Donal Skehan is the man of the moment when it comes to food, and finally his first cookery programme has hit our screens. He talks to Suzanne Byrne about the highs and lows of becoming a TV cook.
When Donal Skehan hears that the votes have been flooding in for him on the RTÉ Guide's Hottest TV Stars poll he bursts out laughing. "I don't know what to say," he says. "Thank you to the readers of the RTÉ Guide, but I have just one question, how is Ray Foley doing?" He is not impressed to hear the radio DJ is also pulling in a huge number declaring, "I'm distraught! We had a great discussion about it on air and if he wins I am going to have to listen to him go on and on about it," he jokes.
While Foley may have a certain sway in the vote thanks to Boylesports promise of a donation to charity, Donal Skehan's rising star is about to soar at a rapid pace thanks to his eagerly awaited debut cookery programme 'Kitchen Hero' on RTÉ One (catch it on The RTÉ Player here).
Ever since Donal had his Good Mood Food blog turned into a cookery book less than two years ago, he has been the name on everyone's lips when it comes to food. His second book, also entitled 'Kitchen Hero', was launched in March of this year to rave reviews and after his regular appearances on 'Four Live' and 'Market Kitchen TV', the time is right for him to take the helm of his own show. But there have been a lot of highs and lows that have led the 25-year-old to this point in his career.
Growing up in Howth, Donal attended Sutton Park School, where, as he puts it, he "had an absolute ball". Art was his first love and he was convinced he was going to do something "arty" when he grew up. Away from the classroom Donal says that he was like any kid - good most of the time. "Up until about eight I was the golden child. I had lovely blonde hair and I used to get lovely reactions from people and apparently I was a big flirt. But my family like to say after that I changed and became a horrible little snot! I think they are exaggerating slightly."
When he wasn't sketching Donal was travelling around Dublin in his dad's van delivering fruit and vegetables to some of the most celebrated kitchens in Dublin. "I always remember being in the Shelbourne hotel when I was about nine or 10, looking up at these really big chefs. I always think if only I knew then that I was going to start writing cookbooks."
But before cooking and food became the focus of Donal's career, he tried his hand at performing. "When I was in senior school, and was taking part in musicals such as 'Fiddler on the Roof' and 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory', I realised how much I loved the stage. Now, to be honest, I don't have a Robbie Williams voice, but I can sing to a certain extent, so it was something I decided I wanted to try. I thought my chance had come when I was about six months into a Media Studies course when I heard about an audition in London. Breaking the news to my mam that I was leaving college was like telling her I was running off to join the circus."
With his pretty-boy good looks, floppy hair, dark eyes and "relatively good singing voice", Donal managed to win a place in the boyband Streetwize - and yes that is spelt with a 'z'. "To be honest, when they mentioned the 'z' and not one of us raised an eyebrow we should have know right then and there that world domination was not on the cards."
And his prediction was right as after just a year together, that saw them make several appearances on American television, Streetwize split up as quickly as they were put together. "To go through something like that at 18, where you are pushed up to a huge high and your dreams are being dangled in front of you, and then all of a sudden it just rips from the bottom and you are left to pick yourself back up, that makes you grow up very, very quickly. You have to find some sense of yourself and some sense of what you want to do going forward. That really goes back to how I would have seen my parents deal with their business. It gives you a good grounding."
A "summer of madness" helped Donal recover from the break-up of the band, but come that September, when all his friends were returning to college, he knew he had to take the next step in his career. "I decided TV would be my next venture and after a short course with Bill Keating in presenting I got a job with the Irish music channel Bubble Hits. I worked behind the scenes initially, until one day when Glenda Gilson was sick I had to fill in for her. I worked there for a year-and-a-half and then I decided to go for the Eurovision."
2008 saw Donal don his shiny silver trousers and belt out the tune 'Double Cross My Heart' as he vied for the chance to represent Ireland in Belgrade, Serbia. But alas, he had stiff competition and ultimately lost out to Dustin the Turkey. "Honestly, I am a fan of the Eurovision and that is the reason I did it. I know people think it is a bit of a joke but it was a great experience and I am actually quite proud of it - even if I did sing the first verse out of key. It was like a panto on the night of the Song Contest and there was a lot of boos for Dustin - I have to be honest and say most of them came from my family!"
Despite the failure of Streetwize and a turkey beating him to represent Ireland, Donal still wasn't ready to give up on the music business and decided to put together pop band Industry. Within a year Industry had two number one singles in the Irish charts, they were gigging all over the country and supported The Pussycat Dolls and JLS - everything seemed right this time round. But a case of third time lucky it wasn't to be for Donal.
