Neven Maguire shares his recipes for Christmas starters with Vickie Maye.
You hear it all in TV studios – in the green room, off set. The roll of an eye at the mention of a high profile name, a knowing look. But there’s one name who always makes the entire team at RTÉ Cork – where he regularly visits for cookery slots on the Today show – break into a smile: Neven Maguire. He is the exact same off camera and on – just a really nice guy.
We meet at MacNean House, the local family restaurant he took over from his parents – and turned into a national phenomenon (waiting lists for a weekend table are two years – but there are cancellations).
I tell him about his reputation as the nicest celebrity in Ireland. He breaks into laughter. “I get that from my mother,” he says, “respect and be kind to people. There’s no roaring and shouting in my kitchen. We have 12 to 14 chefs, you don’t hang on to staff if you’re not looking after them.” Currently Neven is juggling many roles: there’s his baby and priority, MacNean House in Blacklion, Cavan with its award winning restaurant and 19 rooms. There’s his cookery school next door, his dream, open only when he is there to teach classes. There’s his new role as ambassador for Dunnes Simply Better range. There’s his TV work, an annual series (his Christmas special was on air last week and is still on the RTÉ Player) and regular appearances on the Today show. There are demos up and down the country that could see 500 people in attendance. There’s his writing – Neven’s books are award winning bestsellers (his latest Complete Family Cookbook is the bible as far as I’m concerned). And then, most importantly of all, there’s his family, his wife Amelda and kids, 5 year old twins Connor and Lucia. How on earth does it juggle it all? “It’s Andrea,” he says, nodding in the direction of his PA. “I know what I am doing in six months time. It’s about managing the diary, being clever about it. I started at 6 this morning and won’t get home until 1am but I take Mondays and Tuesdays off with the kids. They have made me more structured. Before they were born I remember nearly falling asleep driving back from Cork, ringing saying this is not the life I want. I was emotional, I was nearly in tears. I said we need to manage it better. The kids give you a base, I’m home a lot more. I cook a lot more. It’s all the kids want.” I ask him how he finds the time to be creative, to come up with new ideas. And again, just as he credits his PA for his ability to juggle his varied career, he pays tribute to his team. (Like I said, Neven Maguire is a nice guy.) “My team are so creative. It’s about letting them flourish.” When I ask him how he turned the small restaurant his parents Joe and Vera opened in 1969 into the success story it is today, he doesn’t mention the fact that he trained in some of the world’s finest restaurants, Michelin starred, or that he cooked for Lady Diana. No, he’s far too modest for that. He thanks RTÉ, and his TV career that began as resident chef on the afternoon show Open House. “TV was a great help to me. They’ve been very good to me. I’m privileged, I never take it for granted.” Neven should have an ego but the only time is uses the word proud is when he reflects on the impact MacNean has had on Blacklion. “We fill another 15 to 20 rooms in the area, this wee village that has struggled with the Troubles, with the recession. We are proud of that.”
After experiencing MacNean, truly Neven has much more to be proud of. You arrive to the aroma of scented candles, stepping into the intimate bar with its open fires and Christmas trees (Neven’s wife Amelda decorates MacNean herself). After our welcome at reception, I’m not surprised to see awards on the wall for customer service. There’s a warmth here I haven’t experienced anywhere else.
There are the rooms, mine painted a stunning duck egg blue, a chandelier overhead, a marble bathroom stocked with Voya products. And then there is the menu. It is, quite simply, the best meal I have ever eaten. From the tasting menu I choose the Warm Hock Terrine, the Seared Sea Scallops, and for my main, the Halibut with Pearl Barley Risotto, followed by my dream sweet – the Chocolate Sensation, a chocolate shell cracked open by hot chocolate sauce. Sensation is right. The staff are professional but fun, one even cajoles my 11 year old into eating a scallop. She loves them. Neven would be happy. He is very passionate about what we feed our children – he’s written a book about it. His own kids are very much part of the kitchen and they eat what mum and dad eat. Neven is adamant about that. And yet there are still treats, something small on a Friday, ice cream on holidays. Just no fizzy drinks or sugary cereals – porridge only. The conversation moves naturally from children to Christmas. As you might expect, MacNean will be closed – “the staff need their time off” – but it will still be full. Neven is cooking for 40 family members (a family friend will also come and collect his dinner to take home – “it’s a time you think about people, it’s the way I was brought up” – so really, it’s 45). Naturally Neven takes this in his stride. “We do it all Christmas Eve. There will be roast goose, red cabbage, buttermilk brined turkey... I’ll spoil them” The trick, says Neven, is to be organised. “Do a list, do as much on Christmas Eve as you can – you can have your ham glaze made, your stuffing in the fridge, the soup can be frozen and warmed up.” Canapés and starters , and Neven shares two of his favourites here, are a great way to give you time to work on the main course. “Keep it simple, let people graze on the bruschetta, so you can focus on main course. But it’s important you’re part of it, it has to be fun.”
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