckily for me, my girlfriend Sofie is just the opposite. She is the one who reminds me about all these interviews.’”

The couple met in a local pub in Howth when Swede Sofie was visiting Ireland and they have been together ever since.

“She organises all the photo shoots, the schedules, everything. We work well together although, of course, we kill each other every now and again. Because we work for ourselves, we have to take the work when it comes, but over-committing to things drives Sofie nuts, because once you commit to something you have to do it.”

Donal loves setting goals and believes in the power of positivity, and whenever I’ve spoken to him I’ve always been struck by his energy, enthusiasm, good manners and charm. Mimic Mario Rosenstock plays in this in his latest comedy show. He features a skit of Donal as a Jekyll and Hyde type — a sweet and handsome chef next-door whilst the cameras are rolling, turning into an abusive and temperamental brat once shooting stops.

Donal takes it all in his stride and says he finds the impersonation hilarious.

“I have seen it and I think it’s very funny. In real life we have great fun on set, both when we’re filming and when the cameras are off.”

The TV show is filmed in Donal and Sofie’s home in Howth, which sounds like a little hive of productivity as it is also where Donal writes and takes all the photographs for his books and blogs.

“And we recently added a new member to the household — our dog Max. We got him as a foster dog but we quickly became failed foster parents.”

Max joins Donal on the hour and a half long walks along the cliffs with which the home cook starts each day.

However, although eating hearty home cooked food has always been a way of life for Donal — his parents run the food company Fresh Cut Foods — he didn’t start cooking until he was in his teens and had no intention of following a career in the food industry when he left school.

“I went to Dublin Business School to do media studies,” he says, “but after six months I got the chance to join a boy band and flew myself over to London for the audition. It was as if I was going off to join the circus, in my parents’ minds.”

That led to a four-year music career with Streetwize and then Industry, although these days Donal’s singing is restricted to the shower. “I have officially taken early retirement from music. We’d invested years of time and energy into making it — we even had two Irish number ones along the way — even if that means we only sold 4000 copies, I can still say it. But the third single didn’t do so well and it was a mutual decision with the other band members to call it a day.

“Things really started when I won Best Irish Food Blog in 2010,” Donal explains.

His other passion is photography and he used the blog as a way of cataloguing the recipes he most enjoyed to cook. “I take all of my photos in natural conditions, without using artificial light or any other tricks. My key principle is to make sure that each shot looks as natural as possible. Beautiful food photography should make you drool and want to lick the screen.”

The blog led to a book deal and then a TV show. “Up until then, cooking and photography were just hobbies for me and I’m very lucky to now have a career that is based on doing things that I would have done anyway in my spare time.”

Donal is proud to promote himself as a self-taught home cook. His ethos on cooking is that all his recipes should be accessible, inspiring and encouraging for the everyday home cook — even for the novice chef. “I think anyone can learn how to cook once they have the basic skills to get started. Finding enjoyment in cooking is the key because that’s where you find the passion.

“Irish food is going through the most amazing transformation, it really is like a food revolution, with artisan producers proving just how good home grown seasonal products can be, and consumers are becoming more aware of the importance of good quality ingredients.

“The downside is that the skill of home cooking is being lost as it is no longer so readily handed down through the generations. Due to the pressures of every day life, families don’t have as much time to cook together and to sit down to enjoy what they have created. If I can get families to cook together more regularly, then I will consider that I’m doing my job.”

Donal has just filmed a new series on Italian cooking for Fox where he visits Italian grannies and they teach him their classic recipes.

You can catch Donal on his ‘HomeCooked Tour’ in venues across Ireland during November.

“I will be demonstrating a selection of my recipes and there will be lots of audience participation with people coming up on stage to cook alongside me,” says Donal, “I’m really looking forward to the performance aspect of it, you could say it’s from having a failed career in pop music.”

*TOUR DATES: Donal Skehan — The HomeCooked Tour until Nov 27. See www.donalskehan.com

Donal’s Three-Cheese Lasagne

HomeCooked, Donal’s new cookery book to accompany the TV series, is out now and here is one of his warming winter recipes.

I cry a little bit inside when I see ready meal lasagnes cut in brick-like wedges, ready for the microwave.

A really good lasagne is truly a thing of beauty and should be treated as such. They take time, effort and love and the end result should be layers of rich meat sauce, creamy white sauce and perfectly cooked pasta.

There are many different variations on this classic and this one features a rich white sauce with three different cheeses, adding a wonderful dimension to the dish.

Serves 6

2 tbsp olive oil

500g beef mince

8 rashers of smoked streaky bacon, roughly chopped

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

1 small carrot, peeled and coarsely grated

75g mushrooms, finely chopped

2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes

1 tbsp tomato purée

250ml red wine

1 tsp dried oregano

Sea salt and ground black pepper

Handful of basil leaves, chopped

6-8 sheets of lasagne

For the cheese sauce:

50g butter

50g plain flour

300ml warm milk

75g blue cheese, crumbled

75g Cheddar cheese, grated

50g Parmesan cheese, grated

1 tsp English mustard

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the mince and fry for 2-3 minutes until browned. Remove the mince from the pan and set aside on a plate.

Heat the rest of the oil in the frying pan, then add the bacon and fry for about two minutes until cooked through. Add the onion and garlic and fry for a further two minutes, then stir in the carrot and mushrooms and fry for two minutes more. Return the mince to the pan with the tomatoes, tomato purée, red wine and oregano. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Season with sea salt and ground black pepper to taste, then stir through the basil.

Preheat the oven to 190C (375F), Gas mark 5.

To make the cheese sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan and stir in the flour quickly so you have a smooth paste. Gradually whisk in the warm milk and bring the sauce to the boil. Reduce the heat to a steady simmer and simmer for two minutes until the sauce becomes thick. Remove the pan from the heat and add the cheeses (saving a little of the blue cheese and cheddar for sprinkling on the top) and English mustard. Season with sea salt and ground black pepper.

Spoon a layer of the bolognese into a high-sided 27.5 x 20cm baking dish, then top with a layer of lasagne sheets followed by a layer of the cheese sauce. Repeat the process until the bolognese and cheese sauces are used up, finishing with a layer of cheese sauce. Sprinkle the reserved cheese over the top and bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes until the lasagne is bubbling and browned on top. Serve straight to the table.


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