"Between background politics and our third single not doing so well, the UK quickly lost interest in us. The backing wasn't there and no amount of hard work or talent from our end was going to change that. We had an amazing time in the band, but it swung from highs of 16,000 people screaming your name one day, to no one calling your phone the next. I can see how people can get addicted to that kind of lifestyle, and I could see how easy it would be to substitute the highs with other things.
"Drinking, smoking and drugs were a big no-no for us. We worked very hard and wanted it to work more than anything. But it just wasn't meant to be. I've learned enough in my life that when you are down you have to take control of your own destiny. And now finally that is what I am doing. I know what direction I am going in. I wake up knowing what I want to do. I know that sounds a bit childish but for me it is important to know where I am going, what I am doing and how I am getting there."
Donal kicked off his new career when he launched his Good Mood Food blog a little over two years ago. Born out of having to cook for himself when he moved into his first apartment with his Swedish girlfriend Sophie, Donal decided to document his efforts of learning how to cook. "Mam dragged me into the kitchen from a young age. We started with baking and by the time I was 12 I was helping her cook the Christmas dinner. But moving out and having to fend for myself was a different thing altogether, suddenly I was cooking every day."
Within six months Donal's blog had been noted by the commissioning editor at Mercier Press, who sent him a MySpace message asking for a meeting. "I couldn't believe it - we were on holidays at the time and all I wanted to do was get home! We finally met in the Metro Café in Dublin and that was the beginning. I had to talk them round slightly as initially they didn't want any pictures, but that's not a cookbook to me. In the end I shot all the pictures myself, and it was a bit of a scramble to get everything done, but it was worth it. I nearly fainted when I saw my book in window of Dubray Books on Grafton Street!"
Offers of TV appearances soon came flooding in, but as Donal now knows cooking on live TV is very different to performing a song. "I remember being on 'Four Live' once and I completely ruined a dish of cooked chicken with stuffing and balsamic peppers. I was warming up the 'one I prepared earlier' as I know Maura [Derrane, presenter] likes her food hot, but I left it in too long and when I pulled it out of the oven - while the camera's were rolling - there was a sea of burnt red peppers surrounding the chicken. All we could do was laugh and chalk it down to an experience."
Wanting to emulate one of his idols, Rachel Allen, and the success that she has had in the UK, Donal regretfully had to say goodbye to Mercier Press and moved on to publishing power house Harper Collins. Like everything else in Donal's career, a series of events led him to signing his new book deal. It began with an interview on the Ryan Tubridy radio show which was heard by TV producer David Hare. David arranged a meeting with Donal and soon they were talking with RTÉ about doing a TV show, and David had the right connections in London to get Donal on a plane to meet with the Harper executives. Fast forward and 12 months and 'Kitchen Hero' is on the shelves and our screens.
"This is my first time to do my own show, so there is an apprehension and then there is an absolute excitement - I don't know which takes over the other. The great thing is this style of show, with a young cook, hasn't been done in Ireland before. The big emphasis for me in all my recipes is that they are accessible and that people at home can cook them. There is a lot of stigma attached to how complicated TV chefs make their dishes, but my flaw might be my biggest strength. I like my food healthy, hearty, not too fussy and, above all else, easy to make. That's why I started cooking."
The other love in Donal's life is his girlfriend Sophie, who he has just moved into a brand new home with. "I met Sophie when she came to visit Ireland from Sweden with her friend. We all went out for a drink and, well, you know. Soon after I ended up visiting her in Sweden, stayed for three months and then she came back to Ireland and has been here for the past four-and-a-half years."
Not one to shy away from a bit of romance, Donal treated Sophie to a trip to New York as her Christmas present. "That was my big gesture. However, for our first Valentine's Day we went to Paris - on the cheap! It wasn't as romantic as it sounds. A budget hotel with no bathroom, but the romance was there."
Cooking may not have been Sophie's forte when she first met Donal, but having Donal as a boyfriend has sure changed that. "When Sophie first came she didn't cook at all but now she is very good. She makes dinner all the time. She works with me now, so I guess it is hard to avoid. She might tell you she has been forced into it, but I know she likes it."
So how does Donal think Sophie would describe him? "Bossy, she laughs a lot at me - I think she finds me very amusing! I am good fun and I think I am good boyfriend. As for Sophie, well she is gorgeous, kind, lots of fun, makes me laugh and... actually, now I realise I am talking to a journalist so I think I will leave it there!"
'Kitchen Hero' is on RTÉ One on Mondays at 8:30pm and is in the shops now, published by Harper Collins.